Puzzles

I was about ten or eleven years old when I first thought about working abroad. I pictured myself selfless and altruistic, throwing my aid at the feet of those who need it. I pictured myself in a third-world country feeding starving children or something completely cliché of that nature. My mom asked me what happened had happened to that notion this afternoon after I told her a few stories about what I’m doing. I told her I was eating lunch at a restaurant in town sponsored by a local non-profit. I told her I live in an apartment with running water. I talked about the wonderful things my host country agency has provided for me, their kindness, and maybe I sprinkled in a bit of my daily frustrations in there as well. There are bigger problems though, that can’t be fixed by throwing food at it and then high-tailing it out of there after the two-year stint has finished.

And in that way, Mongolia is a puzzle to me.

When I worked my last shift at the restaurant in my hometown, a customer flashed a disappointed frown when I told him I was moving away. “America needs you more,” he said, “you shouldn’t go.” I gave him the most diluted answer I could think of, I told him that it’s a wonderful opportunity to discover a new culture even though I felt like telling him to stuff his 14% tip up his ass.

He has a point though. All countries need some sort of development. I simply let Peace Corps decide which one.

Peace Corps, volunteer work, etc., can’t be justified by making yourself feel good about spoon-feeding the poor, sad children. When I stayed in India for a summer, I realized that nothing I was doing was ever going to be permanent. I memorized girls’ names, helped them with their homework and played with them. I had no training, I just got helicoptered into an orphanage with a somewhat naïve illusion that I could make a difference just by helping out.

I hung onto that notion thinking that I wanted to do something that mattered, damn it. I want to be a volunteer who changes people’s lives, man. I let myself forget about that about halfway through Pre-Service Training, because that ain’t going to happen. There’s no gauge for who’s the neediest and who deserves it the most. That’s not a fair spectrum to look at. Everyone needs help.

Yeah, I feel pretty damn guilty about living in the same apartment building as my town’s governor, but I also live in a one-bedroom where the water has been shut off three times and the power has gone out every single night. The water that came out of the faucet this morning was straight-up brown and it’s not even winter yet. One of my counterparts walked into my apartment yesterday and told me that I was a “very rich woman” and my heart sank.

A big part of me wishes I lived somewhere shittier, somewhere less posh-seeming. But my responsibility to unconditionally dedicate myself to my job became that much bigger. I have so much more time that’s not spent chopping wood, hauling water jugs or starting fires.

But in the last week since I’ve been here, I’ve been busy memorizing dozens of names I keep forgetting, stumbling through conversations with coworkers, sitting quietly as Mongolians converse quickly in front of me, and trying not to look too dirty. The latter is probably the most difficult for me.

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