Perspectives

I gather that the end of the last post was a shocker for some of you reading this blog. Those of you in the States, reading a basically funny story, weren’t expecting the troublesome goat to die.

I’ve been playing it off as a bit of a cruel trick on my part — my laugh at your expense. But the truth is, I had forgotten to take your perspective into account. Pets aren’t really a concept in Mongolia; all animals are workers, dairy producers, or meat. And then the goat got eaten is a punchline most of my Peace Corps friends would anticipate.

I mean…it was shocking, in my first few weeks, to see a discarded goat head or a random thighbone by the side of the road. When my host mom slaughtered a sheep in honor of relatives visiting from Ulaanbaatar, I hightailed it off to class. And — yes — it was upsetting, after the goat was taken away, to hear its mate pace and bleat next to my ger all night.

But at the end of the day, these animals represent their owners’ economic livelihood, their ability to eat. They’re not pets. They’re not companions. They’re for looking after, not for interacting with. And you get to understanding that, after a while, or at least tolerating it.[1]

So I guess I’ve developed a sort of callousness when it comes to the animals here. Is that a sad thing? I don’t really think so. I haven’t lost the ability to empathize or to care about animals; but I recognize the necessity of protein to a limited diet in a cold country, and I see the advantage of laughing about slaughter time. It would be prohibitively exhausting to grieve over every meal.

The dissonance between my perspective and some readers’ was an eye-opener, though. It brought home to me that I’ve changed in the last five months without realizing it. And last week, as I was doing the preliminary paperwork for our December training session, I realized that the majority of people who share this experience — the network of PCVs currently serving in Mongolia — live two, three, four days’ travel from me, and can expect to see me maybe three or four times total before we leave Mongolia for all corners of the globe. My three months of PST were the most time I was ever going to spend with volunteers (excepting my sitemates, of course), and I’m not sure I completely understood or appreciated that time while I had it. That’s the hardest thing, for me, about living in the most distant aimag.

It’s funny, though, how you manage to meet kindred people everywhere you go.

There are a handful of other Americans living in the aimag: volunteers, tourists, and expats. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting up with some of them this past weekend.

On Saturday I got lunch with a couple working in the aimag on sabbatical. The woman was an RPCV and had met her husband in her country of service. They’re leaving in a week or two and wanted to pass their unfinished projects on to those of us remaining in the aimag. It was funny, listening to the RPCV — she’d served in a completely different country, but her stories had a familiar thread. You develop a keen sense of the absurd, working in an unfamiliar language with unfamiliar customs and no idea what’s going to happen next. Even stories about being tired, frustrated and homesick become funny in the telling. For a little while I felt myself as part of a community that stretches all across the world.

On Sunday, I helped out with an aimag-wide Halloween party for students, run by another PCV. The other PCV had randomly met an American tourist earlier that day, and she came to the party and hung out with us afterward. She was from New York (albeit the eastern part of the state) and it was both strange and refreshing to get the perspective of someone from outside the Peace Corps system.

Among other things, she criticized some Peace Corps policies — the requirements for taking vacation days (which are pretty strict) and the universal rule that PCVs may not ride motorcycles. “It seems — almost paternal,” she protested, and in the middle of arguing the reasoning behind the rules I remembered how, before I came here, I would have said (and did say!) the same thing. I’m not sure what changed, or when. Have I stopped taking a critical perspective because I spend so much energy trying to make sense of an unfamiliar culture, or do I understand Peace Corps logic better after being mired in it? And are either of those a good thing?

This is a bit of a disjointed and reflective post, but it’s a good time for reflecting. First term has ended and I’m in the middle of my weeklong break. I was a bit burnt out and frustrated by the end of term, and last week — when I had a bit of a breather due to exams — I talked with my supervisor about retooling my schedule to give me time to recharge (and study Kazakh!). I’ve been reconnecting with friends here and home, rethinking my priorities, and trying to brainstorm ways to build better social bonds with my Kazakh community next term. There’s a lot of opportunities for projects at a big school filled with hardworking teachers, and I’m starting to realize that I have to set boundaries, make my priorities clear, and put a bigger emphasis on balance if I want to stay in this for the long haul. Hopefully next term will start on a good note.


[1] Dogs and cats are a different story. Feral dogs are a problem in some parts of the country, dog training is not really a concept, and Mongolians/Kazakhs are in general afraid of dogs. This continues to make me sad. Cats are generally completely disregarded because mice are not a problem and, well, what do you do with a cat that’s not a mouser? I still see them around town sometimes, though.

2 thoughts on “Perspectives”

  1. Renee, it’s so interesting and refreshing to read your posts.

    As I read I sense an innocent perspective alongside a much more wise and worldly perspective growing outward – it gives me (and I would presume other readers) and small glimpse of how other societal norms might grate another person’s perspective of reality. To put yourself in the midst of that awkward discomfort and have the ability to find the beauty, harmony and joy is inspirational. I look forward to hearing about the gentle effect you will have on family, friends and your future social and work communities back at home. We are all so small in the world and our “ways” are limited by our exposures and receptivity to other “ways”. In the picture you paint there appears to be a commonality in the principals of nature and coexistence; peaceful and loving survival.

    Thank you for sharing! Stay strong and stay safe!
    Rhonda (Sensei) :^)

  2. Renee,
    I hope you have enjoyed the rest of a much-needed break!
    It is interesting to hear about the dissonance of perspective.
    I wonder how much of it is rural vs. urban, rather than first-world vs. third.
    It is interesting to hear my mom talk about growing up on a farm in Virginia — where, as in Mongolia, most of the animals in the vicinity were destined for either sale or slaughter.
    Of course, in Virginia they would also have pets (cats and dogs), but they were less apt to put any and all mammals in the “pets” category.
    Anyway, interesting to see the parallels – and where the parallels break down!

    I look forward to your continuing adventures 🙂
    Annaka

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