My Orientation

I’ve been in Mongolia for almost two weeks at this point, and I am only now finding time to write about life since graduation. You wouldn’t think that integrating into a community between classes would leave you without any free time, but boy would you be wrong. For now though, that’s beside the point; the important question is: how did I get to this beautiful country?

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The week that I arrived was probably the busiest week of my life. Within 6 days, I went from being a college graduate in Pennsylvania to a Peace Corps Trainee in Mongolia. Graduation was a joyous experience. I saw my sister and her family, as well as my best friend for the last time before Mongolia. The thrill of meeting my college friends’ families and seeing my best friends from home and school in the same location, enjoying each other’s company was exhilarating. It was extremely tiring as well. I think I got a maximum of 5 hours of sleep if that each night. Plus, leaving for Ohio as soon as graduation was over, just to finish packing so that I could fly out with my parents to San Francisco was a lot to handle. Luckily, we were troopers, and got through the travelling without too many hiccups (although one of my bags did break).

After arriving in San Francisco, my parents and I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, ate a plethora of various foods, were happily surprised to receive free admission to Muir Woods National Monument, and continued packing and repacking my new suitcase. When our time together drew to a close, my parents left without a tearful goodbye (that had happened in Ohio when we realized I wouldn’t be coming back home). Then, it was time for Staging.

Since I was in San Francisco before Peace Corps events began, I met up with some other Invitees to explore the city. I saw the Golden Gate Bridge (twice in a week, really racking up my tourist points) and went to a tea garden. We also had sushi for the last time for most likely a long time considering Mongolia is a landlocked country… Then we went back to the hotel to begin the ambiguous and ever-elusive event known as Staging. It turned out to be exactly what you’d expect: ice breakers, Peace Corps history and expectations, and a brief introduction about what to expect from Mongolian culture. We were lucky that a 3rd year recently returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) decided to join us. That poor RPCV; we interrogated him for hours. After the first evening, most of the volunteers went out to explore San Francisco and get to know one another. Then we went back to the hotel to get some sleep to prepare for the grueling day ahead of us. After the only full day of Staging, some Invitees went to buy last minute supplies, while most spent hours repacking their suitcases to meet the weight limit. had a wonderful last dinner at a Yemeni restaurant. Most Invitees ended up going to bed late, even though we had to be down in the hotel lobby by 4:30 am… I Surprisingly, this international trip was one of my easiest to date.

We took a charter bus to the airport and got dropped off at the domestic terminal. Who knew that this mistake, which ended up requiring all 61 Invitees to walk to the international terminal would be our only form of exercise for the next 31 hours. After checking our bags and checking-in for the flight (we definitely created a traffic jam… such a long line), we played the waiting game as our plane didn’t leave until 10:50 am. After that we had about 10.5 hours to sit on the plane and get to know the Invitees sitting on either side of us. Luckily, the flight passed quickly with conversation, movies, and periods of sleep.

Upon landing in South Korea, we quickly had to figure out where to check-in to receive our transfer tickets for the flight to Ulaanbaatar. One of the Invitees speaks Korean, so with his help we were able to swiftly navigate to the transfer desk. Conveniently, the complimentary showers were about 20 feet from the transfer desk. A small towel, soap, and shampoo were provided for each traveler in the shower rooms. I was the second Invitee to get in line, so I had an extremely short wait. Each shower room even provided a new disposable toothbrush! This was the cleanest and most refreshed I had ever felt after a long day of travelling. After the shower, one of the other Invitees and I got pho, and then I took a nap before the flight to Ulaanbaatar.

On the flight, all the Invitees were split up. It turned out that 13 Invitees had to stay in Seoul for the night and take the flight to Ulaanbaatar the next day as they had not been confirmed for tickets on our flight. I ended up sitting next to a 45-year-old man from England who had been living in Mongolia for the last 4 years and in Asia for the last 17 years. He had a lot of interesting advice about the culture that I had not yet heard or read online. He also recommended an app (WordPower) that is really helpful with the Mongolian language.

