My 5 Steps to Integrating

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*

  1. Always say yes to invitations

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Cooking with the elementary school’s training manger and her children

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.

  1. Leave your house once a day

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Waltz competition I happened upon at the wrestling palace

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!

  1. Don’t be afraid to socialize with men

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Some of my volleyball friends

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.

  1. Let the day lead you

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We were supposed to go ice skating with my friend. Instead we watched him exercise his horses #mongoliahappened

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.

  1. Hang out with your teachers outside of classes

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My counterpart/friend’s husband and youngest child

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!

My First Week with a New Family

For the last week, I have lived with my host family and truly gotten into the swing of things during training. When we left the hotel after orientation, there was a whirlwind of hugs and goodbyes. Then we all departed in meekers (tiny buses decked out with lace seats and Mongolian music with local drivers). We left around 9 am and arrived around 3:30 pm. Apparently, this is a short trip by Mongolian standards. There were two stops along the way, one at an outhouse and one at the gas station where we ate lunch. Here are the respective outhouses at each, which honestly weren’t bad (they smell more like a pigsty which is at least natural, and they definitely smell better than port-a-potties):IMG_20170603_1012139

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The trip was quite dramatic as Mongolians tend to ignore passing markers and just honk to make other cars pull over. Many drivers also drive in the middle of the road. We’ve been told that this is because Mongolians drive on the right side of the road, but have both left-sided and right-sided steering wheeled cars. This means that the drivers whose steering wheels are on the right have to drift to the middle of the road to know if they can pass the car ahead of them. In addition, the road was quite bumpy. We were lucky since the roads we were on were considered paved roads by Mongolian standards. However, by US standards, they’d be worse than pot-holed roads. Many of the paved roads have huge pot-holes and tire tracks worn into the pavement. The dirt roads are even more drastic. See for yourself…

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Along the way, we saw many reindeer, camel, and horse statues (three of the five native herding animals of Mongolia). There were also many animal corpses and skeletons on the side of the road. I’m used to seeing roadkill on US highways, but I’ve never actually seen the remains. Luckily, seeing the horses and foals on the side of the road was more attention-drawing than the skeletons. At the gas stations, I bought some candies for my host family to give as a present along with perfume I’d brought from the US. I spent about 6,000 tugriks total, which is more than a day’s worth of money. We’re each allotted 4,000 tugriks per day, which comes out to 132,000 tugriks per month. As a reference, a 70-pack of baby wipes (which was recommended by current volunteers as a substitute for daily bathing) is about 1,900 tugriks.

My training site is in the north of Mongolia, about 20 kilometers from the Russian border. We were warned by Peace Corps officials to avoid accidentally going on a run and ending up in Russia (more to come military later). When we arrived at the school where our language and technical classes are, we were met by our host families. They each presented us with a bowl of milk and a haddag (traditional Mongolian textile that looks like a scarf but is used more as a respectful ritual). Afterwards, we took all our bags to our families’ homes. Luckily, Peace Corps kept our winter bags, but to make sure we still had a lot to carry, we were given heavy-duty sleeping bags and large water filters.

Once we drove home, I noticed about five girls of various ages staring at me and giggling excitedly at the sight of me. When I waved to them, they squealed and quickly dispersed. I was then taken to my room. It’s quite small, but it was nice to be able to finally unpack! That evening I was fed a bunch of food, which ended up tasting much better than the westernized Mongolian food we were served at the hotel. My host mother brought out her huge photo album, and then I showed my small photo albums (one that I had put together, and two that my amazing sister gave me as a going-away present). After that we ate more and went to bed. I was worried the family would have plans, so I wanted to know when to be ready. Luckily, Peace Corps had provided a handy-dandy phrasebook. Just because Peace Corps wanted to help with my integration into the Mongolian language, they were kind enough to not include the phrase “when should I be ready/wake up tomorrow?” (yay for integration!). Luckily, the family let me sleep in, so all was good.

The next day was Sunday, so after I woke up around 9 am, I ate breakfast with the family. Then my host father called his host Trainee from last year. I was able to talk to him about the confusion with the water filter (the first use should be disposed, but I felt bad wasting all the water my host father had put in it) and ask about where to bathe/shower. After this helpful talk, I was taken to the store where my family bought a 5-liter canister of water (so apparently, they’re still slightly confused as packaged water is safe to drink for foreigners) and then to a shower house! I had a nice shower with hot water, which I should have valued much more at the time… That afternoon, I met some of the neighborhood children, who are extremely fun and excited to meet a new American! Then, I ate dinner and went to bed. Each night I fall asleep to a chorus of cows, goats, and dogs which all start making their respective sounds as soon as sunset begins.

