Holy crap…I'm living in Mongolia!

two years

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Bayankhongor Aimag Bell (Graduation) Ceremony, May 7, 2016

October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page, of ending a chapter or of shutting a book, did not end a tale. Having admitted that, he would also avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: ‘It is simply a matter,’ he explained to April, ‘of finding a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.’
     ― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists

I’ve been trying to find my way into this blog post for several weeks now. I’ve tried anticipating what it would feel like to finally be at this point in my service—the beginning of the end—almost finished with the journey and ready to go home. Two years ago today, I stepped foot in Mongolia for the very first time, with no idea what to expect. These past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time staring at blank pages in my journal, thinking about what I’ve learned since those first twenty-four hours on the ground. But it’s all been so much and so big. I find myself writing sentence after sentence, then crossing them out, or just sitting staring around my room, realizing I don’t quite know how to capture succinctly what these two years have been and meant.

But realizing that a two-year anniversary blog is really only an anniversary blog if it’s actually posted on the anniversary, I’ve decided to do the thing I rarely do, but the thing I know for sure that Mongolia has been trying to teach me: I’m going to just write this and post it and let it be messy.

Three Saturdays ago, Bayankhongor celebrated Bell Day, and the graduation of the aimag’s fifth-, ninth-, and twelvth-graders from all five schools. Students, along with their parents and teachers, crowded the town square wearing sashes in Mongolia’s national colors, heavily decorated with awards won over the years—emblems of achievement in academics, service, and sport. Teachers of graduating students wore their finest deels, boys broke out their suits, and the older girls signaled the importance of the occasion by teetering across the slate in school uniforms paired with glittery, three- and four-inch heels. (At last year’s ceremony, not even snow deterred the girls from wearing them.) As a community, we celebrated the students’ accomplishments—and then the next Monday all reported back for the final month of school.

The week earlier, my cohort of Peace Corps Mongolia volunteers, the M25s, celebrated our own graduation of sorts at our Close-of-Service conference. Sixty-five of us (out of an original 91) shared our thoughts about adjusting back to life at home, experiencing reverse culture shock, preparing for the job market, and how we planned to make the most of our final three months at site. We participated in a lottery to learn on which of three late July/early August dates we’d be leaving the country (there’s a ton of paperwork and too many of us to process in a single week). We took our final language tests, were awarded certificates of achievement for two years served—and on the fourth day all got on buses and planes back to our posts. That was the last time we’ll all be together as a group and for many of us, the last time we’ll see each other in person in Mongolia. By now, most of us have purchased our plane tickets out of Ulaanbaatar.

So we’ve graduated. The M27s touched down at Chinggis Khaan airport two nights ago, starting the same strange and beautiful journey we did two years ago. About now they’re probably trying milk tea and mutton for the first time, being told never to put their book bags on the floor because knowledge is sacred in Mongolia, and figuring out which of the other people crazy enough to be in the room with them will become their best friends and lifelines over the course of the next 27 months. A couple of the M27s will be assigned to Bayankhongor and when they move here a few months from now will come to know me as simply one of the old volunteers. M27s in other aimags will likely never hear my name, or if they do will wonder, ‘Does she even go here?’

But that’s OK. It’s the natural order. Not everyone can become a Peace Corps legend like this guy.

As I mentioned, I don’t really have any great wisdom to share that ties these two years up nice and neat. My thoughts are all still pretty jumbled. I know I’ve faced a lot of tests in this country. Some of them I’ve passed with high marks; I’ve failed others and will, I’m afraid, be required to repeat them at some point down the road. (I’ll save the topic The Tests I’ve Failed for another post, assuming I’m able to find my way into it). I’m still such a beginner in so many ways. I feel like, in the words of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, I am not going anywhere. I am only on my way. But I’ve decided that that, too, is OK.

