There is a big river near Our Town called the Tamir River that has been completely frozen over for a couple of months already. During the summer, the Tamir River is a lovely place to have a picnic and maybe fish for trout (so I’m told). In the winter, the Tamir River becomes a place for games like ice shagai (use small metal rectangles to hit small pillars 80 feet away) and what they call kurling (like giant shuffle board on ice). Upon finding out that we had never been to the river (we don’t have a car and we have been busy, ok!) our community English club that meets on Sundays decided to rectify the situation and we all drove out for an afternoon of history lessons and practice.
It was cold, but I didn’t feel it much, because I spent most of the time gliding across the ice trying to put enough force behind my shagai to propel it 80 ft. while simultaneously trying not to fall too hard. It was so much fun getting to learn to play from strangers who were more than happy to teach the strange foreigners.
Little did we know, we would be returning to Tamir River the very next weekend with our schools for the annual Snow and Ice Festival. Everyone dressed in their traditional dress finery, packed themselves into a van, and headed down to the river.
During the Snow and Ice Festival, we lowly amateurs were not allow to actually play any of the games, but the people-watching kept us busy. I kept a mental checklist of who had the most flamboyant hat and how many animals it probably took to make it.
Being a California girl, I was a bit put off by the ostentatious use of fur and leather when we first moved to Mongolia, but I have changed my tune pretty quick. Not using every part of every animal would be wasteful (and Mongolians are anything but wasteful) and until you have experienced -35 C, you really can’t appreciate how wonderful being warm is. I am almost ready to invest in some authentic hat and boots, but I keep having to remind myself that while I might feel stylish and cozy wearing horse-hair boots in Mongolia, I doubt I will get a positive response back in the US (that and my feet would be a sweaty mess).
Zoom back to the festival: because we went with my school, we didn’t have any say in when we would go home. By hour four, I was getting a little chilled despite the huge amounts of buuz, hot milk tea, and vodka that was being passed around in the various vans where people would hole up to warm themselves. Despite the cold, my school teachers insisted on staying until the sun went down, six hours after we got there. James and I got home, got under the covers to warm up, and immediately fell asleep.
To Mongolians, there is no real difference between Christmas and New Years (and add Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Festivus to that list for good measure). The compilation of everything is called Shin Jil.
Mongolians use a lot of Christmas iconography but mostly as generic decoration for Shin Jil and it imparts no importance whatsoever. Really Shin Jil is an excuse to get dolled up and have a glamorous party to ring in the New Year season.
Both of our schools had Shin Jil parties and luckily they were on different nights, so, of course, we had to attend both. Shin Jil is THE party of the year. Women here like looking good on a daily basis and dressing in what I would classify as prom dresses for even the smallest event, so for Shin Jil, they go all out. Every hairdresser in town was booked solid and making bank.
The Foreign language department.
Before the drinking began.
My school’s party was on Wednesday night and my first impression was that everyone looked really really nice. I wore a 1940s-esque black floor-length gown and didn’t feel the least bit overdressed. If anything, I felt like my outfit was missing some glitz. Note to self: next year wear more glitter. We had a fabulous time, I even won a rice cooker in the raffle! The very next night was James’ school party and by then I had my hair and makeup tried and tested. I liked going to James’ school party because when one of his counterparts told me he didn’t like to dance, I hijacked the DJ table, dragged James to the dance floor, and proved all his colleagues wrong. Later in the evening, they made us sing (as Mongolians are apt to do) and we sang what I suppose is now “our” song: When I’m 64. No one filmed it, which is maybe for the best.
Without the culture of “The Holidays” everywhere we went, we suddenly felt obligated to uphold a bunch of Christmas traditions all on our own, things that we would never do otherwise. We didn’t want to invest in a fancy plastic tree, so we made one out of cheap twinkle lights instead, and I love it. I played Christmas music round the clock for a week and James wasn’t even annoyed. I made my students in movie club watch “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (obviously my favorite holiday movie) and I think they actually enjoyed it thanks to the large amount of physical humor.
