Best cure for culture shock and irritation? Music!

Over the last three weeks (wow!) since arriving to Mongolia I have experienced varying levels of culture shock.  At first it wasn't that bad.  The training site where all 68 of us were together sheltered me from full immersion in to the culture and I felt at home with my American friends.  That only lasted one week.  Since June 9 I, and 12 other trainees, have been living with host families at our training site.  The 12 of us learn Mongolian together every week day from 9am until 1pm.  Living with a host family truly allows me to experience an authentic Mongolian culture.  I am learning the customs, traditions and rules that govern everyday life and the interactions within it.  As you will well imagine, this gives me a case of culture shock.

Sometimes this shock is due to another trip to the outhouse or eating an unfamiliar part of a sheep.  Other times the things that would be really easy in the states are very difficult to accomplish in Mongolia.  The other night I asked my host mom if there was a Gmobile shop nearby where I could pay for the monthly plan for my modem.  Things got lost in translation and we walked over to her sister's house and I tried to ask again.  She tried to have me explain a modem in my broken Mongolian.  All of this led to an unexpected phone call to my Language Facilitator who answered my question.  This took place over the course of about two hours of me trying to explain, mime and eventually give up.  I appreciate all the love, effort and support that my host family gives me.  But in the end, culture shock rears its head.

The Mongolian language continues to help increase my culture shock.  I find the language frustrating and am trying to find an effective study strategy that works for me.  Not being able to make yourself understood adds to the shock.  Some days I really struggle with the frustration and continue to get angry at myself and others if I cannot make myself understood.  But, I am learning to cope and deal with the overwhelming emotions of being homesick, not being able to communicate and struggling to see the bigger picture.

On Sunday, June 26, I turned 25.  I was dreading this birthday for two reasons. 1. I was turning 25 which, in my book, was old.  2.  I was in a foreign country and felt homesick.  My fellow trainees threw me a birthday get together at the Lotus Cafe.  They ordered pizzas and gave me a gorgeous cake.  After the pizza and frivolity we went to the Nice Bar for a good (?) Mongolian beer.  It made for a fabulous day with my new friends.  They are so special to me and I appreciate all of them very much.

When I got home in the evening from my birthday celebration my host family had another party planned.  They whipped up my favorite meal which is tsuivan.  To accompany the tsuivan they served me some vodka and another delicious cake at the end.  It was a great time filled with my host family and many of their  friends who are my new friends.  I was also able to Skype home to my family back in the states which made for the perfect end to my day.

Monday, June 27, found me in Mongolian class.  I had a bad case of the "Mondays" and found everything really irritating.  I stepped back and realized that I wasn't mad at my friends, my language teachers or anyone else.  I was irritated with me for being irritated and irrational.  By the end of our morning session those emotions were wiped away.  My language teachers and my fellow trainees bought me a delicious chocolate cake and my favorite marmalade candies.  My language teachers also bought me a gorgeous leather knife holder (it must have a better name than that) and a leather key holder.  Very thoughtful gifts indeed!

Our afternoon session was titled "Mongolian Culture Through the Arts."  We learned a traditional Mongolian Song called Аяны Шувууд.  It is about missing a distant lover and is expressed through metaphors of migrating birds and the sights and sounds they experience.  The melody is Pentatonic and simple and quite pretty.  The minute I began to sing all of my feelings of irritability, distress and anger melted away.  It felt really good to do something musical again.  It is a favorite among Peace Corps volunteers.

Our swearing-in Ceremony is August 19 and we are encouraged to learn a traditional Mongolian art and perform it during the ceremony.  I have decided to learn the Mongolian harp.  I forget its actual name but the sister of one of my language teachers plays and teaches it.  I am very excited to start to learn it!  Will be totally different from the pipe organ, but music is music!

That is my update for now.  I will continue to persevere with my Mongolian language skills and just accept my feelings of irritability and frustration as they come.  In the mean time I will keep enjoying everything that my Mongolian life has to offer and will enjoy its music.

I hope your lives are enriched by music wherever you are and that you take the time to appreciate it in its simple or complex forms.



Thoughts on Mutton and Music

Сайн байн уу? (Hello, how are you?)

I hope this entry finds you all well, warm and happy!  This blog is a combination of ideas, thoughts and happenings so bare with me on the rambling and scattered thoughts.  They are many!

Let’s start with food.  The Mongolians love mutton (хонины мах). To be honest, I am fine with it.  Coming from Nebraska I haven't had a lot of mutton but it doesn't bother me.  They mask it with onions and other vegetables and pasta so I don't really taste much of the «essence» of the meat.  Which is okay. 

My host mom is really a good cook.  I have enjoyed all of the meals.  I have many favorite dishes so far.  Хуушуур (huushuur) is a meat and vegetable filling that is encased in a basic dough of flour and water and is fried.  This is a staple in the Mongolian diet.  They usually include a good bit of fat in with the meat.  So I get my daily intake of fat and meat.  Which is good because I need it for my long walk to and from school.

