The Happy Place

 

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At what point does the hassle of getting somewhere make it not even worth trying to get there at all?

In Mongolia, most destinations are worth the effort because it’s the only way to see what the country has to offer. The country is vast, nearly the size of Alaska, and while flying is an option for about half the country’s provincial centers, it almost never gets you to the natural wonders and attractions. So unless you have a private helicopter, there is simply no other way around the long and nauseating hours on buses, cars or horseback. It’s what makes visiting Mongolia so unique but by that same virtue, a very challenging destination for some.

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I personally have no idea how I made it in this country given my propensity to motion sickness and impatience for all things. I remember during Pre-Service Training, one of the trainers was telling us that her site was eight hours from the capital city and that she’d clocked in eight of these one-way trips in just a couple of months. Four round trips. 64 hours!? Naive trainee that I was, I gawked and couldn’t believe it.

How in the world do you get through those bus rides? I asked.

Well, for one, my Kindle. But also, you learn to go to your happy place.

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The happy place. I thought it was all myth and legend until the last half of my service. I was making trips to Ulaanbaatar every 4-6 weeks for work, R&R, or holiday. While I’m usually a pretty good sleeper on long rides, if enough hours go by, not even sleep can save me. In those moments, it’s all about the happy place.

The happy place is a sort of meditative state. You close your eyes and try to stop thinking or alternatively, think so much you forget where you are. Aided with ear plugs, a neck pillow and a scarf around your eyes, the happy place is a place of magic. It got me through hot and sticky bus rides during the summer, a never-ending loop of Mongolian folk songs blaring through the speakers, crying babies, a dead phone, and unpleasant off-roading.

So with a solid year of happy place practice, I figured I’d be okay on a two week trip to the Gobi desert and Khuvsgul Lake this past summer.

I’d be in a moving vehicle for nine out of the fourteen days.

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The trip began with the standard ride from my site to Ulaanbaatar, the main and arguably the only transit hub of the country. (Total drive time: 8 hours)

After a few R&R days in Ulaanbaatar, we took a comfortable and air-conditioned bus ride to the southernmost province of Mongolia. (10 hours)

The next day, we met our private driver and his van at 8AM to start a 3 day/2 night itinerary visiting all the major sights in the Gobi desert. We started with some canyons and hikes that were all about an hour or two apart. In the afternoon, our driver drove towards the horizon and somehow, brought us to correct ger camp in front of the Singing Dunes. (I’d say total drive time was about 8 hours)

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On day two, we drove to a watering hole, a natural spring and the dunes. (2 hours)

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One the way back to Dalanzadgad, we stopped by the Flaming Cliffs and also saw some ancient stone carvings. (7.5)

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Back on the bus for the ride to Ulaanbaatar (10 hours)

Gobi trip: 45.5 hours of drive time for the first seven days

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The Gobi, while beautiful, zapped the last reserves I had for tolerating long and bumpy rides. Thankfully, traveling up to Huvsgul Lake wasn’t nearly as arduous as going to the Gobi, thanks to my parents and their generous moolah.

The day I returned from the Gobi desert, my parents landed in Mongolia and I met them at the hotel. We spent two nights in UB seeing some sights and enjoying the food. I told my parents to load up on fruits and vegetables because come tomorrow, it would be meat and carbs for days.

The bus ride to Huvsgul aimag center in the very north of the country is an overnight 14-hour trip. Neither my parents nor I were ready for that so we flew on one of the two domestic airlines, Hunnu Air. It was comfortable, quick and offered great views of the countryside. We landed in Murun and met with my friend, Lhama, who had arranged for her friend to drive us to the lake in his car. I should have known better that it wouldn’t be a quick and painless ride on paved road all the way to our ger camp. Don’t believe the guide books, people! From Khatgal to the ger camp strip, it’s Grade-A Unpaved Mongolian Rocky Road.

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The lake itself was very beautiful. Huvsgul Lake is a massive, crystal blue lake surrounded by balding mountains and evergreen forests. Mongolians even refer to it as the Ocean. My parents and I spent our days lounging in the ger or riding horses (I finally learned how to control the horse by myself!!! and even felt comfortable enough to chou the horse to a gallop). The nights were cool enough to justify a stove fire and we ate Mongolian food every meal. My mom would only eat the khushuur but my dad liked it all. Also, it was later confirmed to me that the incredibly salty tsuivan we had for dinner once is not uncommon in Huvsgul province and unfortunately, I was not a fan.

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The return to UB was the same as the way we came – two hour ride in a tiny car on unpaved and paved road, 1.5 hour flight, 30 minute taxi ride to the hotel.

Huvsgul trip: 8 hours of drive/fly time for the last seven days. Not too bad given that it could’ve been 32 hours. 

I enjoyed showing my parents the country and culture I’ve lived in for the last two years. And being able to show off my Mongolian and spend a week operating in three languages was a highlight as well – I felt very smart.

 

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In summary, Mongolia is a destination that will burn through your perseverance before your wallet. You’ll have to put in a lot of tiring hours and a vomit or two, but in exchange, you will get to enjoy the sights without having to fight off swarms of other tourists. You’ll see some incredible vistas of the natural world; you will look out into the horizon and realize you’re the only human as far as the eye can see. So here’s my advice for traveling in Mongolia: bring good companions, pack anti-sickness meds, and start building that door to your happy place.

