Wrap-up: Next steps

This is the final post in a wrap-up series about my Peace Corps service. Over the course of the series I have discussed my personal commitment to service; the advantages and pitfalls of Peace Corps; issues specific to my country and region of service; and ethics, experiences, and reflected image in a foreign volunteering context. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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My two years are up. I’ve said my goodbyes, written my final posts, and, as you read this, I’m mere hours away from boarding a plane toward home. What’s next?

This blog will probably go dark for a while. Given that being a foreigner in Mongolia is about as private as being a constantly-poked puffer fish in a very small goldfish bowl, I need some time away from public broadcasting. I’m also going to be away from the internet, on and off, for a few months in the States. Eventually I plan to overhaul the website, give my Peace Corps posts their own section, and dedicate future writing to different subjects.

For me personally? I’m going to take some time to travel and readjust to American culture. A big move and a Masters degree loom, in the noncommittal, undefined way of all futures here in Mongolia. I hope to return to my novel, or at least to writing in some format. You’ll hear about it sooner or later.

Until then, goodbye, au revoir, баяртай and сау бол. Thank you so much to readers for following me on this crazy journey; and thank you, a thousand times thank you, to the friends near and far who have read, commented, reposted, and supported me online and off. Here’s to the next two years being as interesting as the last.

Wrap-up: Being tough, being good

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to my sector, country and region of service. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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I’ve talked sometimes with Americans and other foreigners not in the Peace Corps — either over the internet, or as they’re passing through my town. People get this degree of shock when I discuss my everyday life: “That sounds so difficult! So foreign! Props to you for sticking with it, I never could.”

On one level, it’s nice to get credit for doing something hard. Mongolian winters are not easy, especially if you have to make fires to keep warm and draw water from a well[1]. But these conversations also make me feel as if somehow, the other person has missed the point.

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When is the last time you did something altruistic? (This can be as simple as holding a door open, listening to a friend’s troubles, or cooking dinner for your spouse or roommate.) Thinking of the last few occasions, can you name a time you’ve regretted it profoundly? How did these acts make you feel? What resulted from them?

In America we’re accustomed to thinking of acts of generosity as somehow dangerous — as if by giving we must lose something. I disagree with this mindset. The emotional high of altruism, the back-pat we give ourselves when we do something good, and the way it reinforces our identities as “good people” are all motivating, if intangible, rewards. As is seeing tangible results of a good act, even if the subject of the act is unappreciative.

Everyone is capable of altruism, and many people are more inclined to it than they think. It’s true that commitments vary, but that depends in large part on a person’s life circumstances and inherent openness to adventure. Not on inherent altruism or lack thereof.

So when someone pins a PCV’s motivation as “good” or “altruistic” or “a blessing”, when they say “I could never do that!”, they discredit themselves even as they distance themselves from the PCV. They also set aside the complicated motivators both for altruism in general and for joining the Peace Corps (which are often as much about debt, career-building, or adventure as changing the world).

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It’s necessary for a PCV to tough out adverse circumstances and adapt to the unpredictable. But while toughness is a necessary quality, I wouldn’t call it laudable. A determination to “be strong” in the face of anything can lead to self-destruction as easily as triumph.

When people ask me for advice before joining the Peace Corps, I tell them to figure out their dealbreakers. At what point are they willing to quit? This is not to figure out if they’re “tough” enough for Peace Corps. Rather the opposite — to get them to think about what Peace Corps is worth to them.

The worst way to spend two years is one you’ll look back on in regret. To stay in a stagnant or toxic situation because “you’re strong enough” or “you’ve made a commitment” is a terrible waste of mortal life. Why not move on to somewhere you can both enjoy and value your actions?

I’ve watched people go home in the last two years, some of them close friends. I’ve always empathized with their decision to go. I would never, ever shame someone or look down on them for choosing to end their service early; they have probably faced dilemmas I can’t imagine.

But faced with a good few personal nightmares, I’ve stayed. I wouldn’t attribute it to toughness per se, or even to sunk cost fallacy. If at some point in my service I had felt I was neither contributing to my community nor growing as a person, or if my unhappiness outweighed the pull of that growth, I would have gone home. My usefulness at school and in town has fluctuated, but I’ve never stopped learning. So here I am.

So, applicants and future PCVs alike: What is this experience worth to you?

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[1] Note that I do neither of these things; I live in a nice new apartment with excellent utilities and very little furniture.

Wrap-up: Kazakh life

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to the Peace Corps TEFL program in Mongolia. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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Most PCVs are trained in Mongolian language and culture, then spend two years in a Mongolian-speaking, culturally Mongolian Buddhist or shamanistic community. I and three other volunteers were trained in Mongolian language and culture, then placed in a Kazakh-speaking, culturally Kazakh Muslim community. My experience has differed somewhat from the average volunteer’s.

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It’s hard for me to encapsulate the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture, partly because I have become so intimately familiar with them, and partly because they are so subtle to Western eyes.

A tourist will first notice the architectural differences: the хашаа or yard contains not a couple of felt gers and maybe a one-room house, but a mudbrick or whitewashed multi-room home accompanied by a single tall кигіз үй (ger) only in the summer. On the inside, a Mongolian ger is furnished with orange-and-blue wood and two elaborately carved or painted center poles[1]; a Kazakh ui is larger, often with more furniture, and every surface is bright with traditional embroidery or felt. The tapestry-covered walls of a Kazakh ui draw the eye while the central pole is utilitarian; Mongolian walls are covered with a bright but generic fabric, whereas the poles form the focus of the room. Mongolians add a layer of felt to their gers in the winter; Kazakhs strike their ui and leave their summer houses for a more sturdily built winter home or apartment.

The languages are entirely different. Kazakh is closely related to Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Turkish, whereas Mongolian is an esoteric member of the larger Altaic family. Their grammar patterns are more similar to each other than to English, but distinct, and the vocabulary has very few cognates. Mongolian Kazakh is moreover a tricky dialect, with borrowings from Mongolian and variations in grammar from its standard Kazakhstani sister.

Most Mongolians are Buddist, shamanistic, or atheist; the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim. They are steppe Muslims — i.e. their expressions of piety are looser than in most parts of the world, expressed more in cultural tradition than careful adherence to the Qu’ran — but they profess a strong belief in Allah. There are several mosques in my town, one of which calls the faithful to prayer several times a day through crackling speakers; while only a handful of my friends observed Ramadan, virtually everyone celebrates Kurban Ait. Bare shoulders or knees are a rare sight here, as is public drunkenness. The Turkish evil eye and Arabic prayers are common on walls and rearview mirrors. Kazakhs are also more strictly patriarchal than Muslims, with the youngest son of the family (and his wife) responsible for his parents-in-law in their old age and inheriting the hashaa and herds after their death.

Kazakhs and Mongolians eat the same everyday meals — hushuur, tsuivan and buuz — although Kazakh food tends to oiliness whereas Mongolian meat can be a little dry. At holidays, however, Kazakhs have their own plates: besbarmak, koje, and kaz. Additionally, Kazakhs practice дастархан (dastarkhan) at parties and festivals; the table is sometimes so full of snacks and salads you can’t find room for your plate.

