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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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.

The Jijuur

Jijuur is Mongolian for “doorman,” but the job description holds a little more weight. They can also be security guards, builders, and handymen. My favorite jijuur, Od, greets me with the toothiest smile every time he sees me, but also bailed me out in a flash when I got locked out of my apartment. In the first few months of being at site, he’s always the most excited to see me and has enthusiastically referred to me as his best friend at one point.

When I first moved into my apartment, it was way more of a dump than it is now along with a broken lock on the front door. We’re supposed to have two locks, and one worked, so I didn’t stress too hard about it until I called our safety and security officer, who told me that I probably should. Fast-forward three weeks later, one of our school’s jijuurs installs a new lock, handing me nine spare keys, so I’ll never have an excuse to get locked out. It was like an omen. After he finished and left, I left to grab a gift for a friend and her baby who I was going to meet later. When I came back, the key wouldn’t budge. And Od was at my front door within ten minutes with a screwdriver, and in twenty minutes got me back inside my apartment.

I’ve been having a handful of housing issues that I won’t get into, and truthfully, I don’t care all that much about anymore because the security-related ones were solved, but upon my site-visit in October, not everything was up to Peace Corps standards. I was adamant about them at first for a few weeks, but I eventually decided to stop pestering everyone, because in this sensitive “relationship-building” period of time, I was probably doing more harm than good for something that wasn’t affecting me all that negatively.

Od is one among maybe a dozen people in Zavkhan that influence my sense of positiveness. He came and bailed me out when I had a problem that as a foreigner, I’d have no idea where to begin. A lot of people in my community count on him, and I’m genuinely always happy to see people like him when most of my time is spent in a time of guardedness.

My work can’t be categorized as fulfilling yet, and I’m struggling to forge out structure and meaning. Half my battle is finding those who are motivated to utilize the resources I can offer. The other half is getting those people to be motivated enough to mobilize development, or even care to do something. Honestly, I don’t work that much. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, and other times I just see it as an opportunity to finish a book I’m reading. Life is not easy in Mongolia, and I’d say that people are more interested in taking care of their wellbeing, which exudes a tremendous amount of energy, rather than teaching life skills to a group of 12th graders. I have to admit; building up my own motivation to build up others’ motivation can be incredibly exhausting. I don’t have built-in coworkers ready to tackle any task that comes to mind, which is a benefit but also a drawback.

In the last few weeks, my cohort of volunteers had our in-service training in Ulaanbaatar. The information drawn out of the seminar was beneficial for the counterparts we brought from site, but each session personally extracted my built-up stress from the last three months, which manifesting itself with venting sessions with the seminar’s resource volunteers and friends I hadn’t seen in months. I felt guilty for dumping so much negative energy and sadness onto the shoulders of others that I was inspired to mindfully just leave all the bullshit in Ulaanbaatar. Maybe I did. It’s not always that easy. They say that the first three months at site are the most difficult, but I say that the harshest winter Mongolia will see is coming up. I’ll get back to you on that.

And winter seems to bring on a period of season-induced pensiveness that has kept me quiet. I don’t mind it all that much, though, because while at first I identified that pensiveness with loneliness, I can pin it down as a sort of accepted solitude.

I hate sugar coating. I was trained in journalism. But Peace Corps told us to not depict Mongolia in a negative light, and maybe that statement alone is a little too transparent for the US Government. All I’m going to say is that I’ve seen some shit I wish I hadn’t, and maybe I’ve become a little more hardened. I cry a lot. Unfortunately, I’m also not an overly optimistic person. But at least I can acknowledge that there can be other perspectives to view these types of things.

It’s been way too easy to feel dumpy about the state of a situation, or a sense of longing for things to be different. Its lonely, its hard—but at the same time, I feel so grateful. I’m grateful I’ve become semi-communicable in a language I couldn’t conceptualize a year ago. I’m grateful I’ve met people during my service that I consider dear friends. I have a kinship with some wonderful people who I can go weeks without speaking to, but on the drop of a dime talk as if we do everyday. We have hardship, but I’d say it’s a good kind. I came into the Peace Corps to become a better and more compassionate human amidst very dark memories from my past. I can see a blurry path of daunting tasks, failures, and hundreds of strange moments spurred by language barriers. I also see success, strength, and a lot of possibility amongst a feat that can seem so incredibly bleak.