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Photo credits: Kyra Lyndstrom, Caleb LaRue, Sally LaRue, Lexa Perrian, and me

More photos:

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Three June 7ths

I spent three birthdays in Mongolia. I flew to staging as a 24-year-old and flew back as a 27-year-old. I know I lived my mid-twenties well, but it still feels like they somehow disappeared. How did I become 27 so quickly?

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My first birthday in Mongolia was uneventful because I’d only been in country for a week. My cohort didn’t really knew who I was yet and it was the day after we’d been introduced to our host families. A few people managed to call and wish me a happy birthday (bless their hearts) and my host family made me Mongolian-style kimbap and gave me a bar of chocolate. It was simple but endearing.

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I was in a similar situation the following year. I was at another site for training and the new group had just arrived. My boyfriend reached out to the only trainee he recognized and asked if she could organize a little something. The group, despite having only known me for a couple of days, were thoughtful enough to chip in on some fruit, chocolate and a cheery song. Later that evening, my colleagues made me birthday kimbap and chicken.

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Then, without expecting too much, my 27th birthday became one of my favorite memories. School responsibilities had dwindled, the weather was warm and sunny, and all my friends were still in town. You could see miles and miles across the green pastures so I organized a picnic potluck by the river. We found a nice clean spot with a good view of the mountains and nomadic goats. Perrin brought sangria and cupcakes. Deegi brought a Korean pork/yak dish I taught her how to make. Anna brought garlic bread and I baked pumpkin bread. We had veggies, hyam (salami), fruit and candy. It was a mishmash of foods but it was a delicious spread.

After first lunch, we took naps in the car shade. We laid by the river and giggled like school girls. We collected dried dung to make a smoky insect repellent fire. We took photos, danced, and stalked untamed horses. We went for second lunch. By sunset, we’d been outside for hours. We didn’t have our cellphones to distract us and we didn’t have any vodka to make it hazy. We just had one another’s lovely, unfiltered, easy company.

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She’s so happy with her dung collection 🙂

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An Idea for an Idea: TEDxArvaikheer

On May 14 at around 5 o’clock, I walked out of my local children’s center feeling like one of the cotton ball clouds in the sky. We’d just torn down the set, stacked up the chairs and closed the doors on the biggest and last of my projects as a Peace Corps Volunteer. For all intents and purposes, I was done with my two year service.

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TEDxArvaikheer was a nearly year in the making. I’d first gotten the idea at my Mid-Service Training in August when a fellow volunteer talked about her aimag’s fourth annual TEDx event. While TEDx is pretty well-known in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, it was hard to believe that her countryside community had gotten on board and had successfully hosted their own event year after year. I don’t mean to imply that the people in her community were incapable of this; I just mean to point out that in a place that is not familiar with the concept of TED, how do you explain it?

In my experience, I had a really hard time selling the idea of TEDx to my counterparts, all of whom had never heard of it before.

“TEDx is like a lecture series,” I’d say, “but it’s not academic. It’s not boring because you don’t teach. But you can teach … through your ideas. You persuade someone of your idea. It’s all about ideas.”

At this point, people would nod politely and change the subject. I admit I was terrible at giving a good definition, but it was impossible to elucidate the purpose of TED without first showing a TED talk. Moreover, the most confounding part about TED talks for most people was that a speaker could do anything – a poem, a performance, a presentation – but at its core, s/he had be sharing a new and original idea.

I’d read enough essays from my students to know that this concept would be difficult to put to practice. Nearly every essay I’d ever read ended with “Be happy and successful!” or during Write On!, while the creativity was there, the commitment to that creativity was tenuous. It felt like ninety percent of the highly entertaining and fantastical stories ended with “…and then I woke up. It was all a dream.”

So in April, I organized what I called a TEDx Writers’ Workshop for the sole purpose of helping students find their TED-worthy idea. I divided the 33 participants into teams of eleven, each facilitated and led by a Peace Corps volunteer and a Mongolian English teacher. Over the course of three days, I taught the basics of public speaking, speech development and finding an idea while the facilitators guided and gave feedback to their group during the daily breakout sessions.

The pace was unforgiving; using a reflection worksheet and numerous one-on-one consultations, students had to figure out their new, original and interesting idea within a day and a half. They wrote their speeches in Mongolian or English and on the third day, auditioned for one of the six coveted TEDx speaker slots.

Many of the participants were also members of my community ‘Chatty Bunch’ club which I started in October to train up some public speakers for TEDx. We met for three hours every 2-3 weeks and spent the first semester just focused on acting. We covered voice control and body language; we had our own “Whose Line Is It Anyway” performances and in the spring, right before the Writers’ Workshop, finally started writing and presenting speeches.

I mention all of this to say that most of the students at the workshop were proficient enough in public speaking and also knew enough about essay writing that they could do it.

But again and again, the facilitators and I had to send them back to the drawing board for better examples and more specific ideas. We learned quickly that Mongolians are used to basing their opinions on general sweeping axioms like “Work hard and you will succeed” and “You’re beautiful just the way you are.” Honing in on the whys and how comes of their opinions often left students frustrated and diffident. In the words of one of the Mongolian facilitators, Lhama:

The students chose big topics including life-related proverbs, metaphors etc. They were not familiar with simple ones, i.e. their past etc. In Mongolia we are accustomed to using big topics, very big things to express our idea in a formal presentation. So TEDx is 100% different from Mongolian-type presentations. It is a way to express an idea in a very simple and easy way to others in comfortable ways, relating to your past life.