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Many of the differences I’ve experienced are similar to that of other PCVs. The sense that things will happen in their own time and there’s no point in rushing to the finish; the belief that a laid-back month in the summer countryside, relaxing, is the ideal reward for a year’s hard work; family and community as the central pillar of one’s life; ingrained deference for elders and authorities — these things are common to many nomadic cultures, and shared by Mongolians and Kazakhs alike. But it’s funny how different that feels when the trappings change. Not just the language, but self-presentation — Kazakhs are, in general, more reserved than Mongolians, with stricter principles for obedience to one’s elders and boundaries between men and women. Beyond that, the challenges they face as an isolated minority group frame their culture very differently from mainstream Mongolians. I’ve often struggled to express these subtle differences to other PCVs, vacillating between their apparent insignificance and their importance to me and the people I work with.

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I found out I would be living in a Kazakh community about two weeks before I moved there. I had maybe twenty-five words in my Kazakh vocabulary, courtesy of a single five-hour crash course at the end of my training period. My cultural and integrative training was not a three-month homestay with additional weekly lessons, but three hours of passing around traditional paraphernalia and silently reading handouts.

Considering this, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of making a home in my community. My Kazakh is passably conversational, though not fluent; I’m familiar with Kazakh custom (you don’t have to shake hands when you step on someone’s foot, but you do when you haven’t seen someone in a while or owe them a congratulations); most importantly, I’ve made a number of friends I’m going to miss dearly. My biggest regret is that I’ve never spent a weekend in the summer countryside — the heart of the Mongolian-Kazakh experience that many in my community speak of with fondness, and a true test of one’s language and cultural comprehension.

I don’t credit Peace Corps with helping me achieve this, except in the way that their Mongolian training offered a template for me to recreate as I forged ahead on my own. I’ve consistently experienced a lack of understanding and support from staff.

Kazakhs comprise about 4% of the Mongolian ethnic milieu: a tiny percentage, but Mongolia’s largest and most divergent ethnic minority. And — as with most ethnic groups other than the majority Халха (Khalkh) — it is concentrated and isolated in a small part of the country. As a result, many Mongolians go about their lives without ever encountering a Kazakh person, forming their impressions of the ethnicity based on stereotype and hearsay. Some of these stereotypes — especially in the few regions where Kazakhs and other ethnicities mix — are virulently negative.

My managers, who work with local agencies to place and assist volunteers, have been mostly supportive and comfortable working with Kazakhs; likewise the American staff is at least sympathetic and claims to want to support us. However, I’ve experienced firsthand the unease of Mongolia staff visitors to my town. Some are visibly discomfited to be surrounded by a language not their own — sometimes seeming to reflect, “Why don’t they speak Mongolian? Why do these people make me feel like a foreigner in my own country?” rather than observe the challenges of a group perpetually made foreign by their efforts to hold onto their culture and mother tongue while finding a place in the home they have chosen. I had one person doubt my assurances that I felt safe at my site, even though Kazakh cultural mores have meant I have not experienced safety problems common to PCVs (i.e. publicly belligerent drunks or pressure to drink).

There are no Kazakhs on staff at our Peace Corps office, despite about 30 Mongolian employees. This has resulted not only in a lack of cultural understanding among Mongolians and Kazakhs alike, but also in oversights and inadvertent exclusions during our conferences. (For instance, at our close-of-service conference, we had a session about closure and goodbyes with a heavy cultural component. What cultural tics will you miss? How will you say goodbye at a party? I was the only person at the conference who would be making goodbyes at a Kazakh site in the coming months; the discussion was entirely about Mongolian culture and Mongolian language.) When I’ve made criticisms about this to staff, I’ve been told they went so far as to request Kazakhs in their job postings but received no Kazakh applicants; likewise, I was told it would be too expensive to hire a Kazakh language trainer for a group of two to four. It seems that four percent is too small to warrant support, yet large enough to merit a volunteer.

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Don’t get me wrong: I want people at Kazakh sites. I love this culture, and I love its uniqueness — the way that it is its own self, not wholly Kazakh, not wholly Mongolian. I have met many hardworking, creative, intelligent people who deserve the Peace Corps’ best efforts. Living here has changed the way I look at time and at community. Yet how can I recommend that at the expense of the volunteer? Three of the seven people placed at Kazakh sites in the last two years have moved homes or sites because of a fundamental lack of understanding about the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian housing. Several have found themselves frustrated and stymied, untrained in the language, unable to find a suitable tutor, and as a result unable to fully participate in and understand their communities.

I hope that more support will be provided to Kazakh sites in the future. I’ve heard rumors and promises that this year’s group will have more language training, better housing, better support; but I’ve been hearing about Peace Corps’ commitment to supporting us for two years, and yet here I am, the last Kazakh holdout from my cohort. I love this place and I’m happy to have lived here, but my experience in the Peace Corps program has not done the organization credit.

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[1] Decoration styles vary depending on the region, tribe, and financial means of the family, but the orange-and-blue painted wardrobe and the decorated door and poles are the most ubiquitous.

Wrap-up: TEFL and Mongolia

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service and the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps as a volunteer organization. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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I’m not big on secondary school TEFL as a “service” project.

For those who engage in international business or diplomacy, study abroad, or deal with tourists, English is a necessity. In countries without an English speaking environment, students usually develop their skill in a test prep or English for Special Purposes course. In a secondary school setting, though? Not much different from the Spanish you took in high school. Useful in many parts of the world, but not yours. Advantageous if you have it, but not necessary[2] unless you plan to travel abroad or work with foreigners.

And then there’s the issue of “native” speaking. The native speaker occupies a privileged space in countries that have low English fluency and/or idealize Anglophone cultures. Native speakers may be offered higher salaries and even hired in place of local teachers — even though local teachers may have greater experience and better understand the challenges of classroom English. The effortlessness of native speaking is sometimes equated with a thorough knowledge of English grammar.

The presence of a native speaker aids students in picking up the accent, intonation, and idioms of privileged dialects of English. But native speaking does not guarantee good teaching. A good teacher is a good teacher, and a fluent speaker is a fluent speaker, even if their accent marks them as non-native[1]. Native speakers should be adjunct to, not replacement for, local teachers, and only then when the local teachers have relatively low fluency and few opportunities to encounter native English.

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The Peace Corps’ Education sector comprises 40% of total projects. There are some programs for literacy specialists and other subject teachers; but TEFL is by far the largest program in the sector[3].

In the big picture, a population that speaks fluent English — the international lingua franca — gives any nation a diplomatic and economic boost. Citizens who speak it can travel to almost any country for business, study, and cross-cultural experience. Thus there is high demand for top-notch TEFL programs — and one of the components of a good TEFL program is fluent, if not native, English speakers.

The Peace Corps provides according to host country demand. Therefore, the host country can ask for education volunteers. The Peace Corps is comprised of native and/or fluent English-speaking citizens. Therefore, TEFL volunteers can provide for one major perceived[1] insufficiency of host country teachers — fluency — regardless of their professional background.

