Monday, May 30, 2011

In Which We Get a Sheep...Naturally

It's a difficult thing trying to say goodbye to an entire community, especially one that holds so many different members who have touched you in so many different ways. The three of us who are leaving this summer put our heads together and tried to think of a good way to say goodbye to everyone we love here in Hovd. And then it dawned on us. What better way to mark the end of our two years in this beautiful country than to kill an animal? Well, a sheep to be specific. We decided to host a traditional Mongolian хорхог or horhog for all our friends and their families. This is an alfresco feast that features each and every part of a sheep that is killed on site by incising the chest and reaching in to manually sever the carotid artery. Going along with it are chips, cookies, candy, apples and of course large amounts of vodka. It is very traditional and old-school but still the definite default for celebratory occasions today. It was especially nice to have this certain genera of picnic since one of my fondest memories of my early days in Hovd is attending my sitemate's school's anniversary хорхог. Also, it was rather perfect since my sitemate's school has an official хорхог-cookin' guy who was available to help us out, a very insistent and charismatic man named Baska (proudly sporting a sweater-vest below). Compounded with the beautiful weather and lack of bugs right now which made the river a perfect venue, we couldn't do this parting any other way. However, though this was surely the best choice of an event, I did feel pretty bad for Bo Peep's little ward; it kind of felt like a sacrificial slaughter at the alter of me which is pretty wack for someone from a family in which half the members are vegetarian. But despite my misgivings and guilt about ending this sheepy life, we went ahead and all chipped in for the 100 тɵгрɵг bleating picnic. And sad though it was to know that a furry friend was going down, the day was an absolute smash hit. We had over 50 people come by though we were randomly and inexplicably very far upriver from town. Our suspicions of success were confirmed when our friends tucked into the meal like Chinggis Khan might have. I know it might sound gross, but something about this style of eating is rather exciting because it is so visceral and intense; it's a tactile adventure in which you can relish how dirty you get. At the end of the party, everyone was a little browner, exhausted and very sated after hours by the river, a soccer game, 3 1/2 liters of vodka, a sheep and lots of laughing and chatting with friends. Everyone seemed to know each other and talk easily while their children slashed through the river. We all thought this was by far the best and most culturally appropriate way to celebrate our time here and turns out we were right. A beautiful day very well spent and a good choice to give back to the folks that have helped us along the way. Below is a little peek at how we all fared...and how the sheep did, too.
First Course: Intestine Soup.
Blood Sausage?
Offering vodka to the four corners.
Loading up the can with rocks and sheep parts.
Friends digging in.
Cameron taking his stomach down.
Feeding the huge birds of prey hungry for scraps.
Some of our merry band.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The First Goodbyes

Yesterday turned out better than I ever expected. I had planned a field day for my students and though their attendance to class had been rather sparse of late, many of them came out to frolic.  We started at the town square and after waiting a healthy 30 minutes for everyone to trickle in, we paraded to the river. There they had their first encounter with water balloons starting with a gentle tossing game which, much to my delight, turned into a full-blown war. We played the squeeliest game of soccer I have ever witnessed, a Mongolian numbers game and arm-link tag. There were cupcakes and apples, soda and juice. We sang songs, took pictures and giggled until it hurt. Though the day had been brutally windy earlier,  the weather decided to behave itself I believe in reverence to the laughing children. We were all shocked to find it 6:30 when the girls tired and the games finally wound down.

Our shadows lengthened as we walked back into town and the girls flanked me affectionately on either side. I knew I had to try really hard to explain to them that I was leaving soon and was not coming back. Earlier three girls had left the river and when I tried to hint at the fact that this was goodbye forever, they just smiled, waved and skipped off towards home. They didn't understand.

Mongolia is a nomadic culture; one based around journeys. People are used to their family and friends coming and going on missions and excursions, especially in such a remote town. But in all the journeys here I've seen, the wayfarer always returns. This very well might be the first time that a loved one does not come back to these teenagers.

