A New Level of Patience

August 28, 2012 wheelerinmongolia

This is a short piece I wrote for something called “Mongol Post,” a space where Peace Corps Mongolia volunteers can share bits of writing:

If you were a patient person before you joined the Peace Corps, you will become a more patient person throughout the experience. Usually I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations about how the Peace Corps will change a person’s character, but I think I can say this one with confidence: you will become a more patient person.

It only takes so many times – so many situations in which you’re with a group of people who are speaking a different language before you recognize the necessity of patience. Unless you have an extraordinary gift of language acquisition, you will often leave those group settings feeling misunderstood, invalidated, and generally frazzled. This certainly gets easier over time, but I don’t think PCVs ever fully reach a point where they’re guard isn’t up just a little bit. For example, you might be sitting in a ger with a group of your coworkers drinking milk tea, and they might be joking about the way you’re sitting, the way you’re holding your cup, the expression on your face, etc. because it’s unfamiliar to them. All of the cultural nuances that make the situation comfortable to them make it disorienting for you, particularly if you’re someone who doesn’t like constant attention directed towards you. The whole time you might be thinking: ‘Man, I just wish my friend from back home was sitting next to me to share the cosmic strangeness of the situation, rather than bearing the burden of every joke just because I’m the odd one out’.

It only takes so many shouts from kids and adults on the street: “HI!!!!!!!!!” (or sometimes less friendly things) before you realize that they’re not greeting you––the swimmer, the jazz fan, the author, whoever you might be––they’re greeting the foreigner on the street, simply because you’re a foreigner. You could be anyone, but if you look different, and if you’re a sight that they’re not used to, they’ll light up with excitement and want to greet you. Of course, the easiest approach is just to say “hi” back and keep walking, but sometimes, as human beings who feel a need to be self-actualized, we want more out of the situation. Sometimes we just want to respond, “THIS TIME, JUST THIS TIME, DON’T SHOUT HI TO ME! ASK ME HOW MY DAY IS GOING OR SOMETHING. ASK ME IF I LIKE TO EAT BANANAS. ANYTHING BUT ‘HI’!”

But this is my point in writing this article: time moves forward. No matter how uncomfortable we are in a situation, or how much we yearn to show people who we really are, time will keep going, and we’ll have the opportunity to process the situation in our memory and speak about it later. Our perception of any given moment creates the reality it becomes in our life’s timeline. After the time when you were drinking milk tea with your coworkers and you felt awkward because there was a language barrier, and you weren’t sure whether or not people were making fun of you, there are multiple routes the story can go when you talk about it with your friends. You could be like, “Dude, it was awful. We were drinking this milk tea, which I don’t even really like, and I was just sitting there for like 4 hours, not really contributing to the conversation. And people were basically just laughing at me the whole time. So annoying. I just wanna go home and watch Arrested Development.” Or, you could talk about how amazing it is that you’re coworkers invited you to the event in the first place. You come from a culture they might not know much about, but they’ve taken you under their wing as one of their own. You could talk about how beautiful the Mongolian ger is – how after these 2 years, you might not ever set foot in one again. You could talk about how even though you didn’t really understand what they were saying, whatever it was, it was probably hilarious if they were laughing so hard about it! So, what do we choose to focus on?

When describing the public’s perception of you when you’re walking around outside, there are multiple angles you could take. For example: “Now I understand why famous people are often so miserable. During the time I lived in Mongolia, I pretty much dreaded going outside because I hated getting so much attention all the time. People who didn’t even know me aggressively yelled at me all the time. And the kids! The ‘hi-monsters!’ HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU, KID? YOU SAY ‘HI’ ONCE! ONLY ONCE! NOT 7 TIMES! ZA YU?” Or, there’s a different direction you could take; maybe something like this: “To this day, some of my best Mongolian friends were originally people who just approached me in the street out of curiosity. One guy said ‘hi’ to me and asked me what my name was, and after 5 minutes of knowing him, we went and sang karaoke together. Nowadays, he’s one of my best friends and I consider him a brother. And the kids who fervently call “hi” to me are simply looking to share a memorable moment together. The times that I taught them a new handshake, or made a goofy face, or joined in on their soccer game undoubtedly contributed to both their experience and my experience.” How do we perceive the situation? How can we accrue the most value out of any given moment?

