Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


Now What?

Coming home is hard.

Certainly, there are days when I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for washing machines and paved roads and reliable hot water and the thousand other conveniences I’ve mostly lived without for the past year. There are times when sink back into a known and longed-for activity with enthusiasm and delight, like the 20+ hours of dancing I did the weekend before Thanksgiving,  and times when I rediscover some simple pleasure I’d forgotten altogether in its absence, like cinnamon graham crackers.

But there are also days when I’m overwhelmed with the enormity of life in America and all the things I’m supposed to be able to navigate now that I’m an adult: Car insurance. Credit cards. Running into an ex-boyfriend and pretending it doesn’t still hurt to be around him. Actually flossing every day because I no longer have dental insurance. Watching friends get engaged and married and not even having a date to bring to their weddings. Resumés and networking and interviews and all those other things you’re supposed to do to get a job and that I haven’t really dealt with because aside from easily-obtained summer gigs, my job up until I left for Mongolia was to be a student.

And, of course, the big existential question: Now What? What do I want to do with my life?

I know that regardless of which way I go, I’ll have to start at the bottom of the career ladder and work my way up. I know it takes hard work to get yourself much of anywhere; that part doesn’t scare me. You don’t get yourself a full ride to college and then graduate .01 short of Summa Cum Laude without plenty of hard work.

But I had a goal in those days, and the good grades were their own reward. Now I’m floundering, searching for direction, afraid to spend the next ten years at the bottom of various career ladders as I put in the time and the effort required only to realize that I’ve started up the wrong ladder yet again and move to the bottom of yet another. It’s not work I fear, but wasted work that does nothing to help me figure out what I want to work towards.

How do I choose which mountain to head for? What if I pick the wrong set of tracks and get stuck, or lost?

How do I choose which mountain to head for? What if I pick the wrong set of tracks and get stuck, or lost?

It doesn’t help that my interests are of questionable practicality. Computational linguistics seems to be the biggest career field available to those with my degree, and unfortunately, it holds very little interest for me. My favorite (degree-related) classes when I was in college were the linguistic anthropology classes, in which we talked about meaning-making and analyzed language as an expression of cultural and personal identity. How do you get a job doing that?

More than once, we touched on the Myaamia Project, a language reclamation effort headquartered at my home university by faculty and members of the Miami Tribe. I learned that language reclamation was a field that held great interest for me, and when I went to Ireland in 2010, I found myself drawn to the Irish language and the people who were passionate about returning it to everyday use. I also learned that Ireland was in economic turmoil had few jobs for its own young people, much less interloping foreigners. The dream of getting involved with the Irish language effort in some manner – be it as a teacher, a professor, or as some manner of government employee – shone only briefly before it was quashed by the cold voice of practicality.

What do you get when you Google "the nine nines of Mongolian winter," a well-known cultural nugget? A chain of Peace Corps blogs referencing each other.

What do you get when you Google “the nine nines of Mongolian winter,” a well-known cultural nugget? A chain of Peace Corps blogs referencing each other.

Then, as you all know, I went to Mongolia, where I enjoyed learning the language but was frustrated by the lack of good learning materials. There are a number of Mongolian textbooks available, but I had a great deal of trouble finding one that I liked, as their explanations of the grammatical structure were often insufficient or confusingly, even nonsensically, worded – if they were present at all. I was further frustrated by  Mongolia’s apparent absence from the English-speaking internet, which made it hard to source any observations or conclusions I wished to draw and all but impossible for me to blog about anything broader than my own experiences. There are books on Mongolia, to be sure, but they’re few and far between and largely inaccessible to the public. Most of what’s available is more of what I’m producing here: personal experiences unconnected to broader research, with most additional information coming from hearsay. Anecdotes, not data.

So there’s an information gap there, a niche to be filled, and I’m definitely interested in applying the knowledge and experiences I gained from what was undoubtedly an unusual experience. It would be a real waste for me to walk away from this year without putting those things to use, as though the whole year never happened. But it would take years for me to acquire enough Mongolian language skills to begin filling that gap in a scholarly way, and frankly, I’m not sure I’m willing to give them. Mongolia is a country of three million people, Mongolian a language of 5 million speakers, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into so narrow a niche. Because while I’m interested in Mongolia and the Mongolian language, I’m not passionate about it; it’s not part of me or my heritage the way Ireland is. “Interested but not passionate” is how I felt about architecture my freshman year of college, and I dropped that major within a year, too burned out to continue.