I do know that coming to Mongolia at this time in my life was absolutely the right decision, and that I’ve developed habits here that I don’t want to lose once I’m back home. In lieu of grand wisdom, I’ll share the very simple ways I want to keep living like a Peace Corps volunteer (or maybe even a Mongolian) once back in the land of plenty. I want to:

  1. Get outside every day—no matter the weather—and walk or ride my bike wherever I can.
    For the past two years, I haven’t been allowed to drive. I’ve loved my short 15-minute walks to and from school each day, and doing all my errands on foot: in the sun, in the snow, in twenty below. It’s surprising how good it’s been for my psyche. I don’t think I realized how enclosed my life used to be, going directly from home to car to office and back. Admittedly, even with the cold, it’s much easier to get outside when there’s no rain. So making good on this commitment may be a little more difficult in Seattle. But as I’ve heard from so many cycling and motorcycle-riding friends: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. I guess I just need to invest in a better raincoat and boots.
  2. Keep up weekly calls with my mom and dad.
    My parents and I have talked on the phone for anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes every Sunday morning since I arrived in Mongolia. We’ve talked more regularly and at greater length than when we lived a short drive and ferry ride away from each other. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to have a weekly call with them when we were living so close. We’d wait until we saw each other in person— but that would usually be once or twice a month at best. I feel more connected to them and more current with what’s happening in their lives now that I’m on the opposite side of the world. So, I’ll be keeping up with our Sunday morning calls (that is, assuming they want to) when not headed over for actual in-person visits.
  3. Always be learning a new language.
    I’ll admit: I haven’t reached the level of fluency in Mongolian that I would have liked, or that I once imagined I would. Turns out that just living in a country doesn’t automatically result in you mastering the language. Go figure. I definitely got a little lazy my second year, and a little spoiled by the number of English speakers in my town. Still, I can do most everything I need and when I am learning new words or new grammar (often from my sixth- and seventh- graders, the most patient and persistent of coaches) it’s incredibly fun. I’d like to find ways to keep practicing my Mongolian once in a while (I know a couple of native speakers in Seattle), and to also enroll in class to pick my French back up. At some point down the road, maybe I’ll try Japanese (the language of my people) or Mandarin or Arabic again. I now know that I don’t have to completely master a language to derive great satisfaction from the learning—or the ability to communicate with others, even if it’s just a little bit—in their native tongue. I know I’ll be swimming upstream on this—if I got lazy while living abroad, immersed in a different language, how will I stay committed once I’m home without that extrinsic motivation? But I plan to try.
  4. Be on regular lookout for ways to connect with people and offer a hand, especially to those from outside the US.
    Being in Mongolia has made me realize just how narrowly focused I was on my own life in the States: Almost all my time was focused on making it to work and getting to all of my deliverables in time, checking things off my to-do list, and spending time with the small group of people with whom I’m closest. It’s not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. I was just doing what I thought I needed to.

    But Peace Corps has flipped the way I see my community in an extreme and irrevocable way. For two years, my full-time mission has been to discover ways that I can be of service. Sometimes, my contributions have taken the form of structured, discrete activities with formal organizations, but other times it’s just been about inviting a student for a coffee and a chat, or delivering a few groceries to someone in the community who’s sick.

    Just before I came to Mongolia, I’d signed up with Hopelink to volunteer as an ESL teacher. I was invited to visit a few classes, but as they already had a healthy roster of other instructors, I was never needed as a teacher. Eventually I stopped dropping in. Here were a bunch of people new to the US, taking language lessons twice a week less than three blocks from where I lived. Why didn’t I ever invite  them to walk to my house after class for dinner and conversation practice? It would have been so easy. And in some ways, maybe just as important as any formal instruction I could offer.

    That’s the other thing: Here in Mongolia, while I’ve become pretty independent, when I first arrived there were (and still are, for that matter) some things for which I needed to rely on others. When I first got to town, I needed someone to help me get a modem so I could have internet access; my language wasn’t strong enough to negotiate the transaction. Someone showed me where the grocery stores were, and while I could buy my own bus tickets, if anything happened and I needed to ask for a refund or an exchange, someone would have to go with me. I couldn’t have survived here without the kindness of my Mongolian friends and colleagues. That makes me want to pay it forward and do the same for others who are new to the US and trying to figure out how to make it their home.