 

In the Name of Chinggis

Today is Chinggis Khan’s birthday, and as a national holiday, we all had the day off from work and school. With the cooling temperatures, I’m starting to feel much lonelier. I so badly crave the ability to speak English consistently, to not have a daily language barrier frustration, to go to yoga in a real live studio every Sunday, to go on a morning surf check with a cup of coffee from Café Classique. The Peace Corps braced us for this, but the anticipation is nothing like the actual sense of isolation in a foreign community. I haven’t posted so much recently, because I’ve been harboring feelings of resentment, anger, negativity and sadness. Yesterday’s new moon marked my intention to shed all of that, to move forward without focusing so much on all of the obvious hardships.

crossing the river
crossing the river

I moved to Holland right around the same time of the year that I moved to Zavkhan, in the early fall at the start of the new school year. Nine years later, I put far more effort into my experience here in Zavkhan than I ever did in Amsterdam. Yet, I can’t help but feel like that young, desperately homesick fourteen year old wanting so badly to feel like she belongs. I eat lunch in our school’s cafeteria everyday, and every time I grab my bowl of tsuvain or nogootaishol and sootaitsai, I scan the room looking to see where I should sit. Just recently, I realized that I eat at the table with the cool teachers.

How did it come back to this?

I celebrated Thanksgiving in Amsterdam with a family from Oxnard, California, a couple of missionaries with five children, all with the names of international cities. Despite my lack of religious beliefs, I loved that family to death. If I were to go back to my dad’s home, I could probably still bike to their house and back without fail. They embraced their American identities by opening their homes to everyone in the community to celebrate the holidays. They helped me feel like I belonged in a period in time when I felt so alienated from my Dutch family.

Uliastai countryside
Uliastai countryside

So I’m embracing my American identity, attempting to feel like I belong in Zavkhan. I’ve invited over my counterparts to my house for chicken-filled ravioli that took decades to prepare. I’ve taught passing kids how to say, “hey, what’s up” and “awesome.” I keep a smile on my face, even with swollen eyes from tears the day before. It takes the edge off of the dozens of well-meaning Mongolian youths who pass me shouting “hello” and “hi” all at once.

I’ve thrown myself into my work, establishing myself in what seems like a flurry of nonsensical organization. There’s no obvious work for me at my host-country agency, and my main counterpart, the school social worker, is as clueless as I am on what my primary duties could consist of. I’ve made dozens upon dozens of suggestions, but to no avail. He started his job about a week after I got to Uliastai. He’s incredibly genuine, albeit brand spanking new to his role as our school’s social worker. Everyday he asks me what I’ll be doing, and I’ll tell him in my broken Mongolian, and he’ll nod his head and say “that’s nice,” before heading off to do something else.

Some host country agencies take their volunteers by the hand and lead them into the darkness, while other volunteers, like me, are airdropped in and feel things out in the blindness until the surroundings are familiar enough to accomplish anything. The kind of independence I have developed in the last two months has been astronomical in size, but has taken an enormous toll on my emotional wellbeing. The Mongolia we see in pictures when googling “the steppe” is not the Mongolia I experience in the workplace, and the growing pains have been stretching my muscles until the point they rip.

She drew a picture of me
She drew a picture of me

I’ve found solace in my art class, my favorite success so far. It’s beyond the level of difficulty that I could have pictured, because the art-enthusiast technology teacher doesn’t speak a lick of English, and I’ve only been speaking Mongolian for a few months. But its been working, inexplicably. The same seven kids have been showing up every week, and eagerly show me their finished products at the end of class. My counterpart art-teacher is always on time, a Mongolian miracle, and always makes a small effort to make time to lesson plan, another Mongolian miracle.

Drawing shapes
Drawing shapes

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Never in my life have I actively pursued small pleasures the way that I do here. When something goes right, it warms me like a drug. Just finding someone motivated enough to do execute a task with me is a victory.