The Zuud is Coming

Its only been about two months since I’ve arrived at site, and it feels like a couple weeks but it also feels like its been about a year. Its already started getting pretty cold, and when I think about the impending winter my heart starts racing a little. This will be my first, real zuud. I’m still in this out-of-body state where I don’t really believe I’m in this for the long haul. I talk to a few Peace Corps friends on a regular basis, and a theme that comes up in our conversations is the whole “living in the present” cliché. Frankly, it’s the only mantra I can live by that gets me through the day.

In the United States, I wasn’t exactly confident in my professional abilities. I enjoy waking up late, I prefer to work at home, I loathe the small talk that builds those relationships that get you a promotion, or as it was in my case, the privilege to continue working for free or better hours. But now I’ve found myself clinging onto the people who are even just a little bit nice to me, asking them slightly moronic questions like if they have children or what their hobbies are. The whole notion of “awkwardness” flew out the window when we stepped off the plane in Ulaanbaatar back in May. I watch myself do a lot of things I wouldn’t have ever done if I wasn’t here, but when it comes down to it, I’m not given much choice on the matter. There is so much that is out of our hands, and most of the time, I’m mentally standing five feet away watching myself perform tedious tasks with a stupid smile on my face. (One of my favorite words in Mongolian: тэнэг (tenig)stupid.)

There are a lot of things I could get upset about everyday. I got so homesick when I opened the package my mom sent me. I caught a whiff of the laundry detergent from home she used to wash underwear she bought for me from Ross. It was the smell of home. I hadn’t allowed myself to miss anything from home, because I didn’t think I did. That stupid smell sent me over the edge I needed to step over.

I’ll happily admit that this first bit here at site has been rougher than I wish it had been. There’s this chart that Peace Corps gives us that graphs out our happiness and mood levels throughout service. “Your service is a rollercoaster” is basically what it says. The spikes of happiness have been extreme, but the lows can be pretty damn low. Essentially, the first few months at site are supposed to be new and exciting! Fantastically grand with Technicolor multicultural shininess!

“Supposedly.”

But “no peace corps service is the same,” and “everybody has different experiences.”

So now I watch myself from a distance, living in the present, doing things that simply need to be done. I come home at the end of the day slightly proud, though. Even if its going to every damn дэлгүүр (delguur) on every corner to find eggs. In the United States, I couldn’t have been bothered to deal with the things I do here. I spend hours on the most mundane tasks but get a quiet pleasure out of accomplishing something together with a host country national and yes, building a connection.

I’ve just passed a threshold in which I no longer find Mongolia new and strange, but rather familiar and sometimes annoying. I can’t make it through the week without being watched while eating mutton at least four or five times. I miss not being able to eat local grown organic produce whenever I want, but I do have people who hover over me making sure I eat enough. It can be mildly endearing, albeit incredibly irritating at times. My ээж (eejmom) called me and told me she missed me, which I was honestly surprised by. It warmed me.

Most of my days in Darkhan with my host family were spent either helping cook, watching weird television programs I never understood, doing a lot of nothing and talking about how hot it was. I saw my host dad probably once or twice, because my host parents lived separately. I had a strict curfew, and my ээж was vigilant. She’d call me every hour, on the hour, to make sure I would come home. So annoying, but so loving.

So, if anyone were to ask me how I feel about my service right now, I’d say just ok. I’m ok.

Finding Peace

The tiny frustrations have percolated into one big giant realization: It just never works out the way you want it to.

Offering a speech in Mongolian at our swearing-in ceremony in August.
Offering a speech in Mongolian at our swearing-in ceremony in August. Credit: Kyra Lindstrom

That old, cliché saying— Expect the worse, hope for the best—its been ringing in my ears this past week.

I am eerily American in the fact that I subconsciously acknowledge that productiveness is key and that “time is money” and the best bet at success or happiness comes from action. My background in journalism led me to understand that I have to work all the time. I feel like a flustered pigeon that accidentally flew into a room after starting school at the beginning of this month. I’m not always exactly sure what I should be doing to pass the hours.

The frustration is the fact that I don’t know. I never know—the obvious manifestation of that idea is the ability to grasp the language. Every action is fleeting: I have the concrete basis of what I want to say or do, but if I can get maybe 30% of that idea expressed, its basically a success. I was given a vague job description and a desk, and the rest lies on the Peace Corps’ confidence in me.

I’m not sure if I should feel like I should trust my old instincts in understanding what’s fairs fair, because in all developing countries, nothing’s “fair” whatever the fuck that means. I haven’t been physically or emotionally comfortable in the last three months, and I work on my personal happiness daily to keep myself balanced. I supposedly suffer because the obvious is apparent: I’m going without a lot of aesthetic, material things that contributed to my security in who I am as it pertains to both my work and my identity.

