My thumb stands a little bit shorter. Docked at the top, chunked with a chop. Preparing a delightful meal of something-something-cabbage, quickly transformed into a desperate attempt to spare my cabbage from the horrors of a gushing digit. Following first aid improvisation, my thumb looked bulbous with its toilet paper padding, and my left hand was out of commission. The application of pressure from index finger to thumb had fixed my hand into a symbol of irony. It signified that all was “OK .” Cabbage flew as I fumbled with one hand to slam my knife against the cutting board. Scooping the displaced bits into a bowl, I could hear the rumbling voice of our soviet-trained medical officer. “It is not that hard to cut a cabbage,” Eldar bellowed inside my skull. Two weeks later, when my thumb was nearly healed, it would go on to have an unfortunate encounter with a potato peeler. My inner Eldar simply shook his head.
Despite my thumb’s inability to dial phone numbers, and to exist without looking nibbled, it certainly stands as a reminder to cut cabbage with caution. A month of living alone in Mongolia, has been a month filled with plenty of lessons in adulting and integration. Over time, chores and daily activities have begun to mold themselves to the quirks of my new life. When graveyards of flies pile up on my window sills, or the pipes in my bathroom spurt what I can only imagine as doodie water, I sweep the bugs and towel the floors with a trained sense of duty. When someone shows up at my door, or calls randomly to say that they’re on their way, I’ve stuck to responses of affirmation. “Zaa yavwii,” or “bi gadaa baina,” have led to many unexpected adventures. Eating all kinds of goat parts, hanging out in a mountain valley ger, playing basketball, picking fruit, and even climbing some rocks to reach a view of the stunning Selenge River below; openness to unpredictability has made for many vibrant memories. It’s introduced me to the people, flow, and environment of my community.
Sometimes, it can be challenging to stir up the courage to walk purposelessly in a place where purpose is expected of you, but I’ve found that walks for wonder have instilled a sense of belonging. There have been times when a fellow apartment dweller accompanies me on our shared walk home, and we talk about our families. I’ve found little caves, look-outs, and rock walls along the river; perfect for climbs, or spots for lunch and a book. One time, a dog followed me from the village center to my home at the edge of town. I watched its shadow blend into mine before slowly turning to say hello. After a timid touch of nose to hand, we became fast friends.
The past two weeks of school have been as full as they have been fulfilling. It began with an opening ceremony in which I presented a Mongolian speech to introduce myself, and to wish all 1,000 students, teachers, and parents a strong start to the school year. It continued with more introductions, class observations, and informal community needs assessments. My English teacher counterparts have helped me to translate and conduct interviews with nurses, students, and teachers. Together, they are helping me to build a working foundation for my next two years.
Being present for school runs and picnics, participating in volleyball practices, and lending English classes a native ear and mediocre singing voice, have all helped with my integration into the school. It’s a phenomenal relief to recognize smiling faces in a classroom of thirty, as I stand up to co-facilitate a health lesson, or lead an English speaking club through, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”. What a rush of power it is, to point at a query about woodchucks, and hear a room of Mongolian children boom in unison to the time of your underlining finger. Here’s hoping the power doesn’t get to my head.
I am the fourth volunteer in the past 14 years to be placed in Ikh-Uul. The ones before me have all left a remarkable impression on the community, and have shared memories and projects that are still talked about today. I’m very grateful to follow in their footsteps. Although I am the fourth volunteer to arrive, I am the community’s first health education volunteer. Peace Corps Mongolia started the health education program two years ago, to simultaneously address needs in health outcome improvement and youth life skill development. Since the program is so new, many health volunteers like myself, are figuring out how to respond to our school and community’s expectation that we are here to teach English. Without proper instruction on how to teach English as a foreign language, I definitely feel unsure about my English teaching capability. Yet, with demand comes opportunity, and with every English speaking club, government official speaking workshop, and tutoring session for my English teacher counterparts, I’ve felt more connected to Ikh-Uul. To be able to help my community with projects in health and the environment, I need to form relationships with my fellow Ikh-Uuligans. While I recognize my limitations in teaching English, I try to focus on my strengths in activity and game-based practice. Kids that once stared in nervous silence when I said “hello”, are now barging into my little office to ask all kinds of personal questions, and to show me what great readers they are.
My English teacher counterparts have a command of English that I did not expect when coming to my village. They also have an inspiring attitude to further their English education. Every Friday morning, I work with two of them to practice writing, vocabulary, listening, and reading. They write creative stories about photos that I’ve taken, they read passages from my copy of The Alchemist, and they listen to songs to test their skill in listening comprehension. The first song that I played for Urnaa and Zaya, was “Octopus’s Garden,” by The Beatles. When talking about what the song meant to them, they spoke about finding a place to share in freedom and peace. A place that’s beautiful and happy.
While there are sure to be ups and downs over the course of these next two years, it’s refreshing to remind myself that two years is plenty of time. The relationships I’m bound to form and the projects I aspire to implement, will come as long as I keep putting forth the effort. They are likely to change in shape and detail as time goes on, but I suppose that’s kind of the beauty about this whole experience. Things will change as I change with them. Things beyond the mutilation of my left thumb. Despite the absence of a sea, or any known octopuses, Ikh-Uul is a place where I feel free and at peace. It is a place that’s beautiful and happy.