What I am passionate about is writing, which is why this blog is still chronicling my Mongolian adventures even now that I’m back on the other side of the world. The unexpected confluence of interesting and little-known things to write about, a place to write about them, and people who were actually interested in reading them was one of my favorite things about my time in Mongolia. I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life writing about Mongolia, per se, but I do know that I want to spend my time writing about something. I’m particularly partial to essays that are part analysis and part personal experience – I’ve had a piece on my mental backburner about The Things They Carried and my fears for my military brother for some time, and another about the Gaelic Storm song “Raised on Black and Tans” and the superficiality of my understanding of my Irish heritage. I’m sure I could pull a number of such pieces out of my experiences in Mongolia, if only I knew where to look.

Or where to write for. I’ll be guest posting on A Girl and Her Travels later this month, and I mean to submit some entries for the Fulbright blog and, if I can come up with a creative approach to their not-very-inspiring prompt, Expats Blog, but I want to do more than just blog – I want be actually published. Unfortunately, I’m at a bit of a loss as to where to look for places to be published, and I could very much do with some suggestions as to where to try submitting pieces.

It feels stupid to expose this sort of vulnerability to the whole wide world, to complete strangers and even potential future employers who might happen to Google me and find that I haven’t always been passionate about whatever it is I’m applying/interviewing/auditioning for. It feels wrong to address my uncertainty in such a long-winded, rambling post, rather than boiling it down into a couple of simple, direct queries. But I’m willing to publicize my own version of what I’m sure is a very common crisis in hopes of crowdsourcing some suggestions from you, my dear readers. I don’t want to risk omitting the detail that will spark a useful suggestion simply to meet some self-imposed word limit. I know the people who read this blog come from many different walks of life, and I want to take advantage of that diversity. The choices and opportunities that seem obvious to you might be ones I’ve never heard of.

So if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this wandering account of my lack of direction, I thank you for listening. And if anything I’ve mentioned has sparked an idea of what applications my linguistics degree and international experience might have, or where I might try to submit my writing, I’ll be even more grateful. I’ve been wandering for a while now, and even if my next journey takes me someplace completely unexpected, it would be nice to start with a destination in mind.

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I am Thankful

My yoga teacher ended today’s class with the following quotation: “Happiness comes when we stop complaining about the troubles we have and are thankful for the ones we don’t.” And so, rather than writing another post about the difficulties of readjusting to life in America, I’d like to take today’s post to give thanks for the good things about being back. Conclusion to the hiking story to come soon, I promise.

I am thankful to be home for this, my favorite major holiday, which I so hated missing last year. I am thankful to have been able to get here while the trees were still awash with color and the grass startlingly green. I’m thankful to once more be able to taste the full flavors of the season in all their glory, without endless searching for unsatisfying substitutes.

I am thankful to have spent the past weekend in the company of many old friends from all over the country, dancing until  ridiculous hours to some of the best musicians in the genre. I’m thankful to once more have this outlet for my energy and creativity, without which my sanity suffered greatly during my time in Mongolia.

I am thankful that I flew through LAX on Monday, and not during the shooting that took place there four days later. And I’m thankful that my friend’s brother-in-law, who was shot in the leg during that event, has since returned home from the hospital.

I am thankful for all the things I’ve learned not to take for granted in the past year and a half: paved roads, running water, stable currency, washing machines, the availability of exotic foods and a wide variety of spices. I’m thankful to live in a city that doesn’t poison the air with toxic smog, and that I no longer have to worry about heavy metals in my drinking water.

I am thankful that, for the first time since I before I went to Mongolia, my brother and I are both home for Thanksgiving, and that we’ll be flying him back from Japan again for Christmas. I’m thankful that he’s so far gotten through jump school without injury despite starting with a sprained ankle, and I’m especially thankful that we’ve started actually talking in the past few months.

