Mongamerolia: An epiphany (or two)

I didn’t need to go home.  I didn’t have this impending sense of tragic burnout if I didn’t see America over the course of two years.  I consider Skype a near equivalent to seeing people in person.  And I don’t often need to see people in person to feel close to them.  I could have continued in my walking everywhere, squatting in an outhouse, burning coal and wood for warmth, mentally translating everything that’s said to me and that I say, for another year.  I could have made it.  Yet I found myself States-bound at the end of July for a very good reason: my best friend from growing up, Maggie Merle, was getting married August 11.  And I couldn’t miss that.

I could write about the beauty of the ceremony, of the bride, of the intimate atmosphere the entire day, or of the honor I felt at being a part of it, but I’m not sure I could put it into words.  I just know that there would be a void in my life if I had decided not to partake.

Dancing with the bride

I could also write about the strangeness (and familiarity) of being back in the United States, about being nearly knocked over and then sucked in by the overwhelmingly powerful scent of clean laundry, or about talking about people in front of them because I have done so for so long now in front of people who don’t understand my language.  About throwing toilet paper away in the trash can next to the toilet rather than inside of it.  About choosing to handwash my underwear because it’s easier and about not feeling fully comfortable with waiting for dishes to pile up in the sink until they can fill the dishwasher.  About sleeping for 18 solid hours when I first arrived and about wanting to sleep for many more the entire time I was there.

But none of that is what I want to write about right now.

Instead, I want to debrief, to vent if you’ll allow me, to tell the truth, for going home was hard.  This past year was hard– mentally, physically, emotionally.  I was coasting in some ways, not on full, and I started the summer by being a trainer for the new wave of youth development trainees in Peace Corps Mongolia.  That experience rejuvenated me, brought me back to myself in the sense that I realized my niche like I hadn’t before, felt I had chosen the right career, despite not being in the right place to make it such just yet.    I spent some time after that with my good friend Chris and his Kitty in my second Mongolian home in UB, and I was doing alright.  Until I went home…

Some people were interested in hearing about Mongolia, it’s true.  They wanted to know about life in a ger, about my general job description, about safety and security.  But that was merely small talk.  The bulk of the conversation, of the interest, was post-Mongolia: what will I do when I’m back to reality?  And this was where it got hard for me.

I know what I want to do post-Mongolia.  I had a vague idea when I came, but it became much clearer when I was a trainer this summer.  I want to be a youth development worker; I want to work with youth to create positive environments for them to develop into healthy, mature adults; and I want to do it in an American city.   So when so many people were asking the same question–usually followed by, ‘I know you still have a year and probably haven’t thought about this; it’s ok if you don’t have an answer’–I spiraled farther and farther down the black hole of hopelessness.  Actually, well-intended inquirers, I have thought about it, and I do have an answer, only it’s rather wordy and difficult to put in a concise manner.  This answer– and therefore these questions– make me ask myself some other ones:  If I know what I want to do and where, what am I doing somewhere else?   If development is long-term, and if I want to work in the development field, why am I ‘practicing’ the beginning stage if I can’t follow it up, and, even worse, if I have to start it all over again in a different place?   Thus, downward I go…

So I volleyed the questions the best I could and then got on a plane.  The second plane ride took me to Beijing before bringing me back to Mongolia.  As I napped on and off for five hours in a booth in the airport’s Burger King, I felt myself putting up another layer, a second skin perhaps.  It was a hard shell that hadn’t been necessary in America and that had been built up over the last year without my knowing it.  You’re going back to a place where nothing is made easy, I heard myself say.  You will do it, as you have been doing it, only this time you know what you’re going back to.   This was a revelation, my epiphany: that there is a physical difference between the way I’m allowed to be in the States– soft, if you will– versus how I have to be in Mongolia– a kind of hardness.   I would not have noticed it if I hadn’t had to switch between the worlds in such a short time.   And I let it affect me.  I wouldn’t call it bitterness, but it was certainly not chipperness.  I felt more weight in my steps.  It was harder to listen to people laughing and sharing a good time without an edge of cynicism to my thoughts.  My recently found motivation for moving forward hit an area of sludge.  Couldn’t you have waited another year, America?  I didn’t need your reminders of my inadequacy.

