In the Peace Corps, we are always told, “it depends”. This motto applies to almost every aspect of our Peace Corps lives. Yet it seems to apply especially well to each PCV’s individual site. Integrating into your site depends, obviously on the volunteer, as well as the school, the location (size/population and region), teachers, community counterparts, neighbors, type of housing, personal mentality, first impressions, etc. Sometimes I wonder how I would have fared at other sites, but I got lucky; my school and aimag center are amazing.
One of the prime differences between sites is isolation/population, i.e. are you living in a soum in the middle of nowhere or in an aimag center potentially with people your age who do not work at your school? Living in an aimag center where most volunteers have apartments, it can be easy to isolate yourself. Were I to do this, my daily schedule would only involve leaving my apartment to teach classes. Luckily, I follow a set of guidelines I created to help myself become more integrated, and they seem to be working, if I do say so myself. Without further ado, here are my 5 steps to integrating.
*all steps should be stepping slightly outside of your comfort zone without feeling unsafe*
Always say yes to invitations
Frequently, people you may only sort of know from your school invite you to their home to meet their family. Just because they’re not one of the English teachers, so you’ll have to speak Mongolian, and because you aren’t close with them, doesn’t mean you should discount them. I had teachers and training managers at my school whom I hardly knew, as in didn’t know their names and hadn’t ever spoken to them, invite me to their homes. Even though I felt slightly awkward going over alone, these experiences led to many new opportunities. Now, I am close friends with some of them, receive more invites to various school social activities, and have had the opportunity to experience Mongolia more fully by going to the countryside and cooking with one of them. Although the first time was awkward and outside of my comfort zone, I now feel perfectly at ease and happy around my new friends.
Leave your house once a day
It’s easy to become accustomed to being cooped up in your apartment all day, with your unlimited Wi-Fi, running water, refrigerator, and most importantly: Netflix. Yet, just as the hardest part of exercising at the gym is actually arriving at the gym, the hardest part of leaving your home is gathering the stamina to put on a coat and brave the weather. Besides getting hopefully fresh air (unless the air pollution is pungent at the exact time and day you leave), you also may see people on the streets you know, meet new people at the market, see cute dogs, and just experience the town. Some days the outing will be bland, but other times you’ll come back with wild stories of dust storms or blizzards almost carrying you away. Maybe you’ll even see an event happening at the square or the wrestling palace and go watch!
Don’t be afraid to socialize with men
As a woman in Mongolia, I was warned many times about drunk men following foreign women, cat-calling, potential sexual harassment or assault, games being played that require kissing or hint at sexual encounters, and a general warning that the atmosphere between foreign women and Mongolian men being friends is difficult. Other female volunteers I know said they fully heeded these warnings, and as a result, are not close with any of the male teachers at their school. However, I was of the opinion that men would be more likely to sexualize and inappropriately tease me if they didn’t respect me; since respect comes from knowing someone, I thought I should get to know the men at my school. I got lucky because I enjoy volleyball, and most of the male teachers at my school play in our weekly school games. This lead to me becoming good friends with many of the male workers and teachers with whom I don’t co-teach. Although I am friends with the English teachers, these friendships occasionally feel slightly more like a mentorship where they take care of me and are sort of required to be my friend as they are one of the few teachers who speak English fluently at my school. However, the male teachers I have befriended mostly speak Mongolian with me and are my friends not out of force, but because they truly want to be. The men at my school have become some of my closest Mongolian friends. I feel way more comfortable with the men at my school than I was initially led to believe I ever would.
Let the day lead you
Sometimes you have a plan for the day, and sometimes, these plans are thwarted by what we Mongolian PCVs like to call “Mongolia happening” (eg: “I was going to come home to exercise, but then Mongolia happened, and I went to a ger in the countryside with one of my teachers for the entire day” #mongoliahappened). Let’s be real though, as PCVs, we don’t have that much work that can’t be put off for a day; our schedules are pretty free. You just need to suck it up and look at the experience in a positive light. For example, I was walking home after a long day and ran into one of my friends who is a worker at my school. I asked where he was going, and not surprisingly, I only half understood the answer. I decided to go with him because otherwise I would spend the entire evening at home. We ended up going to the ger where many of my school’s workers live. When I entered the ger, it was clear there were no teachers invited, but all the workers inside started saying my name in awe with bright eyes that followed me. I didn’t stay for too long and didn’t talk for about half the time I was there, but this was the most interaction I’d had with the workers at my school, and I felt like I got to know them a lot better. You never know what fun experience will arise from a random encounter.
Hang out with your teachers outside of classes
When you live in an apartment alone in a foreign country, it can be easy to separate your work life from your home/fun life. As a result, your counterparts get grouped into “work life” and consequentially, are not part of the group with whom you hang out. However, getting to know your counterparts outside of class can foster relationships that lead to better cooperation: more dialogue, sharing of ideas, and a better understanding of your colleague. The teachers at the school are people too, with families and lives that they enjoy sharing with the foreigner. Plus, your language skills will improve as you’ll practice and learn new vocab. Believe me, you’ll feel more comfortable stepping into your teachers’ room at school when you’re entering a room full of friends.
These are some steps that have worked for me to feel more at ease in my new environment and have created many friendships. By following my self-imposed rules, I have felt how my integration into my life here has improved throughout my 8 months at site. I can’t wait for what the future will bring!