If after the workshop students didn’t completely get it, we at least challenged them to think critically about their beliefs and draw connections between specific life events and their personal scruples.

In the end, after a spectacular round of auditions, we chose our six students speakers – four girls and two boys – and that following weekend, took them to Ulaanbaatar to attend TEDxUEIS at the Elite International School.

The six weeks leading up to TEDxArvaikheer, I met with each speaker every week and battered them with more ‘why’s’ and ‘be more specific,please’ till they probably wanted to slide off their chairs like a noodle and disappear under the table. I am so proud of them though. On the day, each of them presented their speeches with poise and eloquence and left the room reverberating with applause. I hope so much that their ideas resonated with each of their peers in the audience.

DSCF9108Credit for the success of TEDxArvaikheer is also due to the ten wonderful student organizers who went above and beyond with their duties. They printed T-shirts where every organizer was one letter in ‘TEDxArvaikheer’ so that you could only make sense of our shirts when we stood together as a team. They hand-made and cut all the stage decorations (because online shipping isn’t a thing here) and our amazing designer/photographer created the hugely impressive banner that hung in lobby. They sold all our tickets in less than a week. They organized the program and hosted the event. They were the lights and sound and stage. I seriously couldn’t be more impressed with their creativity and work ethic.

Thank you also to my six TEDx Writers’ Workshop facilitators – Perrin, Phoebe, Ian, Lhamaa, Uuganaa and Saikhnaa. You made all three days of the workshop seem like a breeze; I can’t express how grateful I am that you helped make this possible for me.

Special gratitude to World Vision for sponsoring our lunches during the workshop and getting us to Ulaanbaatar for TEDxUEIS.

To Bookbridge for your enthusiastic support and sending Lhamaa all the way from Huvsgul to be a part of my workshop.

To our private donors – Uranchimeg, Undelgur, Munkhtuya and Save the Children – for donating t-shirts, printing, lanyards and gifts.

And to my school, 2nd School, and the Children’s Center for donating their spaces to the cause.

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And finally, to my two co-organizers, Uuganaa and Saikhnaa: Thank you. You both are such motivated, hard-working, sharp, zealous and funny women. Everyone who knows you two knows that I won the Peace Corps lottery of counterparts and there simply aren’t enough adjectives to describe how much I have enjoyed working with you these two years. From making money fall like rain (through in-kind donations and sponsorship) to translating everything that came out of my mouth, you two are my super heroines. You will always be a very special part of my time in Mongolia and I am so utterly happy that we could make these memories together.

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What a wonderful two years it’s been.

The Big Question: What’s Next?

I just got back from my last and final Peace Corps conference a few weeks ago. Before I even started my service, I had always thought of Close of Service (COS) conference as the ultimate finish line. The conference by no means mark the last day of my service (still twelve weeks away), but it’s the ceremonial end to an incredible challenge. In my case, shaking my Country Director’s hand and receiving my certificate of completion was the moment I achieved a very personal life goal.

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Between the Country Director Gene Nixon and Director of Programming and Training Wendy Slee

 

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Came in with 74, leaving with 54. We made it!

The three months after COS conference is an awkward yet necessary period. Even though I still have a month of school left, my motivation has plummeted and my mind is somewhere else. I have bought my flight out of Mongolia and I’m currently planning my six week Asia tour: Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. I have one last project to see to the end – TEDxArvaikheer – and then school is out and I’m off on a two week vacation around Mongolia. In July, I’ll be selling and giving away my things, saying goodbye to friends and teachers who aren’t in the countryside and taking the bus out of Arvaikheer for the very. last. time.

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Intellectually, I know I won’t be able to seamlessly insert myself back into the life I had before Peace Corps. Yet the allure to go back to the good old days is too sweet; it clouds my ability to see Mongolia as a place that I will miss and cherish. For every one thing I will miss, there is also a long, tiresome list of grievances that I won’t miss. I suppose this would happen no matter where you are especially if it’s not your culture and/or place of comfort. But I don’t regret having joined Peace Corps or coming out here for two years. It’s a trite thing to say, but this experience really did make me grow and become more aware of the kind of person I am.

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Photo by Anna Buchanon

Another way my two years has paid off is that I figured out what I want to do with my life after this; I discovered a career path that I didn’t know was a real thing until I was here. It’s called ‘Learning and Development.’

Last year, the tune was a little different. I wrote a blog post about how I thought teaching was my calling and I suppose in some ways it still is. Before, I was more attracted to the international teaching route and I started narrowing down which Masters of Education programs I wanted to apply to this fall. Yet the whole time, I was grappling with my anxieties about being in a classroom and my fondness for teaching. And then, I discovered training.

 

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Phonics lessons

It started with the M27 PST where I was a technical trainer for five weeks. Then my first two quarters at school, I was intensely focused on helping my teachers improve their methodology by designing more cohesive lesson plans without the book. At the end of January, I was invited to present a few sessions at an international NGO conference. I was also attending a bunch of Peace Corps trainings as a trainee which was not as much fun, but I was learning how to run efficient and successful trainings and workshops.

Teaching is rewarding but I can’t see myself being “on” day-in and day-out. I also don’t like being limited to working in a classroom. And I’ve talked about this before, but the teacher life is not very appealing to me, especially in America. I wouldn’t even want to do it for a couple of years before I went abroad to an international school.

