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:


  • 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!

Weeks 2 and 3 at Site

My second week in Uliastai saw the beginning of several projects. First, Dolgor, the health policy specialist at the Zavkhan governor’s office, contacted me about a dental hygiene project that she had worked on last year with some PCVs. The Volunteer who did a lot of the work with her had just recently finished her service and had left, so when she heard that new PCVs (including a Health Volunteer!) were coming, she wanted to ask for assistance in implementing the program again. This past spring, an amazing NGO called Kids’ International Dental Services sent American dentists to Uliastai to clean children’s teeth and perform any needed dental procedures, absolutely free of charge, and Dolgor wanted to bring them back again next spring. But, being based in the US, the organization didn’t have anyone who spoke Mongolian, so she needed me to help her translate the proposal and other communications with them.

That week, I also started—or, more accurately, I was told I would start—an aerobics class for the staff at the health department. That Monday during lunch, one of the employees told me there would be a dance class in the health department’s gym at 4pm that afternoon. When I asked for more details, she proceeded to tell me that I would be teaching the dance class. Well, that was news to me. I told everyone that I would need more than a couple hours to prepare to teach a fitness class, so they helpfully moved it to the next week.

So that next Monday morning I held our first aerobics class. I may have stolen most of the moves from a Hip Hop Abs video I had gotten on my external hard drive during one of our PC media swaps, but whatever. I am not an aerobics instructor and have never taught group fitness classes before, so I need a little bit of help. Because our gym isn’t big enough to hold everyone who wanted to participate in the aerobics classes, they decided to split it into two groups. And to get maximum benefits of the workout, each group wanted to have the class three times a week, which would mean I would be teaching aerobics classes six times a week (twice a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). That idea lasted for about half a week until they realized that I could not physically do that either because a) I’m just out of shape, b) I was sick with a cold, and/or c) they were working me to death and I wasn’t getting enough rest in general.

And finally, I started the much anticipated English lessons at the health department. As I am not a TEFL Volunteer and only received one session during PST regarding teaching English, I felt a little unprepared to plan and teach English classes, but I guess they felt like being a native English speaker was enough of a qualification. I knew there were at least two distinct levels of English language skills among the health department staff, so I decided to do two different level classes: beginner and intermediate. I was planning to teach each class once a week, but the HD staff told me I should teach each class twice a week. So in addition to the proposed 6 aerobics classes per week, they wanted me to teach 4 English classes per week.

And work from 8am to 6pm Monday through Friday.

And do additional lesson planning at home.

Let’s just say my third week at site pushed me over the edge. The cold I’d had for a while got worse, I was always sore from aerobics, I wasn’t getting enough sleep or “me-time,” and all of this was making me crabby.

After consulting my PC Regional Manager and some of the M24s I knew, I decided to talk to my supervisor about cutting down on some of my work. I told her that as a PCV I technically wasn’t supposed to be working at my HCA more than 40 hours a week (I was working at least 50 at that point). So she said I could just do 3 aerobics classes per week and I could leave a little early on the days I came in at 8am (the health department technically opens at 9am but she wanted me to come in early to teach classes at 8). Which sounded great, except that Friday, after noticing how tired I looked, she said I could leave at 5 that day, but then proceeded to call me into a meeting at 4:45 that ended up lasting until 6 (seriously, who holds a meeting at 4:45 on a Friday?).

Yeah, to be continued.