I Swear I Actually Do Work

I’ve become aware that many of my blog posts make it seem like I a) spend a lot of time away from site, or b) do a lot of non work-related stuff at site. But to be honest, that’s all just an illusion formed from my habit of only posting about especially fun/interesting/unusual things (which of course is all relative–my life here in general is probably pretty unusual to most of my readers, but for me the day-to-day stuff has simply become “normal” life for me). The truth is, my primary assignment (working at the Zavkhan health department) mostly consists of work that probably wouldn’t be super exciting to read about every month, since most days I just sit in an office working on various projects, occasionally helping with a training or seminar either at the health department or at local schools, and teaching my coworkers English.

The health department certainly does tons of work throughout the aimag, but most of my involvement is behind the scenes and at the planning stage. Let’s face it: Mongolian is a really difficult language to learn, and I’ve long since accepted that I’ll never be fluent in the language (and the vast majority of people here in Uliastai will never be fluent in English), so for any health-related projects I generally have to have a Mongolian counterpart do all the talking and presenting and facilitating, even if I planned everything. Turns out this is actually the ideal set-up for Health PCVs, since our entire purpose is building the capacity of host country nationals. Our work wouldn’t be very sustainable if we PCVs were always running the show instead of helping our counterparts build their knowledge and skills, though the result is that to an outside observer, it can look like we don’t really do much.

So to sometimes switch things up and convince myself that I’m actually doing something, I work on lots of projects outside of the health department, often with my sitemates. I love working with kids, so sometimes I’m envious of my sitemates who all work in schools and have little fan clubs/armies of adorable children, while I work in a typical office building of 30 some adults. So when my sitemates do projects at their schools or projects for students outside of school, I like to help them out as much as possible. So far, I’ve participated in some capacity in:

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  • community English classes for adults (outside of my health department classes)
  • a week-long art camp for students from herding families during a school break
We even managed to incorporate mini health lessons each day

We even managed to incorporate mini health lessons each day

  • the benefit concert we held back in spring
  • weekly “Mongolish” nights with locals who want to practice speaking English
  • various English competitions (song competition, speaking competition, culture fair, etc.) between students from all the local schools, since I’m the only impartial judge
The Belize team at the culture fair back in January

The Belize team at the culture fair back in January

I also do various things on my own outside of the health department, including:

  • editing the annual reports of the workers at the local World Vision office (World Vision is a US-based NGO, so all their reports have to be submitted in English)
  • teaching English at the Zoonotic Disease Research Center
  • editing the local news that a Mongolian reporter friend of mine translates and presents in English

And of course, I do plenty of work at/with my health department. In the nearly 16 months that I’ve been here in Uliastai, I’ve helped with:

  • making CPR and first aid brochures and planning a training for students of herder families (the parents of which spend the school year out in the countryside, meaning these students live alone in town and are responsible for their younger siblings)
  • a handwashing peer education program for students
  • College Student Health Promotion Day
Folding pamphlets counts as helping in my book

Folding pamphlets counts as helping in my book

  • our dental screening project for 1st-3rd graders back in May
  • informal computer/software assistance to coworkers as needed
  • program development (needs assessment, writing goals and objectives, monitoring and evaluation, etc.) trainings for coworkers
  • beginner and intermediate level English classes for coworkers
  • accident and injury prevention trainings for parents and kindergarten teachers
     Yes, I've discovered that Mongolian kindergartens are some of the nicest buildings in this country


Yes, I’ve discovered that Mongolian kindergartens are some of the nicest buildings in this country

  • a seminar on dealing with patients with alcohol problems for doctors at the hospital
  • a seminar on maternity care in America for midwives from throughout Zavkhan
The lady with the phone is either recording the information on the slide or recording me because holy crap this white girl is (poorly) speaking Mongolian!

The lady with the phone is either recording the information on the slide or recording me because holy crap this white girl is (poorly) speaking Mongolian!

[By the way, the only reason I can keep track of all this stuff is because we have to complete and submit the dreaded VRF (Volunteer Report Form) twice a year, where we list and describe (in detail) all the activities we’ve done as PCVs.]

See, I do stuff, I promise!

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Language IST and Second Site Visit

There had been rumors floating around for a while about a possible Language IST (like the regular IST I talked about a few posts back, but shorter and specifically focusing on Mongolian language) sometime in late winter/early spring, which was exciting because according to the rumors, it was going to be regional, with the PCVs from different regions of Mongolia coming together, and supposedly we Zavkhan PCVs and others in the western region were going to be going to Govi-Altai (the aimag to the south of Zavkhan) for our Language IST. So we would get to travel (on Peace Corps’ dime) and get to see some other Volunteers.

