Change

When I was a little girl, I carried the world on my shoulders. I wanted it to be the bright and sunny place I drew in pictures. It broke my heart a little more each time I recognized the ugliness.. I watched my mother heal and help people recover from physical injury and pain through physical therapy and Rosen Method, and I grew up in a generation which our elders told us was helpless to their past mistakes, and therein, maybe, a seed was planted. I didn’t believe we were helpless, but that a great society is on the horizon. Call it naive, optimistic, etc.. And here I am, miles from the source in a pocket of a town unknown to many. But being the best you can be is universal, no matter where you are.

I see so many people posting about their anger, their sadness, and that our society is doomed to misguided leaders, violence, and prejudice.. I am disappointed and sad, just as all my peers are.. I’m tired of seeing racism and violence deemed as issues that politicians can make a statement about, then move on to securing funding for their campaign. But this is our chance to speak up, and to create the society and existence we wish to see. Not just through social media. Thoughts and prayers are not change. We are not helpless. I hope we can create more opportunities to make ourselves heard. With that, I encourage all my friends to be the change they wish to see. I am no expert on political matters, but I believe in the possibility of positive change.

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Tsaagan Sar

Saikain Whinlereii!

Tsaagan Sar was a wonderful success. The translation for “Tsaagan Sar” is “white moon. It’s typically a week-long, or if you live in more rural parts of the country like me, two-week long, celebration of the lunar new year. Mongolians celebrate by visiting the homes of everyone they know and eating and drinking copious amounts of food and vodka. I started off strong, tagging along with my friend Saraa and her husband on the first day. We visited eight of his nine sisters’ homes. Each visitor gets a gift, so I came home that day with a ton of swag, mostly trinkets and candy. In Mongolia, the act of gifting bears more importance that what the gift actually is.

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At most social interactions with more than three or four unfamiliar Mongolians, I’m usually pretty silent. I’ll throw in a few phrases here and there when I can catch a word, but usually it’s just smiling, laughing and drinking vodka when its passed to me. Which happens a lot. I wore a Mongolian traditional dell made for me by my school’s training manager. I didn’t get much say in the choice of colors or fabric, but I just trusted that it would be as beautiful as it did end up being.

On the third and fourth day, I visited other houses sporadically and ate more mutton buuz. I got calls from my host family with the typical greetings and a talking-to from my mom for not calling her more. Again, it’s the act of the calling, not necessarily the content. Even with the language barrier slowly lifting, we still don’t talk about anything besides the weather, how my work is, and how she misses me.

On the fifth day, I woke up to a call from my friend telling me to get my booty over to school as soon as possible. After four days of force feedings of buuz, potato salad, mutton and vodka, I knew to keep my stomach empty. When I got there, our auditorium was filled with teachers in their dells. When greeting people in the lunar new-year, Mongolians place their arms and hands either above or below the others’  arms and smell on the right and left. Smelling is the equivalent to Europeans kissing each cheek when they greet each other. I never knew about it until my host dad breathed in my forehead for a lengthy and uncomfortable duration of time when we first met. I find it so endearing, though, watching a Mongolian mother rock her baby side to side while smelling the top of their head. While we greet during Tsaagan Sar, we say “Amar bain uu” which doesn’t have a literal translation that makes sense so I’ll just say, “how is your rest?” We followed through with the typical Tsaagan Sar proceedings with buuz, milk tea, mutton and candy.

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I was surprised when a lama walked into the room. Mongolians have this special mixture of brooding strength and spiritual delicacy. He had big handmade boots with up-ward curved toes, and his crimson dell was thick and worn. He was a lama, but also very, very Mongolian. He sat at the head of the table with the tower of breads, candy and aarul (milk-curd candy) next to our director. He started chanting, and teachers who were Buddhist held their hands together up to their hearts. Afterwards, he blessed a bowl of rice, which we then each took a bit of and held in our hands and moved in horizontal circles as he chanted and ran a bell to bring in the new year. He then blessed us individually. I walked home with the biggest, dorkiest smile on my face. Not because I had the opportunity to be included in such a beautiful ceremony and celebration, but that I was welcomed so graciously. It can be difficult to be away from home for so long, but the inclusion in such intimate events with people I’ve learned to love so much has warmed my heart, enough to dilute any sort of negativity.

