“He’s concerned about your ham.”
When I first arrived in Ikh Uul, I had a sausage on my shelf. Tucked in wax paper and loosely encased by the folds of plastic wrapping previously torn open, the summer sausage had been my chosen form of protein. Sandwiches, egg scrambles, cabbage stew; its versatility was impressive. A few slices could dramatically change a meal’s flavor and sustenance, then, the rest of the meat could be re-wrapped in the packaging it came in. Although these meals were delicious and filling, satiation could not fill the hole of an untold truth. The opened sausage belonged in a fridge. In those first couple of weeks, I played roulette with many foods. Awaiting the arrival of a fridge for my home, I bought only what I thought could be finished in a timely manner. The sausage was one of my larger gambles, but it was a gamble that I had taken, and a gamble whose consequences I would own up to.
A couple weeks into being at site, I sat dumbfounded in a fellow teacher’s home. Casual conversation had journeyed to the realm where my gamble of a sausage resided. To this day, I’m still not really sure how word had spread to my teacher’s husband that I was eating unrefrigerated meat. I’m guessing that news of what I purchased had somehow traveled, and then, the knowledge of grocery acquisition and pending fridge arrival, slowly tumbled into a horrific image of the new American consuming gray sausage on a daily basis. Their concern was justified though, and after returning home and giving what was left of my sausage a quick waft, I justifiably threw it in the trash.
My decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer drew inspiration from many places, ideas, and dreams. Before coming to Mongolia, I found myself catching glimpses of community. I witnessed it amongst families, books, and in the media. I experienced it through cooperative housing, friendship, and work that was propelled by common goals. In my life there have been many transitions, and many communities. Yet, the narrative need to progress academically, personally, and professionally, would often blur my appreciation for the communities that I would come to inhabit. Applying to Peace Corps, I envisioned an opportunity to prioritize community. To be an effective volunteer, community integration is really important. Not just because your ideas will be carried with greater esteem, or that you will have a new network of in-country support, but also because community integration guides the ideas that you design, and enhances the quality of support that you can offer to others. I have a ways to go, before I become the community member that I want to be for my soum, but right now, it’s been fun and incredible to recognize the community that I have become a part of. It goes so much further than the concern that was expressed for my ham, or the compassion that led to someone donating their fridge for me to use.
I feel community when everyone I pass says hello. I feel it when a little boy whom I’ve never met before, spontaneously races me down a dirt road, with a mischievous grin on his face and a fried pastry swinging in one hand. In Ikh Uul, an appreciation for community is seen by the many projects that graduating classes and current classes have undertaken. Environmental engineering to irrigate newly planted trees, is as amazing to me as the sustained excitement for old friends to arrange reunions around a volleyball and many memories. Community, has been teachers and students coming in to landscape our school’s grounds during a weeklong vacation, it has been in the 13-hour soum volleyball tournaments, the talent shows, and the celebrations of marriage, new homes, and new beginnings. The community that I have entered is one that encourages accountability and thoughtfulness. I can laugh with store owners because they’ve memorized my bank code, or reassure neighbors and strangers that Mongolia’s cold has not gotten to me quite yet.
The beauties and powers of community exist everywhere around the world. The glances that I would catch or feel before Mongolia, came when I had time to reflect. Clarity would often come when I thought about how community was making me into the person that I was becoming. While this sort of self-reflection is very important to me, opening my heart to conceptualize how the person that I currently am, can potentially contribute to what my community becomes, has helped me to start perceiving the subtle and not so subtle ways that a community can thrive.