Once we landed in Mongolia, we went through customs and picked up our bags (no bags were lost, imagine that!). Then, we met up with Peace Corps Mongolia officials who ushered us to the bus. From there it was an hour drive to our hotel on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

The next day, we had a late brunch (thank you Peace Corps for giving us time to sleep in). Unfortunately, due to the early sunrise, most Trainees (now we’re called Trainees since we made it to Mongolia, woohoo!) woke up around 5 am. Peace Corps was clearly slowly letting us adapt to Mongolian life as our hotel in San Francisco had been beautiful, and this one still had bathrooms and running hot water. Plus, the food was a mix between Europeanized Mongolian cooking and American breakfasts including eggs and bacon. We even had Wi-Fi (hello snapchat streaks). Thus, began our orientation period in Mongolia.

Over the next five days, we learned about Peace Corps policies in Mongolia, how to stay healthy and safe, and had culture lessons. We also received vaccinations for rabies, ticks, and typhoid… Many speakers were also invited. One of the most interesting sessions was when five current PCVs came and spoke to us about various topics. There were two volunteers who discussed life in Mongolia as an LGBTQ member. Since it is not really accepted in Mongolia, they said over the last year or two years, they have only come out to a maximum of three people. This usually occurred because the people somehow found out, either from using their computer or because they guessed and were surprised by the response. In addition, accidentally outing someone can occasionally cause problems for PCVs as news spreads quickly in Mongolia. There were also two volunteers who discussed life in Mongolia for PCVs who don’t look like the stereotypical “American”. One volunteer is Hispanic from the Dominican Republic, but many Mongolians think he’s from Africa and always touch his hair. The other volunteer is Korean American, so Mongolians were constantly surprised at the beginning of her service about why she can’t speak Mongolian well as they assumed she was a native Mongolian. The final volunteer was a 72-year-old PCV who discussed how life is different as an older volunteer. She said that since respect for elders is prevalent in Mongolian culture, it has been easier for her to be heard by her community members as she doesn’t need to prove her ideas are worthwhile. This session really gave some valuable insight into some aspects of life in Mongolia that I had not really considered.

Two days before leaving, we were given our training site locations. I practiced my family members’ names with some of the Mongolian officials in Peace Corps Mongolia. Most Mongolians have a two-part name. For example, one nurse is named Stone-Flower. Typically, the easier half is the name they go by with foreigners. We’re split up into two regions which each meet once a week for Medical and Safety & Security sessions. This means that the half of the Trainees in the same region will see each other, but the two halves won’t meet up until the end of the three months when there are three days of closing ceremonies. At this time, we will also meet the Training Managers (sort of like school principals) for our respective permanent sites. Three months seems like a long time to live with a host family without seeing many of my friends, but I’m sure it will pass quickly.

My Rough Patch Before Graduation and Staging

Since I accepted my invitation at the end of July, I have been mentally preparing myself to leave for over two years to Mongolia. Last week, with only two weeks to go before flying to San Francisco for Staging, my mental preparation came to its toughest roadblock. On May 11th, all of the M28s (my Peace Corps cohort) received an email stating that

more candidates than expected cleared [medically and legally]. Therefore, [Peace Corps Mongolia] is looking for 4 Health Invitees and 1 Education Invitee to volunteer for placement in a different country of service… If by Monday May 15th, [PC Mongolia] has not heard from enough candidates, [PC Mongolia] will begin to proactively identify candidates for alternative placement”.

Sounds eerily similar to airlines overbooking flights… As expected, the Facebook group immediately lit up with people worrying about the email and asking if anyone had volunteered. While I did not participate in this conversation, I sent a screenshot of the email to my mom right away and consequently received an extremely worried call from her. We decided not to contemplate the decision-making process and rather, just await the verdict with the hopeful assumption that I would make the cut.

As we nervously waited the four days until Monday when we’d hear news, my mind wandered, exploring the possibilities of what I could do if I was chosen to stay in the US before being reassigned. For the first time in 10 months, I was thinking of my future as not including Mongolia, and honestly, I felt lost. Besides the monetary losses (my mom had ironically cut the tags off all my warm winter clothes the morning the email arrived), I wouldn’t have any plans; I hadn’t applied to grad school since I’d already accepted my invitation and hadn’t foreseen any obstacles between medical and legal clearance, and I hadn’t applied to any job opportunities besides Peace Corps. What would I do? End up working at Giant Eagle or Kroger’s as a cashier? I hoped not. I did have a lot of friends who kept telling me to visit them over the summer, but I knew my mom wouldn’t be down with that… can’t just laze my life away. And so, my 10 months of mental preparation began to slowly crumble. All my family members, friends, and family friends were extremely supportive. There were hopeful musings, stressed musings, and realistic musings. One family friend said that from his and his wife’s many years of government work, he knows the government makes decisions the simplest way: last hired, first fired. Now, I’m not sure if that’s the route Peace Corps Mongolia took, but it sure eased my worries.