Instead, I like that as a trainer, I would only have to be “on” for short and intense periods of time between weeks or months of designing and planning in a collaborative office environment. Additionally, Learning & Development is under the Human Resources umbrella so it is a facet of all industries in corporate, nonprofit/NGO, education, government or even start-ups. The job can be found all over the world, too, so I can fulfill my dream of living the expat life one day. I could settle in the big, expensive cities of the world or opt for a more simpler life in a smaller city. Furthermore, I can try my hand at instructional or curriculum design if I’m hankering for a more creative touch. What makes me happiest about this career path is that I get to be both a teacher and business or development professional.

Every job, internship, and volunteer service I ever took contributed to nearly a decade of soul-searching to find this answer. Yes, I had to do more work than someone who graduated with a more specialized degree, but now I feel secure and fulfilled knowing what it took me to get here. As an added bonus, I got to do so much more than this one future job, for example, my entire Peace Corps experience. It was a stressful 20s, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any other way.

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Winner’s line for Write On! Arvaikheer 2017 (Photo by Anna Buchanon)

 

For RPCVs: Is It Worth Purchasing the 2nd and 3rd Month of IMG Health Benefits?

In about three months, I am going to be a low income, not under parents plan, minimal savings, jobless fellow who will have to rely heavily on Healthcare.gov for my health insurance. Peace Corps is offering a “health benefits plan” through IMG where they will cover us the first month as official Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) and then we can opt to pay for a 2nd and 3rd month of coverage.

Before I joined Peace Corps, I spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer that also provided a “health benefits plan” as part of my service. The plan was serviced by the same company Peace Corps was using right before the switch and so I imagine the plan and coverage was the same or at least similar.

My experience with the AmeriCorps/Seven Corners “health benefits plan” was a nightmare. It was my first time navigating the dark underworld of insurance policies and limits and I had many frustrating calls with insurance agents that led to a few moments of angry hot tears. I just couldn’t wrap my head around why I couldn’t go see a doctor in my neighborhood. Under my parent’s insurance plan in Ohio, I spent my entire life going to the same doctor, dentist and optometrist and never had to pay when I left. As an AmeriCorps volunteer in D.C., I was scrambling to find doctors who could fill out my Peace Corps medical paperwork and also took my insurance but I wasn’t really sure how to answer any questions about my insurance and then the bill would come out and I didn’t know what to do with it – it was all just a confusing mess. In the end, I bitterly paid about $1,000 out-of-pocket.

And to be fair, that’s exactly how much I should have paid under the Seven Corners plan. I know that now but at the time, I felt so cheated.

The RPCV health benefits plan – that I’m going to call IMG for short – was rolled out last week. The premium is $233 per volunteer a month with a $250 deductible in-network/$500 for out of network. The max out-of-pocket costs is $1,000. (Sidenote: I finally know what all this means!)

At first, I thought back to my AmeriCorps days and immediately wrote this plan off as -NOT HAPPENING. But I’ve spent the better part of tonight perusing Healthcare.gov and the options there aren’t that much better.

First off, to make VERY clear, the IMG plan does not meet the current Affordable Care Act minimum requirements so it can’t rightly be called insurance. And for every month you’re not covered by qualified insurance, you have to pay a $50 penalty. That’s a $150 penalty at tax time for being on the IMG plan for three months after service.

However, the first two months you’re not covered is forgiven. So in reality, you will only have to pay a one month penalty on top of the $233/month premium you are paying for the plan. If you’re still under your parents plan when you get home then you don’t have to worry about this penalty at all.

So why would anyone pay for that third month of coverage?

Like I mentioned before, I looked into some insurance plans on Healthcare.gov for Ohio tonight and found that while the premiums are the same (about $200-240/month), the deductibles, coinsurance and out-of-pocket maxes are vastly different. For example, the most you’ll ever have to pay out of pocket on the IMG plan is $1,000. On Healthcare.gov plans, that number is estimated to be in the $6-7,000 range. That means you have to pay $6-7,000 out of pocket first before your insurance pays a cent! (One might be eligible for Medicaid through their state but I couldn’t find any hard numbers on that).

I was also concerned about why the IMG plan didn’t meet minimum ACA requirements. Were they skimping on a really important benefit that would later screw us over? Or was the IMG plan so bare bones that it was basically useless beyond a bro-I’m-about-to-die scenario?

After reading the Essential Health Benefits, I realized that there was a lot on the list that I didn’t need coverage for my immediate future. For example: Pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care; Mental health and substance use disorder services; Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices; Preventive and wellness services; and pediatric services.

These are definitely health benefits that I need in my life long-term but for three months, I think I will be okay. Instead, right now I need good emergency and urgent care, in-patient stay and some prescription med coverage. I especially need low co-payments and deductibles. I think the IMG plan is exactly what I can both afford and need in terms of coverage which is why I’m planning to buy at least the 2nd month. I’m going to sit a bit longer on whether I want to buy a 3rd month – that $50 penalty is an annoyance. Yet, I suppose it’s better than being saddled with a $7,000 medical bill.

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If you have anything to add or think I am missing something important, comment below. Would love to hear from you!

Getting On As a New PCV

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M26 Swearing-In Ceremony (August 2015)

Once you’ve received an invitation from Peace Corps, passed medical and legal clearance, sorted our your job and family affairs, you will still find yourself with oodles and oodles of time to think and wonder. Will I like it? Will I make it? How much of it will I hate or love? (See here for my pre-departure musings)

My biggest fear pre-departure was that I wasn’t going to make it through Pre-Service Training. I was afraid that I was being hopelessly naive about moving to Mongolia. I had visions of returning home, laying in bed and crying myself to sleep because I hadn’t been able to hack it three months in Mongolia. And yeah, making it through PST was a proud moment.