Цуйван (tsuivan) is very good as well.  It is meat and vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions) that are cooked in oil and then fresh noodles are added and they are all fried together.  Above all this is my favorite meal.  I really crave carbs here and the pasta definitely helps!  Бууз (buuz) is also very good.  For all of you Nebraskans out there this reminds me of a Runza.  It is a dumpling made with yeast dough that is filled with mutton and onions and is then steamed.  Very filling and very good.  On a good day I can knock back about 6 huushuur or maybe 5 buuz in one sitting.  I never go hungry!

Last Saturday was a very big day for me.  I truly felt like a Mongolian.  After lunch my family (host mother and father) and I loaded up in to the car and drove out in to the country side.  We visited my host uncle’s ger.  He has very few amenities there.  No electricity, just kerosene lanterns.  I was in love with it all!  After arriving we killed a goat and I watched the family prepare the meat for cooking.  But this was not to be my dinner.

We played the traditional Mongolian game called Шагай (Shagai) which is tossing the ankle bones of sheet and goat.  After this game we sat down for dinner and I was in for a treat.  All day there was a stove going that had some container on top that was just boiling away.  My mother pulled out the delicacy that I am going to describe as Mongolian pot roast.  First she pulled out the root vegetables, which were potatoes, carrots and turnips.  Then she pulled out some bones and meat and then came the Piece de resistance.  A sheep head!  It was in there just simmering away.  The fur had been stripped away but everything else was intact and apparently edible.  My stomach and brain were doing flips at this point as they were unsure how to react.  This was a big deal to be served this meal so I couldn’t really refuse.

I started with a bowl of vegetables and meat that contained a lot of fat.  Again, mutton doesn’t bother me so this was no problem.  The vegetables were very tender and they were enhanced by the mutton.  Then came time for the head. My host mom, dad and uncle were working their way through it but left bits for me.  I just put my hands in there and smiled (Put the spoon to your mouth with a smile as my Aunt Jayne would say!) The parts I picked through were good.  Very, very tender and the fat added a nice flavor to it all.  My father tried to serve me the eyeballs but I just couldn’t do it without getting sick.  I refused by saying that I was full and wanted him to have the best part.  He understood and ate them with much delight. 

It was a great day all around.  I learned a lot about Mongolian tradition, culture and customs.  I truly felt like a Mongolian yesterday.  We all laughed, smiled and shared some vodka.  Also a lot of milk tea was spread around. It is tea made with milk instead of water.  They also add a good amount of salt to the tea, which is interesting. J

The Culture Gap
It goes without saying that the differences between Mongolia and the United States are many and I am having to re-learn how to do everyday tasks like do my laundry, brush my teeth and bathe myself without running water.  I am becoming an expert at limiting my water use while still managing to stay relatively clean and groomed.  I enjoy the change from America.  Things happen slower here and that is okay with me.  I have been struggling with how to bridge the culture gap that exists between my Mongolian family and friends and me.  They don’t understand where I come from or how I have done things in the past.  And I am still learning about their way of life and how things operate on a day-to-day schedule. 

I have found that music, of all genres, can quickly build a bridge between cultures.  Whenever we are my family’s house they have the t.v. on to some sort of music channel.  This channel plays everything from Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez to traditional Mongolian songs that have been turned in to pop songs and rap.  It is really quite fascinating.  I asked my family if they like music and they said yes so I took them in to my ger and walked them through my iTunes library.  My host-cousin likes Lady Gaga so we went through all of my Lady Gaga songs as we danced, smiled and laughed.  I have all the children I meet listen to my iPod and they all seem to like Lady Gaga as well.

They were intrigued by my vast collection of organ music.  I am not sure if they know what a pipe organ is but I showed them many pictures and had them listen to many pieces from Bach to Widor and Messiaen.  I hope they liked it!

My host-mom really liked the choral music.  It took me a while to explain choral music (thank god for Mongolian-english dictionaries!) We listened to “Water Night” by Eric Whitacre which always causes me to weep.  My host-mom listened to it several more times and I think she caught on to its beauty.

So to Eric Whitacre and Lady Gaga, thank you for being cultural ambassadors and helping me to bridge the culture gap between America and Mongolia.  The Mongolians may not understand Lady Gaga’s message of acceptance and love but they like her music and dance to it!  Eric Whitacre’s choral music is gorgeous in any language and place and they appreciate its beauty and ability to tug at many emotional heart strings.

I also learned something from the sheep head.  When it came out of the pot it had an odd smile on it (weird, I know!) but his life ended quickly but he still had a smile on his (or her) face.  So throughout this experience of Peace Corps Mongolia I hope I can keep a smile on my face through the soaring highs and the deep lows that I know I will face.

Thank you to you all for supporting me and cheering me on!  Your words and thoughts honor me greatly and I am so thankful for your love and understanding!


(Sorry for the really long post!  It has been a long time coming!)


A Day in the Life of A Peace Corps Trainee

Hello to you all in internet land!

Things continue to go very well for me in Mongolia.  I have been at my training site for exactly one week and have been in country for almost two weeks!  Time goes by unbelievably fast some times and insanely slow at others.  Every day continues to be a grab bag of emotions.  Frustration, happiness, homesickness, exhileration etc....are all emotions that cross my mind nearly every day.  Mongolia brings its fantastic ups and really low downs.  Every day is a rollercoaster, that is for sure!