As a result, TEFL acts as a funnel for marginally-qualified volunteers with few U.S. work prospects (read: liberal arts grads) and insufficient experience for the other sectors[4]. The qualifications listed for TEFL volunteers on many program openings? “A Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science degree in any discipline and a strong desire to teach English.” No previous teaching experience required.

Some programs do require higher qualifications. And in 2015 Peace Corps launched several pre-service training programs that end in TEFL certification. But Peace Corps Mongolia, for instance, does not certify its volunteers, and requires only 30 hours of previous (language-related) teaching or tutoring experience.

The PC/Mongolia TEFL training when I took it was adequate to orient trainees toward teaching, and helped to prepare us for Mongolian classroom norms, but did not put us on equal footing with our experienced Mongolian colleagues[5]. Nor did it have any pretensions of doing so: the goal was to get us established enough to function in a classroom co-teaching with host country professionals, stuffing as much knowledge about teaching as possible into the heads of the less-experienced while slightly underserving those with an education background. It was sufficient but did not prepare us to excel.

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Like most development agencies, the Peace Corps is big on sustainability — establishing projects that will continue to benefit communities after the volunteers leave — and capacity-building — helping people to help themselves instead of just throwing resources at a problem.

The problem with the “native speaker” teacher is that their particular gifts — their accent and the opportunity for immersion they provide — end when they leave the room. Language is simply a vehicle for communication. The brain picks up language as it is used, and discards it when it is not useful. If teachers aren’t speaking English in the classroom, the students will not retain what they learn; if they make major errors[1] when they do speak, students will build those into their language. And just as a person who moves overseas merges their original accent with the local one, a student who studies with a volunteer for just a few years will eventually shift from the volunteer’s English to their community’s version of it.

To build in a sustainable element, then, Peace Corps Mongolia asks volunteers not simply to run speaking classes and clubs, but to improve Mongolian English teachers’ methodology through co-planning and co-teaching. There is room for improvement in Mongolian education: it is moving slowly away from the Soviet model, but the road to a greater variety of techniques is long, badly paved, and sometimes deep with potholes. The old dirt road of rote memorization did better by some students — didn’t get you as far as fast, but teachers were equipped to navigate it with fewer crash collisions. And for PCVs, with the contrast of their own educational background, the pitfalls are easy to see.

But again: It’s one matter to know a thing, and another entirely to teach it. Our PST was pretty strictly TEFL-oriented, with some introduction to the structure of the Mongolian school system, available materials, and work culture. We learned basic methodology in order to use it, not to teach it. For some PCVs (e.g. in small village schools where the whole two years are spent introducing lesson planning) this is sufficient. For me, third volunteer in a high-achieving school with twelve experienced co-teachers? They need help with curriculum building, long-range planning, and the role of consistency in a classroom, and they have to outfox their system to do it. I wasn’t equipped to help with that.

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The Mongolian education system is tied closely to the government, which issues textbooks, curricula, and national exams. The Mongolian government operates on a party system, with the Parliament as the dominant political power and parliamentary elections every four years. When the party changes, new textbooks and curriculum guidelines are often issued. Public school teachers are expected to submit lesson plans following these guidelines to their school’s training manager (vice-principal).

A regularly changing curriculum creates redundancies and gaps in student knowledge as kids progress through the school system. If past tense lessons are moved back from 8th to 7th grade, for example, newly-minted eighth graders will be bewildered by the present perfect. And teachers scrambling to keep up with and understand the new curriculum aren’t well-placed to design extensive review, especially if they don’t obtain textbooks until after the semester begins.

Add to this the challenge of a Mongolian sense of time: you don’t worry about a thing until it needs to be done, and then you scramble to get it together immediately beforehand. I’ve been amazed by how often things come together this way (albeit hours or weeks late), but when you look at a textbook page the evening before a lesson and see it’s too challenging, or predicated on a topic students haven’t learned, or should come after a lesson that’s supposed to happen next year…well, lessons aren’t always stellar, and the gaps keep popping up.

So a student graduates high school, and her English is shaky but she does well enough to earn a spot in an English teaching program. There, she learns from teachers who face the same challenge as her: they learned to teach limited English from teachers who had limited resources and knew only traditional, rote methods. Her English remains limited, and she learns limited methodology, and she goes on to teach students with her limited English from limited resources…

PCVs are meant to intervene at the secondary school level, working within a Mongolian time framework: suggest new innovations to a lesson plan a day or two in advance; co-teach lessons, demonstrating those innovations; and work toward a feedback position as teachers incorporate the innovations into their everyday teaching. This helps teachers improve their lessons within the system — and, being that the Peace Corps is a “grassroots” organization, is perhaps the best it can manage — but it doesn’t break the cycle that caused the problem in the first place. Students who go on to university will not learn the methodology their teachers used unless their university teachers worked with foreigners, and the competitive work culture in Mongolia limits the horizontal transmission of methodology and technique.

The ideal place for development workers to be, really, is in the universities, working with future teachers on methodology, and in the government, working on curriculum and textbook development. But the Peace Corps isn’t organized to work top-down, and the Mongolian government is focused on getting PCVs into secondary schools rather than universities; so the benefit TEFL PCVs can provide may be restricted at best.

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All this said: the Peace Corps measures its success by the individual. The individual person, the individual community, the individual Volunteer — the idea is that if you can impact one person, then you’ve done your job.

I know I’ve influenced a fair handful of people here — kids and teachers both. On the one hand, this suggests that the last two years have not been wasted; helping someone is better than helping no one, and even in adverse circumstances teaching is more beneficial to society than a desk job interchangeable with a reasonably advanced computer program. I’ve never stopped learning, I’ve built a lot of relationships, and I’ve done a fair bit of mentoring (which is far more important than subject teaching). On the other hand, there are a lot of places and a lot of ways to help people. I am content that Peace Corps TEFL seemed my best option at the time; however, my dissatisfaction with the work I’ve done and the support I’ve received from my organization suggests that it wasn’t an ideal fit for me.

For potential TEFL applicants: while the ethical questions of inexperienced “native” teachers are the same across the board, TEFL programs in the Peace Corps vary widely. If your qualifications are limited, I would recommend applying for programs that result in TEFL certification. Failing that — or if your qualifications are already more than sufficient — I would research the training structure and office climate of the programs you’re interested in, ideally by contacting current or recently returned PCVs.

For potential Mongolia applicants: the culture here is pretty cool, but it’s also really challenging for your work situation. Are you looking more for a cultural experience or more for hands-on development work? I don’t really recommend the TEFL program if you want to influence more than a handful of teachers and students or do concrete needs-based projects. There is a new education/youth development program being established, but as it’s brand-new this year I can’t comment on its design or effectiveness. There is also a lot to consider about life in Mongolia in general: travel is pretty rough, which means it could be difficult for staff to get out to where you live and understand your situation; and the Mongolian sense of time and urgency persists in the office, which means that emergency response is excellent but day-to-day problems are sometimes left in the PCV’s hands as minor or unsolvable.

