Wednesday, October 14, 2009

a pretty candid article for Goucher's Service-Learning blog

First posted on June 8, 2009 to the old blog:

So upon hearing that I got into the Peace Corps, Michael Curry, the Director of Service-Learning at Goucher College (where I just graduated), asked me to write an article for Goucher's Service-Learning blog about my process, expectations, etc. He has yet to put it up- he's a busy guy I know so I'm not too bothered about that- but I wanted to post it here. I wrote it a little while ago so some things have changed since then but I wanted to post the original thing. Here it is:

When I read the words “Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that we invite you to being training in Mongolia for Peace Corps service” my fluttering heart dropped like a brick onto the Post Office floor. Yes, I had been waiting with baited breath for months for this letter and yes, there is nothing more I wanted than to be done with the Peace Corps application process. The Peace Corps was my dream, I couldn’t wait to finally get my country assignment. But it was all wrong. Visions of myself reclining in a Thai tikki hut, drinking out of a coconut, surrounded by bronzed children were shoved away by thoughts of bitter winters. I had somehow concluded that the karmic payback for my giving two years of my prime to teach Asian children English would be a placement somewhere blissful and tropical. I had not applied to the Peace Corps with the tundra in mind.

As placement is nonnegotiable, I have scrambled to learn as much about Mongolia as I can since receiving the letter only a few weeks ago. While much of it is daunting, the more I learn the less scary it becomes. At this point, I can practically recite the Mongolia Wikipedia page, have checked out the sad handful of books the Goucher library has on the country and have YouTube-ed Tuvin throat singing to death. The thing that has been really heart warming though is the way in which both my friends and family have thrown themselves into research about Mongolia, as well. My friends have been bombarding me with facts about Mongolia that I hadn’t even come across yet. My parents daily check the weather in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city; it’s permanently saved on their iPhones. Even my 83-year-old grandmother opened a NetFlix account and has been leaving synopses of strange Mongolian films on my voice mail. Learning all I can about this strange land that no one seems to be able to find on a map (for the record, it’s between Russia and China) has helped banish some of my fear of this foreign land and having my loved ones support me has meant everything.

These days I am beginning to come to terms with a future reality that will inevitably include a diet of mostly meat (I can’t remember the last time I had a burger), winters that reach -40 degrees (I’m a warm blooded girl from Atlanta) and a language that sounds like the strange lovechild of Russian and Chinese (I barely squeaked by the minimum in Spanish class). However, there are some really neat things about being sent to this obscure corner of the world. For instance, anywhere from 30% to 50% of Mongolians are nomadic, living in large felt tents called gers that can be taken down in 30 minutes and relying solely on horses for transportation. But like many bucolic lifestyles worldwide, the Mongolian nomadic culture is vanishing rapidly. Motorcycles are edging out horses and young adults are moving to the sprawling cities. The ability to get a slice of this lifestyle before it goes extinct is something I am honored to have the opportunity to do. The Peace Corps expects volunteers to live like natives and work alongside them; I’ll probably get my very own ger and will certainly live as a Mongolian. I will eat their food, celebrate their holidays and work in their schools. I will live like this dying race for several years and not many people can say that.

Whatever the joys and pitfalls of living in Mongolia will be, I am resolute in my love of the Peace Corps. A brief rundown for those who are unfamiliar with the Peace Corps: it is a government program that sends volunteers to impoverished countries all over the world. The object of doing so is to help develop the infrastructure of the host country by working in a number of capacities, such as strengthening their health, education and agricultural systems. The Volunteer’s obligation is for two years plus several months of training.

I first found out about the Peace Corps through my godmother who was a Volunteer in the 60’s when the Peace Corps was relatively new; she has inspired me to follow in her footsteps. I suppose it didn’t help my expectations of placement that she was sent to the tropical island of Samoa. However, the fact that she is still in touch with her host family in Samoa after over 40 years is amazing. They still consider her their daughter (they’ve even reserved a burial plot for her in Samoa with the rest of the family) and that drove me to find out what it is that binds people from totally different worlds so strongly.

In Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer I will be teaching English to High School age students and helping Mongolian English teachers refine their knowledge of the language. I will also be doing Community Development, a job as abstract as it sounds; essentially I must find something my community needs and help them obtain it. As my first job after graduation, I couldn’t be more thrilled. The opportunity to explore unfamiliar terrain, live a completely different lifestyle and challenge myself in ways I can’t imagine from here at my dorm room desk is both terrifying and exciting. It is sure to bring many unforeseen challenges and rewards. I am elated to be foraging out into a strange country to bring about positive change and represent my home and people in the best way that I can.

While I am admittedly proud of myself, this is such a huge transition with such lofty concepts that it becomes difficult to grapple with at times. Whenever I feel conflicted or scared about the future that lies in wait less than two months away, I remember President John F. Kennedy’s words upon founding the Peace Corps in 1961. They are frank and beautiful and I have carved my expectations out of what he said when he told Congress this:

"Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.

But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace."

Reflecting on Kennedy’s words truly soothes my tempestuous thoughts about leaving Goucher and everything I know behind. They make me yearn for the day that I will hold my head high and walk tall towards Asia, striding though my fears and doubts, past my worries of bitter cold and abject loneliness into a new place. So while I did not initially see the opening of my acceptance letter as something to celebrate, Mongolia was definitely not what I had expected or wanted, it has certainly been the start of a new adventure.

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