All summer, they had prepared us for our jobs. We were told that our directors would have little time for us, that we would need someone to be our go-between with them, that we would be but mere bugs to the giants that were to be our bosses. I prepared myself for that; I expected no emotional returns for what I gave and therefore didn’t plan on giving much. I would be respectful and humble. But I would not be friends with this person. Who could be?
Then came the week we were to meet them, the last week of summer as we knew it. We would fly, drive, ride the train to our sites across a country that does not make it so easy to do any of those. We didn’t know when we’d see each other next, and we had been trained for a job with people whom we had not met. And here we were, standing in a big line across the room from another big line made up of our new supervisors– the most important people in our jobs-to-be, yet the most enigmatic.
One by one, they called our names and theirs, and we met in the middle in a sort of procession of which neither was sure of the steps. More names, more awkward greetings with all eyes watching. Soon enough my name was called, and as I walked up, I saw a woman in tennis shoes– in contrast to the heels most of the other women were wearing– walk up to me with her arms open. It was the only hug a supervisor gave to a volunteer that day, and that hug was mine. I haven’t forgotten it.
She and I didn’t speak too much during the three days before we took the train to my new home. She wasn’t confident in her English; I wasn’t confident in my Mongolian. Neither of us seemed the type to fill the air with words anyway. We weren’t uncomfortable. We just were. I attributed it to her being my supervisor and to the beginning of a relationship in which I would not see much of her. Little did I know what my life would be like…
It turns out she wasn’t my director. She was my ‘supervisor,’ but her role in my school was the training manager. The director– also the landlord of my ger— was nice and responsive to my needs, but she was, as they had told us, much too busy for my day-to-day quibbles and questions. That’s what the supervisor was for. If I had a work-related question, I’d ask her; if I needed more wood for my fires, I’d tell her. I’d go to her with ideas for projects, and she’d come back with her own. She made them happen, too, without which my work record here would have been quite bare.
And it turns out she was much better at English than she originally let on. I barely spoke a word to her in Mongolian because she understood me so well in my native tongue. Our relationship didn’t take long to move from acquaintances to familial, with her being a maternal, aunt-like figure in my life. She told me of her life, of the lives of other teachers, of the goings-on in school. I never felt judged, and she always shared freely with me.
At some point in my first fall here, she invited me over to her home. I think it was for me to show her something on her computer, but she ended up feeding me dinner and talking with me. That night, she asked her husband something quickly before turning to her calendar and telling me that I would visit her home once a week. From then on, I went to her home for lunch every Sunday afternoon, sitting in her apartment, watching her daughters play, talking with her. She and her husband even took me to his work so that I wouldn’t have to pay for a shower at the public shower house. During her spring cleaning, she gave me several items of clothing she simply didn’t want anymore. She was– and has only become more so– my guardian.
When my life went to pieces on a small-scale this winter by having problems with safety and security, by becoming homeless for a brief time, and by feeling useless at work, my supervisor came to the rescue. She didn’t swoop in heroically or coddle me. She merely did as she does, and things fell into place. I moved into her old apartment that her family had serendipitously vacated just a month earlier, and she became my new landlord. She worked out times and places at work for me to get some projects done. And she continued to invite me over every Sunday for dinner.
She no longer comes to work because she is on pregnancy leave; her baby is due in early June. I leave mid-July. My time with her is quickly coming to an end, yet I feel like I owe her so much for all she’s done for me here. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here anymore. I would have given up, would have packed up and gone home. But here I am, quite content in my new home and filling my time with those consistent visits to hers. She is the person I will miss the most and remember the fondest.
So, whatever anyone says, I know now that I made a friend in this person I was told would have no time for me. She was both my go-between and the last word. The respect between us was mutual, and I would risk my emotions for the connection we share. For as little as I may be, she made me feel like I’m not.