My life right now is largely without direction, and that’s a difficult place to be. But I’m grateful for the friends and family who are supporting me while I work that out. I am grateful not just for the troubles I don’t have, but for the many blessings I do.


The Birthday of Endless Cake

I. Gambir

I spent the three days before my birthday at Stepperiders, a tourist-oriented horse camp about 45 minutes outside UB. I’d stayed with them for one night last fall and done a couple of trail-less trail rides (steppe rides?), but this time, I wanted something with a greater sense of purpose. I signed on for a three day/two night trek, which brought us back to their base camp the night before my birthday.

As the volunteers and I sat playing cards after dinner that evening, my guide surprised us with an improvised cake: gambir slathered with off-brand Nutella, upon which the words “happy 24” had been carefully inscribed with jelly. The two candles present being our sole source of light, I’d nothing to wish upon, but they sang me “happy birthday” nonetheless.

The staff joined us for cake and airag and whisky and cards, and when they left, we sprawled across our beds and challenged each other to imitate horses in various human situations: wedding speech-giver, air traffic controller, zumba instructor, rap artist, first horse on the moon. The game left us paralyzed with giggles and wondering when someone would come to investigate the source of the hullabaloo. But no one did, and so we carried on until the last candle flickered out and left us to drift contentedly off to sleep.

II. Pizza

I arrived back in Erdenet in the late afternoon – too late to assemble the potluck I would have liked to, but plenty early enough to assemble at Marco’s Pizza. Marco is an Italian expat with more generosity than business sense who tired of his job at the Ministry of Agriculture in Rome. “I thought, ‘this is not life,'” he says of the decision that brought him to Mongolia, where he now runs a pizzeria with his Mongolian wife, Gerlee. His is the restaurant most requested by friends visiting from the countryside, and with good reason. Marco has always treated the Greater Erdenet Area Peace Corps/Fulbright community and has on many occasions closed early to privately host our birthday celebrations, going-away parties, and even an early Christmas dinner.

The pizzas take forever because there’s only one oven, but Marco brought us a plate of the day’s leftover pasta as an appetizer. The two large pizzas – one bacon, one chicken – were delicious as always and cost us a mere six thousand tugriks per person (about $4). The Nutella pizza he brought us after we’d finished, as he always does on on such occasions, was free. We’ve protested on previous occasions, saying that he’ll put himself out of business with such generosity, but he says only that his business “is a trattoria, not a ristorante” and refuses all offers of payment for the extra food. And he sings us “happy birthday” on the appropriate days, even if it’s already been sung.

III. Tradition

For as long as I can remember, I have had the same cake at every birthday. The friends who attempt, in the days before my birthday, to discreetly discern my favorite kind of cake are always frustrated when I tell them it’s not something you can buy in stores. It’s a granny smith apple cake, full of spices and not overly sweet, whose recipe my grandmother must have clipped from some long-ago newspaper.

It’s supposed to be made in a bundt pan, an instrument I always deemed unnecessary when packing for college but whose absence left me unsure how to adjust the baking time and temperature of the old recipe. Questions to friends about how they might attempt such an adjustment have, on two separate occasions, led me to receive a bundt pan as a birthday gift. I still don’t really know how to adjust the recipe, though I do know that the use of a bundt pan means that, in the absence of proper birthday candles, a jar candle can be substituted, a la the “I fixed it!” moment in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I did not have a bundt pan on this occasion, but I was determined to follow tradition nonetheless. My first stop upon arriving in the city was to pick up apples from the discount shelf at the fruit delguur favored by the Russians (and, for that matter, Americans). I knew that, when baked, they’d taste every bit as good as the absurdly priced bright green ones in the main display.

I was right. The cake took forever to bake in the toaster oven but filled the entire apartment with a delicious aroma, and when when sliced it up later that night, everyone agreed it was delicious.

IV. The Generosity of Friends

Although my host knew of my birthday cake tradition, having allowed me the use of her oven to bake one the year before, it seems neither she nor the others knew of my intent to continue it this year. Upon arriving at another friend’s apartment after dinner, I found that they had purchased another cake for me, a standard white cake with large frosting roses.

