PST means Pre-Service Training, and it is the boot camp of sorts of the Peace Corps. For three months all 52 in the M27 group have lived in 6 different, very small towns in the Selenge region of central northern Mongolia. For security reasons, I can’t say exactly what town I live in, but suffice to say, you probably wouldn’t find it without some pretty serious googling anyway. James and I were placed in different towns to encourage us to learn the language faster and to integrate ourselves in our communities more fully. We had permission to visit each other a total of three times, which we spread out over the three months. It was a noble goal, but failed somewhat because we still ended up talking on the phone every single day. We also see each other on occasions when everyone is carted to a central location for medical classes and a slew of vaccines; these visits feel more like supervised kissing than actual visits though. These have been some of the only times I have been allowed to leave my site at all and get my hands on some precious commodities like shampoo and dried fruit.
My town also does not have internet, which is why this blog has been abandoned up until now. We’ll see when I actually get the chance to post this. I do have a Mongolian cell phone (that has a connection most of the time) and once I get to my permanent site I’ll be able to figure out a more reliable internet connection. For all the annoyances of not knowing what the hell is going on in the world, being off the internet for a couple of months has actually been pretty refreshing and I don’t think I would have been able to integrate as much as I have if I had been distracted by the internet the whole time.
We were all placed with host-families who had either set up a room in the house for us, or a ger, or a separate wooden house on their khashaa/property. I lived in this wooden house, which was just slightly smaller than the two room house my host-family (all six of them) lived in. I definitely feel like a space hog at times.
Peace Corps used the empty schoolhouse in the town as the school location for us and hired the local Mongolian grammar teacher and English teacher to be our language instructors. Learning the language and local customs, as well as adapting culturally is quite literally my job.
In the mornings from 09:00 to 13:00 we have Mongolian language class. There have been good days when I feel like a language prodigy and there have been many bad days when I wonder how a dummy like me made it through elementary school. Learning any language is a humbling experience, but Mongolian has been especially difficult for me because so many of the sounds are completely foreign. If I ever dreamt of being fluent in Mongolian, my goal now is to just be conversational in two years.
I walk home for lunch and try to squeeze in a short power nap before going back to class from 14:30 to 18:00 (though there are many times I am still at school by 19:00). In the afternoons, classes vary. Some days we are learning teaching methodology and other days we are writing practice lesson plans or teaching English to the local kids.
The trainees the previous year set a bad example, so Peace Corps laid down some draconian rules on us, like an 20:00 curfew, despite the fact that we only leave school at 18:00 and the sun doesn’t set until 22:30. We are also not allowed to leave our site, which means no traveling around to nearby towns, much less more of Mongolia.
Part of adapting culturally is spending time with my host-family, which for me is the best part of my day because they are awesome. My host-parents are funny and the kids ages 17, 12, 6, and 3 are incredibly responsible and respectful. Even when the three-year-old annoys me, he is so cute, I can’t stay so. No one in my family speaks any English either. We burned through our collective Mongolian-English within the first three minutes of my arrival, and that is only because I said “hello” over and over again in Mongolian.
One of the first phrases I taught myself was “Can I help?” and my host-mom sometimes generously lets me help with food prep even though I am five times slower than she is at everything. My host-family had to be patient with me for everything: how to clean anything without running water, how to carry the water back from the town well, how to cook meat with hot rocks, how to clean my clothes, how to deal with roaming dogs, how to properly wash my hair in a tumpun/large bucket. In short, everything that will help me survive in Mongolia for the next two years no matter where I am placed. Everything in Mongolian culture is done so communally, that it is never awkward, rather it is my eagerness that made them laugh.
On weekends, I go on picnics, hang out with the other Americans in my town, clean my house, do homework (which there is a lot of), or watch any number of badly dubbed Korean dramas.
Through it all though, is the knowledge that everything I do is being watched and recorded. Like in boot camp, not everyone makes it through PST, it is like a three month interview process that ends with a handshake. Some people are asked to leave but others leave of their own volition, for any number of reasons. We started with nine Americans in my town and we are down to seven now. PST is also a time for us to decide whether Peace Corps Mongolia is right for us and for Peace Corps to decide if we are right for Mongolia. They say that it is better to decide during PST because once we get to site, communities will be counting on us to complete our commitment to them and to do our jobs effectively. Still, the process can be very stressful at times, and having friends leave has been extremely emotional.
Speaking of sites, we are not given our site placement (where we will live and what we will do for the next two years) until the day before we meet our supervisors, two days before we are sworn in, and three days before we actually move there. Not much time to let it settle in. They decide on site placement based on our resumes, but also on characteristics and strengths exhibited during PST.
PST is universally regarded as a stressful time with very little free time and an unending list of rules. That being said, as much as I love Mongolia thus far, it is definitely not a country I would want to be launched into without preparation, and for that reason, I am thankful for the time I do get to have here. I could dwell on that last point for a while, but instead I’ll end this post by saying keep the letters coming! That card I got last week from Big Sur put a big smile on my face ☺.