On Monday, the 15th, we were emailed saying that they hadn’t reached a decision yet, but hopefully they would have more concrete information by Tuesday (the 16th) or Wednesday (the 17th). On Tuesday, my mom and I were shopping for the final clothes we thought I’d need for Mongolia (remember, we stayed hopeful) when I received a Facebook notification that someone had posted in the Peace Corps group. The post stated that the member had received a phone call from the head of Peace Corps Mongolia informing her that she would not be going to Mongolia and she hopefully would be reassigned quickly. This meant that for the next hour, I was obsessively checking my phone to make sure I had service in case I received a call. Within an hour of the post, the M28s received an email stating that the M28 class was final, everyone who was identified for alternative placement had been contacted. I’d made it! After 10 months of certainty and only 6 days of uncertainty, I was once again certain I would be going to Mongolia.

With this revamped excitement, my mom and I continued preparing and packing for Mongolia (unsure if you’ve noticed, but my mom has played a huge role in preparation for the Peace Corps… thanks mommy). I should’ve taken pictures of the packing process but I entirely forgot. Just imagine an entire queen-sized bed filled with clothes and supplies, surrounded by electronics on the floor. Now imagine all of that stuffed into 1 medium duffel bag and 1 large suitcase. It was almost an impossible process: multiple times repacking the suitcase, transferring the summer supplies from the suitcase to the duffel bag, transferring the winter supplies from the duffel bag to the suitcase, realizing it was better originally, transferring everything back, and realizing there were 3 pounds that we could not get rid of. In the end, we used magic to fit everything… Nah, we took out my blow-up sleeping pad (my poor back). All this was made possible by both my parents and “space” bags; my dad rolled the clothes in the “space” bags to make them airtight, my mom packed, and I handed stuff back and forth. It was a wonderfully efficient assembly line. I’m still impressed that I’ll actually be able to take most of what I planned on and wanted to Mongolia. Most of all, I’m excited I’m going!

During these stressful 6 days, my mom also managed to throw a small goodbye get-together for family friends (see, she’s amazing). The food was delicious (my mom is the best cook ever), the atmosphere was full of excitement, and the weather was beautiful. Throughout the event, I received a lot of questions about my upcoming Peace Corps service. Since accepting my invitation 10 months ago, I have come to expect the same typical list of questions:

  1. Wow, why Mongolia?
  2. What exactly is the Peace Corps?
  3. Did you want to go to Mongolia?
  4. What exactly will you be doing?
  5. Did you apply to other countries?
  6. What language do they speak in Mongolia?
  7. Mmm honestly, I don’t even know where Mongolia is…
  8. Genghis Khan….

These questions have served to reinforce not only how little people know about the Peace Corps, but also about Mongolia in general. In case you still don’t know what the Peace Corps is, check out the “What is the Peace Corps?” section of my “About Me” page. If you’re wondering about Questions 1, 3, 6, and 7, check out the “Why Mongolia?” section of “About Me”. But honestly, all the questions are answered in my first blog post, “My Path to the Peace Corps”. Back to business, these questions have already shown me the value of the Peace Corps. The mission of the Peace Corps is to

promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

  1. to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
  2. to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  3. to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”.

When people ask me where Mongolia is, I know that I am already helping fulfill the third part of the Peace Corps’ mission statement. The people with whom I interact in the US are already learning about people in Mongolia just by talking to me. Many of them have informed me afterwards that they researched Mongolia after our discussion and have expanded their knowledge besides perhaps having heard of Mongolia’s most famous leader, Genghis Khan. Knowing that by merely joining the Peace Corps I have already helped Americans learn about a different culture, is a great feeling. The better part will be learning about Mongolia, the Mongolian people, and Mongolia’s culture and then relaying what I learned to Americans to help deconstruct misconceptions about Mongolia and the region in general. My first goal: Mongolian BBQ is not traditional Mongolian food. I can’t wait to finally be there. But first I have to graduate… In two days, I will have a BS in Biomedical Engineering from Bucknell University! And student loans to worry about…