Soon, when a few others started to peel off down a dust-packed road, I made a more concerted effort at expressing what this parting meant. This time it sank in. One girl looked at me like I was crazy and belted 'why?!'. A sad recognition crept over the faces of others. They asked me when I was coming back; 'never' seemed too cruel so I just shrugged and told them 'maybe someday'. They all hugged me and professed their love; some even walked with me to my house, as if they were trying to squeeze out every last minute together. I was glad they came with me although one of the girls started to cried.

I have held off tears until now. Thursday we had a grand graduation for my older class, the class I am closest with. Midway though the ceremony, as I was joyfully watching one of my students give a speech, my counterpart leaned over and whispered 'ok, now you must give speech'- a news flash to me. So I marched up there and squared off with my favorite class. I had written them a letter before with all my thoughts and love for them so this public affair seemed unimportant; they all knew how I felt. But it was still a struggle not to cry; I had to take a few deep breaths soaking in the knowledge that I'd probably never see my wonderful, and sometimes deviant, angels ever again.

I guess it all boils down to trust now. I must trust that they won't forget our time together, that they will continue to work hard and dream big, that they will value themselves with confidence and that I did my best during our time together. I know my absence will be like plucking the soccer ball out of  the river we played next to, barely a splash will ruffle the surface. But I do hope that these amazing little people I have enjoyed so much time with will hold the memory of me at least for a little while. I know I will keep them with me forever.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Monthly Montage: Ulaanbaatar

Literally translated as Red Hero, Ulaanabaatar stands for so many things. It is the bright, modern future of Mongolia that is also strewn with the urban squalor that visionaries of this country never wanted. It contains half of the country's population in a handful of square miles, saying a lot for the most sparsely populated nation on earth. For anyone from the countryside, Peace Corps Volunteers not withstanding, it is a strange experience to foray into this city of opposites. We are somehow used to fewer showers and luxuries but at the same time less poverty and theft. UB magnifies both the ritzy and the under-developed. As I have noted earlier, the population here is small; so much so that it takes less than a 20-minute walk to go from desperate slums where dirty toddlers climb over drunks to swanky, expensive lounges populated by pop stars and basketballers. I spent quite a bit of time in Mongolia's only city in recently so I thought it might be nice for you to have a visual.
If this piques your curiosity, this is an interesting and informative article about UB's ger districts.
Old meets new above the city at the Zasain Monument.
Zaisan, one of UB's most popular  tourist destinations, is a monument to the glory of Mongolian-Soviet cooperation.

The view of the city from Zasain's edge. You can really get a feel of the sprawl.
UB provides a rare occasion to hang out with far-flung friends.

One of my favorite shops in the whole city, a Chinese spice store. Even after 2 years in Asia, the ingredients never fail to amaze and baffle.
On the outskirts of the city our  taxi driver ran out of gas. We were trying to go to the new ski slope in UB. We arrived to discover  that Wednesdays were 'rest days', unbeknownst to anyone except  the resting workers.
The State Department Store. Really the only large-scale store in Mongolia, new department stores are springing up around UB but garner little traffic as of yet.
A New Years display in the State Department Store window. A rather Christmassy show for a country of Buddhists and Muslims.

At one of the Korean bakeries that have move in recently. Traditional Mongolian food does not feature baked goods and hazelnut lattes so our girlie Sex-in-the-City-type chats are a delight in many ways.
An old man pays his respects to his ancestors on the side of Zasain's hill.
In front of the State Department Store, the sun rises on watchers of the World Cup final.
New apartments are rising out of the city, but irrigation still lags behind.
The national Nadam stadium. Most Mongolians prefer to take in the Festival of Three Manly Sports in the countryside, leaving this huge venue for the tourists.
Sukhbaatar Square, sort of like the Times Square of Mongolia where Chinggus protects the Parliament.