Making it through my 27 months of service will be an even prouder one.

Before I finish up here, I’d like to take a moment to share my thoughts on what made my service feel successful.** Of course not everyday was easy (e.g. today omgggg), but I wasn’t contemplating Early Termination (ET) every other week. I didn’t hate my life or my service or my community at any point. Some of my work really validated me as a professional and other times, it made me want to crawl in bed and wish away the world.

The bar is not that high here. And luckily, the five nuggets of advice I have for you are not completely unachievable either (or at least I hope). So if you’re getting ready to leave for Peace Corps, I recommend you stretch yourself to your limits with these.

** Necessary disclaimer: note that I didn’t say that my service ~was~ successful. The following tips are based on my own observations and experiences and do not reflect every post, every volunteer’s situation, every work/living situation to have ever existed. **

The Other 2/3

When I was in D.C. for Blog It Home, we were reminded over and over again that 2/3 of our work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is just sharing culture: share America with your host country (Goal 2) and share your host country with America (Goal 3).

When you get to site and people don’t know why you’re there or – let’s be real here – you don’t know why you’re there, just remember that the work-work is really only 1/3 of your purpose. You’d still be a successful volunteer if all you did was introduce your host family to pumpkin pie or the Kardashians. Or memes. So many memes.

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I don’t see commitment unless I see some heels!

Make Yourself Go Out

This is coming from an introvert who doesn’t like drinking, dancing or staying up late: yes, you should accept the invitation and go out, at least the first time around. Next year, if you really don’t want to go on the overnight 24 hour van ride through the countryside with bottles and bottles of Пиво, at least your counterparts will know it’s not because you don’t like them.

Until these kinds of understandings and relationships have formed, it’s important not to give the impression that you don’t want to be around your counterparts, host family or your community. It can be really, really hard that first year to get out when every normal day is so mentally exhausting. But these moments build trust and camaraderie with the people who are going to be looking out for you these next two years. And for those of you like me, just accept it’s going to be difficult. My advice is to pick the most important events, find tricks to avoid the drinking, and do the following:

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The queen of laughter, my site mate Alex at IST (Photo by Ian Armstrong)

Smile Often, Laugh Even More

I’ll admit, this one is a bit of a learned skill. When you’re stressed, this is the last thing you feel in yourself. I finally started smiling and laughing more when I realized the stress of brooding and staying resentful made my day so much worse.

While I still don’t laugh or smile as often as I’d like, the things I used to take super seriously (like being in a pickle because of someone’s lack of forethought), I’ve learned to shrug it off and sometimes, smile about it. I’m not perfect at it but I recognize its value. You’d be surprised how much more strangers will like you because you smiled or laughed in an unexpected or awkward moment.

Don’t Burn Those Bridges

You may come in thinking that your counterparts and host country agency should be grateful for this huge sacrifice you’re making and the coveted skills you’re bringing, but your counterparts can very easily decide you’re not worth their time. Maybe they’re not comfortable with the ensuing power dynamic or have a hard time collaborating on your terms.

Even if it’s a frustrating first few months, don’t throw your hands up  and say “Well, if you don’t want to work with me, I don’t want to work with you either!” Go back to advice #1. Just because you’re not doing all that much “at work,” you still have the other two goals. Or lower your expectations and meet your people where they are. Honestly, the worst thing you can do for yourself is give up in exasperation too soon. You’ll see this soon enough at Pre-Service Training, but there is a bridge metaphor for this idea of not meeting someone halfway but actually 90% of the way.

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A new pose for the books  (@PST 2016 with my counterpart, Naraa)

Get That Hustle On

Last summer while I was a trainer at PST, my counterpart asked me if I worked at home after the day was over. It seemed like every morning when we sat down to go over the day’s lesson, I’d always come with a prepared list of questions and conundrums for the day. I laughed and told her about my weird habit of going through the next day in my head as I fell asleep. The “rehearsal” is my way of avoiding unnecessary stress and consequently, brings up issues that I can address before it’s too late.

My CP mentioned that she thinks it’s a very “American” or at least Western to be planners, problem solvers, movers and shakers;  it is a quality that she has found in common with many of the PCVs – young or old – she’s worked with over the years.

When you are proactive about turning ideas into reality and when you hustle for success, people will usually appreciate what you’re trying to do and help in whatever way they can. Of course, there are going to be people who make the work more difficult than it should be, but we are known and valued for our work ethic and ability to plan, organize and think ahead. So use it! And most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail.

***

You are here to push your limits so let yourself be stressed, confused, uncomfortable, and unhappy. Just don’t stop or give up there. Give yourself time to adjust and change all those sore adjectives to ones of growth and maturity. For the sake of the medical clearance alone, you owe yourself that.

Good luck and cheers to your forthcoming 27 months!

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Peace Corps Mongolia M26 (2015-2017)

The Ulaanbaatar Vlog

I’m not very proud to admit this but I’ve become a bit of a Youtube junkie.