I’m not a particular fan of frosting, and Mongolian cakes have a very hit-or-miss reputation, but when they dimmed the lights to bring out the cake and its single flickering candle for a third chorus of “happy birthday,” I still found myself ducking my head and grinning ridiculously. It wasn’t the taste of the cake or the excess of frosting that mattered, but the presence of friends new and old, people who wished me well whether I’d been part of their lives for a day or a year.

As we settled to the floor for a game of Cards Against Humanity, stuffed to groaning with cake and good humor, I was grateful for the friendship and generosity of those around me. Even here, a world away from the people and places I know and love, I am truly blessed.

And not just with cake.

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Back in Mongolia!

Apologies for the long silence, everyone! Thailand was marvelous, and marvelousness is not particularly conducive to blogging. Convalescence is, but I’ve been lazy for the past week. My apologies.

On a related note, did you know that when you Google “Thailand diarrhea abdominal pain,” it gives you a helpful list of diseases you may wish to research further, and that said list includes names like choleradysenterymalaria, and typhoid? Thanks for that one, Google. Highly reassuring.

Happily, I’ve now gotten Thailand almost entirely out of my (digestive) system, so now I’m off to explore Mongolia. I won’t be bringing my computer with me for the next week, which I hope to spend mostly on horseback, so (Internet willing), allow me to provide you with some photo-heavy filler to keep you occupied until I can regale you all with tales from the land of elephants. And, of course, the conclusion to the Hiking Fiasco cliffhanger.


Little(r) Me

Per a request made by Polly (fellow second-world TEFL-er, though she’s in Russia, and my most frequent commenter), I present to you: images of my childhood. Though my seventeen-year career as a (very bad) gymnast undoubtedly furnished us with plenty of equivalents to the fabulously disgruntled Pollerina photos she posted, they exist only in the photo albums in my basement back home. There they shall remain unless my mother takes it upon herself to share them with the world. Mom, if you’re reading this: please, be merciful.

Dad holding newborn me and Bailey, the ever-living, always grumpy cat. She lived to be 21 and carried grudging memories of me as a toddler until she went senile at the age of 17 or so. After that, she liked me a lot more.

Halloween or the release of the 4th Harry Potter book. Both are equally likely.

I may only have caught the last few months of the eighties, but they’re clearly in full swing here.

Apparently I liked Beauty and the Beast. And my baby brother. At that age, we called him “Buddha Boy.”
























All my other pictures are in an un-uploadable format, evidently, or they also feature my brother. As the adorable younger brother you see here is now a 6’4″ Marine, I think I’ve embarrassed him enough for one day.

You wouldn't catch me dead in that color anymore, but I haven't lost the halo.

You wouldn’t catch me dead in that color anymore, but I haven’t lost the halo.


Travel on the Horizon

Dear readers,

I know things have been pretty quiet on this blog for the past month or so, and for that I apologize. The reasons for my absence, as well as those for my return, will be posted on an occasion when I have had the foresight to type them out before traveling across town to the place with a reasonable Internet connection. In the meantime, I present to you: my exciting plans for the future.

As my current visa expires at the end of August, several months before my intended return to the US, I’ll be participating in a time-honored tradition well-known to the expat community: the visa run. A visa run, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a trip to another country at the end of one’s visa in order to re-enter and acquire a new one. In a lot of cases, including when one is changing visa types, you can’t just extend your current visa. Instead, you must leave the country and come back in order to get your new visa. Runs to China and Russia for this purpose are pretty common among the EiM (Expats in Mongolia) community, since they can be reached by train rather than plane. Korea is also a common destination, since Americans don’t need a visa for a quick trip there, as they do for Russia and China.

But since I’ve no pressing desire to visit any part of China beyond the Great Wall (because really, who doesn’t want to see the Great Wall?), and I plan to venture to Russia on a later date, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to see other parts of Asia. I’m an avid reader of Stupid Ugly Foreigner‘s descriptions of his adventures while teaching in Korea, and as much as I love his blog, it has made me both frustrated and envious. So far, despite having lived in Asia for nearly a year, I have yet to visit a single other country on the continent (the Tokyo and Beijing airports, obviously, do not count). It’s mightily discouraging to read another’s beautifully-written accounts of his wild romps through Asia with the knowledge that, despite being in Asia yourself, you have little  chance of similar experiences. Lack of infrastructure here makes even in-country travel difficult and time-consuming, and the fact that Mongolia is on the way to precisely nowhere makes for a limited flight schedule. I’d have had a hard time getting away from work for a long weekend even if I lived in the capital – which I don’t.

