Monday, May 28, 2012
I just had a great weekend hanging out with the Australian volunteer in our aimag center. We went for a walk/hike to the Eej Mod (Mother Tree) yesterday and then she came and visited my village today. She's a recent arrival to Mongolia and so has a fresh perspective on life here and it's made me realize a few more of the things that have changed about me since being here.
My standards for pretty much everything are gone. When I arrived the freezing gusts of Mongolia kept me hidden away in my house with my heater and stove, now, I venture forth into the wind on the slightest errand or whim. My bed, which is a sheet covering some wooden boards, used to be hard and uncomfortable, but now I prefer it the soft cozy mattresses. In America, I prided myself on not being wasteful. If I cooked something to eat, then I ate it no matter how poorly it tasted. I guess I lied about having no standards because I couldn't keep up that practice here. Sometimes you just can't finish the sugar-raisin rice or the sour-milk-curd ice cream, and sometimes there is just far too much meat in your vegetarian soup.
The biggest change that Mongolia has brought me doesn't have anything to do with food or culture or weather, it has to do with family. I left America without shedding a tear for the family and friends I'd be leaving behind. I had never intended to stay in Tennessee within easy driving distance of the family anyway, and with the internet, phones, and the post, I didn't expect Mongolia to feel any farther away than when I'd gone to university or if I'd moved out west.
But it is farther...and that does make a difference. Not being able to contact my family has been one of my biggest challenges and it's made me realize how dependent I actually have been on them over my lifetime. Maybe I wasn't one of those Freshmen who had to call home every night and visit every weekend, but I did enjoy going out to eat with my sister at the spur of a moment or taking my little brother out for the day or dropping in on my mother for little to no reason.
The internet is iffy at best in my area. The modem that I bought for my house has basic internet, but not nearly Skype quality. So I beg for the key to the computer lab and walk to the school at midnight. The internet is slow; it's choppy and the room is cold, but I get to see some familial faces as long as I'm willing to stay up and no one at home has to work.
A 12-hour time difference is easy to calculate but hard to navigate. While I'm awake and at home, my family is usually sleeping or working. While they're awake and and at home, I'm usually sleeping or working. Early mornings, late nights, and weekends are the workable hours. Phone calls are expensive, but phone cards and the internet mitigate the costs a bit.
And, of course, there are letters. Snails are far faster than the Mongolian Postal Service. Okay, so that's cruel. Letters from America usually take about a month and packages slightly longer than that; I've never a met a snail that could cross an ocean and a continent that quickly. The time delay of letters make them an imperfect form of communication though. I love, love, love, love getting letters from home. They cheer me up on the cloudiest, stormiest, most frustrating days, but they aren't a solid two way form of connection. They are journal entries shared via post. I get to hear about people's daily lives and their inner thoughts and it's great. But by the time my responses arrive in America, the events are 2 months our of date and the writer probably doesn't even remember what was said.
So Mongolia has brought me a greater appreciation for a lot of things in America: Vegetarian restaurants, running water, central heat, stable power grid, highways, and the USPS. But above all that, I've learned to appreciate the relationships that I used to take for granted.