I somehow went four years at Emory avoiding coffee addictions and late night Youtube binges but then Peace Corps happened and … I caved. I now spend countless hours in bed watching Youtubers vlog (video blogs). I eat up their advice about life, fashion, makeup, romance, fitness and travel. #whyamIsobasic

One Youtuber I can’t get enough of is Jenn Im, a Korean-American lifestyle blogger who is the same age as me and has a super fab life with her newly engaged English boo in Los Angeles. She’s incredibly bubbly and energetic on camera and her vlogs are so addicting to watch. While it’s pretty sad that I spend hours watching someone else live their normal life, there is one thing I can appreciate about vlogging. You basically film yourself doing day-to-day things but because you’ve paused to say something quickly on camera, you’ve now made that moment a little bit more special. You’ll have that memory, thought or impression forever! Maybe this is a stretch but I think vlogging can be a way of practicing presence. And then later, nostalgia.

After 10+ years of taking pictures and writing blogs, I want to try a new way of documenting my life.  I know I have a steep learning and comfort curve ahead of me with vlogging (like talking to a camera and filming myself in public like a weirdo) but it might end up being fun and memorable.

My first experience with vlogging happened this past week for my trip to Ulaanbaatar. Please don’t judge too much! I know the filming is shaky and the editing is rough, but I wanted to be sneaky with my camera because I’m not yet comfortable with the whole thing. But it really helped to have mates around to make things less awkward. Anyways, here’s the vlog, enjoy the ride from Uvurkhangai to Ulaanbaatar featuring my lovely friends Perrin and Saikhnaa!

Reasons Why I Don’t Want My Service To End

I recently got wifi installed in my apartment! It’s been five months since I’ve moved into my newer, second apartment and the only reason it’s taken me this long is because I thought it’d be a huge hassle. But my USB internet modem broke a few weeks ago and I had to make decisions. With the help of my counterpart, I had wifi installed and set up within two hours of inquiry. I’m such a happy bear!

And so the following Monday, I spent my evening downloading and updating my music library:  John Legend’s new song “Love Me Now” and Ed Sheeran’s new release “Shape of You” among others. I did yoga, took a bath, scrubbed myself clean and sat down to journal. And that’s when I realized: as much as I complain and wish Peace Corps was over, I had to admit that I had a nice little thing going for myself here.

I’ve been counting down the months from the very start.  At first, the countdown was out of awe – “I can’t believe I’ve been here for six months already!” – but then it slowly turned into impatience – “I can’t wait to go back to America in x months and finally be able to do x!” It’s one of my favorite conversations to have with my boyfriend. We can’t wait to get in the car and drive ourselves to an ice cream shop or fast-food joint.Or sit at a bookstore all day with a cup of joe. Decide on a whim to hike or backpack in the mountains. Start a specialty tea & coffee hobby. The list grows as we get closer and closer to the end.

But that Monday evening after my bath, I recounted the months I had left in Mongolia (six) and started to feel a mild panic. Life in America looks good from far away (see above), but zooming in, I realize how much freedom and power I’ll have to leave behind with my service. It makes me sad and reflective and actually start to wish away the end of my service.

But here are the reasons why I don’t want my service to end:

  • People think I’m important and I have sway in my work. As a native speaker who was educated under a Western curriculum, my input is valuable and sought out. I’m asked to lead seminars, present at conferences, develop methodologies and trainings, and start up clubs. It feels good to have people respect what I can do even though I’m way younger than them. And it’s such a rush of self-confidence that I can have this kind of responsibility and not mess it all up.
  • I work way less hours and get so much more done. I don’t waste my time just to be seen. Instead, I get things DONE.
  • I have free reign in my work and my project ideas. The volunteer’s job description is “anything and everything.” TEFL volunteers are teachers but we’re also community organizers. That means if I want to start a speaking club or organize a TEDx talk, I can do that. Nobody is going to tell me that because it’s not part of my job description, I need to sit down and stop making waves.
  • The support I get for my ideas has been so amazing. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my service to work with such supportive colleagues. Whether its for education (like a phonics seminar) or for my community (Write On!), the people around me have shown their full support and often times have wanted to help.
  • My own apartment with a two minute commute. I dread the days when I’m going to have to search for apartments with roommates on craigslist. Or spend a huge chunk of my income to live in a nice or hip neighborhood and then spend hours every day commuting in traffic.
  • A break in monotony. My life has stabilized but not so much that I feel the drone of monotony every day. I can break up my routine with 8-hour trips to Ulaanbaatar for joyous reunions and good food. Or maybe I’ll see something on the street that leaves me puzzled or amused or wonder if it’s just part of Mongolian culture. The holidays feel new. Vacation timing and options have changed up. You see what I mean?

You might notice that the things I look forward to in America have mostly to do with what I can do on my free time. And the things I love most about Mongolia have to do with my work. When I finish my service in six months, I’m trading work status for play options. It’ll be back to being the assistant of the assistant and having no say because I’m young and inexperienced. Back to windowless office spaces, cubicles and nuking leftovers for lunch, crowded commutes  …

What is giveth is taketh away.

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I was invited to an international NGO’s conference this winter where I led two teacher / counterpart training sessions to a group of some amazing women leaders.

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Learn more about this NGO at http://www.bookbridge.org

The Calendar Year of My PC Life

After hours and hours of sifting through photos and journal entries, I have finally finished putting this post together: an anecdotal recap of my 2016. While lots of folks do these kinds of “Best of the Year” highlight reels, I wanted mine to be a little different. I wanted to show my year a little more holistically by giving equal spotlight to the big moments, the little moments and the reality behind the front.