Still, regardless of whether I thought I needed it, I had no choice but to use this and similar unplanned experiences to learn and, dare I say it, to grow.  Before finally returning to my site for good, I saw the new trainees swear-in as the new volunteers and attended a mid-service training for the current volunteers.   The former brought back the upbeat optimism that I felt as a trainer, and the latter let me express my frustrations as I saw them as pathetic excuses for being present.  Yes, I want to have a career in the States, and I have little room to make a difference here on a large scale in a single year.  But there’s still the small scale, and it’s still a year.  If I focus my energy down to what I know and to what I genuinely believe in, I think I can make a difference.  I love my school and the people around me down on the Chinese border.  So when I came to my little town and to my little ger, I was overcome with a sense of peace: I came here a year ago, full of hope for the untold opportunities and unknown experiences, and here I am a year later, full of awareness for what is expected of me and what I have to offer.    And I think… no, I know… that I’m ready for it.

One of my Mongolian heroes

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5 thoughts on “Mongamerolia: An epiphany (or two)

  1. Oh darn, I wrote what I thought was a profound reply (!), but it disappeared when I had trouble signing it. Oh well.  Here’s the gist:

    Your post is perfect. Of course you feel and think all that! What else? 

    Every PC I’ve ever talked/listened to has found it hard, frustrating, wondered @ times if they were doing any good, creating lasting change (remember all the conversations about sustainability?) And then looked back at the time as some of the best in their whole lives. And all found the PC experience the best preparation for then coming home and getting to work here in the US (or going on to a career with USAID, or UN, or or or…) They learned toughness, of the good sort, not as in “hard shell” but as in the bottoms of feet that walk without shoes, able to walk barefoot over uneven ground, which is what social change is all about – uneven, sometimes sharp, sometimes hurtful. It is NOT easy. One of the reason some people (Dan & Phoebe in the DR for example) stay a third year, is because they find that they’ve really started to feel useful in the second…The “critical issue” question in 520 – What do I do to keep on keeping on? What do I do when I feel hopeless? You will have some of the same questions here, anywhere. Change is sometimes fast but more often slow. Dysfunction, whether individual or national is like a huge ship with all that momentum, hard to change in any event. I think we find hope in different,  small things: the smile of a child, the connection with a few of the folks in your host country. Enough.

    You are amazing. And I’m so glad you went home to dance with the bride.

    Love,

    Nancy

    >________________________________ > From: wordsnotmadewithlungs >To: nancyseldin@yahoo.com >Sent: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 1:10 AM >Subject: [New post] Mongamerolia: An epiphany (or two) > > > WordPress.com >wordsnotmadewithlungs posted: “I didn’t need to go home.  I didn’t have this impending sense of tragic burnout if I didn’t see America over the course of two years.  I consider Skype a near equivalent to seeing people in person.  And I don’t often need to see people in person to fee” >

  2. Thank you, for all of that. I think that’s a good point about being hard from the soles of my feet rather than from my soul, so to speak. Just after the first two days of starting school again, I already have a sense of productivity and effectiveness that was lacking for most of the last year. That’s exciting. And I often return to that class and to that question of how to bring myself back to hope. It’s an evolving answer, I think, but always worth the struggle. Thanks for your encouragement. It means a lot.

  3. My comment is not going to be nearly as full of depth as Nancy’s, it is simply: I’m so happy that, you found a breath of rejuvenation and you are doing what you are doing for the world – even if that world is the world of one individual. Sending you enormous hugs, Kindle

  4. Alyse, at one point in the last year, you told me that you were avoiding asking yourself all the questions you knew you needed to ask in order to investigate what was really going on within you. I know you had allowed yourself to ask some questions before your stint in America, but this post reveals so much self-reflection and vulnerability. On this week’s SYTYCD, Nigel said, “There’s a great deal of strength in vulnerability.” I couldn’t have said it any better. I love you, and I’m looking forward to hearing about how God allows you to be a guide, support, teacher, encourager, friend, counselor, and so much more over the course of the next year.

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