But as is always a risk with the rumor mill, this turned out to be not quite the case. A few weeks ago we finally got an email from Peace Corps confirming that there would be Language ISTs, but a later email with the details revealed that instead of having us congregate at a few regional locations, most of us would just be having our Language ISTs at our own aimag centers. A few of the aimags in the central and eastern regions did get to travel to other sites, but those of us out in the remote West had to stay where we were. And because Uliastai is the aimag center of Zavkhan, I really didn’t get to go anywhere. Our 2 PCVs in soums came into town, but that was the extent of travel here.

To make the whole thing even less exciting, it was scheduled for a Friday through Monday, effectively taking up the entire weekend that all of us use to go grocery shopping and do our chores (living in a ger ain’t no picnic–Sunday is my day for sweeping and other miscellaneous cleaning, fetching water, chopping wood and hauling it into my pin [shed attached to my ger], and hand-washing laundry).

The haul from an average wood-chopping session

The haul from an average wood-chopping session

Peace Corps also decided to go ahead and do our “spring” site visits during this time, so the Assistant Regional Manager for the western region came to check out our homes and HCAs to make sure everything was going well. She was also here to check out potential HCAs for the next batch of Volunteers to come to Mongolia later this year.

So this past Friday morning, instead of going into work at 9 like usual, I had the home portion of my site visit (it was supposed to be at 10am, but the flight from UB was delayed a bit). Then we went to the health department around noon for our first session with the two Mongolian language teachers Peace Corps had sent. This first session was–according to the schedule we had received–supposed to last until 6, but at around 2:30 the teachers told us we were done for the day. Okaaaaay…Well, not gonna argue with that. So we ended up having time to go do our grocery shopping after all.

The next day (Saturday) was tough because we had language class from 9am to 6pm. Luckily it was at the school really close to my home, so I didn’t have to wake up too super early. There are 8 of us PCVs in Zavkhan, but we are all at very different levels regarding our Mongolian language abilities. Obviously the M24 PCVs who have been here for almost two years can speak Mongolian much better than us M25s who have only been here for 9 months. One of the M24s is also one of those language geniuses who can pick up other languages like it’s nothing, so he’s practically fluent. And then a couple of the M25s aren’t super motivated to learn more Mongolian than they need to get by, especially since they’re TEFL Volunteers and mostly work with the English teachers at their schools. And then there are those of us hovering somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I definitely did learn quite a few new things, but the whole training would have been much better if we were able to split into multiple groups based on ability, which would have been more feasible if larger groups of PCVs congregated in their regions as we originally thought the training would be.

After surviving a day of nothing but Mongolian classes, we got to go to the nice Korean restaurant in town (which is definitely the best/most expensive/only non-Mongolian food-based restaurant in Uliastai). We were treated by a visitor from the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., who is in charge of language training for all the countries Peace Corps operates in. He also happened to be a PCV right here in Uliastai 10 years ago, so since he was in Mongolia anyway for work and had the opportunity to tag along with our Assistant Regional Manager on her sites visits, he obviously took it. So we were treated to a nice meal and got to chat with him about our experiences and how Uliastai has changed over the past 10 years.

On Sunday morning we had more language classes, and according to the schedule, they were to end around 1pm. But then the teachers informed us that they were told to have class until 5pm. But as I mentioned before, those of us who live in gers do all our chores on Sunday, and I needed to chop wood for the coming week (which, no, I can’t do during the work week because I’m literally at work during the only daylight hours, and you’d have to be crazy to chop wood when it’s not only winter in Mongolia, but also dark and therefore even colder than usual). So after lunch I kindly informed the teachers that, sorry, I had to go home and make sure I didn’t freeze to death in the next few days.

Although we didn’t have language classes on Monday (so I went to work as usual), the teachers were still there for individual tutoring, so I got another 2 hours of language learning in. Later in the day the Assistant Regional Manager came to the health department for the HCA portion of her site visit. So we had a meeting with the director, my supervisor, and some of my other CPs to discuss how things were going at work (pretty good, in case you were wondering).

After that, the language IST and site visit were over, and I was extremely exhausted from basically getting no rest over the weekend and then going straight into another full work week. Fun times.

Halfway-Through-PST Assessments

The first class day after Mid-Center Days, we were given more details about our first TAP (Trainee Assessment Packet), which is where our program manager sits down with us individually and discusses how we’ve done so far during PST, using information gathered from our LCFs, our technical session trainers, and our host family. We knew that was scheduled for the next day, but then they told us that we would also have a “practice” LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) the next day as well, which was news to all of us as we had asked and had confirmed several times before that we only had the one LPI at the end of PST. So we were given less than 24 hours to prepare for that, but I tried not to stress over it too much since I knew they couldn’t really do anything if I failed miserably (no one gets kicked out for not knowing the language well enough). And of course, I was scheduled for the very first LPI in the morning!

