The other night, I had to use the bathroom. Although volunteers of past and present have had outhouse stories that inhabit a spectrum of lost phones, surprise birds, surprise family members, and one horrific tumble into the brown void that landed said unfortunate volunteer into Peace Corps Mongolia lore, the profundity of this night’s bathroom excursion would take place before I even set foot in my lopsided, orange-paneled, jarrlung.
Moving out of my bedroom and through the darkness of my home, I came to the front door. Pushing it slightly, I kept it ajar just enough for my hand to slip through, while also preventing incoming light from stirring my slumbering family in the living room adjacent. On the other side, my hand moved blindly, yet swiftly and methodically, as it exacted a precise strike to the outdoor light switch. The fluidity of this action caught me off guard. Pre-service training is nearly finished. Throughout two months of immense education, experiences, and encounters, the simple surprise of knowing the location of a light switch in the dark may seem a bit silly. Yet, I truly feel that it captures one of my largest realizations thus far: Mongolia is beginning to feel like home.
The past month has been filled with opportunities to apply the cultural, technical, and life knowledge/skills that we’ve been nurturing throughout training. July began with Naadam, a festival of Mongolia’s three manly sports (archery, horse racing, and wrestling). Excitement was high during the celebration, as community members and volunteers exhibited beautifully tailored deels, many wrestling matches were entertainingly lopsided, and some of us had our first taste of airag – fermented mare’s milk. As July moved along, I perfected my family’s secret chicken call, attended a motorcycle rally, navigated my way home on dark, unfamiliar streets by flash of lightning, counted 1024 goats for a stranger, learned that although it is rare, male chickens can lay eggs (albeit extraordinarily small eggs that one should not eat nor discard), and began to realize how much my language skills, and the language skills of my site mates, have progressed.
The improvement in our language, was most evident when we worked with a Mongolian counterpart to plan and co-facilitate health lessons for children in our community. While some counterparts spoke a little bit of English, this task tested all of us on our ability to find creative ways to communicate and collaborate. After a week of preparation, a fellow site mate, our counterpart, and I, led lessons on exercise, and then on gender roles and leadership. Our first lesson featured a lot of improvised accommodations – in the form of me and my site mate doing triangle pushups, squat jumps, and wall sits – to captivate the children and fill time that we didn’t think we would have. Our second lesson flowed very nicely, and stimulated dialogue that was evidence of the students’ critical thinking and engagement with our lesson.
Although Peace Corps has provided us with a phenomenal assortment of health and life skill education resources, for the second lesson, my co-facilitation team worked to design an activity and takeaway of our own. Recognizing some cultural difficulty in communicating how gender roles are socially proliferated and non-binding, we decided to take this first aspect, and progress it towards an example of something important that men and women are both capable of doing. Thus, upon having the children openly discuss their perceived gender roles in Mongolia, we introduced the point that all men and women can be leaders. I introduced and explained why Jane Goodall is a leader that I admire, and my site mate introduced and explained why one of her favorite leaders is Barrack Obama. We then opened the floor to the children, to share leaders that they admire and what traits these leaders possess. We finished by emphasizing the need to respect everyone, because no matter who you are, you are capable of anything. Given that all of this took place in Mongolian, morale was on an upswing as we moved on to summer camp preparation.
Working with the same CP’s (counterparts), we organized three days of summer camp that would reinforce and teach many of the same themes that were covered in our practice lessons. The camp however, would be more geared towards interaction and activity. We wanted the kids to have fun. Burning white sponges to simulate the effects of smoking on your lungs, playing tug of war for exercise, having students relay race in big clothes and shoes to simulate the lumbering effects of alcohol, and fascinating modifications to games of Tag, were all but a few examples of what our camp entailed. The kids had a blast, and became very prideful in the teams that they were assigned to (Snakes, Wolves, or Eagles). Based on the little nutrition lecture and shaming I received from my eleven year old cousin (a camp attendee) for eating a piece of chocolate when I got home, I’d have to say our activities had some kind of an impact!
It’s remarkable to acknowledge that in about two weeks, I will be leaving Baruunkharaa to find out my permanent site assignment, and to swear-in as a volunteer. It’s also kind of odd to think that this fall, I won’t be returning to school as a student, but rather, as a teacher. After our last day of camp, I walked home across the huge dirt field that separates my house from the school. Eyes bouncing from wild grass clump, to mud-laden path, to wild grass clump, and on again, I thought about all that had happened in the past three days, and smiled in relief that it had gone so well. In this weightless joy, I also felt proud. Proud of my site mates, proud of our CP’s, proud of the kids, and proud of myself. A lot of work has been put in these past couple of months, and it has all been incredibly worthwhile.