Happy Thanksgiving, all!
Today I’m celebrating with the other PCVs in our aimag. The rumor that Peace Corps sends us turkeys every year has not, as of yet, proven fruitful; instead, for reasons not entirely clear to me, we are eating fish tacos.
In honor of the holiday, here’s a list of things I’m grateful for here in Mongolia.
1. A monthly stipend that is guaranteed to cover my living expenses, and that would be adjusted (for the next set of PCVs, if not for me) if it didn’t. In the U.S., a job is worth whatever it’s worth per hour or year, and if it’s not enough to make ends meet, well, you have to work more or give things up. And while the tugrik-to-dollar exchange rate means I’ll never build a savings account worth carrying over to the States, I’ll be given a fairly substantial “adjustment” sum when I finish my time here.
2. On a similar note, although medical facilities are more limited in Mongolia than in the U.S., my health care is entirely covered by Peace Corps. There are two doctors on staff, with a regular office number and an all-hours emergency number. In case of a serious medical issue, Peace Corps arranges for any necessary transportation and appointments — whether at a local hospital, with Peace Corps doctors, or with a specialist in Ulaanbaatar. It’s a weight off my mind to have competent professionals dedicated to our needs and no need to worry about the logistics of expense.
3. A flexible schedule/set of projects and priorities that I define in collaboration with my supervisor and counterparts. I am super motivated to complete projects I care about, but I struggle when forced to spend large amounts of time on activities when I don’t see the benefit. (I have a vivid memory of my tenth-grade Spanish teacher almost begging me to do an extra credit assignment that would bump my final grade up three points — and I refused, because I wasn’t going to learn anything from the assignment and it would bore me.) Likewise, I work very well with a schedule that allows me to take breaks or work at home during hours when I’m not actively collaborating with someone.
4. The chance to flex my fledgling wings as a teacher and learn that not only am I pretty good at it, I actually enjoy it. I’ve been wrestling with teaching as a profession for most of my (brief) adult life: my interests and values mean I gravitate toward it, but I was never sure I had the personality type to love it. While I think I will always struggle working within a public school curriculum — for the same reasons I mentioned above — I expect that when I settle down, I’ll end up teaching in some capacity. I firmly believe that mentoring and passing on knowledge is one of the foundations of community. Learning new things is a joy for me, and I really do enjoy the opportunity to pass on that joy when I can.
5. The opportunity to learn not just one, but two new languages. Language is one of my favorite things, but I’ve never had a motivator to learn one before. Having experienced some of the difficulties of a second-language speaker, I’m all the more impressed by the excellent non-native speakers I’ve met, both in Mongolia and in the U.S.
6. The experience of traveling to a new part of the world, and the chance to see more of Mongolia with my vacation time this summer. Taking risks like travel opens my eyes to opportunities that never would occur to me, in the States.
7. More immediately and mundanely, the fact that I will be going to UB for in-service training next month. I miss Western food and the American friends scattered across the country.
8. My fellow Peace Corps Mongolia volunteers. I’ve made friends here that I know I can rely on, who have seen me — especially during PST — more vulnerable and in need of support than I ever like to be. Some of them have come through for me magnificently, and I know at least a few of the friendships I’ve made will last well beyond our end of service.
9. My host community. My counterparts have invited me into their homes, introduced me to their families, checked that I am learning the language (көп жайырақ) and that my apartment is warm (very), brought me to their celebrations, told me about their traditions, asked about mine and the friends and family I miss…the list goes on. The teachers at my school sometimes ask a lot of me, just as they ask a lot of themselves, but I have never doubted their sincere care and appreciation for me.
10. Y’all reading this blog. As much as I enjoy being here (and as hard as I can be to reach sometimes) I do miss home a lot. Sometimes I worry I’ve left people behind for good in coming here — or that people will move on without me. And, well, in some cases I’m sure that’s a reality. But every comment you make, every like or favorite you mark, and every private email or message you send me serves as a reminder that there are people in the States who are interested in what I do and want to stay in touch.
And here are some things I will not be taking for granted when I return to the U.S.:
1. Washing machines and dishwashers. It’s amazing how much time they save.
2. Instant meals and takeout — ditto. While there are guanzes — small cafes that serve Mongolian or Kazakh food for cheap — pretty much everywhere in Mongolia, they are sit-down and often only serve meat-and-flour staples and tea.
3. Clean air. I’m glad everybody is staying warm this winter, but the air pollution gives me an impressive cough if I go outside during prime coal-burning time.
4. Water that doesn’t have to be boiled or filtered. To be clear, it’s not that the water in Mongolia is somehow especially dirty — it isn’t — it’s that the bacteria in it are different from the bacteria in U.S. water. While the water in our part of the country doesn’t usually make us sick, and I can usually get by with drinking the pot of water I boiled for tea all day, it’s a pain to haul my filter out when I have company, and to have to rely on bought bottled water if I travel.
5. GREEN THINGS, in the sense of landscape as well as vegetables.
6. Central heating that is controlled by a thermostat in my reach, rather than whatever temperature the government of Mongolia says my building ought to be at.
7. Free English-language public libraries. There is only one in Bayan-Ulgii, and while its contents are pretty impressive for a place in which English is not people’s second but their fourth language, it would fill up less than one wall of even the tiny local branch I lived near in the States.
8. Good mattresses. Right now I sleep on an air mattress, and am super glad for it. It’s fairly common, in Mongolia, for beds to consist of one or two mattress pads (which, to give a sense of the thickness, can also be used as comforters) balanced on a frame by way of wooden boards or planks. My mattress during PST was literally held up by two-by-fours.
9. Being able to walk into a shop or a meeting certain I will understand what’s going on and be able to communicate my needs and desires — though hopefully I will be able to achieve this before I even leave Mongolia.
 Obviously, Kazakh is the first and Mongolian the second. As I understand it, kids start Russian class either slightly before or concurrently with English.