Herders are now protesting their growing marginalization in the face of desertification and mining in Sukhbataar Square in front of the Parliament.
Rush hour is as good a time to film a commercial in the middle of the street as any, I guess.
The city at sunset. This is the view from the swanky apartment my friends and I spent Christmas in last year. That apartment was nothing like my Soviet relic flat in Hovd.
Traffic in UB is a growing problem, but you can still tell that this is the Land of the Blue Sky even in a city.
Going to UB affords PCV's who don't normally hang out the chance to bond and party together.
The famous Mongolian pop group, the Lemons are a house band at Grand Khan Irish Pub. Because there isn't enough market for local musicians, they must make ends meet by playing weekly for small crowds.
The biggest monastery in Mongolia; it's both beautiful and peaceful.
My host sister with a pigeon. In insisted they were dirty but she was convinced of the opposite.

The new-this-year basketball league in Mongolia. We cheer for the Avatar team; it boasts three Americans!
UB at night. The large building at left is officially called the Blue Sky Tower, though we favor the name Sail Fail. It was supposed to be a symbol of Mongolian progression and business, however it is structurally unstable and unable to function.
Crains reach above the head of UB's Lenin statue in the middle of downtown.
The sprawling ger districts from a low-flying plane.
Inside a monastery. This was the one my friend and I stumbled upon and I wrote a post about.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Eat Your Heart Out, Lawrence of Arabia

Coming to the Peace Corps, I always knew that some days it would be a struggle to metaphorically put one foot in front of the other. However, I had no idea how literally true that would turn out to be. And these difficult days do not happen in the season that you would think.

It is now springtime here in Mongolia. Horray! Walking home from work the other day, I discovered that you can actually smell trees. Not the flowers on the trees, but the growing leaves themselves have a warm, lively scent. To my delight, the leaves have continued to fill the air with a pregnant promise of sunny months to come. The warmer weather and the greenery sends a jolt though my body and puts a spring in my step. But sadly, spring here is not all buds and butterflies. The Mongolians have a saying that summarizes this season quite well: The Spring Sky is Jealous. Now if I were pissed at a cheating boyfriend, I can't think of a better way to get revenge on him than to slather him up with lip gloss and bury him in a giant sandbox. And that is exactly what Mongolia has in store for those who reside under her angry sky.

What we are plagued with during the warming months are sandstorms. Awe-inspiring in their power, they can arise from the parched earth at any point. Indeed, Hovd is surrounded by pebbly mountains and less than half of the roads are paved, making this a prime spot for both sandy twisters and monsoons of dust. Sometimes the wind will kick up and blow tornadoes of dirt and dust across the town. They carry off our soccer balls and crash into our apartments. These little tornadoes are completely unpredictable; even on the calmest of days you can get swept up in one and heaven help you if you happen to have your mouth open. They are visible for miles though there is no telling when one will snag you in it's sandy grips. It's not a stretch to imagine Dorthy's poor little prairie house being tossed and turned in these whirling storms, as the Wicked Witch cycles by. Though what is actually visible instead is a rainbow of trash and wrappers tumbling though the wind. During more difficult times, the storms are far more angry and encompassing. Whole days are washed in dust, as layers and layers of sand blanket the air. When these storms hit you literally can't see the sun. But even in the worst of dust storms life must go on. Encompassed by sand I curse my lot because I still must walk to work, though it is certainly a struggle. Head down, constantly being pushed back by the winds, I channel the mighty Leonidas of Sparta who roared "we shall fight in the shade" when faced with an onslaught of arrows. With the dust and sand swirling around me, lifting my hair and invading my nose, I fight in the shade of Mongolia's most fearsome storms. I fight only for a short commute though it feels as if I am battling legions of armed Persians. And indeed, though I make it through the threshold of the library, I am defeated by millions of tiny grains of sand. Without fail, there is sand in every crevice and pore of my exposed skin and even in some places that the sun don't shine. But even though the sandstorms persist, and will for quite some time now, it is far better than the freezing winters we just emerged from. So regardless of these raging storms, I am of the mind that that glass is half full- of sand.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Awesome Article