But I can’t really comment, at large, on either Mongolian culture or the staff at my post — because I am one of the volunteers that ended up very far away, and in a very different cultural milieu.

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[1] There are legions of side discussions here about language ownership, “nativeness” vs. fluency, and the status implications of being white and fluent in English in Asia. I won’t get into it here, but here are some articles for the interested.
[2] Obviously the analogy breaks down once the student does want to work or study abroad, as English is more extensive than Spanish as a lingua franca.
[3] about 30/51 of the current openings, as of the writing of this post, are TEFL-related.
[4] I fall quite neatly into this category and am criticizing myself as well as the program in general. Which is not to say I’d decide differently if I went back in time: but I do wish Peace Corps had required more of me before accepting my application.
[5] A common complaint I’ve heard from Mongolians, paralleling PCVs’ own securities, is that their volunteer’s profession is not English teaching. However, it should be noted that Mongolians have a different concept of ‘professions’ than Americans — where an American is a plumber when s/he takes up a job in plumbing, a teacher when s/he begins teaching, and an author when s/he publishes a book, a Mongolian who studied English teaching in college is an English teacher even if s/he never gets a job in the field. So the complaint is specifically about a lack of applicable university degree and the status given thereby, not about ineffectiveness at work per se. Even so I’ve heard it often enough that it seems to merit mentioning.

Wrap-up: Peace Corps and service

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In the previous post I discussed my personal commitment to ethical service, and introduced the Peace Corps for the unfamiliar. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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U.S. Volunteer Agency

As a companion to this section, here is a head-on-the-nail critique of some pitfalls of the Peace Corps as a development agency. It’s about six years old, but the issues persist.

The U.S. Peace Corps is authorized by Congress and funded through taxes; it is a United States government agency. This means that — while it prides itself on being apolitical at the individual level — it is established and organized through diplomatic exchanges between government employees.

Before a country hosts any Peace Corps Volunteers, its government must agree with the U.S. government to establish a new Peace Corps post. Individual sector programs (e.g. TEFL, health, agriculture) are determined upon by the country director, following advisement by a Project Advisory Council made up of PCV representatives and community counterparts, in partnership with sector representatives from the host government. Basically: the program must satisfy the expressed needs of the host country via their government, its needs and opportunities as perceived by PCVs, and the stated mission of Peace Corps.

If this can be done successfully, the post will receive funds to pay the local-level salaries of its volunteers, as well as a complete set of permanent staff — including administrative, financial, and technical program-related units; management; on-call doctors; a safety and security team; and support units such as drivers — and employees hired seasonally for language and technical training. While the resulting number is tiny in terms of the overall U.S. budget[1], it is significantly larger than what most volunteer organizations can muster.

Note that the U.S. government, as founder and funder, is hardly a disinterested party. Rather — insofar as any government is designed to protect, organize, and promote the welfare of its citizens and to manage relations with other governments — it[2] is acutely self-interested. It sends citizens overseas, rather than keep them home to benefit the U.S. economy, and provides aid to another country at its own cost. And it swears up and down that its interest is strictly humanitarian, so it cannot derive direct political benefits from the effort — although it hopes to gain indirect benefits from the positive image a volunteer program can create. It looks for instead to garner citizens better suited for its work force, materially in terms of training and work experience, intangibly in terms of the patience, flexibility, communicative ability, and widened worldview that come with adapting to a foreign environment.

A good portion of my generation falls into employment limbo after graduating from college: our Bachelors aren’t helpful, either because they’re not of a practical persuasion or because potential employers are searching for candidates with a Masters and work experience, but lower-qualification employers assume (rightly) that we’ll skip out at the first better offer. Where better for us to go than abroad in an explicitly temporary program, in which qualification requirements are defined by our government and we can earn the experience necessary to be gainfully employed when we return home?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a useful system and I’ve benefited from it. But the benefit comes at risk of undermining the program’s development value and creating an uneven balance between its roles as volunteer aid and means of cultural exchange [3]. One of the more common concerns voiced during my pre-service training? “I’ve never taught before.” In what way does someone who has no teacher training or experience, whose degree is entirely unrelated to education, qualify as a “professional” in the education sector? Three months of training is all well and good, but does it really match PCVs to the level of their host country counterparts? Sometimes it seems PCVs’ most significant contributions are ingenuity and a differing cultural lens — which, while valuable, do not a professional make, and carry uncomfortable suggestions about host country nationals’ own ingenuity and cultural integrity.

However, I can’t speak conclusively on the subject from personal experience. Another advantage of the Peace Corps is its fluidity: its members and staff transition constantly, and its programs and methods are under frequent redesign. There’s something to be said for those feedback mechanisms. I’m told that the majority of this year’s PC/Mongolia trainees have an education degree, TEFL or state teacher certification, or classroom experience. I don’t know if it’s because of the revamp of the application process — which has been shortened somewhat and made more concrete, to the benefit of those with less temporal flexibility than a fresh college graduate — or because of complaints voiced by training staff and self-identified underqualified PCVs, but it suggests to me that the Peace Corps can be made aware of and limit (if not entirely rectify) its vulnerabilities.

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Peace Corps and Cultural Exchange

Whatever my reservations on the technical side of things, I would be hard-pressed to name a better medium of cultural exchange than the Peace Corps[4]. Fully half of our training program was oriented toward understanding the language and cultural norms of our host country, and from the beginning the expectation was set that volunteers adapt, with their community’s assistance, to life as locals live it.

The Peace Corps’ initial language and cultural training is fully immersive and structured toward rapid, practical acquisition. Trainees live with a host family, eat with them, and are taught the chores and customs they’ll need at site. Four hours a day they go to language class, which takes place almost entirely in the host language and is focused on practical tasks: introductions and small talk; shopping for food and clothes; asking for and giving directions; and so on. Trainees are taken out into the community to practice these tasks, and non-English-speaking community members are brought into class for real life conversation. Having experienced this framework, I doubt I’ll be satisfied learning a language in a more standard classroom setting; I learn more effectively through self-created tasks and immersion.

Following this training, I felt well-prepared to dive into local life. My counterpart teachers, briefed by the Peace Corps and previous experience, met me prepared to open their homes to me and show me their everyday lives. I, meanwhile, had been warned about[5] major cultural differences — both work and personal — and knew that the expectation was for me to engage with these differences, not distance myself as a foreigner. This has allowed me to build close friendships throughout my community, with people I’ll miss very much, and experience their home life and traditions.

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The fundamental question remains, then: Should you join the Peace Corps?

As far as principles of service go: the Peace Corps does not, in its present incarnation, do harm to the communities it engages with. If its effectiveness and ethical clarity is hampered by diplomatic interests, it is also staffed by people aware of the intricacies of development service who do the best they can at their jobs. PCVs are taught the basics of ethical volunteer service and each country post does its honest best to prepare them for their work.

