Iderjavkhlan is five years old. His hazelnut hair spikes up, and remains still as he bounds across the yard. Sometimes, he carries a volleyball whose plastic skin has just started to peel. Other times, he smiles wide and points his index finger at the empty space in his gums – a cheerful homage to the recent departure of his two front teeth. Iderjavkhlan is my Mongolian host brother, UNO-street-rules counterpart, unofficial language instructor, and friend. When I first met Iderei, as his family calls him, he approached timidly and looked back to his parents before shaking my offered hand. Within an hour, he was speaking to me nonstop in Mongolian, pointing to objects and explaining what they were. To make sure we were on the same page, he would often recenter our conversation by gesturing to himself, and asking me to say his name. My confident reply of, “Iderei,” would bring forth a wide, gummy smile.
It has been about a week since I landed in Mongolia. A week of meeting other volunteers, attending Peace Corps orientation sessions, and having an introduction to our host sites and families. I’ve been incredibly impressed by my cohort of M29’s (we are the 29th group of PCV’s in-country). There are 50-something of us, and we come from a diverse group of experiences, ages, identities, and interests. From the international ultra marathon runner/Team USA dragon boat rower, to the recent master’s graduate who can recite old English from Beowolf, everyone brings their own unique flare of curiosity and inspiration.
After long days of vaccines, lessons on diarrhea/plague prevention, and discussions on why, “I Got Your Nose” is a cultural taboo, I’ve had no trouble finding people to go on hikes, play soccer, or share in good conversation. As informative a week it has been, it has also been a week where I’ve been able to appreciate the natural beauty of Mongolia. Hearing horses shuffle outside my ger, as I lay curled under a camel-wool blanket, was a very, “Wow, I’m in Mongolia”-moment, but the first time that the gravity of my two year commitment fully sunk in, was when I climbed with some friends to the top of a mountain’s ridge. The sun was starting to set, and the surrounding ranges were illuminated by a dusky orange glow. I rotated slowly to take in the panoramic view of mountains, Ulaanbaatar smokestacks, and the Peace Corps-rented ger camp below. Each breath felt sharp from the duress of my climb, but the aerated jolts only strengthened my smile. I felt so alive.
A couple of days later, I would be sitting crammed on a bus with the other health volunteers, making our way to Baruunkhara (a small village one hour outside of Darhan). Upon arrival to the school, where we will be learning Mongolian language and culture for the next two months, we were ushered into a classroom to stand before our new Mongolian families. It was here that I met Iderei, and his parents Khurelbaatar and Munkhgerel. They are a younger couple, in their early thirties, and they are both incredibly kind. Khurel’s playfulness was on display, when he ran and crouched to slap the bumper of his friend’s car – making its way out from the school’s parking lot. Munkh’s compassion has been evident, every time she leads me to the sink to wash my hands because I’ve been petting their guard dog, “Dog.” In their kindness has been incredible accommodation and a sense of humor. Upon my asking if I could have the Mongolian alphabet written out, Munkh (who teaches and understands English) took out a pen and paper, then started scribbling away. Shortly after, she called Khurel in from the yard and showed him what she had written. They erupted in laughter. Apparently both had forgotten the order of the Mongolian alphabet.
The final member of our household is Tumurbaatar. He is Khurel’s father, and in his retirement, he watches Iderei while Khurel and Munkh are at work. Tumurbaatar and Iderei are the best of friends. Sharing in apples, jokes, and a persistence in speaking Mongolian to me, despite my looks of confusion, they are quite a pair. It has been only a couple of days that I have lived with my host family, but so far, I’ve felt very fortunate. The food has been delicious, they are constantly checking to see if I’d like a nap, and I have been learning Mongolian slowly, but surely. Munkh has even begun to call me, “Naraa.” Following the alphabet debacle, she began to write more Cyrillic on my paper. “I will give you a Mongolian name,” she declared. “You will be Naraa. Naraa is the sun.”