The LPI consisted of us describing (in Mongolian of course) 3 of 4 topics (ourselves, a friend, our American family, or our Mongolian host family); answering and asking questions (the LCF asked me 30 questions and then had me ask her a bunch of question); and then a situational dialogue (either shopping in a store or taking a taxi). It was a lot more intense than I thought it would be, but both of the LCFs said I did really well. Apparently there was only one question that I couldn’t answer, and I only made one major mistake when I accidentally said my host parents were in their seventies instead of their forties (the words sound a lot alike, ok!). So that ended up being a bit of a confidence booster.

I had my TAP right after that, which also went very well. All of my trainers thought I was doing very well and my host family had said I was integrating well. The only issue was that my practicum at the family clinic wasn’t going too well because I had a hard time taking the initiative to get involved, which I already knew was something I was struggling with and needed to work on. But apparently our practicums are kind of set up to fail so that we get some practice dealing with some of the issues we will likely face at our permanent site.

Overall, both the LPI and the TAP were very informative, and it was nice to hear them tell me that I was doing so well.

The Hair-Cutting Ceremony and Rug-Washing Day

The last day of June was very eventful. After language class I went home for lunch, and my host mom told me we would be going to a relative’s house for their son’s hair-cutting ceremony and lunch. Now, I only get an hour and a half for lunch break, including travel time, so when we didn’t even leave our house until almost halfway into my  break (which was also about 15 minutes later than I was told we would be leaving—gotta love Mongolian time!) I was very worried that I would be late for technical session (which is a big no-no). Luckily the relative’s house is really close to the school, so I was able to stay for the ceremony and get plenty to eat for lunch.

In Mongolia, a male child’s first haircut is performed when he is 1, 3, or 5 years old, and a female child’s is performed when she is 2 or 4 years old. This explains why basically all the toddler boys I’ve seen here have long hair—they don’t cut it before then. The hair-cutting ceremony symbolizes good karma, luck, and health, the transition from infancy to childhood, and (for girls) their future beauty.

The ceremony itself involved cutting off locks of the kid’s hair. The mom held the kid while they went around to all the guests, and each person took the scissors, cut off a lock of hair, put the hair in a little bag, picked up a bowl of milk tea, drank a sip from the bowl, then put it to the kid’s mouth for him to drink a sip, then handed the kid some money and said something to him in Mongolian that I didn’t understand. I even got to participate, which was cool except that I was one of the last people and the kid was getting fussy and wouldn’t drink from the damn bowl. Oh, and I got my first taste of airag (fermented mare’s milk), which is exactly as tasty as it sounds. But the food itself was good, and I even made it back to class in time!

When I went home that day after technical session, I was home alone. My host mom had told me they would all be at the river and told me where to find the house key. About 45 minutes after I got home, my host dad suddenly appeared and asked me if I wanted to go to the river. I know the river is the place to hang out, but I had no idea what they were doing there for hours on end. So I got in the truck with my host dad, an aunt I’d seen several times, and a younger man I’d never seen before (who I later found out is my host mom’s younger brother). We proceeded to drive around town for half an hour, stopping to get gas and some snacks from a store, and finally we headed towards the river. But we didn’t stop at the edge of town where everyone else hangs out. We drove to the other side of the river and continued several miles upstream, off-roading the whole way. We finally managed to find where the rest of the family was, and I finally discovered what it is they were doing at the river for so long: washing rugs! Most Mongolian houses have linoleum floors with giant rugs covering parts of it. So my family had taken all of the rugs in our house, along with the rugs in the other couple houses in our hashaa, and I’m guessing rugs from some other relatives’ houses because there was a total of like 14 rugs there, which is way more square footage than would fit in all 3 houses in our hashaa combined. So I got to help clean the last few with the other family members and relatives who were there.

How do you wash a rug, you ask?

First, you lay it down right along the river bank. Then someone goes into the river with a bucket and throws buckets full of water onto the rug. Next you sprinkle a bunch of detergent on the wet rug and scrub it with brushes for a long time, occasionally adding water to help rinse some of the dirt out. Then you use a squeegee to press most of the soapy water out of the rug. And then several people drag the rug into the river to rinse it out. Once it’s been rinsed, you roll it up, take it out of the river, go lay it down and unroll it in a grassy area, and squeegee it again to get some of the water out. Repeat, occasionally breaking for snacks, volleyball, and badminton. Once it starts getting dark and the bugs start eating you alive, roll the rugs back up, pack them into the truck, and head home, where you find somewhere outside to hang them while they finish drying.

Orientation Continues in Darkhan

Note: More catching up with posts. But my host family just got a modem, so now I have wifi and will hopefully be able to get caught up the rest of the way!

