Monthly Archives: July 2012

Off we go

Hello from China!  Ryan and I have been in Beijing for the last week, and despite the fact that we have brought no fewer than three (3) gadgets capable of connecting to the internet, there haven’t been a whole lot of opportunities to sit down and blarg.   Danged Great Firewall of China or whatever it’s called.  Anyway, because I know you care so much, here are some notes I’ve jotted down in the last week.

July 22, UB to Zamiin Uud

This southern train ride out of UB is very Mongolia.  Gers, old Russian railhouses, trash, dogs, cows, mountains, sky, pantsless children waving at the passing train.  Goodbye, pantsless children!  I think I’ll miss you most of all.

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July 23, Beijing

Getting across the border this morning was a breeze.  One last: While the caravan of Russian Jeeps was waiting for Mongolian checkpoint to open, I walked off into an empty lot and, with my ass in full view to any passing traffic and secure in the knowledge that nobody cared, peed behind a bush.  One first: At the Chinese checkpoint, some lady put a receipt between her index and middle fingers (Mongolian no-no) and tossed it at me (another Mongolian no-no).  I would like to say I wasn’t offended, but…I kinda was?

Erlian, the Chinese border town, was some kind of bizarro world, for sure.  The city looked nothing like any Mongolian city — wide boulevards, smooth sidewalks, blocks and blocks of new buildings that looked exactly like, I dunno, Crystal City condos — but all the signs were in Chinese and traditional Mongolian script.  When I walked up to a tuk-tuk driver and asked, “Do you speak Mongolian?” he said, “I sure do, my child!”

We ended up taking a ten-hour taxi ride into Beijing.  Our driver was a young Inner Mongolian named Erdene, who spoke Chinese and Mongolian (with an accent we found totally baffling).  He went to lunch with us first (When he asked “Do you want to eat Mongolian food or Chinese food?” I tried not to laugh/weep). I ordered the deep fried eggplant and HOLY FUCKING SHIT:

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Hunger may be the best sauce, but two years of Peace Corps service in Central Asia is a pretty good sauce, too.

So then we got in the taxi with three other passengers – a mom, dad and their toddler son, from (regular) Mongolia – and watched the countryside slowly change from Mongolian (gers, horses, sheep) to Chinese (villages, donkeys, chickens).  When we reached the outskirts of Beijing, with its highways and green traffic signs and office buildings, we had the weird feeling that we had somehow accidentally gone all the way back to America.  When Erdene got in a minor fender bender in the city and sprang out of the car to yell at the other driver, the dad-passenger turned around in his seat, listened to the drivers arguing in Chinese with a smirk on his face, and muttered “Ching chong shing shong.”* And when Erdene dropped us off at our guesthouse’s alley after driving around looking for it for a solid 20 minutes, Ryan shook his hand and said, “You’re a good driver.”  Then we turned to walk down the alley, and Erdene drove away, and Mongolia was, for the first time, really, truly gone.

*Smart money says this will be the most hilarious moment of our trip.

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The Long Goodbye

Oh man.  Twenty-four hours left in Mongolia.  Nothing much to say about my service at this point.  No lessons, no deep truths, and I ain’t thought about what I really want to write here at all but LET’S DO THIS THING.  THIS BLOG POST.

1. Goodbye, sorta!

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So my teachers scheduled my official “Goodbye Party” for April 27th, when I still had three solid weeks of work left.  Kinda weird, but whatever.  One good thing about the awkward timing is that it gave everybody plenty of opportunities to show cell phone videos of me  singing karaoke to anybody and everybody in the teachers’ lounge.  I do hope the one of me wailin’ away on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” is preserved for posterity.

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There was eating, and drinking, and merrymaking, and singing, and a little dancing.

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And there was also some present-giving: Here you see Odsuren, Tungalag, and Tsetsegmaa, the three oldest members of the Foreign Language staff (Russian teachers all), presenting me with my goodbye gift: A silver bowl, inscribed with a nice little message from the department about how they wish me luck and happiness in the future (“We had it written in Mongolian, so you won’t be able to forget your language,” my supervisor, Batja, told me.  This was a nice idea, but the inscription is in very flowery cursive Cyrillic, which I never really learned how to read)(I did not mention this; I just arrived home that night and drunkenly demanded Ryan get out of bed to help me decipher the bowl) .