My school was supposed to have a “Christmas Carols competition” that didn’t feature a single carol, but did feature a lot of great Mongolian songs and what they call “American dances” (ie. high schoolers doing a jazz routine to a compilation of songs in English).
Another volunteer from the M27 group, Emma, left her nearby town to come celebrate Christmas with us. She decided to buy a tree on her own, which we decorated while cooking a fancy dinner on Christmas Eve (BBQ pork sliders on homemade buns. Sometimes I think we eat better than most Americans). The next day we went on a Christmas day hike into the mountains where we found the only patch of snow deep enough to slide down using a tarp we were carrying around. When we came home, wet, cold and tired, it felt as much like a real Christmas as Christmases can get. it was the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f-ing Kaye.
The holidays have perhaps been easier for me than for other people, because this is far from my first Christmas away from “home”, but I think also because this place feels like home in many ways already. If I have any resolutions, it is only to be more present. With how busy we are and how many new things there are to experience, the past eight months (holy cow! eight months!) have gone by so quickly that I want to start being more mindful about the everyday joys. Cheers to the New Year!
School directors are political appointees in Mongolia, so they sometimes get replaced after an election, as mine was.
Which is how I ended up in the new director’s office a month after starting, being asked the Mongolian equivalent of “So, what would you say you do here?”
My new director and I are on good terms now, and I thought it was probably about time I answer that same question for you.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am under the Teaching English as a Foreign Language umbrella, but that doesn’t really describe what I do on a day-to-day basis, or even what my big goals are supposed to be. Peace Corps conveniently breaks down what we are trying to accomplish into three goals:
1. Build capacity in whatever way we can, mostly improving people’s English but also teaching life-skills like how to be good at google search and convincing people drinking water is healthy.
2. Help Mongolians understand American culture (hopefully in a positive light).
3. Help Americans understand Mongolian culture (which is what I try and mostly fail to do here).
On a day to day basis I work with the six English/Russian teachers (my counterparts, or CPs) at my school (by the way, James and I work at different schools), and help them improve their English. Most TEFL volunteers team-teach a lot of classes with their counterparts, but at my school, I don’t do as much of that. Now I have a lot of clubs and specialized classes, which I really, really enjoy. I am completely spoiled in this respect, because it means I get to work with a lot of motivated, smart, funny kids and more importantly, I get to create my own lesson plans. Real talk: the books the government gives teachers to use are pretty awful. I spend a significant amount of time helping my CPs rewrite the books to make them useable. My biggest gripes with the textbooks are that they use both British-isms and American English almost at random and focus on weird, ultra-specific vocabulary.
An average day can include anything from a 5th grade speaking and singing club, coffee break English practice for my CPs, beginner’s English for adults, Olympic English for 12th graders, to American movie club (my most popular club by a mile). There’s plenty more, but if you want a full list, e-mail me.
When I’m not at work-work, there are always plenty of community events going on. Schools like to hold song-and-dance competitions and seemingly random parties for teachers, so that between both James’ and I’s schools, we have a pretty packed schedule. We don’t technically have to attend all community events, but I take integration pretty seriously and because so much of our work here depends heavily on being considered upstanding members of the community, I try to at least turn up for most things.
A lot of people we talked to and blogs we read before coming to Peace Corps told us to prepare hobbies and plenty of movies because there is a lot of free time, but so far the opposite has been true for us. I am honestly looking forward to getting a couple of days off for New Year’s just to catch up with some reading.
Mongolia is cold. We had our first snow on my birthday back in September, but, it has been especially cold these past few days and it looks like this weekend will be even worse. It is all my fellow PCVs can talk about, as if I needed to be reminded that yes, it is not just cold, it is my-face-hurts-oh-wait-no-I-can’t-feel-it-anymore kind of cold. Apparently we also have the coldest winter in 100 years to look forward to!
For those of you who don’t know: I do not deal with the cold very well. I grew up in Florida and Southern California. I never acquired the bodily capacity to deal with the cold and hoped never to have to. I think it is a superior testament to my dedication to serve that when Mongolia called, I came.
