Category Archives: IST

Invisible Things, Part 9

I mentioned in my In-Service Training recap that December was a stressful month. I went from full-steam-ahead mid-term workload to sitting around in a hostel wondering what to do with myself; then, after the first week, to being surrounded by other Americans 24/7; and from there to a tightly-scheduled Western-style seminar the likes of which I had not experienced since August. On top of that, one of my best friends was sent home on medical and I started to have a breathing problem from the pollution.

All this is to say, I was alternately quite busy and completely at a loss for what to do with myself, I had a lot on my mind, and I was rather stressed — none of which are particularly helpful if you’re in an anxious frame of mind. I had initially resolved to talk to the doctor about my anxiety at the same time as my lung problem; but when the initial appointment proved unhelpful (re: lungs), I gave up the idea. I almost approached the other doctor when he diagnosed the breathing issue at a second appointment, but I’d had an upsetting two days (because I couldn’t breathe) and couldn’t face an even more upsetting interview.

It wasn’t until after a conversation with a friend, after the seminar, that I finally approached the PCMO. She was having a stressful time, and I recommended that she talk to the doctor about it…and then, with a sort of mental sigh, realized that I couldn’t very well give advice that I wasn’t willing to follow myself. And the doctor’s thorough, on-point response to my asthma problem gave me faith that he would take it seriously.

So I called the office the Tuesday after IST, while I was still in the capital. Thankfully, the doctor I wanted to talk to picked up; when I asked if he was free at all, he invited me to his office.

I went. I sat down in his office and said nothing; he asked what was wrong. “I think I’m having an anxiety problem,” I said in a muted, shaky voice.

At his prompting, I outlined a couple of events from the last few weeks; a few I remembered from the list I’d made (which I had not, in the end, brought with me; it felt like overkill, somehow); and — reluctantly, terrified that it counted as medical nondisclosure[1] even though I’d never been diagnosed or even sought a diagnosis — mentioned that this was something that had been going on since before I’d joined Peace Corps.

The doctor considered this, asked me some questions, and then left me with a small sheaf of paperwork: a series of questionnaires designed to measure symptoms for a variety of mental health problems. “In the last two weeks, on a scale of 0 to 3, how often have you…?” I filled them out quickly, trying to ignore the niggling voice that wondered how on earth a four-point scale covering less than a month’s time could possibly constitute accurate measurement[2]. The doctor came back, took the papers, and tallied my scores.

“This is not that far from average,” he said with some puzzlement. My heart plummeted. I had managed to convince myself to ask for help — had managed to construct a narrative that showed I needed it — but if the numbers said I didn’t…

But, the doctor continued, since this was clearly a problem that had been bothering me for some time, he would put me on the counselor’s list. But it might be a week or so before I heard from her, because he couldn’t label my case as a priority. She might call me by the end of that week or the beginning of the next.

So I went home from the capital straight into the holiday season, at once relieved that there was finally help on the horizon and terrified about what that might mean.


[1] Failing to share some part of your medical history, for which you can be medically separated (the nice phrase Peace Corps uses in place of ‘fired for medical reasons’).
[2] I still don’t like these things, even though I’m coming to understand the how and why of them. Every time I have to fill one out my brain screams, “But is 75% of the time a 2 or a 3???”

IST Recap

Happy 2016, everyone!

I’m glad December’s over. It was a weird and kind of rocky month, and I’m ready to start fresh.

I spent the bulk of last month in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, for a series of Peace Corps trainings. Because I’m a fly site (Peace Corps buys me plane tickets for official events), because the Bayan-Ulgii flight schedule is a tad bit haphazard, and because my meetings were pretty scattered, I had training for seven days but stayed in the capital for two and a half weeks.

At the beginning of the month I had subwarden training. Every aimag has two safety officers — a subwarden and an alternate — chosen from among its PCVs. In the event of an emergency, the subwarden is responsible for communication between Peace Corps staff in the capital and other PCVs in the aimag; making sure aimag-mates are safe; keeping track of emergency supplies; and generally making sure no one loses their head and runs into a fire. If the subwarden is out of town, the alternate is supposed to take charge.