Our Close Of Service (COS) conference had been a week before this party, which was nice, because all of us  COS-ing volunteers had been armed with useful phrases for saying goodbye, and so I was able to make a grammatically correct speech about how time had really flown by, and about how wonderful it had been to work with everybody, and how I would never forget them.

I was able to avoid losing my shit at this time.

2. Goodbye, school

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Oof, this day.  I woke up early, baked about a hundred chocolate chip cookies (in our toaster oven), stuffed them (plus all my goodbye notes, goodbye photos, and Ryan’s Flip camera) into a bag, and set off for my last day at school.

So um I took a bunch of videos instead of pictures, and tried to put the clips together, to music, in a way that was not stupid?  Honestly the more I worked on this thing the dumber it seemed, but here it is and don’t judge me.

At the end of the day, I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge with Batja (who you see in the video, handing out cookies) and a couple of other teachers.  Things seemed to be winding down to a natural stopping point:  All the cookies had been eaten, I’d said goodbye to all the upper-level admin staff when they’d taken me out to lunch at a fancy restaurant, I knew I’d be seeing the English teachers again that weekend for one last hurrah, and I’d given out almost all the notes and photos and CDs I’d meant to give out.  There had also been one last corny joke made by our resident practical joker, Chunak teacher:

CHUNAK
Hey, Katie.  Ban Ki-Moon called.

KATIE
Wha…who?  Did what?

CHUNAK
Ban Ki-Moon.  He called.

KATIE
(still confused)

OTHER TEACHER
Ban Ki-Moon!  Ban Ki-Moon!  The UN guy!

KATIE
Oooooooh.  Yeah.  Uh…what did he say?

CHUNAK
He said you can’t leave.

KATIE
Oh really?

CHUNAK
Yup!  One more year.

KATIE
Well!  Okay.  He is my boss.

CHUNAK
I know right.

So I handed the last few photos to Batja and asked her to give them out to people, and to tell them they were from me, and to say goodbye for me.  “Za,” she said,  “See you Saturday at 12,” and left the room.  I sat around for a little while longer, then gathered my things and said one last round of goodbyes to the teachers in the room.

“Feelin’ good!  Feelin’ great!”  is what I thought as I started walking out of school for the last time.  “Perfectly satisfying day!  No sad feelings after all!”

And then, of course, I turned a corner and saw, for the first time that day, Zoksoo.  I’ve mentioned her before, and here she is, in the middle of this group of cleaning ladies:

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During those first, difficult months at school when I would need to retreat into my office every hour or so to chill out, Zoksoo would wander in and sit down and we’d eat candy and chat.  She didn’t have any hidden agenda, she didn’t want me to teach her or anybody in her family English; she just wanted to talk, and she was patient and friendly with me despite my toddler-level Mongolian.  She was my first real work pal.

So I round the corner and there’s Zoksoo: in her uniform, holding her mop, looking down at the photo Batja had obviously just given her, and smiling.  Immediately and against my will I lose my shit.  We hug and I manage to get out a strangled “I’LL HUH HUH HUH REALLY MISS YOU HUH HURRRK” before, like, literally running down the stairs and out the front door.  Then I cried all the way home.

Ryan was slightly alarmed when I walked into the apartment that day.

3.  Goodbye, teachers, take some stuff willya

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So then!  That Saturday was our scheduled “Come to Katie’s Apartment and Take Her Extra Stuff and Then Drink Some Beers” day, and it was swell.  Below you see Dulguun, the reason one of my teachers has been out on maternity leave all year.  She and her mom are in the bedroom, where I’d spread out all the goodies (teaching materials, clothes, accessories, other random crap) for my teachers to take turns digging through.  I believe Dulguun is chowing down on a Sharpie:

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Then we rolled deep to da club:

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It was a fun last night out with my ladies.

