As my About Me page says, I joined the Peace Corps to fulfill the internship for a Master’s program in Intercultural Youth and Family Development. After two years here and a pretty big paper, I have graduated. This is quite exciting for me, but it means something different than what it did before I came to Mongolia. Before, I thrived on discussion, even of things I had never experienced. I have always been an observer, living vicariously when I couldn’t gain experiences firsthand, so when I spoke, I was speaking out of a combination of conviction, observation, and whatever I had learned from the little experience I actually had. There was so much to be learned; there were so many questions left unanswered.
I will admit that I was a bit spoiled for my first three months in country: my host family was both well-off and quietly generous, so I received top-rate food, accommodations, and attention. They didn’t drink or smoke and rarely had people over, so I never saw pieces of this culture that are severely ingrained, like the overindulgence in alcohol or the crude lasciviousness. I remained unaware, lost in a world I felt was safe and welcoming to me. It took many months for that to wear off and for me to understand finally what so many other volunteers understood immediately by living with their host families. I wouldn’t ask for a different experience during that time; it’s just that a person doesn’t learn as much when things come easily.
When I got to my site down here in the Gobi, I thought I had the perfect view. However Sarah Palin-y it may sound, I really could see China from my yard. Just the desert in all its sandy glory and then China, where development seemed to have already happened. It was another elsewhere, similar to where I found myself yet also so different, a wide expanse before me where all the unknowns of my life could spread out. I was living in a ger at the time, so the juxtaposition felt surreal, like I was finally getting the stuff books are made of. I liked the sense that I was living in a land still not overtaken by paved roads, high-rises, or even indoor plumbing. It made me feel like I was on the edge of something, like I could make a positive difference before it was too late, before every action would be a reaction.
That was before I learned.
Slowly, it hit me that I was already a little too late. This country took a fast turn in the ’90s and hasn’t really stopped. Alcoholism is high; domestic violence is high; the ger district outside of the capital of UB is growing, despite its lack of infrastructure, which results in poor sanitation, overcrowding, high crime rates, and general malaise. (How many places around the world tell this same story?) Of course, I don’t live in that ger district. I live here on the Chinese border. But I see the leftover effects of communism and the strange grip that capitalism has, and the result is a system– or systems– that make it difficult for one person to stand against. I chose small holes that I could address in my time here, but they are nothing compared to the wall that is these systems. Moreover, I was facing both a lack of knowledge and the culture in general when I tried introducing ways of dealing with children in a positive way and of positive youth development. Even in the States, some of these ideas are hard to convey, so trying in a place that has no foundation whatsoever in this realm felt insurmountable at times.
Yet the systems with all of their frustrations were not as wearisome as the small acts that occurred every day, often multiple times a day. I won’t spend too much time on them because I touched on them in my last post. But I have those to thank even more than living in a ger for helping me to build a thick skin, for building boundaries, for knowing just a little more about what it’s like to be the target of harassment, for understanding the feeling of having no one but yourself on whom to rely and the futility and vulnerability and utter loneliness of that, for learning finally, finally that where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to do is not here but there, back home, back in the States that I left and that I criticize so harshly and that I needed to leave in order to know what I’m coming back to and why I’m staying. That which was hardest was, in a way, just the tilling of soil for rich growth.
Moving out of my ger and into my apartment changed my view. It gave me some distance from a major source of stress and even fear, and it shed some light on my experience as a whole. The two windows in my apartment look out onto the train station, allowing me to see the trains come and go every day, multiple times a day. I only moved here a couple months ago, but it was at a time that was close enough to my date of departure that I could hope but far enough away to keep me pining. The trains are consistent. They are my means of entering and leaving this city; no other form of transportation is really feasible nor reliable. I rely on that consistency now: it will, one of these days, take me away from here for the last time, and that day is quickly approaching.
One day, it hit me that my change of view meant I was no longer looking elsewhere; I was looking toward home. Having stayed in this country through all of the trials and errors, the cold and the sandstorms and the heat, I can leave with a sense of calm for having clawed my way through some of those days and for making it out in one piece. I feel like I wrestled with an angel of God and that some bones were broken in that struggle, but it’s given me some new perspectives. I can go home whole, and that is very important to me. It’s as if my words from before now have some experience to give them life, to stand behind them and speak through them. I know there will always be more to learn, but I feel a sense of fullness now.
My views have changed and inverted, torn each other up and taken solid form, but I’ll give up my China to let Sarah Palin keep her Russia. I’m coming home.