December 5, 2012 wheelerinmongolia
A beautiful image that keeps recurrently popping into my head is the way that rows of snow-covered gers look at night: felt living-pods draped in moonlit, shimmering white snow with small clouds of smoke dissipating into the black night from stove-pipes. There are 1,000 reasons why I think doing the Peace Corps is meaningful, but if the sheer beauty of living in a foreign country–and the feeling in my gut that reminds me how blessed I am to be in such a unique land, one that I may never have the opportunity to come across again–were the only reason why I joined the Peace Corps, I would still feel gratified. That same thought literally pops into my head every single time I walk home at night, usually after having dinner with friends, singing a combination of Mongolian songs with nostalgia-inducing American pop songs from the late 90s/early 2000s like N’SYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” or stuffing myself with meat dumplings and fermented milk with Mongolians who treat me as a brother, even though I clearly came from far away.
There’s this indescribable feeling I get that reminds me that no matter how integrated I am in my community, how well I learn to speak Mongolian, or how much every day feels like regular life, the weight of emotion that accompanies leaving being everything you know to jump into a new world is never fully lifted. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I simply mean that while I’ve lived here for a year and a half, and Mongolia feels like home now, there are still moments that knock me flat on my back with amazement, and I can never, with full certainty, answer the question of whether or not this is really just a 2 year long dream.
I’d like to share the following story as an example of this point. At the beginning of the school year, the teachers and staff from my school went on a retreat to the middle of the desert where our school owns a greenhouse. The purpose of the trip with both leisure and play; we would spend the day picking vegetables, which the students in the “cooking” vocation could later use to practice their craft, and we would spend the night in uproarious revelry. When the sun was starting to set, some of the teachers asked me to help them gather and kill a goat that we would eat for dinner. I went out to where the livestock was and helped carry a goat to the back of the SUV we were cruising around in. I’ll spare the details, but being a part of the whole process of taking the life of an animal and later eating it has made me never quite look at meat in the same way. I still eat it (Mongolian boiled meat is just about as organic/grass-fed/cage-free as you can get), but nowadays I’m less able to make a mental distinction between a beef patty and a cow roaming around in the plains.
We spent the evening chowing down on the goat that I had been carrying earlier that day, passing around a bowl of fermented mare’s milk and belting out songs at the top of our lungs. As I thought the night was winding down, I decided to go outside to look for a place to sleep. I eyed the Russian van with the long flatbed as a potentially cozy spot and curled up under an open sleeping bag in-between the wheel well and a bag of tools.
My previous suggestion that the night was winding down turned out to be completely wrong. The teachers stormed out of the small brick house we had been singing in, hooting, hollering, wrestling, and then after someone turned on the headlights of their car and started blasting their stereo, dancing. I was curled up in this Russian van at 2 in the morning wondering if I should forget the idea of sleep and join the dance party. Right before I was about to do that, one of the teachers opened the car door and curled up next to me, squeezing me closer to the wheel-well and blocking my exit. Throughout the night, he asked me a few questions about my experience in Mongolia and kept repeating “Chi saikhan zaluu shuu!” (You are a nice young man)! He also asked me to teach his some words in English, so I started naming all of the different things in the car. While me and this teacher were huddled under one sleeping bag in the back of the Russian van, the rest of the staff was outside dancing in the blinking headlights hollering at the top of their lungs to Rhianna and Justin Bieber, and I was just staring out the sunroof at the stars smiling. This was the type of indescribable moment I mentioned earlier; the situations I find myself are simultaneously normal and unquestionably absurd, depending on how I rationalize them. Although I had no one from home to share that with, sometimes the value of randomness/indulgence/solitude/euphoria and dream-like reality can just be kept within the moment.
While, in general, year number two has been much more comfortable than the first year, that constant feeling of wonder has persisted (and I’m thankful it has). Through all of the housewarming parties this fall in honor of coworkers who have moved into new gers, all the consumption of meat and dairy products and singing in unison with people who have been singing the same songs for their whole lives, through the expansion of my comfort zone, through celebrating Halloween (my favorite holiday) with people who were experiencing it for the first time, through dancing in a giant ger in the middle of the desert and realizing that I have made more connections in Dalanzadgad than I’m regularly conscious of, through every night burning through candles in the dark because the power it out, through all the fires to keep me warm when everything beyond my felt-covered wooden tent is frozen, I have managed to keep a smile on my face. Even occasional situations that challenge my threshold of patience are often humorous in retrospect (coming home in the freezing cold one night, only to realize that my key had fallen out of my pocket somewhere between home and the karaoke place, and then waking up my neighbor who graciously set up a bed for me on her floor). It’s all part of the journey.
As a final note: I feel compelled to comment on the general willingness of Mongolians to help me out when I need help. There is a student at my school who greets me every day with a huge smile and shakes my hand. One day, after finding out that I was sick, he came over to my ger to chop a week’s supply of wood for me (which is hard work, especially when it’s below zero outside). No complaints, not even a shred of doubt, just the same big smile after he finished lining up a neat stack of wood inside my shed. That’s the stuff I can’t help but be thankful for.
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