Is it the most effective, valuable volunteer work you could do? Probably not. As an organization it is hampered by its own hugeness and versatility; volunteers end up in sites that have no use for them, or that are actively disinterested in their stated work. Volunteers are accepted based on demand from the host government and Peace Corps post, which means that some are underqualified or would be of better fit in a different sector. The organization itself takes a generalist “grassroots” approach, putting the burden on the volunteer to determine what most needs to be done at their site. This slows down the actual work, as volunteers spend six months to a year just getting their bearings and finding projects.

But all of this is not to say the experience is without value — although I continue to question whether it is as valuable to the host country as it is to individual volunteers. Many volunteers carry out successful projects (whether a teaching stint, a summer camp, a fulfilled grant, or something more concrete) and all of them return home with cross-cultural and professional experience for their resume. It’s good training for development work, if not the most effective development work itself, and opens doors for future aid workers and teachers to do more good in the future.

Keeping in mind all of the above, and assuming you’ve laid to rest any practical or ethical qualms raised therein, I would ask you three questions.

What do you hope to achieve? If nothing else, the Peace Corps is good at implanting one reality of development work: You aren’t going to change the world in two years. Your community will not undergo a complete overhaul during your service. Your most cherished projects may be entirely unappealing to the counterparts you find, or unsuitable to your community. What, then, are you willing to settle for? What is the minimum you will be content with? And what beyond that is most important to you?

What motivates you? Peace Corps service is not easy. At some point you will — maybe rightfully — question whether it’s a valuable use of your time and skills (or, conversely, whether you are valuable to your community). You’d better know ahead of time why you’re doing it, whether that’s concrete — loan forgiveness, practical experience, the lump sum at the end of the job — or less tangible — altruism, learning about a new culture, building relationships across the world. And you’d better be sure that your motivators continue to match up to, and make worthwhile, the work you’re doing.

What are your dealbreakers? I’ve missed a wedding, a birth, two college graduations, and a whole bunch of birthday and holiday celebrations. I’ve struggled with a sense of ineffectiveness at work. I’ve had mental and physical health issues. Some people have lost family members and been unable to get permission (or finances) to attend the funeral[6]. Others have gone home due to health problems, untenable work situations, or safety issues at their site. You have a right to draw the line and leave the Peace Corps without shame when the costs mount, but it’s good to know ahead of time where that line lies.

I question aspects of my time and experiences in the Peace Corps, but I don’t regret my decision to join. I would encourage you to do your research and be certain where you stand before you apply, but I would not caution you against doing so.

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[1] Last year $410 million out of almost $4 trillion.
[2] Note that I’m not speaking here of any particular individual or organ of the many bureaucracies that have put the Peace Corps into place: when I speak of ‘the government’, I’m talking about the aggregate of decisions made by a huge body of people who range from altruistic and highly informed to actively disinterested, whose opinions often clash, sometimes irreconcilably, and who are necessarily influenced by the people who vote for them, or pay them, or fire them.
[3] This is especially true for TEFL, which has acted as something of a catch-all for less-qualified applicants. I’ll get into this further in the next post.
[4] Insert mandatory line griping about the lack of Kazakh training for people going to Kazakh sites, which may or may not ever be rectified.
[5] And would have experienced firsthand, if I had been going to a Mongolian site or lived with a Kazakh host family.
[6] Peace Corps only grants emergency live in case of the loss or illness of immediate family — so grandparents, aunts, and uncles don’t count.

Wrap-up: Introduction

Two years ago today, 69 Americans stumbled into a hotel outside of Mongolia’s capital, dizzy with the sleeplessness of a 30-hour overseas trip. They had made a 27-month commitment to serve as volunteers on behalf of their government.

In a month and a half, the first wave of those Peace Corps Volunteers[1] will close out their service and make the long trip home.

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As I wrap up projects, prepare gifts and goodbyes for friends, and look toward the future, I search for a narrative that will give me closure. Some of this process is private, subject to experiences I haven’t shared on this blog. But the blog also ought to to come full circle, and dedicated readers deserve a wrap-up.

I end this chapter in the same spirit I began it: the story of the young traveler who seeks adventure and knowledge of what goodness people can achieve. It is in many ways a callback to my first few posts.

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Service

When I first considered Peace Corps, I mulled briefly on “good deeds” and my own capacity for them. I was thinking rather of the heroic running-into-a-burning-building, bestowing-perfect-wisdom-unto-The-Youth brand of goodness. I didn’t have a framework for what “good deeds” constituted.

Peace Corps, like many volunteer organizations, calls good deeds service. Service, sister of serve, a verb with heavy Christian connotations of good works and a greater peace. It’s funny the parallels emphatically non-religious organizations have drawn in the noun. I find I like the term “service” better than I do “good deeds”. Service is not an inherent quality but a simple, witnessable act of giving back to the world.

Everywhere, someone is always in need and someone is able to give. Need is a fundamental condition of mortality; excess is intrinsic to happenstance and self-promoting ambitions. To even the balance, you can give when you have excess: to be generous with your money, possessions, time, love, or wisdom. I have this theory that if everyone were to give whatever they could, whenever they could, we as a world would be, not able to eliminate hardship, but sufficient to alleviate suffering when it comes. Of course people differ in their ability to give, both in material circumstances and in their belief about sufficiency vs. excess; but it would suffice to inspire a fundamental, if limited, commitment to service.

My experience in the Peace Corps has solidified my commitment to this philosophy. I have a suspicion that most people can give more than they realize, and benefit from the act of giving. It’s proved true for me. I came to Peace Corps seeking to test my limits, physical, emotional, and technical — was chagrined to discover I did have them — but discovered that self-awareness and a commitment to growth allowed me to keep learning and giving within my limited means. I have given two years of my time, but I have gained a lot of relationships and learned a lot about myself and the world.

For a volunteer worker, there is this obligation to — not goodness, precisely — but to growth and change. You commit to asking, What is the impact of my choice? This can and does lead to a degree of cynicism (what effect am I really having here? screw it, I’m just going to skip the extra Sunday class and spend a weekend in the countryside) but it’s also allowed me insight into my motives and values. It’s allowed service itself to become a value. I hope to keep asking myself this question as I move forward into the next stage of my life.

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Principles of Service

This series is about my experience with Peace Corps Mongolia as it reflects my identity and values, particularly those of adventure and of service.

Service, especially foreign development work, is not as simple as throwing money or energy into the nearest charity. These articles, along with their associated links, examine some of the problems of short-term “voluntourism” trips. As the second article notes, there is an entire field of research dedicated to impact assessment and ethics in development work. I would share a few principles that I, personally, have learned to hold myself accountable for.

1. Do no harm. It may sound improbable that work designed to help those in need could end up doing harm. But — as the articles above explain — without guiding ethics and solid methodology, service projects can become not only ineffective but exploitative, existing for the feel-good of the volunteers over the needs of the population served. Problems that can occur from a badly-designed aid program: dependency on foreign money or the skills of foreign professionals; displacement of the local workforce for foreigners who are more skilled or willing to do it for free; issues of continuity and relations between aid organizations and target populations, from ineffective projects that seek to perpetuate themselves to orphaned children traumatized by a lack of constant presence in their lives; and misconceptions that all people from the aid-giving country are wealthy[2], ignorant, or evangelical.