I am sure you all know that I am living in a ger with my host family.  They live in a wooden house and I live in a ger just outside the house.  This ger affords me a lot of privacy and space and I feel very fortunate to be there.  I thought I would give you a time line of my daily activities.

I wake up every morning at 6am.  Sometimes it is earlier because the sun comes up around 4:30 and if I don't put on my eye shades I am up to greet it, but most days I have on my eye shades.  I do yoga from 6:00 until 6:45 and then take the time to tumpin (read: bucket) bathe.  This is a fun procedure to bath in a plastic tub with only a half-gallon of water.  I usually end up having to use more water and nine times out of ten there is water ALL over the floor!  So, I am still learning the ins and outs of tumpin bathing.

Tumpin bathing takes about 20 minutes so I spend my free time until 8am studying Mongolian or listening to music.  Something to get my mind going!  At 8:00 I go in to the house for breakfast.  Breakfast usually consists of two hard boiled eggs and bread with butter and sugar or just jam.  Try butter and sugar on your bread!  So good!  I have to leave the house by 8:30am so I can complete the 20 minute walk in to town.  I live in the ger district that is about one mile outside of the town and 8 out of the 12 trainees live in the ger district so we have similar walks.  The other 4 live in apartments in the town.

School (Mongolian lessons) start at 9 and go until 1pm.  We break for lunch until 2:30 which means another walk up and down the hill to the ger district and we reconvene at 2:30.  Our class at 2:30 is either a Mongolian cultural lesson or TEFL training from the Peace Corps.  This session usually ends around 5:30 and I get another walk up the hill.  Mongolia keeps me fit!

Once I am home I spend my time studying more Mongolian or just chatting (attempting to anyway) with my host family.  They are great and mime lots of words and help me with my pronunciation.  Dinner is usually served around 8.  Mongolian food consists of a lot of dairy products, meat and pasta or potatoes.  Milk tea is very popular.  It is just that....tea brewed with milk instead of water.  They must add salt because it is VERY salty but I have come to enjoy it!

So that is a brief look in to the daily life of me.  I very much enjoy having a routine and am finding that I am flourishing here.  These two years might go by faster than I think!

I hope you are all flourishing where you are!



My new life in Mongolia!

LHello to you all!  It has been a while since I have had access to a computer or one with internet for that matter.  I am safely in Mongolia and my life continues to fly by.  I am going to attempt to give you a brief synopsis of my life from June 1 until now.

June 1 found me saying good bye to dear friends and my loving family members.  I hopped on several planes and went from Lincoln, NE to San Francisco, CA.  My travel karma prevailed and both my bags made it and I got in at 1am.  Needless to say I was too excited to sleep so I watched some t.v.

June 2 found me meeting many new friends as 66 Peace Corps trainees emerged after one day of orientation.  I went to dinner at a fun Mexican place near our hotel and then proceeded to re-pack my things and prepare for a long day of traveling.

We left our hotel VERY early on June 3 and caught a flight (12 hours) to Seoul, South Korea!!!  It was a decent flight and everyone was very eager to get to Korea.  Needless to say Korea was fantastic!!  I spent the time walking around Inchon and continuing to meet many new friends and swap travel stories and more.

The next day June 5 (yay for the international date line!) found us finally on our way to Ulaan Baatar Mongolia.  It was a three hour flight from Seoul to Ulaan Baatar (UB) and I have never seen 66 people more excited, eager, anxious and scared all at the same time.  I knew I was!!  We were warmly received by current Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in the airport which was so great.  After our arrival we were shipped off to immigration offices to be documented and registered.

After registering with the office of immigration we were whisked away to a ger camp.  I was lucky and only had one roommate in my ger although other had as many as six people in one ger!  It was nice to finally relax for a night.  We were given kind words of welcome from our Country Director and were rewarded with gorgeous views of the surrounding hills and mountains.

The next morning all 66 of us were taken by bus to our training site.  In our training city we are staying in an old soviet-style school dormitory.  We are beginning to learn Mongolian and are given introductions and descriptions of our jobs and what is expected of us as Peace Corps trainees.

Learning Mongolian is proving to be a challenge.  It is unlike any other language I have attempted to speak.  I need to open up my brain with a can opener and cram more information inside!  But we have great teachers and competent staff so I feel as though I am in fabulous hands.  Tomorrow we go to our host families in a new city.  I am excited/scared/nervous about meeting a new family and having very little communication skills.  As of now I can say my name, formal and informal greetings, ask for things and tell them what I like and do not like.  As a host family they will be responsible for teaching me some survival skills that will prepare me for living alone on my site for the next two years. These skills may include doing laundry, cooking, chopping wood (!) and many other tasks that will be required of me.

Sorry for this discombobulated and random blog entry but I wanted to quickly update you as to my current situation.  I am VERY happy and so thrilled to be in Mongolia.  The people are gorgeous human beings, so kind, generous and warm.  I am lucky beyond belief to be here.