That training was only a day long, but gave me a whole week to hang out. It was pretty cool, because I got to see people I wouldn’t otherwise have met for months, if ever: Community Youth Development and Health volunteers, who had IST the week before; our M25 TEFL IST trainers; and M25s who’d come in for VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meetings, which happened that week as well. Toward the end of the week TEFL M26s began to filter in — the last two nights before IST, most of my PST sitemates stayed at the same guesthouse as me.

The following week was IST — In-Service Training. Five days of sessions about how to work well at site, specifically tailored to TEFL volunteers. IST is interesting, because everyone brings a Mongolian (or, in my case, Kazakh) counterpart, and the sessions are designed so that you work both with your own counterpart and with other people’s. I found the Experience Sharing session really useful, because it demonstrated for me that (while my school is atypical in a few ways) some of my difficulties at work are shared by many PCVs. We also had a cross-culture session that my counterpart says she found enlightening, but it didn’t benefit me as much. There are some rather pointed differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture (holidays and drinking culture being major ones), and because of the way our groups were divided, there were no Kazakh CPs in my session.

I walked away from the seminar with some new ideas, but it was also absolutely exhausting. When you put into one hotel 40 Americans who know each other embarrassingly well and have interacted with only a few native English speakers in the last three months…well, I’ll let you imagine the kind of shenanigans that go down. I think we were pretty evenly split between people who threw parties nightly and people who hid in their rooms because the population of the hotel was overwhelming. (I was among the latter, but I did spent a LOT of time making sure I got to see my close friends.)

I’d been having problems with the pollution at site — I’d start to cough whenever I spent more than a few minutes outside without a mask. I had intended to talk to the doctor about it anyway, but the week before IST I stayed in a guesthouse that kept ALL of its windows open. (Central heating in Mongolia is controlled by the government, and some buildings are randomly set to ‘sweltering’.) I’d developed a pretty deep cough, so on Tuesday I booked a few minutes with one of our doctors.

“I cough whenever I go outside,” I said.

“Okay. You should take Vitamin C for your weak immune system.”

Confused, I said, “It’s not a cold. I’m not sick. It’s the pollution.”

“Ah. Then you should exercise to make your lungs stronger.”

It’s a half hour walk from my home to my school, and I spend about an hour a night practicing karate. It was a bit of a sore point that morning, actually, because the night before I’d tried to work out with some other PCVs and started wheezing within fifteen minutes. Biting my tongue on a sharp retort, I said civilly, “I do exercise. Should I exercise when I’m coughing?”

“No. Maybe you are allergic to coal dust. I will also give you Benadryl so you can sleep at night.”

“I don’t have problems sleeping at night,” I said, and gave up, frustrated. In any case, I’d figured out some healthy practices on my own: wear a mask when you go outside and keep the windows closed.

By Wednesday night, however, it got to the point where I couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing. I couldn’t focus in sessions because my chest hurt. I staked out the hotel’s temporary medical office Thursday morning and pounced on the other doctor as soon as he got in. Upon realizing that he couldn’t actually listen to my lungs because I wasn’t capable of taking a deep breath, he brought me into the Peace Corps office proper for a breathing treatment. Afterwards he informed me that my lungs had been spasming and that I was probably developing pre-asthma triggered by the pollution. I received an inhaler, cough syrup, and several extra face masks, and returned to IST much happier and more functional.

The Monday after IST I was invited to the TEFL Project Advisory Committee meeting. The PAC is assembled annually (?) to review how Peace Corps is doing in Mongolia and how the program can improve. I attended with three other M26s, three M25s, two counterparts, the president of the English Language Teacher’s Association of Mongolia, and the Peace Corps staff associated with the TEFL program. In a way I feel like this was the most valuable part of my time in UB — I got to share my experiences as a TEFL volunteer and make suggestions for how the program might be bettered for incoming PCVs. I was also put on committees to compile resource handbooks for PCVs and to help the national education department revise their new textbooks (!!!!!).

All in all, it was a productive, emotional, and ultimately exhausting month, and while it was pretty interesting, I’m glad it’s over. Here’s to everything 2016 will bring.