Individual responsibility: Research the organization you want to donate to or volunteer/work with. This article gives a commonsense idea of what to look for; this one gets into the financial nitty-gritty for the more dedicated.
Organizational responsibility: Make an honest effort to work yourself out of existence. Develop an effective process for needs assessment, project design, and impact assessment. Set appropriate qualification standards for hiring volunteers and employees. Hold yourself accountable: Publish the results of your impact assessments as well as financial reports so that potential donators and volunteers can see the results of your work.

2. Understand the needs and interests of the people you intend to serve. For example: it’s pretty pointless to give a school a bunch of fancy computer equipment if they don’t have reliable electricity. Likewise, an institution without a bathroom needs an outhouse more than a fresh coat of paint on the walls. This extends to the mores of the community: for example, if central heating is seen as a luxury rather than a basic need, it might not be the first area you target (though you might hope to work up to it).

Individual and organizational responsibility: Do formal and informal needs assessments before designing a project. Seek input from the population being served, both the people who will receive benefits and local professionals who will assist with or have experience related to the project.

3. Design projects with a deliberate eye to those needs, and to the interests and abilities of your community. This ties into, and goes beyond, the second principle. Help with access to power before you give equipment; but also, employ local workers where possible instead of bringing in foreigners.

Individual responsibility: Seek out work that relates to your professional skills and talents, but be sure you aren’t displacing local workers. Don’t attempt work in the name of good if you aren’t qualified for it — donate instead, or seek out your qualifications first. Look into the research and ethics of the organization you’re interested in, especially with regard to impact assessment and project design.
Organizational responsibility: Design projects according to needs assessments and with local input. Seek long-term impact. Enlist individuals who are qualified in their fields, and hire locally as much as possible.

4. Don’t just give; empower. This is called “capacity-building” in development jargon. Basically, don’t just give “stuff”: work on the skills and employment opportunities of the people you want to help, and allow them to take ownership of the work designed for their benefit. Hire locals. Do a practicum or training for local doctors instead of doctoring in their place; work with teachers on methodology techniques instead of putting a foreigner in the classroom; establish long-term, trusting relationships with youth and cultivate their potential as peer leaders. Don’t just write a grant; train people seeking aid in grantwriting and local fundraising. Invest in projects spearheaded by locals that will run themselves after the foreigners leave[3]. Instead of giving money outright, hire someone to do work in the field they seek employment in, so that they have a starter fund (for qualifications or a buffer while they seek employment) as well as relevant work experience. It’s not actually that hard to add an empowering element to volunteer projects, even those projects which are fundamentally materials-based.

Individual responsibility: Seek organizations and projects that build capacity.
Organizational responsibility: Design projects with a capacity-building element.

This may sound pretty complicated. It’s true that effective volunteer work is not as simple as it looks on the surface. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t offer your time and money — just take the extra hour to make sure you know what you’re giving to.

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An Overview of Peace Corps

The U.S. Peace Corps is a government development organization with two-year programs in 65 nations and 6 sectors: education, health, youth in development, community economic development, and agriculture. It has three goals:

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.[4]

Most people with a Bachelor’s degree and volunteer experience are qualified to apply for Peace Corps. The application process used to be about a year long. The new process still involves applying about a year in advance, but you apply for a specific date and receive your invitation within 2-6 months. Invited applicants must undergo medical and legal screening.

A Peace Corps tour[5] lasts for 27 months. The first three months are for language and cultural training; the remaining two years are spent at “site” — a town with a designated co-working agency or institution. The Volunteer is given linguistic and cultural tools to make relationships within the community, assigned a primary sector from which he or she must devise projects, and explicitly given the freedom (and expectation) to engage in additional community work that aligns with the above three goals.

In my next few posts, with this in mind, I’ll take a look at my experience within the Peace Corps framework, and how it’s worked out for me.

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The rest of the series:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

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[1] 54 Volunteers remained in country at our close-of-service conference last month. However, of those 54, a few went home prior to the first official close-of-service date; several will remain in Peace Corps Mongolia for a third year; and an additional handful, though formally closing out their Peace Corps service during this period, will return to Mongolia for work. Those who are leaving will exit the country in several waves over the course of a month, which is why some of us are closing service several weeks ahead of the 27-month mark.
[2] As the tourist industry grows, kids in my community have begun to come up to foreigners and ask for money. These kids’ parents might not be wealthy — might very well be unemployed — but someone in their extended family has access to extra meat and dairy, and someone in their extended family has a compound or apartment they can share in a crisis. Families stick together here. Most kids don’t lack for physical security. They are not employed by their families as beggars. They just want to buy chips or ice cream at the corner store and they think foreigners are rich. Tourists don’t necessarily realize this (though they can certainly ask their local guides!) but it is the responsibility of foreign development workers to discourage these kinds of perceptions.
[3] A maxim of volunteerism: The foreigner always leaves. The ethical organization figures out how to turn that dynamic into a strength.
[4] https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/
[5] Traditionally. Peace Corps Response is a shorter term of service designed for emergency response and pilot programs.

back on board (maybe)

Hello, my lovelies!

It has been a veeeery long time since I posted. This is partly because Life in Mongolia, Year Two posts would be nearly identical to Life in Mongolia, Year One; partly because I have been less oriented towards Renee the Writer this year, and more toward Renee the Teacher; and partly because I’ve been interested in living my life with the people immediately present in it, rather than broadcasting it for the world’s passive intake.

Nonetheless, I do enjoy my blog as a place to broadcast occasionally, and these days it withers with neglect. Expect the odd post, perhaps less the streamlined “Peace Corps! Mongolia! Writing!” and more whatever strikes my fancy.

Meanwhile, if you miss hearing from me: Emails are much more personal than blog posts anyway. Mine is reneenmelton at gmail.com. Send me a bit about your life, and I’ll send you a bit about mine.

xo

Summer conversations

An exchange I never expected, which has happened twice in the last month:

“Renee, you are very red.”

“Uh, yeah. I was walking outside and I got sunburnt.”

“I turn brown in the summer.”

(sheepish) “Well, yeah, I tan too sometimes. If I use sunscreen.”

“Oh.”

PSA: The Mongolian summer sun is very, very bright.

Camp Days

So much for the new posting schedule, eh? My free time and internet access this summer have been a bit…unevenly distributed.

Last week I was assisting with Bayan-Ulgii’s first iteration of the Bro for GLOW Diversity camp, a weeklong gender and diversity camp for teenagers living in Mongolia. The idea is to expose kids who live in mostly-Khalkh[1] areas of Mongolia to some of their country’s ethnic diversity, and to encourage tolerance and mutual learning instead of discrimination.

This first camp was run by my sitemate and two other PCVs from different aimags, each of whom brought five teenage students and a counterpart teacher. The remaining twenty students were sourced from Bayan-Ulgii’s aimag center and more accessible soums based on their proficiency in Mongolian and eligibility for WorldVision funding[2]. The PCVs and their counterparts taught some 101 sessions on gender, diversity and leadership, interspersed with hikes, games, and nightly dance parties.

