Teachers (my ‘counterparts’) also ask me how my work is going. If I could tell them everything, this is what I would say:
I spent day 1 in a deel, being introduced to teachers and governors and CEOs of major companies. Pictures taken, red carpet rolled out. Night 1 entailed an exclusive party at a local tourist ger camp with dinner and dancing. I felt like a celebrity amidst other celebrities.
Day 2, I shuffled around in the morning, following whoever knew my name around like a lost puppy. The afternoon was more exciting, passing out backpacks–compliments of a major oil company–to the ‘neediest’ students. This meant calling their names in front of their classes and having them walk to the front to collect their ‘charitable gift,’ attempt to say ‘thank you’ in English, and then walk back to their seat. I’m sure they were very grateful.
Day 3 was spent standing in front of the classes I hadn’t already stood in front of, saying, ‘Hello! My name is Alyse,’ as if that’s the only thing I can say. The students giggled, my social worker counterpart bantered back and forth with them, everyone stared. And I just stood, smiling. Because my name is Alyse. Watch me say, ‘Hello.’
Again, I follow the nearest warm body and end up at the dorms for a meeting with the director and the parents of the some of the children who will be living in the dormitories this year. Some heated words, tears in their eyes– they’re leaving their babies, after all–and at the end, the director turns to me and asks what I have to say to the parents. I stare, a blank nothingness. She tells me she likes my teeth. ‘Water in Zamiin-Uud, bad. For teeth, we use [how do you say? she mumbles in Monglian] oo. You know?’ ‘Oo?’ Assuming she’s telling me my teeth are ok but my breath is kicking, I show her the word for mouthwash in the dictionary. She takes control of the iPod and finds what she really wants: toothpaste. ‘Your teeth, Cain, water here, bad. Toothpaste, good.’ Yes, great, I have toothpaste. Every day, twice a day! Small victories.
Day 4: waiting. Lunch with a teacher; more following. Sitting on the teacher’s couch for a couple hours. Meeting at 3: somehow the social worker rounded up 17 students for a student meeting, led by students for 2 hours. I was the only ‘adult’ in the room, though I can’t possibly be worthy of that title with the vocabulary of a 6 month old. This is what I gathered: my counterpart is busy and charismatic, capable of carrying things out and of delegating; there are students who are social and respected and motivated; I need to learn more Mongolian so that I participate more than spelling my name.
After just four days of what some might call work, I walk down the road to a chorus of, ‘Hellos!’ Sometimes, ‘Hi, Alysa!’ (My Mongolian name has an ‘a’ on the end.) Maybe even, ‘Niigmiin ajiltan [social worker],’ which is much better than English teacher, the other go-to. I suppose by their definition, I’m fulfilling my job title: being social. The worker part has some kinks to be ironed out. Should I feel bad? Nah. Already I’m seeing the fruits of my labor. Just give me some standing room.
Hello! My name is Alyse.