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After Tsaagan Sar, I organized creative writing competition for Zavkhan and managed to motivate my counterpart to mobilize our disabilities community.

Our aimag is acknowledged as the least developed in all of Mongolia, with only two secondary schools offering one or two classes for children with intellectual disabilities. Zavkhan also just has very little infrastructure, and it doesn’t help when most of our youth are looking for opportunities in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, or internationally.

Some aimags have disabilities centers with updated registries. According to two sources, Zavkhan has about 63 or 100 people with disabilities. With a little over 10,000 people living here, I find that number.. hard to believe. Together with my counterpart we called a handful of the numbers from these lists, but the numbers weren’t updated or correct. We ending up finding a parent in charge of an alliance for parents of children with disabilities and invited her and any other willing parents and children to travel to Khovd for the first-ever Western Regional Winter Special Olympics. Another volunteer in Bayan-Olgii talked to the director of Special Olympics Mongolia in January who very much wanted to have a Special Olympics the very next month. She was sure that it would be possible. So we went forward with it.

In America, that’s impossible. In Mongolia, everything gets done at the last minute, but having a week or two off for Tsaagan Sar keeping me from finding athletes, organizing transportation, and raising money to pay for that transportation sent me into that crazed and over-worked reporter mode I don’t miss so much. It was hard not having a community that supports people living with disabilities, but the parents’ enthusiasm kept me going. Typically, people living with intellectual and physical disabilities might attempt to get a formal education, but fall behind and are forced to drop out. Most end up staying at home all day with family members that take care of them full-time. So the celebration of disabilities with the Olympics might be something of a revelation. I worked together with my school’s social worker to organize the logistics, and he ended up being perfect for the job. His passion mirrored mine and we were finally on the same page for the first time. Tomorrow morning, we’ll all leave for Khovd, which will take about 12 hours or so. I’m not looking forward to the journey too much, but I’m looking forward to sharing my disfigured vegetarian buuz for the road.

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January Blues

Last week, I came home from work earlier than usual in tears—a somewhat normal occurrence in my first few months at site. I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding triggers, but I felt pushed into a situation I couldn’t avoid. I was attempting to share the information with the rest of teachers that we learned at my seminar in Ulaanbaatar together with my counterpart, the school social worker. An hour before we were meant to start, he told me he had basketball practice and that he couldn’t go. “Wait, don’t you have a job?” I asked. “Sorry, Sanne!” and out the door he goes.

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It’s cold….

In all honesty, I was less than surprised, but disappointed that my pessimistic expectations had met reality. But everyone was expecting me, and I had a presentation prepared. I went on to teach the hour and a half seminar alone to twenty-seven Mongolian teachers. We can only imagine how that went. I struggled to explain game rules, slides, and theories in Mongolian, but I kept my head above water; even though the next time I see my school social worker, I’ll struggle to not passive aggressively encourage him to get another stupid tattoo on his ankle. I wouldn’t have ever chose to work with him, but my training managers and supervisors have been encouraging me to train him to be a better social worker, and I try, but I cannot ever push. I have a feeling they hired him because they needed a good player for their teacher’s team.

Some people are hospitable and sweet. Some people are humorous and lively. Some people are assholes. We cannot avoid the assholes in our lives, but we can tolerate them to some degree. I come from a place that is wildly positive in their thinking, and I admire optimism because it’s always the harder option. Especially in a place like this—I’ve seen domestic violence in public places, I’ve seen a man get hit by a speeding car in Ulaanbaatar where traffic rules are ignored, I’ve seen children who are meant to raise their younger siblings in gers all alone; life and survival can be far from romantic.

Part of the Peace Corps is going with the flow, and sometimes going with the flow is personally

challenging. And it is extremely challenging for me to work for people who have high expectations of a 22-year-old who spends his entire workday on Facebook. So I had a good cry and I got over it. I can’t barrel through my Peace Corps service getting people to do things they don’t want to, and I can’t expect them to because then it won’t ever be sustainable after I leave. I mean, hell, if I were into basketball and into binge drinking I’m sure my counterpart and I would have a great time. But I’m way past the stage in my life where I’m struggling to be something I’m not.