Perhaps some of these anecdotes will make you smile or laugh. I certainly had a wonderful time digging them up again. It made me realize how rich and content-full my life is here even though it seems routine and mundane on the day to day. While Instagram, Facebook and my resume will preserve the big moments like project successes and whirlwind adventures, it’s the little, everyday moments that I’m afraid will slip away as time goes by. If I don’t completely forget them, they’ll get stored away to unreachable depths until one day, ten years later, someone burns a pancake and you think, “Ah, this reminds me of the time in Mongolia when …

It wasn’t until recently that I stopped feeling a undercurrent of stress every single day. I think many of us underestimate how intense it is to move and settle yourself in a foreign community even if you’ve been welcomed. And you never stop feeling guilty that you could be doing more. The challenges are such a big part of Peace Corps service that I can’t just give you the good bits on a silver platter. My year has been as memorable as it was because of both the ups and downs so that’s how I’ll present it to you here.

So without further ado, twenty sixteen:

January

Big Moments //

  • Leave Mongolia for the first time for a winter vacation in Japan
  • Commission my first Mongolian deel

Little Moments //

  • Become a master bundler
  • Witness the weirdest moment of my life that is a little too graphic to share on the blog. Ask me about it sometime cus I promise you it is weird.

Real Life // January is by the far the coldest month ever. Two of my sitemates leave for personal reasons so I am feeling really lonely and bored. While everyone is elbow-deep preparing their thousand buuz (dumplings) for the upcoming holiday, I am feeling guilty about wanting to stay home instead of getting out and having an Experience. As much as my Mongolian is improving, I still find socializing to be straining. I am glad when January ends.

February / March

Big Moments //

  • Spend a long Saturday on the frozen river with school colleagues
  • PCV friends come to visit and we tour the ancient capital of Mongolia, Khakhorin, which is also a PCV site
  • New relationship
  • Start anxiously mapping out my post Peace Corps future
  • Tsagaan Sar aka Lunar New Year

Little Moments //

  • My school’s only female gym teacher and competitive power lifter takes me to the gym where I get wrecked
  • I meet Saikhnaa, a cheery 25-year-old unmarried woman who has just graduated and returned from study-abroad in Japan #newbestfriend #futurecounterpart
  • My students make a huge fuss when I come to school wearing my new deel
  • Observing a lesson and coming to the slow realization that my school has adjusted the regular school schedule to teach students about International Women’s Day. Win!

Real Life // I’m slowly adjusting to life without site mates (how do you do it soumers!) which forces me to start looking for companionship elsewhere. I find it in the form of a Peace Corps boyfriend (heh) and a few single, childless women friends which is rare in my community. The official Lunar New Year holidays are over but my colleagues and I are celebrating birthdays and making house visits. I attempt to host a coffee&cookie soirée at my place but it ends up as a bit of a disaster. Let’s just say that I made the “No Kids in my Apartment” rule after this night.

April / May

Big Moments //

  • A spring break group arrives from an international high school in Germany to volunteer at my local English learning center. After chatting with the teacher chaperons, I discover a potential career path – international school teaching – that sends me into the sky with excitement. My future looks hopeful.
  • I start working with the national office to design 25th Anniversary materials.
  • Reunite with friends for two weeks in Darkhan for Training of Trainers conference. Get ready for M27 Pre-Service Training.

Little Moments //

  • I start exercising outdoors again.
  • Some punk kid steals a cup of soda out of my hands as I am walking out of a pizza joint in UB.

Real Life // Senioritis is real and in full force. It’s warming up outside and I’m getting restless to start exercising again. I start with aimless runs and watch forlornly at the kids playing pick-up soccer at the children’s park. I’m too nervous to ask them if I can join. I’m also feeling so lazy and unmotivated to work that I seriously start to question my ability to be a functional, contributing member of society one day. Thankfully, once I leave site and head to Darkhan for my summer assignment, my work ethic comes back. I am happy to be in a city and around friends again.

June / July

Big Moments //

  • My listening comprehension in Mongolian peaks and it’s fantastic
  • Work as a Pre-Service Training trainer for nine fresh-off-the-plane Americans. Five weeks in a soum in beautiful Selenge aimag.
  • Go to Korea for three weeks for a family reunion to celebrate (multiple times) my dad’s 60th.
  • Sightsee Seoul for the first time with my boyfriend. It’s his first time in Korea and my first time explaining Korea to someone.

Little Moments //

  • Ride an old school Soviet train for the overnight ride back to Ulaanbaatar. Lay in the top bunk next to the slit of a window and still sweat the entire ride.
  • Have some really insightful cross-cultural conversations about marriage and work culture with my fellow Mongolian trainers over tea and biscuits.
  • The soum policeman tries to make me share my dorm room with a random backpacker and there’s a lot of NOPE involved.
  • Drying my clothes on the line becomes my favorite thing ever.

Real Life // Every PCV looks forward to the summer. The opportunities are boundless. Mongolians head to the countryside in flocks so if you stay at site, you’ll be bored to tears. To keep that from happening, you find camps to do and you plan trips. I’m glad to start work as a trainer even if it means I’ll be working longer and harder than I have all year. It’s nice to be on the other side of PST. After my half of PST ends, I’m off to Korea where I reunite with my family and relatives. It’s been five years since I was here last. There is a lot to catch up on like food, shopping and modern marvels like squishy mattresses and automatic washing machines. The sheer amount of people in Seoul is sometimes panic-inducing. When I get back to Mongolia, I wonder aloud, “Where is everyone?”