I’d like to share a quick anecdote that I think relates to this point directly. Last spring, I moved out of my old apartment and into a ger. Before I had fully moved out, all of my stuff was packed up in boxes in the corner of the room, but because of some sort of misunderstanding, a new group of people had thought I was entirely moved out and had been given keys to the apartment (without me knowing). One day, when I was coming home from a long day of teaching classes and working on a television project, I walked into my apartment building’s entrance, surprised to hear a lot of noise coming from inside my door. When I entered the apartment, there was a group of about 10 Mongolian firefighters, still in uniform, cleaning and gutting a sheep that was laid out across the hall floor on a tarp. It turns out that they had come from Ulaanbaatar to do a training camp in Dalanzadgad and had serendipitously gotten in touch with my landlord after soliciting for a place to stay. They were training for a particular kind of race in which teams of firefighters try to get to the top of buildings as fast as possible by hoisting ladders up the successive window panes.

As I walked in, all of them looked up at me with huge grins one their faces and instantly began asking questions with a warm and genuine friendliness: “How are you? How’s your job? What’s your impression of Mongolia? Etc.” Of course, without the prior knowledge that other people would be inhabiting my home and also preparing an entire sheep in the hallway, I was baffled by the situation. But all it took was a few deep breaths, and I was ready to just ride the wave. I began asking questions about their firefighting team and learning about their passions. They showed me videos of their team practicing and also a video of the world championships. This was a sport that I didn’t even know existed, and the videos indeed looked quite dangerous and impressive.

Later that night, they fed me almost every organ from the sheep: intestines, liver, heart, lungs, everything. I don’t think that they had ever seen an American eat the insides of a sheep before, and I could tell that it was a special moment. Even though I had a visible distaste for some of the organs, they were honored by the fact that I was trying. Later that night, I slept in my bed, and all the firefighters were lined up on the floor in sleeping bags. We talked about life, about differences between the United States and Mongolia, about firefighting, and other things. After a brief period of silence, one of them asked: “Hey, Joe, would it be possible for us to have an English lesson from you right now?” I didn’t see why not. The electricity was out at the time, so I taught them simple English phrases (what’s up? How are you? How is work? Etc.) in the pitch black.

After that night, time moved forward as it always does. I moved into my ger the next day, and everything was fine. At the initial moment in which I walked into the room, my reaction could have gone several different ways. I could have said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is going on here! This is my home! You’re gonna need to get your firefighting equipment and this sheep out of here right away.” But I’m happy I didn’t say that. These guys were such good-natured people; I didn’t feel unsafe at all, and I didn’t want to run away from the opportunity to share some meaningful connections. Because of that, I got to learn about a new sport, see the contented expressions on their faces as I bit down on a big piece of sheep heart, and have a slumber party-esque sharing of language. It remains to be one of my favorite memories from my time in Mongolia so far. All it took was a bit of patience.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara D&hellip  | 

    Thanks, Joe. You have once again shared some insight and stories and perceptions that have value for me, and I’m sure others. Love you.
    Barbara

  • 2. anne lowe&hellip  | 

    Hi Joe, mom here. Woke up to read this wonderful blog entry! Quite a meditation on patience and actually applies so well to all of us back home. I will think about what you said as I go about my daily life and try to stay present and grounded, as you are learning so well to do. I admire and love you so much.

  • 3. Bev Holman&hellip  | 

    Ahh, Joe, so good. I will always think of sheep and firefighters a little differently now. Thanks for all this, and remember you are known.

  • 4. Bev Holman&hellip  | 

    Dear Joe;

    Here’s a huge Pacific North Western hug for you in all your tallness, all your Americaness, all your great beingness and now in all your humility and growing patience. Patience in Tibetan Buddhism has two meanings: one, the ability to hold up under, as in endure ; and two the ability to tolerate other, not based on the strength of endurance, but the opposite, on renewed openness and deepening understanding. Patience when it is perfected is wisdom.

    I love you dearly and miss your face.

    Sab

  • 5. mary lowe&hellip  | 

    Hello Dear Joe, what amazing reminders for all of us, you are writing about, how it is our perception of things that either limits or expands us and patience is one of the keys right before making that choice. I have a two week trip to Denmark coming up and will remember your blog. Enjoyed staying in your room with its great “Joe vibes” in Oregon. But come on the sheep thing that’s a lot for anyone. See you soon. Much love, Aunt Mary

  • 6. Donna&hellip  | 

    Thank you, Joe. This entry is profound. I love your writing – humor and humility illustrating wisdom. We love you and think of you often.

    Donna

  • 7. Elan&hellip  | 

    Sabali

  • 8. Stephen Mustoe&hellip  | 

    Joe,
    How well you have captured the experience! What you write about in Mongolia today could as easily have been said about my experience in Kenya thirty years ago. Patience, flexibility, a sense of humor, more patience… wonderful, essential skills and a large part of what Peace Corps gives us.

    Steve Mustoe

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