Granted, the snow is beautiful when viewed from inside our warm apartment, which is good because because I’ve spent much of the last week in our apartment drunk crying over the death of American civil liberties. Actually, the only way I have been able to convince myself to leave the warm sanctuary of our living room has been by telling myself that if the incumbent president of United States is determined to act like a bigoted, sexist fool in front of the rest of world, it is even more important now than ever that I present America as I want it to be seen: open, generous, and fun. Remember that James and I am the only foreigners that many of our coworkers, students, and neighbors interact with regularly.
Our Town will be a winter wonderland for a couple of weeks, until it gets even colder, cold enough that snow stops falling. Currently, I prefer the snow because the alternative is having the bright sun that always shines over Mongolia melt the snow just enough during the day for the water to become thick sheets of black ice during the night.
But the trick to walking on ice I think, is the same as getting through tough times: small steps, small steps.
Since moving to Our Town, there has been a pretty extreme change of diet from PST. The other PCV in Our Town is even more of a foodie than I am (when he opens his restaurant at the end of his service, I will be one of the first people to lay down money to eat there) and he has been instrumental in creating our healthy and flavorful diet. To explain exactly why it is so helpful to have another foodie in town, I have to back up and explain what food shopping is like here.
Yes, there are grocery stores here (and it’s not offensive to ask), but apart from the larger, overpriced grocery store that most of the tourists shop at, the stores are small, hole-in-the-wall operations that carry a rotating stock of seemingly random foodstuffs and beauty supplies. Some things you can count on being in stock: laundry detergent, rice, flour, ramen. Other things are hit and miss, so you keep a healthy stock in your own cupboard when you can: oatmeal, good flavors of Pringles, hot red pepper flakes, raisins, olive oil (when you find one that is not too expensive). Then, there are the treasure items that you see once and possibly never again: cheese (of any variety), tuna with a recognizable label. When I see these things, I will buy out the store’s stock if I can afford it.
Next to the vegetable market is the meat market, where one can peruse tables covered in mountains of meat and can buy an entire carcasses of a variety of animals depending on the time of year. Very rarely, I will find goat (my favorite), but there is always plenty of mutton, usually plenty of beef, and more and more horse meat available. Right after rice and flour, meat is by far the cheapest foodstuff. Pork is rare and Mongolians will think you are a psycho killer if you talk about lamb (“you kill babies?!?!”). I do not eat that much meat in general (to the horror of most Mongolians), so I don’t visit the meat market that often for that reason, but I go even less because I am terrible at picking out cuts. I have to be firm about not wanting all fat, and trying to communicate that I don’t like the cut they are giving me is difficult. One positive thing to come out of the freezing weather is that I worry less about dying from a meat-borne disease.
The vegetable market is where I get most of our food. At most stands, there are potatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions, and garlic. But in one corner of the market is one little old lady who has been trained by our fellow PCV and previous ex-pats that “Americans like vegetables.” She does a pretty fantastic job of having a much wider variety of produce than anyone else, because she knows that between us and our fellow PCV, someone will buy it. Thanks to her we can sometimes find green onions, daikon, red cabbage, and cherry tomatoes. Once in a while, she will even have a zucchini or two. Vegetable lady and I are such good friends now that she generally ushers me behind the stand to proudly show me her best wares.
I quickly mention fruit only to say that it is so outrageously expensive, that the only time I have fruit is when it is present at a party or other event.
Which brings us to why having another foodie around is such a great thing (other than the fact that he is a hoot to be around, and generally just a great friend): it doubles the eyes on the lookout for treasures, and we share ideas for creative uses of limited ingredients. We have gone to incredible lengths trying to recreate some foods we miss a lot, with mixed levels of success, and I have been learning to cook with the ingredients I do have, which means a lot more Asiatic flavors and techniques, an arrangement I am not dissatisfied with. Last month I learned to make kimchi! Bring on the probiotics.
Mongolians are not adventurous eaters, but sometimes my enthusiasm for food inspires even the most hesitant eaters. A couple of days ago, upon finding baby bok choy at the market, I practically squealed with delight and was so excited that a Mongolian woman next to me asked what the vegetable was. I waxed poetical about the bok choy and told her how to cook it (as much as I could in broken Mongolian) and she ended up buying the rest of the stock.