  5. Cook for and with people on a more regular basis.
    Family supper is a staple of the Peace Corps experience. At least once a week and sometimes more often, we meet at the grocery store, decide what we want to eat and then all go back to someone’s ger or apartment to cook together. It’s never fancy (we’re kinda poor) but whether we’re chipping in for taco bowls or omelets, it’s always delicious and even more fun. The bonus, of course, is that those of us who don’t have indoor plumbing also get to borrow the showers of those who do. Which is awesome.

    With my Mongolian friends, I’ve been hosted for more dinners than I can count. And even in my teeny tiny room with its two-burner stove, single worktable and total of eight forks and two spoons, I’ve hosted parties of as many as ten people. It makes me laugh about how I used to think my 1,400 square foot townhome was too small to have people over for dinner on a regular basis. So, once I’m back in the States, expect to be invited for dinner more often. I might not be making anything gourmet but I do now make a mean kim chee soup. And if you need to borrow the shower, you can do that too.

  6. Ask for help.
    I use other people’s showers now. Do I need to say more about how Mongolia has forced me to be less hesitant about asking for help when I need it? (Don’t worry, I probably won’t ask to borrow your shower. Probably.)
  7. Try to make ‘yes’ my default (or at least more frequent) response to social invitations.
    This is actually advice that a former manager of mine once gave me, but that I didn’t really take to heart until I got here. Pre-Mongolia, as a lifelong, card-carrying introvert, I tended to decline spontaneous or last-minute invitations. But when you’re living in another country, if you don’t say yes to things, you don’t know when the next opportunity to get to know people and to get more integrated into your community will come along. So I’ve learned to say yes more often, even when I’m a little uncomfortable.

    Case in point: Last weekend, I went for what I thought was a quick hike where I wouldn’t see anyone. I walked out of the house in exercise clothes, no make-up, and with my unwashed hair thrown up into a messy ponytail. I just wanted to get in a quick workout and then go home to finish the work I’d planned to do that day. But on the way up our little mountain, I ran into my 7th grade English class. They were spending the day together and begged me to go with them to the river. I couldn’t say no, even though I was thinking about all the things I thought I needed to get done. But they were so full of joy, and seemed so excited to have me join them, that I said yes. I laughed for hours that day, and despite them taking thousands of group pictures with me looking my absolute worst, I’d still rank it as one of the best days I’ve had in Mongolia.

  8. Do things I’m bad at.
    See: making buuz, singing, keeping up with current events, playing chess, understanding sports, formatting numbered paragraphs in WordPress…One of the things I love about the kids here is how they’ll show up to compete for just about anything. It doesn’t matter if they’re good at it or not; if it’s interesting to them, they try. I’ve watched kids who can’t sing and don’t speak English enter our English language song competition. I’ve seen others turn in three incomplete sentences at the end of an hour-long essay writing contest. They don’t say they don’t care about doing well—they get upset when they don’t and I never hear them say it doesn’t matter. But they seem to know that the value is in the showing up, and so they shake it off and the next time, show up again. I want to be like them.
  9. Do nothing.
    Nothing is a glorious thing, and I want to make space in my life for more of it.

I was sort of hoping I’d get to ten items, but there you have it. I can’t really think of anything else, so I’ll just leave it there. Looking over the list, I see it’s actually pretty ambitious. So much of it will depend on how I protect my time. In Mongolia, I haven’t had many luxuries, but I have had the luxury of free time, and that’s made all the difference in building these habits into my life.

I’ll confess to being nervous about how I’ll do once I’m back in a ‘real job’ and facing the daily pressures of life in America. I worry I’ll slide right back into my old ways of living, and that these past two years will seem like nothing more than a dream. I think of Rumi’s exhortation: The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep!’

Maybe that’s why I’m writing it all down, to remember that life can be different, that it has been, and that it’s been real. Maybe also so you, my friends and family, can ask me from time-to-time how I’m doing on all of this, and so you can keep me honest.

See there? That’s me asking for help; did you notice? OK, I’ll work on it. In any case, thanks for sticking with me these past two years. I can’t wait to see you in August.

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