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.