Today is Chinggis Khan’s birthday, and as a national holiday, we all had the day off from work and school. With the cooling temperatures, I’m starting to feel much lonelier. I so badly crave the ability to speak English consistently, to not have a daily language barrier frustration, to go to yoga in a real live studio every Sunday, to go on a morning surf check with a cup of coffee from Café Classique. The Peace Corps braced us for this, but the anticipation is nothing like the actual sense of isolation in a foreign community. I haven’t posted so much recently, because I’ve been harboring feelings of resentment, anger, negativity and sadness. Yesterday’s new moon marked my intention to shed all of that, to move forward without focusing so much on all of the obvious hardships.
I moved to Holland right around the same time of the year that I moved to Zavkhan, in the early fall at the start of the new school year. Nine years later, I put far more effort into my experience here in Zavkhan than I ever did in Amsterdam. Yet, I can’t help but feel like that young, desperately homesick fourteen year old wanting so badly to feel like she belongs. I eat lunch in our school’s cafeteria everyday, and every time I grab my bowl of tsuvain or nogootaishol and sootaitsai, I scan the room looking to see where I should sit. Just recently, I realized that I eat at the table with the cool teachers.
How did it come back to this?
I celebrated Thanksgiving in Amsterdam with a family from Oxnard, California, a couple of missionaries with five children, all with the names of international cities. Despite my lack of religious beliefs, I loved that family to death. If I were to go back to my dad’s home, I could probably still bike to their house and back without fail. They embraced their American identities by opening their homes to everyone in the community to celebrate the holidays. They helped me feel like I belonged in a period in time when I felt so alienated from my Dutch family.
So I’m embracing my American identity, attempting to feel like I belong in Zavkhan. I’ve invited over my counterparts to my house for chicken-filled ravioli that took decades to prepare. I’ve taught passing kids how to say, “hey, what’s up” and “awesome.” I keep a smile on my face, even with swollen eyes from tears the day before. It takes the edge off of the dozens of well-meaning Mongolian youths who pass me shouting “hello” and “hi” all at once.
I’ve thrown myself into my work, establishing myself in what seems like a flurry of nonsensical organization. There’s no obvious work for me at my host-country agency, and my main counterpart, the school social worker, is as clueless as I am on what my primary duties could consist of. I’ve made dozens upon dozens of suggestions, but to no avail. He started his job about a week after I got to Uliastai. He’s incredibly genuine, albeit brand spanking new to his role as our school’s social worker. Everyday he asks me what I’ll be doing, and I’ll tell him in my broken Mongolian, and he’ll nod his head and say “that’s nice,” before heading off to do something else.
Some host country agencies take their volunteers by the hand and lead them into the darkness, while other volunteers, like me, are airdropped in and feel things out in the blindness until the surroundings are familiar enough to accomplish anything. The kind of independence I have developed in the last two months has been astronomical in size, but has taken an enormous toll on my emotional wellbeing. The Mongolia we see in pictures when googling “the steppe” is not the Mongolia I experience in the workplace, and the growing pains have been stretching my muscles until the point they rip.
I’ve found solace in my art class, my favorite success so far. It’s beyond the level of difficulty that I could have pictured, because the art-enthusiast technology teacher doesn’t speak a lick of English, and I’ve only been speaking Mongolian for a few months. But its been working, inexplicably. The same seven kids have been showing up every week, and eagerly show me their finished products at the end of class. My counterpart art-teacher is always on time, a Mongolian miracle, and always makes a small effort to make time to lesson plan, another Mongolian miracle.
Never in my life have I actively pursued small pleasures the way that I do here. When something goes right, it warms me like a drug. Just finding someone motivated enough to do execute a task with me is a victory.