I have been making good use of our toaster over as well: after being inspired by an American friend, I have taken up bread making as something of a hobby. You can buy standard white bread here, but it tends to be dense and kind of flavorless, so I have been working on introducing crusty, artisanal bread to my coworkers. So far, they are mostly only fans of the soft, sweet challah bread. I used to be called “the world’s worst baker” stateside, but it seems that on this side of the planet, I am considered pretty damned talented (so there).
So while yes, there are still plenty of foods that I miss a lot (mustard! spices! beans! beer!), we are far from destitute as long as I stay away from food websites. We shall see what changes winter brings to the food availability.
We are officially at site now and we have been for a couple of weeks, but we have been busy living our lives instead of writing the blog, #sorrynotsorry. That being said, I have been really excited to talk about our site placement, because it is awesome. I know I haven’t seen much of Mongolia, but holy cow, our town is gorgeous. Once again, I can’t give you the exact location so instead I’ll say a small city/large town in North central Mongolia.
Our home. First of all, by Peace Corps standards, our apartment is luxurious: the ceiling is nine-feet high, we have a separate bedroom, AND we have a water heater in our bathroom, which means that we not only get hot water in the bathroom (as long as the electricity is on in the town), but in the kitchen as well. I know, I know, this all sounds more like Posh Corps than Peace Corps.
Because our town is so beautiful (see James’ forthcoming entry on the subject), there are more tourists than I was used to seeing, so while non-Mongolian faces are sometimes seen in the downtown area, they do not usually venture into our neighborhood. That makes us very interesting to many people, particularly children who are often eager to practice the one word of English they know: “HI! HI! HI!”. Sometimes we get distrustful stares from adults, to which we smile and say hello in Mongolian, but mostly the only reaction we get is disinterested or positive.
We spent the first week in our new home settling-in: work hadn’t started, we didn’t have any responsibilities, and we had free time for the first time in three months. Our town is large enough to make it onto a map, but it has the advantage of being very walkable, so after we had criss-crossed the town every which way, we started hiking the mountains that surround the town.
We also bought some stuff. We were each given roughly $90 as a settling-in fund which we used on a very expensive but completely necessary toaster oven to supplement the hot plate that came with apartment, a very classy plastic chest of drawers with “sweet love” emblazoned on each drawer, and two stools to give us something to sit on around the table.
As fun as unsuccessfully haggling on the open air market was and as glorious as the views from the mountaintops were, by the week’s end we were getting a little antsy to start work. After the intensity of PST, we got to site ready to hit the ground running.
My first day of work, I came half an hour early, dressed to the nines, and with the classic optimism of American, smile spread wide across my face. Instead of diving into lesson planning and tailoring the curriculum though, my co-workers sent me home to change and we pulled up weeds from the school courtyard.
The day before classes began, we still didn’t have a class schedule, but as I have discovered, that was zuger, it was fine and why was I even concern about it? It would work itself out (it did). The first day of school was an event; there was a big opening ceremony with singers and dancers and speeches. I did a lot of standing around, pretending I remembered people’s names.
Since that first day, the class schedule is still in flux and so is my schedule. The only things that haven’t changed are that I am working a lot and that I am still trying to remember people’s names. Mongolian names are long and poetic and hard for me to pronounce, but I’ll get into that more later.
There has been a lot to take in over the past couple of weeks, and that probably isn’t going to slow down for a while. We finally got internet set-up in the apartment this week though, so keep things up-to-date should be a heck of a lot easier.
This year was the 25th anniversary of Peace Corps in Mongolia, which Peace Corps used as an excuse to throw a nice big ceremony for our swearing-in.
The ceremony took place in the National Opera House, which is located on Sukhbaatar Square, downtown Ulaanbaatar. The building itself is a rather unpleasant color of pink, but the inside was beautiful.
The oath to become Peace Corps volunteer is the same oath taken by everyone who enters government work, from military personnel, to the President of the United States:
I [state your name] do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.
Sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? When we took the oath, we became full-fledged Peace Corps volunteers and took on all the rights and responsibilities that entails, part of which is acting as representatives of the United States of America twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for the next two years. Again, pretty serious.
Peace Corps as an organization decided that, okay, this is a solemn and huge moment for our volunteers, but maybe having them pronounce that they will “defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies” is not what we want to emphasize to our foreign partners, so they developed their own oath that emphasized more of the reasons we are here.
I [state you name] promise to serve alongside the people of [country of service]. I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind. I promise to foster an understanding of the people of Country of Service, with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect.
I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility, and determination. I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship for as long as I serve and beyond. In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family past, present, and future- I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.
What this meant for us was that Ambassador Jennifer Zimdahl Galt administered the official oath to us in private before the ceremony, we started the ceremony that was comprised of a lot of speeches by a lot of important people, we were administered the unofficial oath by the Director of the Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet in front of the audience, and only then were we allowed to celebrate becoming volunteers.
I was not allowed much time to bask in the relief of having made it through training because my training group (dubbed Jim and the Nomgonettes) had decided to preform at the ceremony and we were hustled back-stage to change.
My host-mom is a dance teacher and we learned some traditional dances with her group of students after classes as a fun way to culturally integrate during training. One of us casually suggested we preform a dance at our swearing-in ceremony before we understood what a big event the Embassy was making this out to be (25 years! That’s a quarter of a century!). Only two performances and one trainee speech were picked and very quickly we were under a lot of pressure to be good. They only wanted four dancers, so two of the girls became our invaluable coaches and made us practice every day that week, and our incredible language teacher found us dancers’ costumes at a local theatre.
We were the first performance and while we were passably good and I was happy with it, the other group made us look like amateur hour: they had an opera singer who could throat sing (which I have been told takes years to master, and here he was, throat singing after three months, nbd). On the whole, I was really happy we did the dance, mostly because it was so much fun to be able to go through the process with people I love hanging out with so much.
Because our supervisors had come to meet us and watch our swearing-in ceremony, we didn’t get much time to explore Ulaanbaatar. The afternoon after the ceremony, I went hunting down as many spices and dried beans I could get my hands on/fit into my already overstuffed luggage and went out with James and friends to eat my weight in Indian food.
The next morning we left Ulaanbaatar for the second time this year, this time not as trainees, but as volunteers, and it feels darn good to say that.
Hello, my name is Paquita and it has been two days, eight hours and twenty-four minutes since I last had a vegetable. I fantasized about salads again today. This one was a kale salad with goat cheese and roasted pine nuts.
Peace Corps told our host-families that our delicate American bodies would need time to adjust to the diet, and to make sure they were feeding their American breakfast and plenty of vegetables. My first day here, I got a bowl of apples and vegetable soup (with meat, of course). Yesterday I got beef and flour soup (just what it sounds like), and that is because my host-family is still being delicate with me. Normally there would be a lot more mutton in the mix. There are only a handful of vegetarians here, and I’m not entirely sure what they are eating. Not eating meat to a Mongolian means being sick in some way.
We volunteers fall under two umbrellas: those like James, whose meat and carbohydrate needs are finally being met and could happily eat like this forever, and those like me, who are grateful for the food on our plates, but recognize that once I am living on my own, there are going to be some changes around here. Step one, let’s stop deep frying the eggs, and let’s learn to use the salt shaker.
Don’t get me wrong, Mongolian food is quite tasty. With the addition of a little hot sauce, it can even be delicious. Before coming here, I was told Mongolians don’t like spicy food, but that is a falsehood, demonstrated empirically by the fact that the medium-sized bottle of Sriracha I gave to my host-family was finished in four days. FOUR DAYS. They like spicy food alright, but the spice (and foodstuffs) selection does not lend itself to adventurous cooking. They have the foods they know they like, and they make those foods really well.
If you need a whole goat roasted, call up your closest Mongolian friend and get the party started, because they are superb at cooking meat in the great outdoors. I have never been to a “Mongolian barbeque” in America, but I am told it is nothing even remotely close to an actual Mongolian barbecue. A horhog is a Mongolian institution in which cut up meat is cooked with hot rocks on a pot over an open fire. Another variation of this is bodog, putting the hot rocks inside the carcass of the animal, sewing the carcass back up and searing the outside.