If you only read one thing about Mongolia, this Washington Post article should be it. It paints a very accurate picture of this country and it's people. The background that the author provides is nothing short of fascinating and I really agree with his assessments of where this country will go, or at least value the questions he raises about the future of Mongolia. Specifically the way the author describes travel is pretty entertaining and very spot-on, except for the part where you get your own SUV. It doesn't take long to read so I really encourage you to take a look- there's also a neat photo gallery included (be sure to catch the pic of the wrestling gear). Happy reading!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Proud Sister Shoutout

A little belated but nevertheless I'd like to holler at my little sister, Ava. Hardly little, she graduated from college on Sunday and I couldn't be more proud. She worked really hard to finance her education, as did my parents, and dedicated herself to both her friends and schoolwork while at Lewis and Clark. I stayed up until the wee hours Sunday night/Monday morning to watch the livestream of the ceremony that her college put on the internet. Sadly, the connection was nothing short of shoddy. In fact, I spent the better part of two hours wringing my hands and praying to every deity I could think of that the net wouldn't fail at exactly the wrong moment so that I could see her walk across the stage. But low and behold, between painful blank spells, I managed to catch her stride happily across the threshold to adulthood and towards her diploma, blonde curls bouncing as they cascaded from beneath her mortarboard. I was both elated for her and really sad I couldn't be a bigger part of this amazing occasion. It was especially hard because she voluntarily reduced herself to my personal henchman, cheerleader and photographer when I graduated. Watching the computer screen sputter and falter in the wee hours, I couldn't have felt more removed from my beautiful family. But I am lucky- I know they understand and support my life in such a far flung place. And they know, or at least I hope they do, that I'll be there front and center, cheering the loudest and snapping away, camera in hand, for Sister's graduation party when I return home this summer. Though I will again depart for a life far  far away, I hope I can try to nurture her growth every step she takes. The first time I saw her at the hospital at 2 1/2 year old I tried to breastfeed her; hopefully my future efforts will be more effective though filled with the same amount of love. So with my endless affection and proudest words as wind at your back, I wish you well, muffin. Congratulations! You did it! I love you so much. I am truly lucky to call you my Sisterbear.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pants-tay on a Wednesday!

Today IT is supposed to come- the reservation Peace Corps is making for my flight back to America. There is a vast array of emotions that comes with this ticket and among them nervousness is one. Will my friends still like me? How awkward will I be? Am I going to manage to offend everyone? Will my dry skin and extra pounds leave me in peace? One terror, however, is quickly avoided with this handy flowchart. It is a veritable life raft in this brave new world of jeggings and such. I may or may not have violated the chat's rules already today but here it is, a super helper for me and anyone else looking to reenter the Western world with it's tangles of spandex. (You might have to open the chart to read it but it's well worth the extra effort! Btw -tay is a Mogolian suffix meaning 'with'.)

In other news, a sweet shutout to Naoto Kan, the Prime Minister of Japan. Apparently he deiced to give up his salary until the nuclear crisis is over. Somehow I feel a kindred spirit with anyone who forgoes a salary for something they feel is important. Holler, Naoto! Way to be awesome.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In Love and Struggles

Unfortunately, academic competitions never fail to bring out the worst in people here in Mongolia. You'd think they'd conjure up spirits of camaraderie and studiousness. Sadly, however, you would be wrong. Many adults are rendered catty, howling 'unfair!' and 'dishonest!' at any final decision that they decide is unjust or not in their favor. Exactly this happened during an afternoon not too long ago. Subsequently that day a close Mongolian friend of ours attempted to get her longtime friend and single mother fired for not judging in her favor. I have even seen teachers bully young students from other schools and classes who are competing against their own kids. It has been painful to watch many of my close friends being sucked into tornadoes of immaturity as they let their ugly colors show during competitions. This transformation of friendly to foul points directly towards something I have been spending a lot of time struggling with ever since I came to Mongolia.

