Birch Bay woman, 27, reflects on life in Mongolia
By Brooke Pederson
Birch Bay resident Brooke Pederson, 27, has a passion for humanity. Pederson, a 2004 graduate of Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., earned her bachelor’s degree in English and art. In addition to working at the Blaine public library, she has worked for Habitat for Humanity in Kyrgyzstan and has marched for peace in Ireland prior to her graduation. Her most recent adventure includes teaching English at a Mongolian high school.
A few weeks ago, Tuesday, I arrived at the high school to teach my once-a-week teachers’ English lesson and spent the next 45 minutes waiting patiently for a group of Mongolian women who never came.
The following Friday, I showed up to teach my once-a-month cooking class – on the menu, chocolate cake – to find eight teachers waiting and a string of others, to include a few shopkeepers and the postmistress on their way.
Cooking classes versus English? A combination of the two? Discerning this is one of my dilemmas here in the small village of Hongor in central Mongolia.
If looking at a map, one would find Hongor (population 5,300) north of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, and just south of Darkhan, the country’s second largest city.
Mongolia, which is roughly the size of Alaska, is home to about 2.8 million people, of which roughly 1 million live in the capital city.
My name is Brooke Pederson, and I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Mongolia. I’ve been here for just over a year and a half, speak a smattering of Mongolian, and generally give my Mongolian neighbors something which to laugh and talk about.
I teach English in Hongor’s high school, live in the school dormitory (with 85 children laughing and screaming beyond my doors), and am the only foreigner in town. I do have running water, though cold, (many of my fellow volunteers in country are not as lucky), and fairly reliable electricity. I also have a radiator in my room, while many volunteers build daily fires to keep warm.
In many ways, I feel like I have been asked to play the fool as a PCV. Things that I would never take on in the states, like cooking classes, aerobics, and singing loud for all to hear, have become normal parts of my day. I’m even considered an expert in such areas as computer maintenance, American pop-culture, and English grammar. Ha!
What I’ve come to learn, however, is that thanks to my liberal arts education, and such opportunities as little league soccer and piano lessons, I do know an amazing amount of stretches and exercises, and I do know how to read music, follow recipes, and solve (a few) computer problems.
Another thing that I’m learning about as a PCV is the wide world of “development.”
I’m learning that the things I think the school and community need are not necessarily what they think they need. I’m also learning that if a community is not invested in something it wants or needs, then it won’t happen, or will shortly fall into misuse or disrepair.
Two very important lessons I’m learning are the skills of listening to what a community has the energy and desire to accomplish, and recognizing that my role is mainly that of educated advice and, most importantly, encouragement. In my sphere of friends and community in Hongor, this looks like cooking classes, aerobics, and singing loud for all to hear.
Within these activities I can include such things as nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, how to access and find song lyrics on the internet, and the life skill of making and reaching personal goals.
There are two Mongolian women in particular who have come alongside me in friendship, and through their own capacities of patience and passion, taught me these skills of listening and encouragement. One, named Ariunaa, is a Mongolian English teacher with whom I work daily.
Her desire to provide her students with an up-to-date, interactive English experience has inspired the planning and celebrating of American holiday parties, the singing and memorizing of songs and poems (who knew that “1,2, Buckle My Shoe” would come in so handy?), and the writing of a grant proposal to facilitate an imaginative classroom remodel.
It is Ariunaa’s passionate desire to see change and development in her country, starting in her classroom with the provision of solid education, that often keeps me going when the difficulties of living and working in Mongolia threaten to overwhelm.
The other woman who has come alongside me is my 14-year-old host sister, Enkhjargal. When I first came to Hongor, I lived with a host family while my dormitory rooms were being prepared. Those two months were a blessing in that they have provided me with a close-knit family connection for my entire stay. I spend holidays with this family, often eat at their house, and am occasionally yelled at by my Mongol mother to wear warmer clothes and boots. It’s wonderful.
Enkhjargal has become an invaluable part of my life here in Hongor due to her incessant curiosity. She makes herself at home in my apartment, then proceeds to inquire about and join me in pretty much every aspect of my life.
What are my books about? Movies? What kind of food do I cook for myself and how? She’s learned how to take care of my cats while I’m gone, how to operate all of my electronics, and how clean (or not) I like to keep my rooms.
What has become invaluable is Enkhjargal’s unique commentary on my life and our experiences together. She gives me direct access into the mind of a Mongolian teenager, and together, we laugh and talk about our similarities and differences.
When it comes to my Mongolian cultural knowledge and activity, she is an honest, gracious critic and teacher. Thank you, sister!
Indeed, thanks to Ariunaa, Enkhjargal, and many others who have honored me with their friendship and time, my experience in Mongolia will, no doubt, be a principal influence in my future decisions regarding work and community involvement.
That is to
say, I will be involved in community, both local and
global, for the rest of my life.