Because Mongolians are some of the least wasteful people on the planet, they cook everything and make the most out of the limited ingredients available. They even have a special technique to kill the animal so as to spill as little blood as possible (think of all the sausage you could make with that blood!). There are many dishes I have tried that I doubt can be found anywhere else. Fermented mare’s milk for example, airag, which tastes somewhere between sour cream and that watery substance on the top of yogurt, if it were alcoholic and ever so slightly carbonated.
Somehow, the Mongolian body does not need anything other than meat, bread, and potatoes, with the occasional cabbage, to survive. Yet another reason Mongolians are amazing. Taking the harsh Mongolian climate into consideration the food is everything it needs to be: nourishing and high in calories. Take for example arul: patties of curdled milk cheese that are perfect if you are a horseback rider on the way to your next conquest and don’t have time to stop for a meal; in other words, the original protein bar. I personally think arul rather bland and dry, but I recognize what a brilliant solution for transporting food it is.
Transporting and storing food can be a bit of a prickly subject because refrigeration has not altogether caught on here, which makes shopping for meat at the market, where almost all the meat is sold, a fraught minefield. You can find both the freshest, most organic, free-range meat you have ever had in your life, but that same meat can turn rancid and give you days of diarrhea if you don’t buy it soon enough. My host-parents know the difference and put all the meat they expertly buy into their freezer, but like a young grasshopper, I still have a lot to learn about choosing meat. Scratch that, I still have a lot to learn about everything here.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get back to my salad fantasy. Oh yeah, lightly drizzle that vinaigrette…
Note: This post was actually written in July, but posting was delayed due to limited internet connectivity.
Nadaam is a two-to-three day summer festival here in Mongolia and probably the second thing that will come up on your google search about Mongolia (the first being It Is Cold There) and the first thing to come up in your travel guide book. The national Nadaam (meaning Ulaanbaatar’s Nadaam) is timed for their Independence Celebration from China, but in the countryside, Nadaam is more of a celebration of Mongolia and of the three manly games that existed long, long before their Independence and even predate Chinggis Khan. Towns all over Mongolia choose the dates of their own Nadaam, usually only a couple of weeks before it actually happens (if even that long).
So if Nadaam was in July, why am I only posting this now? Well, dear reader, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the internet has been a scarce commodity in these parts, so it goes up when it goes up.
My town had a stadium on the outskirts of town that they only ever used for Nadaam, to give you an idea of how important this festival is. It was tremendous fun; it involved a lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen followed by a rush to see what was happening, then going back to waiting. During the waiting periods, you could play any number of carnival games (ring toss, etc.), or admire all the spectacular deels (pronounced dell, it is the traditional Mongolian dress worn by men and women), or eat lots and lots of khuushuur (a deep fried mutton or goat empanada). My site mates and I were quite lucky in that our host-families generously gave us our own deels. I was extremely impressed when I received my deel because my family had never asked me about colors, styles, or sizes, but somehow gave me something I absolutely adored and fit perfectly. My best guess is they started stealing my clothes in the first week.
The highlight of Nadaam are the three manly games: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. It is a bit of a misnomer though, because anyone can compete in the archery, and instead of using adult jockeys, they use small children of both genders. Although not an official manly game, shagai is also very popular and is played by aiming sheep bones and trying to hit a target.
My favorite game to watch was the horse racing because unlike in the USA, Mongolians do not use jockeys to race the horses around a track, oh no! Mongolians race their horses across vast distances of steppe using small children as jockeys, sometimes riding bareback. It is quite a sight to see them arriving at the finish line, horse and child exhausted and dirty.
I loved Nadaam and I completely understand why it is ranked so high on the “must-see” list of Mongolia, but while I watched some of the National Nadaam on TV and was impressed by the splendor of it all, I have to say, I loved the small town Nadaam. It felt close to what Nadaam was originally about: being proud to be Mongolian and having a heck of a good time.
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 ☺.