My aimag-mate and I went along in the capacity of assistant runners-around and Kazakh language support — the latter of which proved mostly unnecessary, because the kids had been selected with the knowledge that the camp would run in Mongolian. This meant we didn’t get a very representative sample of Ulgii’s ethnic distribution (about half the kids were Mongolian[3], and most of the remainder were either from private schools or the public school that teaches exclusively in Mongolian), but that issues of comprehension or discrimination due to a language barrier were few and far between.

The upshot being, I spent most of my time sitting in the back of the room whispering to the lead PCV, “What’s happening now?”[4]

That said — as far as I could follow — the lessons seemed to go over really well, considering it was the first time any of the kids had had a sit-down talk on the subject. They had fun in the classroom (though, like kids on summer break everywhere, they complained that the classroom existed at all). They showed understanding of the material. Inter-aimag friendships were made and some really awesome cultural presentations were given.

I had a lot of fun and I’m hoping this camp becomes an annual thing. Next year the organizers are hoping to expand with more kids and more aimags — which means I might be able to bring a counterpart teacher and do some lessons myself.

(Renee teaching something other than English? Preposterous, and yet I live in hope.)

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[1] There are two divisions of ethnicity in Mongolia: first, by whether or not someone is ‘ethnically Mongolian’ (so, for example, Kazakhs and Tuvans are of Turkic ethnicity), and then by Mongolian subgroup or tribe (Khalkh, Durvud, Buryat, Uriankhai, etc). Khalkh Mongolians account for about 85% of Mongolia’s population, and (except in regions like Bayan-Ulgii where a single minority forms the bulk of the community) their dialect and cultural conventions dominate both institutionally and socially.
[2] WorldVision being a major humanitarian organization in Mongolia and one of the funding sources for the camp.
[3] Bayan-Ulgii is over 90% Kazakh.
[4] Shoutout to Trenton for running his sessions entirely in Mongolian, by the way. And to Jake, whose lessons I didn’t sit in on, but who speaks to his CPs in Kazakh two-thirds of the time even though they speak English. I need to up my language game.

Vignettes: Country and city

Photo cred for the eagle hunter visit goes to Michelle Kim; for the Sirgali Lake photos, Tess and Reece Stohr.

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“Hi, Baha? I’m Jake’s friend, Michelle. I’m in Bayan-Ulgii with my friend. We want to visit your soum this afternoon.”

Pause.

“Yes – Jake gave me your number.”

Pause.

“Great. Do you know a driver who can take us there?”

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“I was very surprised by your call,” says Baha as we pile out of the Land Rover into her хашаа; the fenced-in yard contains two houses. She leads us into the street-side house and sits us down at her table, four of us on a long bench: myself; Michelle, a visiting PCV; Michelle’s friend; and my aimag-mate Tess.

Surprised or no, Baha has laid the table with all the delicacies of a formal visit to a Kazakh house: candy, cookies, bread, with a cold noodle salad holding pride of place in the middle. Baha passes us cups of milk tea — Kazakhstan tea steeped in milk, stronger and less salty than its Mongolian equivalent — and plates to serve ourselves from the salad platter.

Baha, my sitemate’s friend and sometime counterpart, teaches English at a soum school near the aimag center. Like many English teachers in our aimag, she does stints as a tour guide, mostly local to her soum. An afternoon chatting in English with some friends of a friend, three of them Peace Corps volunteers and one familiar with Kazakh culture, is an opportunity and not an imposition. We joke in Kazakh with the driver, and Baha offers us fresh cheese and cups of homemade sour yogurt.

Unmprompted, after an hour or so, she asks, “Do you want to meet an eagle hunter?”

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The eagle hunter lives about five minutes outside the soum center; his family has not yet moved out into the countryside for the summer herding season. We are greeted by a half-dozen children mostly under the age of thirteen, and a barking guard-puppy-in-training. Baha asks one of the boys where the adults are, and the eldest girl leads us into the ger.

There is a black and white cat sleeping on the bright fabric of one bed — a cat, on the furniture, clean and well-fed and opening one eye to study my offered hand with the insousiance of one who knows her own worth. We sit and take the offered yogurt and bread, and the cat jumps down to accept my affection.

“Most of my students hate cats.”

“People keep them in the countryside to keep away mice.” Michelle’s been in Mongolia a year longer than I have.

01_tess with a baby goat

The younger children have lined up on the other side of the ger and are staring at us. I grin back. “Атыңдер кім?” They push each other, whispering; then give their names, one by one.

“Мысықның аты бар ма?”

“Ие,” says the only girl, and tells me the cat’s name, which I don’t remember half a second after repeating it. A few minutes later the girl vanishes out the door, to sneak back in with a week-old goat that she hides under the bed. Caught out, she presents the goat to us amid much cooing and petting.

02_the wrong way to hold an eagle

The wrong way to hold an eagle.

The eldest boy – the eagle hunter’s grandson, who is himself learning to handle eagles – takes us to where the eagle is tied beside a rock. He lifts the eagle up by the jesses, and amidst a great deal of flapping and flopping gets it onto the glove. Tess attempts the same method, gets a talon in the arm for her pains, and then succeeds much better by coaxing the bird to climb onto her arm from its rock.

03_the right way to hold an eagle

The right way to hold an eagle.

As I take my turn with the bird, the hunter himself arrives – a solemn elderly man in a clean dark suit and galoshes. He puts the bird on my arm by pinning its wings.

04_me holding an eagle

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“Do you want to spend the night?” Baha asks, back at her house as we are wrapping up the visit. I will never cease to be impressed by the generosity of the people who open their homes to me here.

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Ulaanbaatar is a shock after five months at site: noisy, big, crowded with cars and people. Everywhere crosswalks and restaurants and tourists and so much Mongolian. Within an hour I am dying to catch just a few words of Kazakh from some nameless passerby.

I propose a new drinking game to my sitemates: every time one of us slips up and speaks Kazakh at the next Ulaanbaatar conference, somebody takes a shot. This game is destined to remain an amusing fantasy due to risk of alcohol poisoning.

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Walking down the Peace Avenue thoroughfare just after sunset. A boy stands away from his friend on a doorstep, locks eyes with me, walks as if he’s going to slam into me if I don’t back up or step aside. The swagger and the low-pulled baseball cap say be intimidated, but he’s a half-head shorter than me and so stick-skinny he invokes the incongruous urge to laugh.

“Oi,” I say sharply, arm across the open top of my purse.

“Oi,” he echoes.

“Oi!”

“Oi!”

“Юу хийж байна,” I demand, finally grasping some bit of grammatically confused Mongolian.

“Юу хийж байна,” he mocks with a laugh, then swerves aside at the last second to give me a friendly clap on the shoulder. As if, recognizing him for a pickpocket’s accomplice and not giving way, I’ve earned temporary membership into his private club.

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A driver — another friend of a friend — gives me a lift to the airport around midnight. I’m half an hour late for the international flight from Seoul. Still, there aren’t many tourists hanging around the crowded arrivals terminal, so I wait at the gate until a tap on the shoulder makes me jump and grab for my purse.