A few weeks before this day, our Regional Officer had come to Erdenet to do one last round of site visits.  Before she went to my school, she asked whether I thought they should get a new volunteer in the fall. I told her of course.  I told her my teachers were great.  I told her that I’d never had to beg to get them to work with me; from the very beginning through the very end, they were eager to lesson plan with me, create materials with me, and teach with me.

Sidenote: I sometimes feel like a boob for not ever doing any big projects at my school.  We never wrote any grants, we never got new books or computers or other stuff, we never started any new programs or clubs or anything like that, and even my weekly (ha yeah right) teachers’ class didn’t really improve anybody’s language or teaching methods (after a while, I figured out what my teachers actually wanted out of these lessons: An opportunity to, every once in a while, sit down and open up their notebooks and practice their English for an hour.  And if I’m being honest with myself, I’m lazy, and so I was more than happy to take the pressure off myself to create a curriculum and assessment tools and etc for this class, and instead just have a random grammar lesson in my back pocket at all times).  But then I remember how fortunate I was to be  able to spend so much time on the basic nuts-and-bolts of language instruction with my teachers.  It’s not glamorous and it doesn’t look that good on a resume, but team teaching (and team lesson planning, and team materials creating) is really solid, capacity-building, sustainable work, and I am thankful, like more thankful than I can say, that so much of my service was just about being in the classroom with my ladies.  They were generous; they let me in.

Anyway, I said yes.  Yes yes yes!  Give them a new volunteer!  They’re so easy to work with!

Then, surprisingly, she said she wasn’t so sure it would be a good idea.  She said when a school gets its first volunteer (which is what I was) and things go well with that volunteer, it can be difficult for another volunteer to come in right away.  Because the teachers’ experience with PCVs is limited to one, they often expect the new volunteer to be just like the old one, and then the new volunteer has to deal with a very intense “Why aren’t you more like Volunteer X?” period.  Which would obviously suck.  I hadn’t thought about this before she mentioned it.  “Maybe my school won’t get an M23 after all,” I thought.

But then she visited my school and  met with my teachers, all of us crammed into my little closet-office that I’d abandoned long ago.  I followed some of the conversation and it was surprisingly bittersweet, sitting in on one last meeting between my teachers and Peace Corps Staff, listening to them  say nice stuff about our work together (some of the stuff was true; some of it was smoke blown up my Regional Director’s butt, but whatevs).

Afterwards, she said it might not be such a bad idea, after all, for my school to get another PCV.  I asked her why; she said that the English teaching staff had a very unusual quality that she doesn’t often see: They all seem to like each other.

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I took a while to get to the point, sorry about that.  But while we were dancing I was reminded of what my Regional Director had said.  My teachers really do like each other.  They like getting together and having fun and cutting loose; nobody’s excluded, nobody’s gossiped about, and while there are different groups of friends, everybody enjoys everybody else’s company.  Ugh man I hit the jackpot with these women.  I hope another PCV gets to hit the jackpot, too.

At the end of the night, everybody walked me home, all the way to our apartment building.  We had a big, drunken group hug, and I was on the verge of losing my shit again when somebody said, “We’ll come meet you in UB in July!  We’ll all come to the train station when you leave for China!”

I was pretty grateful for this little fiction, in the moment.  “Okay!”  I said.  “So…see you in July?”

“Yeah,” they said.  “We’ll see you later.”

4. Goodbye, training

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The next morning, I left for Darkhan and spent two months there, helping to train the new TEFLers.  I’m running out of time here so I dunno how well I can explain what training is like for a trainer, but anyway, it involves one PCV trainer and one Mongolian trainer getting in a microbus in Darkhan, riding two hours out to a training town in the countryside, getting out, co-facilitating a three hour session about Community Development (What does it mean to work as a Peace Corps volunteer?) or TEFL methodology (How the hell do I teach English?) to the group of ten or so trainees who are living in that town for the summer, then getting back on the microbus, riding two hours back to the office in Darkhan, walking home, stuffing your face with whatever is on hand in your trainer apartment and then going to bed at, like, nine thirty. Trainers do other stuff, too (prepare the sessions, evaluate the trainees,  collect trainees’ feedback and respond to it, observe the trainees’ English lessons with local kids, try not to shoot ourselves), but that’s the gist of it.  It’s a lot of work.