I think I still have symptoms of not trusting my initial instincts around people, but the longer I live here, the better I am at calling bullshit on people’s actions and words. I’ve encountered so many people in the last seven months that there isn’t enough time to simply “get used to them.” I’ve been striving to share my friendship, my love, and who I am right now because that’s all I’ve got.

This week has not been a great one, but dealing with the blows has gotten significantly easier.

I recently found out that the apartment that I just moved into only has a lease that will last until the end of the school year. I’m happy in my new apartment, and my neighbors have been forthcoming and sweet, but I’m forcing myself to see it as an opportunity to request to live in a ger, like what I originally wanted when I knew I’d be moving to Mongolia. So we’ll see how that pans out.

 

Home

I woke up on new year’s day to a text from my neighbor asking me if I wanted to head out to the countryside with her and friends. As an annual tradition, they have a picnic out by the mountains, and I am still so humbled by her invitations to include me in her gatherings. I would have hesitated because I had loose plans to do absolutely nothing but I told myself I’d never say no twice in a row to the same person. I couldn’t go to her friends’ Shin Jilth party because I wouldn’t be able to prepare in time for the formal event, and I was about to go overdrive on Shin Jilth with my school, my coworkers, and everything else in between. Excuses, excuses, blah blah.. So I climbed into her friends’ sedan and we went off to the snowy mountains.

About a year ago, my friend Hanna and I tried to go hiking in Washington near Mt. Rainier. On the way, we ended driving up a sketchy road covered in ice. Our annoying optimism ran out when we hit a patch of powdered snow that we couldn’t drive through with my car. But we ran into a group of guys who were four wheeling in their muscle cars and they pushed us out and helped us turn around. They made us feel a little bad for trying to get up there, and fretted over our safety. Quiet and a little frazzled, we spent the rest of the afternoon drinking beers and skipping pebbles at a lake by the highway. Mongolians would have laughed in our faces for turning around, because they’d be stepping out of the backseat and push us out as we’d bulldoze through. So naturally, in our little, tiny, plastic-like, Japanese sedan, we slid around on an unpaved, snowy path for an hour until we got to our picnic spot. I chuckled at the memory. We didn’t have a fancy four-wheel drive truck to get through the snow, but we did get from Point A to Point B, just not very safely.

I was energized by their enthusiasm and apparent love for each other and their children. If I tried to understand every word that I heard, I’d know that it was probably very universal. “Give me that plate” or “Can you cut me off a piece of that goat head?” I enjoyed everyone’s general happiness, and drank Chinggis Gold vodka to keep warm as directed. I had spent time with them earlier in September for a hair-cutting ceremony, but the bruises on one man’s face and the excessive not-very-fun and ceremonial drinking put me off. I was also annoyed that my coworker who had brought me left me there without telling me. But as I watched the same man who had the bruises fawn over his daughter and throw her up in the air as she giggled wildly, I could feel his love for his family radiate brightly. Isn’t that what its all about? Love?

We took group photos, ate marmot, played in the snow, drank champagne, laughed, and judged a potato salad contest. Usually I’m incredibly shy in large group settings with so many people, but I felt so at ease and comfortable.

While this becomes my home more and more everyday, I keep having vivid dreams about the ocean. I found solace in the sea. I’d keep going back time and time again. I’d watch the tides and the currents; it was the rhythm that never stopped despite our stupid, hectic lives. It was the beat that can’t stop for anyone. And yet I’ve found myself in a landlocked country, isolated from any large body of water, in a town surrounded by gorgeous snow-capped mountains. I miss the ocean desperately. I miss the times I’d throw myself into the thrashing waves of Montara Beach and emerge without catching a single wave, or when the tides would slow and I could watch peacefully from a perch on a cliff. It was at some beach somewhere that I’ve made every serious decision in my life, and I sometimes feel like a suspended monkey looking down on it only with clear memories burned in from hours spent.

When I was eighteen, I went to Hawaii with my best friend and our parents. They took us to a fortune-teller, and that fortune-teller told me that I would be only happiest if I lived close to the ocean. I’m not sure how she came to that conclusion, but maybe she’s right—once a water baby, always a water baby. I thought about that when I decided to come here, about how far from the ocean I’d be, and how hard it would be to find a sense of peace when I don’t have my crutch. I thought that maybe if I completely transplant myself, I’d really, truly, know who I was. Maybe like a sort of “self-banishment for the greater good.” Who knows. Life goes on. Home will always be there, and it’ll be there when I get back.