Friday, May 25, 2012
I've been living in Mongolia and working with the Peace Corps for almost a full two years now, and I feel like it's time to reflect and see how that's changed me. Almost anyone who's served in the Peace Corps will tell you that it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience and that it's changed their worldview or their lives forever. Maybe they'd even parrot back one of the the Peace Corps taglines. It's the hardest job you'll ever love – or if they didn't like service – the longest vacation you'll ever hate. I'm afraid I'm just not dramatic enough to say any of those things. They all seem almost hyperbolic. Yes, Peace Corps service has been a unique and great experience overall, but saying that it's once-in-a-lifetime isn't fair to the rest of my life. Every experience is once-in-a-lifetime, nothing can ever be repeated exactly. A child's first step is once-in-a-lifetime, a hike with your friends to a new mountain is once-in-a-lifetime. Just because I've been living in foreign country doesn't mean my experiences are more once-in-a-lifetime, just more disconnected from yours. Mongolians wouldn't find my experiences unique or interesting. I do common place Mongolian things, but they're special to me. When I joined the Peace Corps and got on a plane to Mongolia, I'd been a college graduate and the holder of a Bachelors degree for fully one month. I had little to no life experiences outside of the educational system. For 13 years, my biggest goal was to pass the next test, advance to the next grade and graduate. So, tell me, did my worldview change? Of course, but not because I was in Mongolia. It changed because I've grown up and been an independent person for a couple of years. Hopefully, anyone who has lived in the world will tell you they're a different person than when they graduated high school or college. That said, I'm sure my changes and their changes are quite as different as the environments in which they were effected. Mongolia is the most friendly and generous place I've ever been. Seeing small children who use their only pocket money (or a sudden windfall) to purchase a packet of 4 cookies and then give three of those away, seeing people receive birthday gifts of packets of candy, cookies, sodas, or whatever, and immediately open to give them all away to guests, and of course seeing the best students absolutely incapable of not helping their struggling classmates (even during a test) cannot leave a person unaffected. I like to think I was a sharer in America, but I know that I've improved upon it by learning from Mongolians. But, I need to remember children in America will not appreciate candies handed out by a random stranger (and their parents might call the police). I've been a highly visible member of my community for my entire stay. I don't even have to do anything special and people will still remember seeing me. Oh we saw the foreigner at the shop today buying toilet paper. She buys the cheap kind! or I saw the foreigner reading a book outside. She must be lonely. No matter where I go or what I do, I'm a possible topic of conversation. One of the main things people remark upon is my wardrobe. They notice my hair, my shoes, my lack of make-up, my jacket, pants, bracelets and watch. And all articles are worthy of comment and reflection. This has made me hyper aware of my own outfit choices. I'm not saying that I've become stylish or even that I'm no longer slovenly, but now I feel a twinge of guilt whenever I put on a comfortable but slightly tarnished pair of sneakers. I miss my insensibility to style. It made my life so much simpler. Before Mongolia, mirrors were for brushing my teeth and preparing for a big party. Now I'm afraid I check myself in them constantly and clean my shoes, hem my pants and throw out shirts with stains. Remember that visibility, well it's particularly annoying when I engage in my new habit of talking or singing to myself. I represent all of America (aside from pop stars) to my village. And now they must think that Americans chatter to themselves incessantly. I only talk about normal things. As I walk to a shop I wonder aloud what it is that I want to buy, or perhaps try to remember what I had decided to buy. I talk about how much money is in my account or about when I should go to the capital for vacation. What I'm saying doesn't matter at all though because no one can understand me. The reason I (and many other Peace Corps volunteers) picked up the habit of talking to myself is that there are very few other people to talk to fluently. When I walk to the store with a coworker or student, I necessarily lower my speaking pace and vocabulary level. Talking about what I want to buy becomes work, an impromptu lesson on vegetable vocabulary. Imagine having no one that you could just talk to about pointless and irrelevant things. You'd take to talking to yourself too just to remember the enjoyable feeling of talking about nothing. I sing to myself also because there's no one to sing to. I sing the songs that all little American children know, but that even the most advance English student here has never heard. Sometimes I sing them in class and try to teach the lyrics and melody, but that's work and they aren't interested. My students want to learn “we are the world” or “I wanna be a millionaire.” So I sing to myself and enjoy a short trip home while I walk to the post office. This is getting too long. Expect more of my self-analysis in later posts! Happy Memorial Day to all you Americans and a special Happy Birthday to my big sister. I'll see you soon Sis.