Let me back up. In middle school we studied Arthurian legends and at one point a theme arose that has given me much food for thought in the years that have passed. It's the concept of loving an entire person; the fact that if we are to love someone, we must not just accept but love all of them, flaws and all. We cannot just chose bits and pieces of our friends and fellow man; we must embrace all or nothing. At the time it didn't make too much sense. I liked boys because they were cute and funny, their dumb comments or bad hygiene I simply pretend did not exist. Even today I'm still not sure if I'm completely on board with this idea; it's a tough one to swallow completely though admittedly it is an idea that bares worth thinking about.

Applying this long ago studied theme to life in Mongolia is something that I put much effort into. I really want to love the people around me. I really do. And most of the time it's easy to embrace my Mongolian friends and students. However, my mind rebels on occasion. Things that I have been taught from the very beginning of my life butt hostilely against common conceptions that the vast majority of Mongolians deem to be true. For example, as discussed in previous posts, blatant racism is completely acceptable and often even expected. What is equally as rampant and revolting to my senses is the ubiquitous homophobia. And then there is the above discussed unnecessary immaturity among adults.

For clarity's sake, I am not trying to demean or complain. These are merely cultural differences I have observed, and they are not uniformly practiced, though they are commonly accepted and the majority adheres to them. And I must accept this. However, turmoil bubbles up inside me on occasion when I think about our culture's conflicting beliefs. Sometimes it is difficult to look at people who believe so differently from you in a positive way and I find myself occasionally struggling to respect the thoughts of the people around me. Images of my best friends of different races, nationalities or sexual preferences flash in front of my eyes and I feel a stabbing guilt that I have betrayed them as I share loving moment with my Mongolian friends. How can I do this to the people I care so much about back home, the people who have supported me and encouraged me unconditionally? I feel like by turning a blind eye to the fact that many of my Mongolian friends don't accept my loved ones in America or even believe their lifestyle exists I am also stabbing my dear dear friends in the back. It really kills me; I feel like a coward. If I am to love the people I have come to know here, how can I love these differences? Can I please love them without embracing ignorance, immaturity and culturally bread hate? Or am I bound to love that too when it occurs in my friends?

However, it's not like this is an issue that doesn't occurs in America. And through having family members with extraordinarily polar beliefs from mine, I have grown up having to tolerate opposing thoughts in other people. However, conservative politics and brutal disgust for others are in fact very different. I have strove to apply the same glossing over of differing opinions I learned from people back home but it is consistently difficult when I am so personally connected to the ones unjustly despised. I try to not become incensed when these things come up in conversation, and they don't often thank goodness, and on the whole I've done quite a good job of not ripping anyone a new one. Indeed, these issues don't spring to life every day but just knowing they are there under the surface, dormant but existent, is enough to make me uncomfortable. I have attempted gentle conversations with my friends about tolerance and more productive ways to express anger. But I don't know how fruitful these chats have been.

In writing this I am not trying to be negative, nor I am trying to out an entire population as a country of haters. This is merely an expression of cultural differences and the frustrations, sometimes small, sometimes massive, that I find therein. In facing this issue it has behooved me to remember the words of Wade Davis when he said: "The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit." So with patience I try to face this issue. With understanding, albeit on occasion forced, I feel I must at least try to love those who surround me and the differences that lie within them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ruminations on Teaching

I think of all my time here my students are the people I will remember most. Ironically, I never wanted to teach in the Peace Corps and I even begged my interviewer not to place me in the TEFL sector. I had taught English before and it was totally not my bag. And to be completely honest, true to my prediction, most days here I emotionally drag my feet into the classroom. The process of lesson planning is tiresome and the blank looks on the student's faces when something just isn't getting across feels like nothing short of defeat. However, seeing their shining faces ever day never fails to remind me of why I do the job I do.