After our few days at the ger camp, we got back on the buses for the 4-hour trip north from Ulaanbaatar to Darkhan, where we would finish our Orientation.

The aimags (provinces) and aimag centers of Mongolia (Darkhan is a city but also it's own aimag, Darkhan-Uul)

The aimags (provinces) and aimag centers of Mongolia (Darkhan is a city but also it’s own aimag, Darkhan-Uul)

During the bus ride, we saw lots of hills and livestock and not much else.

Hills

Hills

More hills

More hills

Cows

Cows

Horses

Horses

 

Guy riding a horse

Guy riding a horse

Sheep and goats

Sheep and goats

You get the idea...

You get the idea…

Finally we arrived in Darkhan…

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…where we were greeted by some of our trainers.

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We stayed at the Darkhan Hotel and had our orientation sessions at a school roughly a 15-minute walk away. Sessions introduced us to Peace Corps medical and safety information, sector (Health, TEFL, or Community & Youth Development) information, and language and cross-cultural classes. We got to see several cultural performances, and I took lots of photos and videos of them, but unfortunately I left the USB cable for my camera at home because I thought, Oh, I can just download images from my camera to my computer using the SD card slot on my laptop. Except the videos won’t transfer that way, so no videos for now! Maybe if I ever get the cable sent to me or get a new one or something I will upload them later. Anyway, there was Mongolian throat singing (khoomei) and playing the horse-head fiddle (morin khuur):

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Contortionists:

Yes, one of them was an adorable little girl

Yes, one of them was an adorable little girl

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Two dance routines (I got videos of them both but only one photo):

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And more singing:

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Sorry, I know still photos don’t really do much justice when it comes to music and dancing, but I promise I will upload the videos once I find a way to get them from my camera to my computer.

We also got to taste some actual Mongolian food, which was a first since the Darkhan Hotel was pretty much just feeding us their interpretation of American food. I didn’t take pictures, but thanks to Google Images I can show you what it was! We had some aaruul (pieces of dried curd):

Yum yum! Salty, curd-y goodness!

Yum yum! Salty, curd-y goodness!

Suutei tsai (milk tea):

Ah, suutei tsai, the Mongolian water

Ah, suutei tsai, the Mongolian water

Boov (deep-fried pastries):

Which is hard as a rock, so you usually have to dip it into something first (usually suttei tsai, because there's always suutei tsai)

Which is hard as a rock, so you usually have to dip it into something first (usually suutei tsai, because there’s always suutei tsai)

Some kind of cheese (byaslag), yogurt (tarag), and sea-buckthorn (chatsargan) juice:

OMG, a fruit native to Mongolia!

OMG, a fruit native to Mongolia!

And of course, sheep’s head, which I will spare you from looking at a picture. If you really want to see what it looks like, you can look it up on your own time, but just imagine a sheep head, shaved and boiled, and you get the picture.

The aaruul and suutei tsai were both extremely salty, the aaruul so much so that I literally could not finish my piece. The cheese was pretty tasteless (it was nothing like the cheese I’m used to). The yogurt was actually okay; mix some fruit, sugar, and/or honey in there, and it would make a decent breakfast. The boov was basically like extremely stale, dense bread, but it was definitely edible. The juice was amazing, and I was very surprised to learn that there’s actually some kind of fruit that grows in Mongolia. And how do you eat sheep’s head, you ask? Take a knife and just slice a sliver of the meat/fat right off the skull. Yum!

During one of our evenings in Darkhan, some of the current PCVs took us to the giant Buddha statue near our hotel.

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It was up on a hill and gave us a great view of the whole city.

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Then we walked back because we were getting eaten by mosquitoes.

UPDATE: So, I ended up just creating a YouTube channel to make it easier to add videos from now on. But you can check out the videos from my Mongolia orientation there.

Random Mongolia Fact #1: The People of Mongolia

Considering that your average person really doesn’t know that much about Mongolia (other than all that stuff about some guy called Genghis Khan), and that I am apparently now the de facto expert on Mongolia among my family and friends, I thought I would occasionally post a random fact about Mongolia as I begin learning about the country in preparation for my Peace Corps journey.

So while visiting my grandfather earlier today, he asked me what you call a person from Mongolia. My first thought was “Mongolian,” but there’s also the term “Mongol,” so I wasn’t 100% sure.

I later did some research and found that the demonym for the people of Mongolia is Mongolian. On the other hand, the term Mongol refers to the ethno-linguistic group that 95% of Mongolians belong to, which would explain why the terms are often used interchangeably.

So most of the people who live in Mongolia are ethnic Mongols, but Mongols can (and do) live in other countries (such as China and Russia). Likewise, Mongolians (people living in Mongolia) include the Mongol majority but also some smaller ethnic minority groups (such as Kazakhs and Tuvans).