So now that I have to go somewhere, you can bet I’m headed for one of those places that, so far, I’ve only been able to read and dream about. Which is to say: Thailand. I though about Dharamsala for a good long while, but even if the news hadn’t been recently flooded with ills befalling female travelers, I think I’d still be a mite nervous about tackling India while traveling solo. I will go there someday – just not on this trip. After a year in a country with almost none to speak of, the promise of paved roads and other actual infrastructure in Thailand is just too tempting.

So, readers who’ve been to Thailand and Cambodia: where should I go? Tell me what you remember most fondly, be it a place you stayed, a sight you saw, or a thing you did. (Accommodation and food recommendations especially welcome.) So far, I’ve got Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai on the highly-recommended list, since I’m more interested in hiking and temples and elephants than beaches. A day on a tropical island sounds lovely, don’t get me wrong – but I’m going here to see and do things, not just laze. Also, prolonged exposure to the sun turns me roughly the same hue as my trusty berry-tinted Kelty backpack, and carrying a Kelty in that condition strikes me as a profoundly unappealing proposition.

I also want to drop into Cambodia at least briefly, if for no other reason than because there’s no way I’m getting that close to Angkor Wat without actually seeing it. I don’t know much else about the country, so your recommendations in that regard are particularly welcome. In total, I’m looking to be spend about two weeks in the region and return to Mongolia mid-September.

Leave your recommendations below, where others can find them, or drop me an email at my very creative email address: my first name, followed by my last name (both lowercase), at gmail.com.

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We Interrupt this Program to Join the Outraged Chorus

If you’re here to read about my latest adventures in Mongolia, I’m afraid you’ll have to come back on Friday. This post is not about Mongolia; it’s about something my friends in the States have recently brought to my attention, to which I feel obligated to respond.

Last month, The Onion came under fire for a tweet calling a certain 9-year-old actress a certain derogatory expletive. Now, I’m not a fan of that word; in fact, it’s probably my least favorite word in the English language, and I’m hard-pressed to come up any acceptable circumstances in which to call a woman that. But in this case, I wasn’t particularly offended. This is a satirical newspaper we’re talking about, after all; their job is to say things so ludicrous that you can’t take them seriously.

Two years ago, they ran a video that probably caused a similar amount of outrage, “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed. I’d embed it if I knew how, but since I don’t, you’ll just have to click the link.

The video’s content is just as ludicrous as its title. It features sappy music and lauds the athlete in question for continuing his basketball career after he “overcame the trauma of committing a terrible rape” and for “refusing to let what happened to the girl he raped define him.” The girl in question is mentioned only twice, and fleetingly; instead, the coverage sympathizes with the athlete. He gets painted as a victim of an unfortunate circumstance, while the real victim is completely glossed over.

But that wouldn’t happen in real news coverage, would it? Would reporters really lament the potentially ruined futures of the perpetrators of a rape, rather than the victim?

Apparently they would.

Due to the sluggardly nature of my Internet, I’ve only been able to watch CNN and NBC’s coverage of the Steubenville rape case (ABC’s just won’t play for me), but the following viral graphic summarizes the coverage quite well.


At least NBC’s coverage talks about the victim’s future and laments the common occurrence of this sort of crime, even if it waits until the very end to do so. But the CNN footage is infuriating. It stresses the emotional nature of the courtroom and the verdict’s delivery and focuses on the impact the conviction will have on the defendants’ young lives.

I don’t care if the boys’ football careers and reputations have been ruined. I’m not sorry that the “registered sex offender” label will follow them for the rest of their lives. They committed a crime, and they’re getting off lightly by being tried as juveniles rather than adults. I hope their apologies are heartfelt, and that the tears they shed expressed genuine contrition for their actions rather than sorrow at having “watched as they believe their life fell apart” [sic].