The week started with language lessons. We have two Language and Culture Facilitators (LCFs) who are native Mongolians. One is a Russian and English teacher, while the other is a Mongolian language teacher who has worked with the Peace Corps the last 8 years and doesn’t speak English. These lessons go from 9 am – 1 pm with one 10-minute break and one 30-minute break. Afterwards we have lunch from 1 pm – 2:30 pm for which we go home. I’m usually served soup for lunch, and sometimes for breakfast as well. Then in the afternoon, we have technical training, which for Public Health volunteers means learning about the healthcare system, health education in Mongolia, and common health problems found in Mongolian youth. We’ve had a panel with teachers at the school and even visited the adolescent ward of the local hospital, as well as the HIV/Aids and STI clinic. Apparently, gonorrhea and syphilis are the most common STIs in Mongolian youth. The youngest case at this clinic was a 14-year-old girl.

Once a week, we have the regional meetings, which will typically be on Wednesdays for my region except when the Health Trainees are away practicing teaching at summer camps (woot woot something to look forward to throughout training!). The regional meetings are further nutritional and safety sessions. At this first regional meeting, we got another vaccination. There have been so many, I honestly don’t remember what the last shot was. But the nurse who administered the shot said she remembered me. To quote her: “Ah yes, you’re the one who always sings” (that’s a nice way of saying I squeal loudly when I get shots).

I’ve already noticed my language skills improving. The first full day with my family, I learned kitchen words, like bread and spoon. Here’s a transcript of one of our dinner conversations:

Aab (Dad) and Eej (Mom): … (philosophical and deep discussions in Mongolian) …

Me: Spawn (my attempt at spoon), spawn

Aab: Spoon…

Aab and Eej: … (more intense conversation) …

 Me: Spoon!

Aab and Eej: … (discussions)…

 Me: Spoon, spoon, spoon, spoon, bread!

You get the picture… Now that I’ve been in the community for a week, I can say short phrases, like “it’s hot” and “I slept well”. The language lessons help with grammar and understanding how the language works. We also practice pronunciation, but most of my practice comes from speaking with family and community members. Each day there’s a different topic. The first day was food; then I learned about the sunset, flowers, trees, rainbows, sunrise, and the train. I’ve also learned the five animals of Mongolia (horse, sheep, goat, camel, and cow) in Mongolian, in addition to “pig,” “dog,” and all the baby versions of the respective animals. When we hiked to a temple (I’m never informed of these trips so I don’t bring my phone to take pictures), I learned “step,” “tile,” “chair,” “trashcan,” and “mountain”. I’ve also learned cooking phrases such as “to cut meat” and “to knead dough”. One time, my host mother asked me to cut the meat. This ended up in her having to re-cut the meat since I cut the pieces too large as my host father doesn’t have all his teeth and requires small pieces of meat. In addition, I’ve learned “fire,” “matches,” “wood,” “river,” “boat,” “house,” and “ger” (now don’t worry, I’m not a pyromaniac, I was just learning how to make a fire to cook tsuivan and buuz). My host father also enjoys teaching me comparison words: long vs. short, hard vs. soft, big vs. little, tall vs. short, thick vs. thin, wide vs. narrow, etc.

This past week, the head of Safety & Security stopped by all the houses at my site. I happened to be at home when he was at my house since we’d gotten out of class early. He translated for my host father, saying that apparently, my host father is very impressed with my ability to learn new words and remember them. My host father was pointing at different objects and asking me to identify them in Mongolia. He even showed off my phrases, like “hot water with honey”. This one is slightly difficult since “with” is a case. Mongolian is an agglutinative case language so the suffix meaning “with” gets added on to the end of the word that was added. In this case, I say “honey-with hot water” which means that the hot water has honey added to it. Luckily for me, this is similar to Hungarian. It’s been interesting learning in class about cases, as Mongolian also has cases that mean “to” and “from” and are also added as suffixes. In addition, if you say “I like apples” in Mongolian, an “nd” sound is added to the end of “apple” to identify it as a noun on which the verb is acting (i.e. “I apple-nd like”). This has been slightly difficult for some other Trainees in my class to understand since English isn’t really like this.

I’ve also talked with some of the TEFL (the English teacher Trainees) about their language lessons. The TEFL Trainees must reach Novice-high by the end of Pre-Service Training (PST); however, since Health Trainees will be ideally teaching in Mongolian, we must be at Intermediate-Mid. As a result, the Health Trainees are in smaller sub-groups for language lessons. This first week, each training site was in one group for language lessons, but on Friday, each site was split into sub-groups of 4-5 for TEFL and 3 Trainees per group for Health. We split into a fast- and normal-paced group that we self-selected at my site. I’m in the fast group with two similar-aged Trainees. It’s definitely been helpful that I’m still in “school-mode” while other Trainees at my site haven’t been in school for over a decade.