August

Big Moments //

  • After five sleepless nights, Peace Corps announces the eight Blog It Home winners and I am one of them. I find out in a morning text from our IT guy at the Peace Corps office (thanks, Enkh!).
  • Exclusive access to the M27 Swearing-In ceremony and 25th Anniversary reception where I got to take a pic with Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler Radelet.
  • Move to a new apartment and make it extra clear the terms of the housing agreement with my new landlord.

Little Moments //

  • Write out my second year goals: more casual time with Mongolians, project or club that is student focused, Get Bod Back (campaign title thanks to Olivia), learn a Mongolian dance, and figure out my post-Peace Corps plan
  • Tossing a frisbee around with my boyfriend is a laughing riot cause I’m so, so bad at it
  • The worst ride ever through tough terrain to visit a remote lake cluster in my aimag. It was beautiful but never again.
  • Spontaneous bonfire and dance party at my cohort’s Mid-Service Training becomes an unforgettable bonding night

Real Life // August is the month that I actually find time to relax and enjoy my summer vacation. It is the time for gin&tonics and for putting my ice cube mold to good use (my dad laughed at me for packing this but joke’s on you, dad!). The temperature starts to cool down after a fiery July which makes sleeping comfortable and pleasant. It’s also mating season for the stray dogs in town and the racket from all the sparring is ridiculous. No wonder Mongolians think dogs are scary.

September / October

Big Moments //

  • New site mates!
  • Start planning and thinking hard core about what will come after Peace Corps. After months of deliberation, my top two plans have become a) work for PCHQ in D.C. b) go to graduate school for education and get teaching on the international teaching circuit
  • Launch my leadership and public speaking club with my town’s Bookbridge Director. First meeting brings in nearly 40 students.
  • Fly to Washington D.C. for the Blog It Home tour

Little Moments //

  • Have the least stressful countryside outing to my counterpart’s mothers ger and fall off a horse for the first time.
  • Teacher’s Day party is on a Thursday and so much fun even though I end up leaving pretty early to take care of a friend. The next morning, I’m up at 8AM wondering if I’ll be team-teaching and watch as the other 8AM class teachers show up dragging their feet.
  • Decide that 5th and 6th graders are my favorite grades to teach
  • Share a delicious Italian style pizza with the super nice Catholic missionaries in my town and bond over expat life

Real Life // The weeks in September go by awfully slow but I think it’s because I have to get use to a teaching schedule again. I propose working with only two grades per quarter and my work life becomes a dream. My counterparts never miss a lesson planning session, I start to recognize students’ faces from going into their classes every week, and I am in a much better place to teach methodology because of all the consistency. Folks from HQ and my Country Director stop by my town for a visit. They come over for tea and we talk about my life here. The very next day, I am off to America. I miss Halloween festivities but I ain’t sad about it.

November / December

Big Moments //

  • Field trip to Khentii aimag with my Bookbridge center where we host a English Festival with the eight Khentii PCVs and their Bookbridge club
  • Share Thanksgiving with my nine counterparts, landlady, and sitemates. Thanks to some advance planning, we’re able to serve pumpkin pie, stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes for dinner. Chicken fingers and Mongolian dumplings (buuz) make up the meat portion of the meal.
  • I am devastated by the election.

Little Moments //

  • After watching clips of Whose Line Is It Anyway? with my community student club, Chatty Bunch, we spend an hour doing improv comedy.
  • I decide to learn how to do a full make-up face routine for the Young Teacher’s Club’s New Year’s banquet.
  • My site mate furnishes stockings for our Christmas sleepover and I get chocolate and money for Xmas. Best presents evar.
  • I see my first Kazakh-style dance and it’s mesmerizing.

Real Life // My site mates take turns being sick. It’s their first winter in Mongolia and the pollution is doing nobody no favors. Teaching the 7th and 8th graders this quarter isn’t very fun but there are some special moments like teaching the 8th graders a song that’s traveled all the way from Mozambique. I start to get a little homesick and moody but that’s to be expected around the American holiday season. I receive a Save the Date from one of my closest friends in America and die a little inside knowing that I won’t be able to make it. It is two months too early. I also start to freak out about re-entry shock and about being a part of American society again. I’m going to have to relearn all public niceties and western office etiquette. And just when I’ve started to get the hang of living and working in Mongolia …

Happy New Year!

Singing from Mozambique to Mongolia

I’m so proud!! I’m totally having a teacher moment right now.

So, back in September, I connected with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Mozambique who had just moved to Ulaanbaatar. We met for dinner & drinks to talk about international school teaching but also spent good chunk of the time comparing and contrasting our experiences. She came out to visit me a few months later and I showed her my little town, my school, my classes. Over dinner one night with my site mates, she taught us this very simple, but catchy song that one of her fellow PCVs had written.

These last two weeks, my counterparts and I have been teaching the song in all the 8th grade classes. Both my teachers and my students have loooved learning it and we’ve also used it as a tool to review present tense, past tense, WH questions, and irregular verbs. My 8a class has been by the far the best at learning the song so with happy teacher tears in my eyes, I present to you, “The Daily Routine” song:

My favorite part about the song is how its traveled across the world from Mozambique to Mongolia through Peace Corps Volunteers. It attests to how global our work is and also how strong the Peace Corps network is around the world. So thank you to Sarah Hanson (RPCV Mozambique 2013-2015) for inventing this little gem of a song and thank you Sam Kruger (RPCV Mozambique 2013-2015) for bringing it all the way to Mongolia!