Successes and Failures

Work Life and My Sanity

I finally scheduled a timeslot for a life skills course at my host country agency with one of my favorite teachers and counterparts. I couldn’t be more excited to actually do something at the school I’ve been spending so much time at.

A few of my previous counterparts took a swift kick in the ass from some really great and strong women, which resulted in some real positive changes. I moved my workspace into the teachers’ room from the social worker’s office. I spend significantly less time with my assigned primary counterpart, the school’s social worker, which has been tremendously positive for my mental health. I’ve had a major attitude adjustment while I was in Ulaanbaatar, and it took stepping to the edge of total misery and seriously considering abandoning all this for some major sense to get shaken into me.

I’ll be teaching 7th graders, a wonderful age group to teach. In Mongolia, 6th-12th graders have a school schedule focused on academics and these skills may not be so obvious. I’d recommend that all grades probably need exposure to life skills, but I’ll take what I can get. I’m also working on curriculums for other schools and centers in my aimag that are more interested than my agency.

Life skills include self-esteem, communication, relationship building, critical thinking, decision-making, goal setting, managing emotions, empathy, sexual health, and planning. I’ve been beating my head against a wall trying to get my foot in the door, whether it was asking teachers if I could observe their life skills courses, or if I could find a time to do it. They kept saying “no” or “later.” I later discovered that because of the language barrier, it might have been too daunting a task for the life skills teacher.

And then! Like an angel falling out of heaven! Saraa, my savior, came through! We were gossiping while eating fried rice and drinking milk tea.

“Sanny, if you want, I can teach life skills with you? I’ve done it before.”

I wanted to fucking cry.

They say that being a Peace Corps volunteer is a 24/7 job. It is, but that work includes taking care of yourself so you can be the best you can possibly be. Like Buddha says, “to straighten the crooked you must first do the harder thing – straighten yourself.”

The first week back, I haven’t spent more than a few hours at my desk, and only when I’m actually doing something. I am so much happier, even if I am still getting over the pain of adjustment the first three months at site. The first three months for all PCVs before In-Service Training are supposed to be the hardest, and I am so glad that they are over. I can certainly see why. My sector is particularly tough in my circumstance, since my school has always had English teachers. I recognize that I’m defining my role, but it can be exhausting to tap on everyone’s shoulders in broken Mongolian if I could be of assistance.

I Moved! And then I Partied!

After my heat broke and -20F temp nights sleeping in my jacket, I moved into a new apartment on Wednesday, and its remarkably modern and nice. I have running semi-hot water and a mattress my landlord is lending me. The quality of my life has drastically changed in such a short time, and I can finally picture myself living here happily for the next 20 months. I’m not in survival mode at all hours of the day anymore. I can hang out in my apartment in a t-shirt! I don’t have to wear five billion layers while I do yoga! Peace Corps demands a lot of independence, or maybe acceptance in handing over the reigns to dependence. I’ve experienced a quick switch from one to the other, from living with my host family, to living alone.

Last night, we had a merry time at our Shin Jilth (New Years) party. I won 50,000 tugriks in a raffle, was coerced into signing the chorus to Last Christmas by Wham! (they wanted a Mongolian song..), and got more hugs and kisses from my coworkers than I’ve gotten all year long. I can see that this process is just as hard for them as it is for me. To engage and include me, they have to take time out of their lives, and maybe that’s not always a priority. But for the first time here, I can actually see my coworkers’ acceptance of me through their actions and smiles. I can understand maybe every fifth to third word when Mongolians speak with each other.

Language doesn’t always matter, and if any future Peace Corps volunteers are reading this, you should still study, I just never realized how there are so many forms of communication. In the states, I mostly spoke. That has definitely changed. We laugh, we smile, we dance, we take selfies, we cook for each other, we give each other nicknames, we sit close, we hold hands, and we hug. I am almost 100% certain that I will never be completely fluent in Mongolian, I’ll just be fluent enough so I can accomplish what I most need to communicate. I’m okay with that. But I won’t give up. I’ll always do my best to speak as much as I can, pick up words as I go along, and meet with my tutor semi-regularly.