Something rather frustrating came to my attention after I returned from training. The details don't bare repetition but it seem as if one of my counterparts isn't really the person I thought she was. And after long hours working with many adults here, I often see little, if any, improvement. At this point, it isn't a stretch to see my efforts here with many adults as far too little, far too late. And that's fine because they are just that: adults. It is their prerogative not to change if they don't want to and they have had a lifetime of enforcing the truths that I strive to alter. I've come to feel that just spending quality time with them is enough for me. Indeed, spreading love, good will and friendship is no small matter. And I genuinely enjoy just hanging out with the men and women here. But I hope in my heart of hearts and with every fiber of my being that I have at least opened a new window, or at least cracked it a little, for my students.

To my utter elation, I see my efforts reflected back at me from time to time. One student wrote an absolutely stellar essay in a competition recently. The topic was 'if hunger was a picture, what would it look like' and the only art appreciation class she had is when we'd discussed Pollock and Picasso in the last days of Access II. After the awards ceremony, she ran up to me, clutching her winner's certificate and happily trying convince me that I'd helped her win. But I refuted this idea- I'd helped but only a little; it was really all her. And it was, she's smart as a whip and I was lucky to help her grow. I was only a gentle hand at her back, nudging her into familiar territory. Smaller gestures also count for a lot, things like a smiling student who approached me at the end of the day Friday to tell me in painfully broken English that I shouldn't work so hard and I should get some rest. These children touch me in ways they'll never know and I hope they are as influenced by me as I am by them.

As a teacher, it's amazing how often 'you' becomes 'we'. One of my closest students applied to a very competitive summer course and I find myself asking her "DID YOU HEAR YET? DID WE GET IN??...umm I mean....did you get in?" She smiles at this and tells me that we haven't heard today. I remember my Mom would do the same thing when 'we' turned in a project or paper. She was always dieing to know what 'we' got. I understood her feelings before and loved her investment in my education but now her proud pronouns make sense on a whole new level. In the way that she shared my achievements, I now swell with joy like a mama bird at my student's every achievements.

Another thing that I love dearly about teaching is merely being called 'teacher.' I love hearing it sung on the streets, shouted urgently when someone knows an answer and ringing through the library in cheery greeting as students spill through the door. That is one thing I knew I would miss about Mongolia from the very beginning. Being a teacher is such an honorable thing. My father was always teaching my sister and I about something, perhaps about ancient history or the cogs that keep the world in place. And in turn, I was elated to bestow some of his knowledge in his informal, deeply caring teaching style on a younger generation. Hearing children confirm this role I possess in the community every day never ceases to make me feel both honored and tickled.

As I near my looming Close of Service date I will savor the peals of 'багша!' ('teacher' in Mongolian, bak-shaa) as I always have, but this time letting each call fall closer to my heart. I will keep them to warm me during my time as a rootless traveler in the coming months. Though certainly a reluctant teacher, I have been such a lucky one to have had my students touch my life in such lasting ways and I know I will miss their beautiful faces and the love that forever emanates from them.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Pensive Wednesday

Seems I was in UB at all the right news moments. I was able to catch both the Royal Wedding and Osama bin Laden's death live on BBC at the Peace Corps Office. Not that the two events are comparable in content, but in significance they both are outstanding, though one is purely for entertainment value and the other has far reaching global consequences. When the news hit that bin Laden had been killed, I was struck with a mix of emotions. It was the demise of a terrible man, yes. But then again in some way this validated the loss of billions of dollars and thousands of lives, even those those of innocent children. And as mobs of screaming Americans flashed across the only televised news I have been able to watch in two years, I was almost disgusted. The only other time I have been so take aback by a reaction of joy at brutality is when, in the midst of a tearful, exhilarated celebration marking Obama's electoral victory, people began burning McCain signs. Success, not failure, is to be celebrated. So I leave you with this quote from Dr. King and perhaps some worthwhile reflections, such as these words gave me.