During Pre Service Training, I was disgruntled, angry even, at the Peace Corps’ approach when it came to scheduling. I enjoyed waking up without an alarm, lazily wincing into the day’s first hours of sun. I felt like I was being realigned, being forced into adulthood by showing up everyday at 9 a.m. and wearing clothes that covered my tattoos, knees, and elbows. The anger boiled up after I had a heat stroke, and I showed up to training the next week with my tattoos bared unabashed with a scowl on my face. Take that. But that was petty.

My suffering, as maybe others would perceive it, is not really suffering. I used to tell myself over and over again while I lived in my hometown that comfort is dangerous, that if I let it get the best of me, I’d succumb to the secretary’s ass of personal integrity. I’m knee deep in puzzle pieces I’m trying to put together, and its not always pretty. There’s a developed and tasteful beauty in finding peace in accepting our world’s harsh realities.

I’ve just made acquaintance with that peace.

Puzzles

I was about ten or eleven years old when I first thought about working abroad. I pictured myself selfless and altruistic, throwing my aid at the feet of those who need it. I pictured myself in a third-world country feeding starving children or something completely cliché of that nature. My mom asked me what happened had happened to that notion this afternoon after I told her a few stories about what I’m doing. I told her I was eating lunch at a restaurant in town sponsored by a local non-profit. I told her I live in an apartment with running water. I talked about the wonderful things my host country agency has provided for me, their kindness, and maybe I sprinkled in a bit of my daily frustrations in there as well. There are bigger problems though, that can’t be fixed by throwing food at it and then high-tailing it out of there after the two-year stint has finished.

And in that way, Mongolia is a puzzle to me.

When I worked my last shift at the restaurant in my hometown, a customer flashed a disappointed frown when I told him I was moving away. “America needs you more,” he said, “you shouldn’t go.” I gave him the most diluted answer I could think of, I told him that it’s a wonderful opportunity to discover a new culture even though I felt like telling him to stuff his 14% tip up his ass.

He has a point though. All countries need some sort of development. I simply let Peace Corps decide which one.

Peace Corps, volunteer work, etc., can’t be justified by making yourself feel good about spoon-feeding the poor, sad children. When I stayed in India for a summer, I realized that nothing I was doing was ever going to be permanent. I memorized girls’ names, helped them with their homework and played with them. I had no training, I just got helicoptered into an orphanage with a somewhat naïve illusion that I could make a difference just by helping out.

I hung onto that notion thinking that I wanted to do something that mattered, damn it. I want to be a volunteer who changes people’s lives, man. I let myself forget about that about halfway through Pre-Service Training, because that ain’t going to happen. There’s no gauge for who’s the neediest and who deserves it the most. That’s not a fair spectrum to look at. Everyone needs help.

Yeah, I feel pretty damn guilty about living in the same apartment building as my town’s governor, but I also live in a one-bedroom where the water has been shut off three times and the power has gone out every single night. The water that came out of the faucet this morning was straight-up brown and it’s not even winter yet. One of my counterparts walked into my apartment yesterday and told me that I was a “very rich woman” and my heart sank.

A big part of me wishes I lived somewhere shittier, somewhere less posh-seeming. But my responsibility to unconditionally dedicate myself to my job became that much bigger. I have so much more time that’s not spent chopping wood, hauling water jugs or starting fires.

But in the last week since I’ve been here, I’ve been busy memorizing dozens of names I keep forgetting, stumbling through conversations with coworkers, sitting quietly as Mongolians converse quickly in front of me, and trying not to look too dirty. The latter is probably the most difficult for me.

New home

I read a lot of blog posts about Peace Corps volunteers serving abroad, and at the beginning of the summer when I left for Mongolia I felt like everyone had something to say about the severity and the overall extremeness of the journey they’re about to undertake. I’d like to think that everyday anywhere is sort of extreme by it’s own merit, though. Even if I were to be living in America, I’d be doing the same things. But maybe I’m a little more productive while I’m here.

But overall, Mongolia is a wonderful country. Absolutely wonderful. I’m still shocked by the kindness of strangers, the frankness of the language, and the food.

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sheep’s teeth

After being here for three months, I can safely assume and suggest that everyone is simply just human. We all bleed red. Mongolian or American. The differences are in the habits. The very, very foreign habits. Something that comes to mind is the way that Mongolians stand, sit, and relax very close to each other. Its a very unromantic touch, a touch that acknowledges that human beings crave it.

I was told where I would be moving to for the next two years about a week and a half ago, and I haven’t had a great opportunity to research much about it besides the information they gave me. In short, I’m in the most remote part of Mongolia. Out in the wild, wild west. I got here a few days ago and the way its laid out reminds me of a mountainous ski village in America. Mountains surround me from all corners, and snow is knee-high during the winter.

If you were to ask me about Mongolia, about a universal idea that I’ve taken away from this experience so far, I’d say that time is both precious and not. The way I spend my days here make up for all of the stress and busyness I had while living in California. I take the time. I linger. I’ve lost the ability to rush. And I love it.