The website is back up! I had some hosting issues; sorry about the downtime. This post dates to May 25th.
One year in Mongolia, this week. Should be an occasion, right? But I celebrated with my aimag-mates about a month ago; the anniversary doesn’t feel momentous. Too many milestones in between.
It is funny, though, looking back. I remember shivering annoyed in a hotel conference room because the central heating was turned off for the summer, and our excited exclamations as a cow wandered past the window cropping grass. How pastoral. Now I pass a Trash Cow on the way to work without looking twice and, well, shiver annoyed in my apartment because the central heating is turned off for the summer.
I know I’ve changed a lot in the past year — not just in the shake hands when you bump feet under the table, pass the cashier money with your right hand concrete sort of way. But how do you measure a changed mind? How do you describe it?
Two New Languages
I suppose one way is to tally the things you’ve learned. For me, Kazakh and Mongolian top that list, as far as my limited mastery goes. I’ve also learned from talking with people in my community about their experiences as a foreign/marginal community in a mostly homogeneous nation — being “not from” Mongolia, but “no longer of” the Kazakhstan their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. Foreignness is something you feel pretty hard when everyone around you is proud to belong, and I’ve valued the opportunity to meet people who experience it as their everyday, albeit in a majority-Kazakh community.
Shoe Polish is Magic
In Mongolia, when somebody doesn’t know what to make of you, they look at your shoes. Are they fashionable? Do they suit the season? Are they clean and polished, or covered in road dust? Dirty or worn-out shoes are a sign of slovenliness.
I’d never polished my shoes before coming here. Nor done a lot of other chores — washing carpets, handwashing clothes, bathing in a kiddie pool or carrying water. And I’ve never been as presentation-conscious as now, among professionals accustomed to giving their coworkers a casual looking-over and commenting on the less-than-fashionable.
Taking it Easy
In America there’s this drive to be busy all the time. Work full-time and have a hobby and 3 or 4 social media accounts, raise a family and work out and eat healthy and be involved in the latest causes and politics and… If you’re not busy, if you’re not always working toward something, then you’re wasting precious time.
That’s not possible in Mongolia. There physically isn’t enough stuff for the hobbies people take up in the US — computers, free Internet access, money, craft or construction materials, variety of food. People spend a lot of time sitting in front of the TV or in the town square, and visiting family in the countryside — where there’s rarely Internet, sometimes no TV, and in areas between villages no cell service at all. Herding culture is still alive in the country, and herding, too, involves a lot of sitting and watching the clouds go by.
There’s no stigma here against sitting around. It’s relaxing; it’s what you do when you have nothing to keep you busy. I do keep busy, because I have a lot of responsibilities and a lot of hobbies, but I don’t feel guilty about taking a day to relax and let my brain settle. I think it’s healthy, and I hope it’s something I can maintain even when I go back to the States.
Bread is Simple
I’d never made dough before I came to Mongolia (cookie dough excepted). It was sort of magical to watch my host mom dump a few cups of flour into a big bowl, add a bit of water, and knead until it became something solid in its own right. I’d always assumed there was some magic ingredient or baking secret that made bread, well, bread. It never occurred to me that tortillas or flatbread could be as simple as two ingredients and a little time.
Ingredients and prep methods are a bit limited in my apartment; I have a two-burner electric stove and a rice cooker. Being stuck with the basics has been an enlightening experience. I’ve pan-fried biscuits and steamed a cake, and learned a lot about how ingredients can be substituted or omitted entirely. I think it’ll stand me in good stead, even as a relatively disinterested cook.
Хөзөр (huzur) is the Mongolian word for “cards”, both the deck and the game Mongolians play.
I…still haven’t learned to play huzur properly, but a deck of cards costs less than a penny and my sitemate is a freaking card sharp. We play whenever we can get a group of 4 that’s more interested in a game than a movie.
Also, I’ve learned to cut and bridge a deck! Mongolians shuffle overhand and are kind of confused/impressed by this.
I like teaching. I enjoy being at the front of the room, and it’s an interesting challenge to convey a concept so that students will connect and make it their own. I could see myself sticking with education after I leave Mongolia.
More than that, though, I’ve valued the opportunity I’ve had to be a support, a role model, and a guide for some of my students. I mean, some of that’s glamour, is me being cool because I’m a foreigner; but I’ve also bonded with some of the older students, where the language barrier isn’t so severe. It’s the first chance I’ve really had to look at kids and see their enthusiasms and their fears from a distance, as an adult. To know that I’m seeing them in a transient moment from which they’ll grow and change, and that my influence on that growth is necessarily limited; but knowing, at the same time, that I am an influence, like it or not. I’ve realized that’s important to me — being aware of who I impact, and making sure the self I present is one I want others to emulate. I suspect I’ll continue to look for opportunities for mentorship.
If you want to see some other retrospectives, check out some posts by fellow M26s:
How I See Peace Corps: A One Year Reflection
 A phenomenon in which people’s dairy cows wander town eating trash because there’s no foliage to be had.
 I don’t have to do those last two in my apartment, but did last summer during my training.