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But whatever, this was my second summer so I knew what I was signing up for.  This probably sounds insincere but I do think that training, as flawed as it can sometimes be, is incredibly important and it’s a privilege to be part of the team that (tries to) prepare new volunteers for their service.

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But I didn’t do this again for only selfless reasons, haha, that’s hilarious.  My selfish reasons are as follows:

1.  It was nice to be a trainer at the end of my first year, because leading trainees through these sessions actually clarified a lot of things to me about my service.  It’s weird and kind of a shame, but I think it’s true: The trainers get a lot more out of the sessions than the trainees do.  The sessions about Community Development, especially, are strangely uncompelling as a trainee, and way more interesting after you’ve been in country for a while and struggled to understand where your place is, and what you’re even doing here.

Similarly, being a trainer at the end of my service helped me wrap my head around the last two years.  Something about leading these sessions, talking with the trainees, trying to manage their expectations while still setting them up to succeed, discussing the sessions with the other trainers and wondering HEY what the hell are we trying to say here, what do these people need to know about being a good volunteer anyway argh: It was helpful.  I look back on my service and I know I could have done some things differently, but I did the important stuff right.  I have no regrets.  I am at peace.  Maybe I’m delusional?  Whatever man.

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2.  Also, training is fun!  I mean, parts of it are fun.  The parts that are fun are real fun, though.

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Yep.  Americans and Mongolians workin’ hard, playin’ hard.  Good times.  Love all these people.

3.  Another nice thing about training: I got a pretty good photo of some trash cows.

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Word.

5.  Goodbye, Ryan’s people

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The morning after my job was finished I took a taxi back to Erdenet, walked into the apartment, dropped my bags, said hi to Ryan, and then we headed right back out to Ryan’s Countryside Goodbye Party.

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As you can see, Ryan’s coworkers put on a mighty fine barbeque bonanza at a local ger camp.  Presents were exchanged (for them, photos and notes from Ryan; for us, yak wool sweaters that we sent to the USA the other day, so they’ll be waiting for us in wintry Cleveland), multiple kinds of meat were consumed, there was singing and forced drinking and it was all very Mongolia.

Also everybody brought their kids.  The kids found Ryan irresistible.

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6.  Goodbye, Erdenet

Ah, the most emotionally wrenching goodbye of all.  Good thing I waited until now, 20 minutes before we need to go catch our train to China, to write about it.

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First up: The sitemate goodbye.  This was a months-long goodbye in itself, full of gatherings and karaoke-ings and “Am I going to see you before we leave” ings.

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But really, saying goodbye to PCVs is not too hard.  We hate all these people.

JUST KIDDING what I mean is, we will probably see everybody again, somewhere, somehow, and so I wasn’t too sad.  It’s sad to come to the end of an era, though.  The Erdenet PCVs had a good time together these last two years.  Not everybody gets sitemates who are fun to hang out with, good to talk to, who support you, who understand.  I will miss everybody.  I will miss rollin’ with our crew.

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Next up: Saying goodbye to our city.  We had one week in Erdenet to pack up our shit and get our other shit squared away, and luckily enough, Naadam was happening that same week. So in between bouts of cleaning and packing, we went to the stadium and met with some friends and watched some big fat men wrestle in tiny little outfits.  Erdenet does Nadaam up right, and it was a fun time to be in the city, to say goodbye to our home.

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And finally: The last goodbye to my teachers.  I saw a few ladies at Naadam, and I’ve seen a few more since we came here to Ulaanbaatar, but on our last day in Erdenet, Enkhmaa (below, second from the left, wearing my dress) was kind of our leaving midwife.  She, with Ryan’s boss, helped us gather the last of our things and head to the bus station; once there, she called up everybody who was in town and told them to head to the bus station.

We all stood around and chatted for a while, and I thought I was going to get out of it without losing my shit again.  But then the bus was about to leave and we had to get on board and it was time to hug everybody and say goodbye for real, and I cried like a small child.

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In front of everybody!  What a dirty trick they played on me.

Oh just kidding.

We were so lucky, in everything.

Goodbye, Mongolia.

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