Besides the language, integration into the community has also been its own experience. There was one day when I ate so many buuz, I felt like I really needed to work out (supposedly the PST 15 is real). I asked my host mother if I could run up the hill we hiked the day before, but she mimed that the dogs would bite me. Luckily, our dog, Ask, is very nice (although he’s not the brightest). He loves trying to untie my shoelaces, even when I wear sandals… My host mother said that I could run on the streets. Then, out of nowhere, a roughly 11-year-old boy showed up right in front of me. Apparently, he was requested by my host parents to be my running buddy for the day. He was paid in candy. Little did I know that besides having a regular running buddy, I would also become Batman’s sidekick (he calls me “Robin” since “Roberta” is too difficult without regular practice!!). Yet, the next day, his friend showed up at lunch and mimed running and said “7 pm”. I rightly assumed that I would be going running again that day as well. Now, I typically don’t run in the US, but it’s the only easily accessible form of exercise here. However, apparently, I am now an avid runner. I run each day at 7 pm… What started out as me with a single running mate, has now become a small group. I now run with three teenage boys. Each day a new neighborhood child joins. Typically, at the start of the run, a small crowd gathers of kids who want to run but haven’t yet garnered up the courage to ask, so they just excitedly watch and wave. As we were finishing the run yesterday, an approximately 7-year-old girl ran up and asked if she could run with us tomorrow. So we’ll see if she joins us today! My first running mate typically rides a bike now that others run with me (he doesn’t really like running). After our runs, we always play volleyball. I stopped counting one night after 17 Mongolians joined in on the fun and a small group of three- to five-year-olds started playing badminton next to the volleyball circle.

On our run yesterday, we saw the military truck coming in from the Russian border, so we all took off at a sprint (see I told you there’d be more). I’ve had more than enough interaction with the military. On a run with my original running buddy, the military truck driving by pulled us over. Well, more like pulled me over, but as my site-mates like to say, my “11-year-old bodyguard” was there to explain my predicament. I was asked where I am from and warned to stay away from the Russian border (like I could even run 20 kilometers there and 20 back…) Luckily, everything worked out, but now I always run with a copy of my passport.

The only slightly challenging part of life in Mongolia has been showering/bathing. Besides the hot shower I had the first Sunday, I have only had one tumpun bath. A tumpun is what Mongolians call a plastic bin. First my host mother washes my hair, scrubbing my scalp raw, and then she leaves the kitchen so I can use my tumpun for the important body parts. It’s slightly better than baby wipes. Honestly, the bathing part isn’t that rough (even considering that I run every day… the wind helps a lot with cooling down and drying clothes); what’s difficult is feeling that my hair is greasy. I can feel it in my scalp. If I could get down a system of washing my hair three times a week, that would be great (but it would also be wasting water, since the water left after the hair washing is used for the rest of the body).

On the topic of water, yesterday (Saturday) I helped fetch water from the well. Apparently, Saturday is the day of work and chores in Mongolia. My host father fixed the floor boards in the house’s entryway and added a cardboard/linoleum layer, while my host mother gave the dishes their weekly intense cleaning (unfortunately cleaning dishes after every meal isn’t really a thing in Mongolia… rather they receive a quick rinse in the same water that’s been used all day for dish rinsing… I try not to watch). I woke up a couple hours later than my host family and, after eating breakfast, immediately went with my host father and a neighborhood boy to fetch water. I pushed three canisters in the makeshift wheelbarrow. Fortunately, the full canisters only need to be pushed downhill (yay for gravity and potential energy… see, you do use physics in your everyday life). The water ran out at the well, so while we waited for a truck to bring more water, I started on my laundry. I used my tumpun again, this time as a basin. My host mother put Tide in the water, and then I used Tide with a bar of laundry soap to clean my whites. The water was then dumped and filled with clean water used to rinse out the soap. I hung up all my clean clothes and then started on my thicker clothes, like business casual blouses, dresses, pants, and sweaters. The hot sun and the wind meant that within 3 hours, all my clothes were dry, even my thickest sweater.

Since Mongolia doesn’t like to leave me time to rest, the water arrived as soon as I was done with laundry, so I went on three more runs. It’s a blessing that my host father has a car because this way we were able to drive the next runs instead of using the wheel barrow. I’m sure in the future, I will have more physically challenging chores, but for now I’m pleased that fetching water was my only duty.

To date, Mongolia has been a pretty amazing experience. Plus, the scenery is beautiful (I have some wonderful photos). I’m excited to see what the rest of PST brings and to get back to having Wi-Fi so my posts can be more frequent and much shorter (I was too excited to share all I learned)!