Where all is known, no narrative is possible.
— Cormac McCarthy
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to make the most of one’s time. For the past couple of months, as we’ve entered the season of academic competitions and year-end exam preparation, I’ve been working what feel like Microsoft hours. That’s atypical of my life here and it’s caused me to reflect on two things: One, the days are hurtling by and two, my time in Mongolia is about to come to a close. I’ve fought the urge to label this the tail-end of my service but the truth is, I’ll be going home in about three months. And so I find myself asking, what have I accomplished and what have I learned in the past twenty-three months? What did I think this experience would be and what has it, in fact, been?
Those who’ve followed my blog from the beginning know that before I arrived, my big fears about Mongolia had to do with the physical hardship I expected: How would I cope with the harsh winters, the wood chopping, the fire building, the water carrying, the meat eating? As it turns out, almost none of those things has played a significant role in my life here. Having been assigned to live in a posh “apartment” instead of a ger, I don’t even do wood chopping, fire building or water carrying.
Instead, I suspect that a year from now—when I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Seattle drinking espresso and eating chocolate croissants—it’ll be the socio-cultural challenges I’ve faced that I credit with my greatest tests, and for re-shaping the way I view the world and my place in it.
Volunteers face a number of significant cultural challenges in Mongolia. I haven’t talked at length about many of them on this blog, but Mongolian views on everything from money management to alcohol (ab)use to the role of women can diverge significantly from what many of us consider normal or acceptable. People you barely know ask to borrow money. Drunkenness is almost expected at social gatherings. Sexual jokes and innuendo at work functions aren’t considered inappropriate. Domestic violence is rarely discussed and is most often considered a family matter. Integration requires frequent examination of our values, as well as decisions about where we’ll join in with the culture (I lend money much more frequently than I would have imagined), where we’ll beg off (I rarely drink) and where, despite our strong desire to intervene (with friends and colleagues suffering abuse at home), our help must be cautious or even restrained lest it compound the danger.
But the challenge that I think may be the most significant has been how Mongolian culture tests the views many of us have about what it means to be productive.
One of the things I hadn’t realized when I joined Peace Corps was just what high achievers the organization attracts. I thought I’d be serving with a bunch of hippie kids who just wanted to change the world with peace and love. And don’t get me wrong. My fellow volunteers do no doubt want to change the world with peace and love. But they’re also accustomed to setting goals, working hard, and accomplishing not just great things, but extraordinary things, on a pretty regular basis.
These are the people I believe the Microsofts, Amazons, and Googles of the world would be competing hard to recruit, were they (the volunteers) not already intent on spending their post-PC life traveling to the farthest corners of the earth as international aid workers, foreign officers, or conflict resolution specialists.
These are people who come to Peace Corps in part because they’re promised it’ll be the toughest job they’ll ever love. They hear about the physical hardships, the financial limitations, the language barriers, and the cultural challenges and say, “Bring it.”
But when you get to a country in which time is viewed differently, appointments are cancelled without notice, and plans are consistently changed (or totally thwarted) at the last minute, it can cause anyone to question not just their sense of personal agency, but also a core aspect of their perceived identity. It’s not like Peace Corps doesn’t warn us about these things. And yet…
I’ve had too many conversations to count with fellow volunteers in which they’ve shared that this is the fifth, or fifteenth, or even fiftieth time in a row in which they’ve spent the majority of their day at school, waiting for people to show, to no avail. In most cases, the reasons have had to do with counterparts not prioritizing their work with the volunteer.
It’s not that Mongolians don’t have a strong work ethic. On the contrary; these “sons and daughters of Chinggis” value hard work and competitiveness like no one I’ve ever met. My counterparts are continually trying to fit twenty-five hours of work into a single day. When students are preparing for exams, teachers will be at school late into the night and on weekends. Volleyball tournaments and dance competitions demand equal effort, with teams often practicing twice-a-day for weeks leading up to big events. Families spend months preparing their homes for major holidays.
Yet the concept of time management is virtually unheard of in Mongolia. Mongolians are herdsmen by birth. They’ve grown up in a world where flexibility, the freedom to respond to the needs of the moment, is critical to survival. And in a world of constantly changing demands, spending time with a volunteer—especially one asking to collaborate rather than simply take over their counterparts’ work—can be seen as an extravagance at best or at worst, merely added pressure. An appointment to lesson plan is often the easiest thing for a teacher to cancel or, more likely, to simply “forget.”
It’s after long strings of these forgotten appointments that I’ve often heard from my fellow volunteers (and admittedly, said it myself), “This is just not a good use of my time.”
No matter how many cautions Peace Corps offers at the beginning of our service, many of us arrive at post with certain expectations about what we “should” be able to accomplish in any given week or month. Our plans and ability to execute against them form a deeply embedded part of who we think we are and what we think defines our value. When someone cancels on us or doesn’t share enthusiasm for our plans, it doesn’t just feel like an inconvenience; it begins to feel like disrespect and it frustrates our sense of worth as volunteers and, perhaps, as humans. When left unexamined, I’ve seen these frustrations erode spirit, and allow discouragement and even depression to set in.
I feel fortunate that, in coming to Mongolia mid-career, I’d already begun to question the constant delivery model that much of American society embraces. I’d begun to see that while 70-hour work weeks and 250 e-mail days are often worn as badges of honor, in my life anyway, the “productivity” associated with them was yielding diminishing returns. I’d begun to wonder if productivity had become its own sort of drug, providing a momentary high but simultaneously impairing my judgment and capacity for truly meaningful contribution.
I came to Mongolia determined to slow down. Intellectually I knew I needed to re-frame my view of success. But I had no idea how hard my ego would fight back.
It’s taken me time and wrestling with my own frustrations to finally let go of my constant need to produce. In so doing, I’ve finally come to realize that the waiting often is the work, and that persevering through hours of seeming nothingness is (sometimes) the only way to ensure I’m present and available when the opportunity to contribute does arrive.
So many opportunities happen in ways I don’t foresee. Just two Sundays ago I received a text message at seven a.m. from another English teacher, asking if I could meet at nine. She’d just been called by the chief of police and asked to translate a video to be shown in a training seminar at eleven that morning. Her English is very good but the dialogue was fast and the accent heavy (Australians); she was having trouble catching it all. So I sat with her for two hours, watching a film on domestic violence and sharing its most important messages so they could in turn be communicated to the local police force.
The work was rushed. It didn’t feel professional. I wondered why they were asking us to translate an hour-long documentary on the morning of the presentation. But in a year when I’ve felt helpless to do anything about the domestic violence I’ve witnessed in my town, those two hours might just represent some of the most impactful work of my service.
Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.”
Sometimes you discover that what you thought was your work really isn’t your work. As much as I’ve become skilled in my career at defining goals and developing sophisticated plans with intricate timetables, my service has taught me that holding on too tightly to my own vision actually limits it. I’ve learned to embrace the downtimes and begin each day knowing that ceding (at least some) control of my schedule leaves open the possibility for unanticipated opportunities to present themselves.
And if I don’t wait for those opportunities, who’s to say that anyone else will?