Xutul meets Zombies

Edit 2016-02-03: Ian has put up his cameras post (“Khutul on Film”) on his blog. Check it out!

Happy holidays, everyone!

December has been a bit crazy with Peace Corps-required trainings and the start of the Mongolian holiday season (Шинэ Жил [Shin Jil], or New Year’s, is at the end of the month). I’ll have posts on both over the course of the next month or so, but right now I need to process and catch up with work.

The nice thing about this madness? I’ve had the opportunity to meet and reconnect with my PST sitemates. The following post was inspired by a discussion with fellow bloggers Ian and Jenni, and should eventually have a companion post (What Cameras Are We?) on Ian’s blog.

So, without further ado:

The city you were visiting became the site of a zombie apocalypse while you were peacefully asleep in a hotel. You wake to find that a zombie has climbed through the window of your very small fourth-story room. The door is locked and the zombie could tackle you before you have time to unlock it. What would you do?[1] Room contents: bed, small table, wooden chair, bookshelf full of paperbacks and heavy ornaments.

Logan: Would beat the zombie to a pulp, no problem, and then spend the rest of the week painfully contemplating the ethical dilemma of (re?)-murdering the undead while on the run from a zombie horde bent on revenge.

Alex: Would have a wacky misadventure that resulted in her dangling halfway between her window and street level, safe from the zombies but not entirely certain how to return to solid ground before nightfall.

Ashleigh: Would be prepared for this eventuality on account of her extensive SFF reading. Having seen signs of the impending apocalypse, she would bring her Anti-Zombie Kit (TM) with her on vacation, with which she would hastily dispatch the zombie.

Elisha: Would loudly exclaim, “WHAT?!?” and demand all of the details of the zombification process, edging toward the doorway as the puzzled zombie paused in front of the window. She would discreetly unlock the door, slip out, and slam it shut on the lunging zombie’s face.

Ian: Would discover that zombies, like Ians, are photo-phobic. The zombie would tumble back out the window in its effort to escape Ian’s lens.

Olivia: Would scream and smash the zombie with the chair, stunning it long enough for her to implement a clever plan involving items on the bookshelf.

Bryan: Would probably get turned into a zombie, but it’d make a good story to tell his fellow sufferers.

Amanda: Would shout at the zombie to get the hell out of her room, how did you even get in here? before waking fully to the realization that it was undead. By then, however, the zombie would already be climbing back out the window in search of a more easily frightened target.

Jenni: Would make a quick call for help. Ian, at the top of her recent call list, would advise her to attempt a picture with her phone camera, and in this way she would frighten the zombie into submission.

Paul: Would affect complete ignorance of the zombie’s change of life and shoot the breeze as if it were perfectly normal to have a shambling corpse trail innards into your room on a Sunday morning. The zombie, confused, would decide he was one of theirs and stumble off to find someone else, pounding on the door and moaning until Paul considerately unlocked it.

Eric: Would loudly proclaim his love for his wife before smashing the zombie with a heavy orb from the bookshelf. The zombie would drop. A slightly puzzled pause would ensue — Eric having of course expected to be slaughtered by the angered undead — and then he and Emily would tiptoe out of the room, settle their bill with the zombified desk clerk, and return to their home city, which would remain unaffected by the scourge.

Nik: Would manage to make the zombie laugh, confounding scientific conclusions on humor as a trait destroyed by the zombification process. He would go on to be elected mayor of the new zombie city, appoint Bryan as Official Liaison Between Undead and Not-Yet-Dead, and issue official pardons to Logan, Olivia, and all other murderers undead or alive, in light of the immense panic caused by the change in state of three-quarters of the city’s population. His twenty-year reign would render him the most popular, if not necessarily the most effective, mayor in the city’s entire history.

Matt: Would calmly and quietly walk from his bed to his table, pick up his key, unlock his door, and leave the hotel.

Xutul and Xutul-friends: What are your thoughts? How close am I to the mark? What do you think I would do?


[1] These are Renee’s guesses. No interviews were performed for the writing of this post.