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Okay, I promised more Mongolian language, so here it is. These are a few of the Mongolian words that might cause you to either scratch your head or laugh out loud when directly translated. Enjoy. Foodstuffs: усан үзэм - Water Raisin – Grape далайны байцаа – Sea Cabbage – Seaweed цэцэгний байцаа - Flower Cabbage – Broccoli цагаан цэцэгний байцаа - White Flower Cabbage – Cauliflower элсэн чихэр – Sand Candy – Sugar Animals and Body parts: яст мэлхий – Bone Frog – Turtle эмгэн хумс – Old Woman's Fingernail – Snail тэмээн аалз – Camel-like spider – tarantula тэмээн гөрөөл – camel-like antelope – lama тэмээн хяруул – camel-like bird – ostrich хөх товч – Breast Button – Nipple эр/эм бэлэг эрхтэн – Men/Women Gift Organ – Penis/Vagina People and Places: төмөр зам - Iron Way – Railroad галт тэрэг - Fire Carriage - Train бие засах газар - Body Repair Place – Toilet/Restroom шөнө эрвээхий – Night Butterfly – Prostitute солонгос хүн – person from the rainbow – Korean Other: тэмээ – camel – Bishop (in chess) цагаан толгой - White Head – Alphabet цэцэг өвчин – Flower Sickness – Smallpox шал тэнэг – Floor stupid – Idiotic Hope you thought at least some of those were funny.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
I can't speak for everyone living abroad, but there are some sights, sounds and tastes that induce homesickness, while there are other sights, sounds, tastes that relieve it. I'm not going to try to figure out why, but I thought the list might be interesting for my friends and family. Biggest Causes of Homesickness: 3. Pictures of Food – On the internet, on a menu at a restaurant (where the pictures are never what is actually for sale), in a really random picture hanging in someone's house – it doesn't really matter where, but pictures of waffles topped with ice cream, club sandwiches and crisp slices of dill pickles make me wish I were some place where food cravings can be instantaneously indulged. And I don't even like pickles or club sandwiches. 2. Holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, and, for me, especially Halloween are just things that should be done at home surrounded by family and friends who share the innate understanding that Reeses Eggs taste better than Reeses Trees and both are better than Reeses cups. 1. Facebook – Facebook is a blessing and an evil. Yes, with facebook you will always know what your family and friends are up to. You'll know who broke up with who and who got what new job. But most of this information will be completely disconnected from you and your life overseas. Your friends will talk about new restaurants that opened after you left or new people they met after you left, new babies that have been born. All of this would be fine, except that this information isn't directly transmitted to you. It's something you read about as an outsider. Facebook makes me feel disconnected from people while it taunts me with informational blurbs about their lives. It gives me a snippet of what life would be back if I were there, but just enough to remind me that I'm not there and that life has gone on uninterrupted without me. Best Homesickness Relief: 3. Comfort Food – Sometimes the best way to improve my mood is to spend several hours putting together a legitimate American meal. This could be pizza or a pot pie or chili, but it will be something that no restaurant in Mongolia does correctly. The act of cooking is very calming and the final meal makes me feel accomplished and satisfied. Other times a small treat is enough to lift my spirits, usually something from a package, and something that I cannot buy or make in Mongolia. Oreos and Nerds are great examples. Occasionally, just a simple grilled cheese sandwich and potato chips are enough to make me happy and content. 2. Letters from home – Unlike Facebook, letters are personalized. They are information sent directly from one person to another. They require effort and thought. When I get a letter from someone back home, I think about how that person was thinking about me enough to put aside time to tell me something about what is going on. Yes, all the things they talk about will still probably be unrelated to me, but the fact that my friend wants me to know about these things makes the connection between us stronger. For me, exchanging letters is the most meaningful way of keeping in touch with my family and friends back home. They make me feel like I'm still apart of what is going on (even when the letters arrive a month after their information is out of date). 1. Geographically Convenient Relationships – When you are having fun and being engaged in relationships in your new home, its difficult to feel sad about the friends you left behind. Or at least you have someone to talk it out with, and I believe that talking makes most all problems more manageable.