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.

 

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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.

The Zuud is Coming

Its only been about two months since I’ve arrived at site, and it feels like a couple weeks but it also feels like its been about a year. Its already started getting pretty cold, and when I think about the impending winter my heart starts racing a little. This will be my first, real zuud. I’m still in this out-of-body state where I don’t really believe I’m in this for the long haul. I talk to a few Peace Corps friends on a regular basis, and a theme that comes up in our conversations is the whole “living in the present” cliché. Frankly, it’s the only mantra I can live by that gets me through the day.

In the United States, I wasn’t exactly confident in my professional abilities. I enjoy waking up late, I prefer to work at home, I loathe the small talk that builds those relationships that get you a promotion, or as it was in my case, the privilege to continue working for free or better hours. But now I’ve found myself clinging onto the people who are even just a little bit nice to me, asking them slightly moronic questions like if they have children or what their hobbies are. The whole notion of “awkwardness” flew out the window when we stepped off the plane in Ulaanbaatar back in May. I watch myself do a lot of things I wouldn’t have ever done if I wasn’t here, but when it comes down to it, I’m not given much choice on the matter. There is so much that is out of our hands, and most of the time, I’m mentally standing five feet away watching myself perform tedious tasks with a stupid smile on my face. (One of my favorite words in Mongolian: тэнэг (tenig)stupid.)

There are a lot of things I could get upset about everyday. I got so homesick when I opened the package my mom sent me. I caught a whiff of the laundry detergent from home she used to wash underwear she bought for me from Ross. It was the smell of home. I hadn’t allowed myself to miss anything from home, because I didn’t think I did. That stupid smell sent me over the edge I needed to step over.

I’ll happily admit that this first bit here at site has been rougher than I wish it had been. There’s this chart that Peace Corps gives us that graphs out our happiness and mood levels throughout service. “Your service is a rollercoaster” is basically what it says. The spikes of happiness have been extreme, but the lows can be pretty damn low. Essentially, the first few months at site are supposed to be new and exciting! Fantastically grand with Technicolor multicultural shininess!

“Supposedly.”

But “no peace corps service is the same,” and “everybody has different experiences.”

So now I watch myself from a distance, living in the present, doing things that simply need to be done. I come home at the end of the day slightly proud, though. Even if its going to every damn дэлгүүр (delguur) on every corner to find eggs. In the United States, I couldn’t have been bothered to deal with the things I do here. I spend hours on the most mundane tasks but get a quiet pleasure out of accomplishing something together with a host country national and yes, building a connection.

I’ve just passed a threshold in which I no longer find Mongolia new and strange, but rather familiar and sometimes annoying. I can’t make it through the week without being watched while eating mutton at least four or five times. I miss not being able to eat local grown organic produce whenever I want, but I do have people who hover over me making sure I eat enough. It can be mildly endearing, albeit incredibly irritating at times. My ээж (eejmom) called me and told me she missed me, which I was honestly surprised by. It warmed me.

Most of my days in Darkhan with my host family were spent either helping cook, watching weird television programs I never understood, doing a lot of nothing and talking about how hot it was. I saw my host dad probably once or twice, because my host parents lived separately. I had a strict curfew, and my ээж was vigilant. She’d call me every hour, on the hour, to make sure I would come home. So annoying, but so loving.

So, if anyone were to ask me how I feel about my service right now, I’d say just ok. I’m ok.

Finding Peace

The tiny frustrations have percolated into one big giant realization: It just never works out the way you want it to.

Offering a speech in Mongolian at our swearing-in ceremony in August.
Offering a speech in Mongolian at our swearing-in ceremony in August. Credit: Kyra Lindstrom

That old, cliché saying— Expect the worse, hope for the best—its been ringing in my ears this past week.

I am eerily American in the fact that I subconsciously acknowledge that productiveness is key and that “time is money” and the best bet at success or happiness comes from action. My background in journalism led me to understand that I have to work all the time. I feel like a flustered pigeon that accidentally flew into a room after starting school at the beginning of this month. I’m not always exactly sure what I should be doing to pass the hours.

The frustration is the fact that I don’t know. I never know—the obvious manifestation of that idea is the ability to grasp the language. Every action is fleeting: I have the concrete basis of what I want to say or do, but if I can get maybe 30% of that idea expressed, its basically a success. I was given a vague job description and a desk, and the rest lies on the Peace Corps’ confidence in me.

I’m not sure if I should feel like I should trust my old instincts in understanding what’s fairs fair, because in all developing countries, nothing’s “fair” whatever the fuck that means. I haven’t been physically or emotionally comfortable in the last three months, and I work on my personal happiness daily to keep myself balanced. I supposedly suffer because the obvious is apparent: I’m going without a lot of aesthetic, material things that contributed to my security in who I am as it pertains to both my work and my identity.

During Pre Service Training, I was disgruntled, angry even, at the Peace Corps’ approach when it came to scheduling. I enjoyed waking up without an alarm, lazily wincing into the day’s first hours of sun. I felt like I was being realigned, being forced into adulthood by showing up everyday at 9 a.m. and wearing clothes that covered my tattoos, knees, and elbows. The anger boiled up after I had a heat stroke, and I showed up to training the next week with my tattoos bared unabashed with a scowl on my face. Take that. But that was petty.

My suffering, as maybe others would perceive it, is not really suffering. I used to tell myself over and over again while I lived in my hometown that comfort is dangerous, that if I let it get the best of me, I’d succumb to the secretary’s ass of personal integrity. I’m knee deep in puzzle pieces I’m trying to put together, and its not always pretty. There’s a developed and tasteful beauty in finding peace in accepting our world’s harsh realities.

I’ve just made acquaintance with that peace.

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.