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Case of the Awkard

Sunday morning was lovely; I spent it sitting at a cafe, sipping a latte and chatting with friends. It was in this most comfortable and relaxed of environments that we stumbled upon a topic that was anything but. Apparently I am not the only one who has had some seriously awkward slip-ups in the past two years. Almost akin to malaria or giardia, awkwardness is like a disease that plagues most Volunteer's Peace Corps experience at one point or another. I'd even venture to assert that anyone who has spent time in a foreign country has caught this infamous bug.

In our conversation, it came up that a fellow Volunteer had been seriously reprimanded for the way he taught the incoming class of Volunteers last summer. It was clear he took it rather hard. What would normally be a shrug in response to getting slapped on the hand for some rather loose lipped lessons turned into a crisis of self that clearly rocked his sense of confidence. He was overcome with sheepishness and shifted awkwardly as he talked about what had happened. In an attempt to sympathize and entertain, I related a story in which I hugged a professional recently in a very much not-huggable situation. It was rather confusing since I am so used to hugging friends and fellow foreigners in Hovd with regularity and ease. At one point Mona mandated that we must always hug upon greeting each other. Apparently this is not the case with US Embassy Staff in UB. Oops.

In the Peace Corps you live your job; you are your job. Even just existing as foreigner in such a remote location, our actions are scrutinized like specimens under a microscope. When your job is to set an example for Americans abroad, you are working every waking hour of every day. And when you are so closely connected to your job, occupational and cultural failures become personal ones. We are here because we care and it's easy to care so much that we become wrapped up in it. Volunteers don't want to offend the locals we interact with and so we alter our behavioral standards and expectations to fit a different culture. In this position, with legs straddling two different norms, it is impossibly easy to slip. Indeed I believe we all do it, or at least those of us who care. But even so, it is really difficult and even painful to be that vulnerable. After being here for a while, it is so simple to feel smug; I feel I have put my awkward past behind me after a series of smooth interactions. But without fail the dreaded awkward creeps back up on me and pounces, sending me down a peg or two just like in high school.

But then again, with deep breaths and the right perspective, these incidences become just another occasion to laugh, as one of the paramount lessons I've learned here is not to take anything too seriously. Being awkward is something that plagues those who experience growing pains, from adolescent puppies to teenagers. Learning to stand firmly between two cultures without offending anyone, all the while navigating the professional world, is no exception to the growing process. So I suppose all there is to do is sip your latte, accept the inevitable and laugh.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gems from Friends

I just emerged from our final Close of Service conference. It was a fun three days during which our trainers advised us on how to begin coping with the process of psychically and emotionally leaving our towns and dropped upon us the load of paperwork that must be surmounted before we can leave Mongolia. It was also a great time to reconnect and reflect with friends. We played kickball and I made a face-plant snow angel in the massive amounts of fluffy flakes that fell on our last day. All of us, both Volunteers and staff, stayed in gers, a mite bit chilly but a fun adventure nevertheless. Here are two little gems that emerged from the sessions and chats I had with my wonderful, wacky, wise friends at training:

Dubbed 'The Bare Knuckle Brawler' my friend Katie has a beautiful story from a much more tropical clime that is no less valid here, especially given our work, than it is by the surf. One night, a huge storm blows over a beach and washes millions and millions of starfish ashore. In the morning, a man walking along the beach sees a boy picking up stranded starfish and casting them back into the sea. The man shakes his head and tells the boy that he is never going to save all the starfish. The boy looks at him, picks up another starfish and throws it back into the ocean. He looks toward the splash and says "it made a difference to that one" and continues on his way.

My friend John lives in a tiny, remote town in the Gobi. He has no site-mates or internet access and very little to do to pass the time. Whether this chart is accurate or not, I think the below diagram exemplifies the really wonderful sense of humor that Peace Corps Volunteers have about their jobs and time here. Apparently 2004 was the year in which his life somehow veered towards where he is today. And the smallest section that has text reads 'Penance'.