Mongolia has made me weirdly self-conscious. Though I was plagued by this problem to a painful degree throughout middle school, it faded away during my Senior year of high school and I blossomed out of it during college. But sadly it has made a rather soul crushing comeback. I have a theory as to perhaps why this has come to be. My life now has precious few of, for lack of a better term,'social mirrors' or people, both friends and strangers alike, who give you clues as to the appropriateness of your behavior. Through the importance of these folks might be difficult to see, imagine your life without all the friends, neighbors, baristas and fellow commuters who gently prod you back into place on tough days and for whom you do the same. We are behavior models for each other and without the aforementioned ensemble it's hard to tell if one should alter anything about one's comportment or if one is on the right track. We rely on people to whom we can turn and ask, verbally or not, 'how am I doin' here?' Now the reason these social mirrors have become scant in my life is twofold. Because there are completely different social norms in Mongolia my American behavior code is always considered weird. For example, pushing, crowding and gawking at an ATM is perfectly normal, but refusing a shot of vodka is a big no-no; not exactly American rules. On the flip side, people get profoundly confused when I hold a door open for them. Moreover, the Westerners I do hang out with are certainly a rare breed. Possibly due to the amount of restriction and responsibility we face in our daily lives or maybe because that's just how we are, but when everyone gets together the topics of conversation frequently turn to the sexual, crass and extremely un-politically correct.
Consequently, I've discovered that this lack of a Western social norm makes it quite difficult when dealing with the outside world. Exhibit A: when e-mailing my Grandmother I asked 'is your apartment warm?', a totally normal and even expected question in Mongolia. But after sending the e-mail I second guessed myself; I wasn't sure if that is considered typical conversation material for Americans. Aren't all apartments warm? Don't they have those little magic boxes called thermostats? Do people even talk about that stuff in the States? And chatting with a friends online I now occasionally fail to recognize the difference between a little too off-color and a funny joke. Where is the line? I have no effing clue! I've forgotten how people in America talk to each other. We have a joke in Peace Corps Mongolia that at our fist American cocktail party we will probably march up to the first person we see, put our face in theirs and ask 'WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!' That, in fact, is normal Mongolian behavior which we have also adopted for the sake of cultural integration. But in all seriousness, conversations in which people don't ask me my age and why I'm not married with children (there must be something wrong with me if I haven't cranked out several babies by now!) are completely elusive here. But if memory serves those topics aren't too welcomed back home. Right...? Maybe?
Although what is almost worse is that I very well might have become the proverbial conversation cat lady. Let me elaborate. When I was a little girl we had a neighbor down the street. She was an older woman and lived alone- the only older woman I knew to do that (she was also the only woman I knew who had a mustache and drank Budweiser, for the record). She would come to every party about 45 minutes early, crack a beer and talk for 2 hours without an inhale. The loneliness of her life in that big, empty house probably got to her and when she found herself around other people she was so overjoyed that she just couldn't stop talking. Sadly now I know all too well how she must have felt. After long nights spent alone in my apartment, when I see my friends I feel a near frenzy to say everything I have been thinking, feeling and doing in the last 48 hours. Good lord, I sometimes think, checking my upper lip for excessive hair, have I become that woman? But then again I really have no way of telling how close I am to cat lady status since my social mirrors are somewhat foggy. At this point I figure there is not a whole lot to be done. For now my to do list is as follows: 1. try not to alienate my friends, 2. do the best I can not to feel and act like a self-conscious cat lady and 3. prey I somehow rebound my tact and conversational grace one day. I'm sure it will work out eventually, I just really hope it happens before my first cocktail party.