But it seems the reporters at CNN feel differently. They’re so busy focusing on what this sentence will do to the lives of the two rapists that it takes them over five minutes to acknowledge that the rape itself might have had consequences for another person. They mention the victim a few times prior to that five-minute mark, but as an object rather than a person: “the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl,” “a photograph of the victim laying naked on the floor” [sic]. When they do mention the victim and what this crime might have done to her, she’s still subordinated to the consequences suffered by the perpetrators: “when that verdict is handed down,” says CNN’s legal contributor, “there’s always that moment of just, lives are destroyed – and lives have already been destroyed by the crime.”

Yes, lives have been destroyed, but the life destroyed by the crime itself should be the focus of our sympathy, not the lives “destroyed” by the verdict. The victim of the actual crime should not be an afterthought, as she so clearly is here.

From a writer’s standpoint, I can begin to understand why they’ve chosen to present the story this way. Since the victim is also a minor, her name is not being publicly disclosed, nor are any details which might reveal her identity. It’s hard to create sympathy for a Jane Doe, and you can’t center a story around the victim if you can’t actually say anything about her.

But that doesn’t mean that you turn the story of a rape into a lament for the “promising futures” of the young rapists. If we’re going to lament anything, it should be their poor choices and the impact their actions will have on the life of the girl they raped. To turn the defendants of this case into victims does a disservice to actual victims – of this rape, and of all others.

This is not the first time I’ve talked about rape culture on my blog, and unfortunately, I’m sure it won’t be the last. When someone can leave a flyer about “The Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape” in a men’s dorm bathroom as a “joke,” there is something wrong with our culture. When blame is placed on the victim of a rape instead of the perpetrators (“she was wearing provocative clothing; she was asking for it”), there is something wrong with our culture.

In the last election, America made a number of steps towards removing rape culture perpetuators from positions of political power. I was heartened by this pattern; it gave me the impression that a number of people were dissatisfied with the status quo, and that we might soon see more efforts to dislodge rape culture’s hold.

I am likewise glad to see how much outrage there is at the main news media’s coverage of this trial. My Facebook news feed is abuzz with indignation, and a Google search for “Steubenville rape coverage” turns up more articles about the media’s slanted reporting than actual articles about the trial – including a petition for CNN to publicly apologize for its coverage. But these responses are found on Gawker, HuffPost, ThinkProgress, and the like, rather than the media stations most Americans rely on for their news.

That needs to change. How must that poor girl and her family feel, watching reporters sympathize with rapists on the nightly news? How must other victims of rape feel when they, too, are implicitly blamed for destroying the lives of those who attacked and violated them?

Rape culture is already firmly ensconced in America, and the last thing we need is for the media to perpetuate it like this.

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Happy (Belated) Women’s Day!

Friday was Women’s Day, an international holiday that I had never heard of until I came to a country that actually celebrated it. In honor of the occasion, there was no school that day – or postal service, or anything else done by an employee of the government.

In addition to canceling classes on Friday, my school had half-classes the day before. This allowed us to finish teaching around noon so that we could all prepare for the evening. The women went to salons and each other’s houses to gussy up while the men prepared a party for us. At 4:30, the women of my school, myself included, regrouped at a café to hear a lecture of some kind. I don’t really know what it was about, since I was only able to catch a few words here and there. I do know that the words I heard most often were “woman” and “mother,” and also that the speech made almost everyone cry. After the speech, a few toasts, and the reading of a poem about almost ever teacher (I didn’t get one, but that’s just as well, since I wouldn’t have understood it anyway), we headed off to the party.

This is the fourth teachers’ party I have attended in the past 2.5 months, and I confess, I’m not really looking forward to the Men’s Day party next Sunday. These parties are pretty much all the same, regardless of occasion: you get together around a large table covered with baskets of fruit and candy and bottles of alcohol and listen while the people around you make toasts and speeches and sing songs you probably don’t understand. Then you eat large quantities of food and attempt to fend off the roving pourers who try to ply you with vodka, wine, and beer. There is club-type dancing and more traditional Mongolian waltz-type dancing, which confuses me immensely because they tend not to distinguish between 3/4 and 4/4 music.These parties are kind of fun once the dancing starts, though it’s hard to appreciate everything leading up to that point when you don’t know the songs and can’t understand the speeches. But hey, free food, right?