My brother grins at me, and my father behind his shoulder.

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05_purgon cram

I admit that six hours over unpaved roads is a bit of a stretch for a three-day trip, given one purgon, three PCVs, and six visiting family members. But there’s not a whole lot to do in town during the summer, and the next nearest tourist site is a mountain – neither my family nor Tess’s was up for mountain climbing.

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Six hours and two pickups from my town, maybe an hour after a rainstorm that necessitated the migration of our camping gear from roof rack to our crowded laps, the purgon parks at a permanent complex just outside Sirgali. Our guide — a teacher from my school who runs his own tour business — collects our passports amid much shifting of luggage to verify our national park passes with the guard.

06_purgon cram plus luggage

“Should we get out?” someone asks, craning to see what Sabit is doing. My seat faces backwards and I’m still half-asleep from the drive.

“I don’t know, it might only be a few minutes…”

“Look,” someone else says after a few minutes, an indignant chuckle bubbling under his voice. “They’re laying down. We should get out.”

We tumble out from under our bags into a cool lakeside afternoon. Sabit and our driver are indeed lounging on the grass. My family and Tess’s stand around, uneasy with puzzlement and inaction; Tess, Alex and I flop back to do some lounging of our own. Waiting in summer sunlight for a bit of bureaucratic processing is positively relaxing, compared to sitting in the teacher’s lounge for a meeting of unspecified purpose that gets canceled forty minutes after it was supposed to start. After twenty minutes or so, the official returns with our passes.

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The Sirgali Lakes, called the “earring lakes” in Kazakh for their double teardrop shape, sit nestled in a valley deep in the Altai Mountains, near the Mongolia-China border. The leeward, eastern side of the valley rises in rolling hills, yellow-green-grass-bare-rock-stark like everywhere in the Altais I’ve been so far; but the windward side, the far side, displaces me to Europe. Deep green grass and groves of pine trees skirt chocolate-colored, snow-capped peaks.

07_sirgali_windward

We camp for one night on that far side. Next morning I go on a walk with the other PCVs and my brother. Alex takes us to the top of a rise, where we can see the forested foothills fall before us, then climb to where the tree line starves them of earth.

“It smells like pine,” I say gleefully, breathing in.

“I didn’t notice,” my brother remarks.

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We spend that first night with a friend of Sabit’s. Three gers are set up in a level dip near the lower edge of the forest; a pen, open and empty for the late afternoon, and a shed half-hidden in the trees suggest that this is the family’s usual summer home.

We are greeted by Sabit’s friend, his extended family (brother, wife, sister-in-law, mother, the usual gaggle of children), and a dog kept close to the campsite by a weight around its neck. Another dog, less friendly, is tied to a stick at the edge of the clearing. At the grandmother’s direction, we troop into one of the gers for milk tea.

Kazakh gers are higher-roofed than Mongolian gers, and huge; too large to be heated in the wintertime. Every inch of the walls is hung with traditional Kazakh embroidery, and the beds that circle the edge of the ger are made up with rich fabrics and curtained into small private cells. We cluster around a table on the far side of the ger, across from the door and behind the central stove.

The countryside guest-table is different from the town’s, a cluster of food made by the host’s own hands instead of a myriad of bought products. We drink tea with cream and butter, eat baursak and three kinds of cheese.

I am sitting at the far end of the group, beside Tess and her mother and far from my own family. Tess’s mother says nervously that she doesn’t want to drink the tea, would that be rude? Tess coaches her to touch the tea to her lips, then put it down, hand over the bowl, to say she’s done. I watch my family for some reaction to this become-familiar custom, but their faces are blank with the polite American’s wish not to offend the unknown.

My father tries dried curd and nearly cracks a tooth, and then we leave to make camp.

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Thump. Thump. Thump sliiiiide thump.

I start awake and stare blearily at the wall of the tent, now smeared with mud. “Who did that?”

“I think it was a goat,” Tess says, amid the blaas and sneezes of a herd released from its pen. She adds, “I hit back.”

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I’m returning from my morning necessary trip when I spot the friendly dog, the one with the weight around its neck. I stop and click my tongue at it, and the апа — the grandmother and matriarch of this family — spots me standing at the top of the hill. She motions for me to follow her.

I look at the dog. She follows my gaze. “Жақсы ма?” I ask uncertainly, very much wanting a dose of animal affection.

“Жүр,” she says serenely. Come.

I click my tongue at the dog. It half-rises, and the апа drops it with a sharp word.

I follow the апа into her ger.

Alex is already inside, drinking a bowl of milk tea; one of the younger women serves me a bowl as well. I settle in beside him and sip slowly, enjoying the early-morning peace. One of the little babies is still asleep behind parted curtains.

The апа tells us to eat some cheese and baursak. We obey. The апа tells Alex to translate for me, and we assure her that I understand, though I suspect Alex has a better grasp of gum-muffled апа Kazakh than I do. Satisfied, the апа says a few more things, which I recognize as imperative statements and nod knowingly in response to.

I wonder, sometimes, when this ritual became comforting instead of foreign.

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08_sirgali_leeward

The other side of the lake is less lush, but warmer. We lounge with our feet in the water, eating hardboiled eggs; in the evening I hike up a nearby mountain with Alex and my brother. Tumbles of igneous boulders dot the sparse grass, and pine scrub nestles in windward dips. I feel as if I am walking on an alien planet that has just begun to recover from a rain of meteors.

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“What’s the plan for today?” my father asks as we disembark from the plane in the capital.

I blink at him, take a breath for patience. I had forgotten how reasonable, how common this question is in a country that takes reliable scheduling for granted. “Haven’t got that far yet. First we check into the hostel.”

“I just don’t want to end up sitting around in the hostel.”

“What’s wrong with sitting around in the hostel?”

My brother, sensing danger, intervenes. “Who cares as long as we’re sitting around with Renee, right?”

I realize that my statement has failed to convey what I want it to, anyway: Doing nothing is relaxing, sometimes. Maybe we’ll be tired later and want to relax. Why should we force ourselves to go-go-go just because we made a schedule that says we should?

Striving for a middle ground, I say, “First we’ll check into the hostel, and I have to deliver this package to Tuul’s son. Then we’ll pick somewhere to eat lunch. After that we can decide what we’ll do for the afternoon. Okay?”

We run out of sightseeing halfway through the last day, and when my father asks, “What now?” at four o’clock I seriously reconsider the advisability of a schedule. Then at least I’d have numbers to point to and show how none of the sights took half as long as I’d intended.

#

My father leaves at ten-thirty. I go out for one last meal at Burger King, only to find it closed. So are almost all the restaurants on Peace Ave. Ulaanbaatar is a small city in the international scheme of things.

#

The flight back to my aimag is full, but there are only two or three Mongolians on it: the tourist season has begun in earnest. Everyone is speaking English. I put in headphones and curl up irritably against the window.

There are two others on the flight from my aimag’s small foreigner community, people I haven’t seen since summer dispersed us several weeks ago. Catching up with them, I feel myself slipping back into my skin.