The problem for me is not the party itself so much as the preparation involved. Mongolians like to dress nicely for work, and they enjoy glamming up  for special occasions even more. The women put on nice dresses and pantyhose and high heels. They go to salons and get their hair curled and styled. They put on even more makeup than usual.

My director, knowing the limitations of my wardrobe and budget, has been immensely helpful in keeping me from looking woefully underdressed. She has, on several occasions, found friends from whom to borrow dresses and shoes for me, and she has taken me with her to her hairdresser (her sister) before every party. And I’m grateful for that. But I’m also sick of it.

I have spent more time in hair salons in the past three months than in my entire life before Mongolia. Granted, that’s not saying much; “getting my hair cut” has been mostly limited to my mother trimming my hair, my first college roommate did my hair for our two Charter Day Balls (she did a fantastic job), and I went to all of two dances in high school. But there’s a reason for that: I am very much a tomboy.

I hate the crunchy feeling of hairsprayed hair, and the fumes give me massive headaches. I don’t have the patience to mess around with a curling or straightening iron, and the closest I’d come to dyeing my hair is dousing it with lemon juice and sunlight. Honestly, all I’ve ever wanted from my hair was for it to grow longer and faster (and possibly tangle a little less). While I do enjoy dressing up now and then, I feel the same way about getting my hair done on a regular basis as about wearing makeup every day: I am so very not interested.

I don’t mean to sound like an ungrateful party pooper, but the fact of the matter is that I am just not a party girl. I’d rather spend an evening curled up with a good book or watching a movie with friends than at a drunken banquet. Living in Mongolia is not going to change that, no matter how many parties my school throws.


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Failing NaNoWriMo

Today is (or was, as of when I penned this; I had neither power nor Internet yesterday) the last day of my first NaNoWriMo, and I stand here before you (metaphorically, of course) to declare that I have failed at it utterly. I’m not sure how many words I managed because most of them are handwritten, but I don’t think I made it anywhere near the halfway mark.

And you know what? I’m OK with that. I started doing some research on my story topic in mid-October and was eager to write, but by the time November rolled around, my enthusiasm had waned. Lesson learned: when inspiration knocks, grab it and run with it. Don’t wait for arbitrary dates. Also learned: trying to write a story set in Ireland while living in Mongolia is sort of a doomed endeavor. So my attempt at NaNoWriMo was pretty half-hearted to begin with. When I started falling significantly behind on the wordcount within the first few days, I grew quickly disheartened.

Part of the problem was that i wasn’t really feeling the story or my characters, but a bigger part was that I’m just plain out of practice when it comes to writing fiction. I took two creative writing classes in college, but neither required me to write more than a page or two of anything at a time. Creating a scene is easy; creating an entire storyline, not so much.

Moreover, I’ve been reading a lot of Barbara Kingsolver lately, and I’ve found her nonfiction to be both inspiring and incredibly intimidating. For example:

The business of fiction is to probe the tender spots of an imperfect world, which is where I live, write, and read. (Small Wonder, np)

For example:

With a pile of stories on my lap I sat with this question, early on, and tried to divine for myself why it was that I loved a piece of fiction when I did, and the answer came to me quite clearly: I love it for what it tells me about life I love fiction, strangely enough, for how true it is. If it can tell me something I didn’t already know, or maybe suspected but never framed quite that way, or never before had socked me so divinely in the solar plexus, that was a story worth the read. (Small Wonder, np)

For example:

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

This baffling manifesto is a command that rules my writing life. It believe it means there are truths we all know, but can’t make ourselves feel: Slavery was horrible. Love thy neighbor as thyself, or we’ll all go to hell in a handbasket. These are things that cannot be said in words because they’re too familiar to move us, too big and bald and flat to penetrate our souls. The artist must craft missiles to deliver these truths so unerringly to the right place inside of us we are left panting, with no possibility of doubting they are true. The novelist must do this in story, image, and character. And make the reader believe. (High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 233-334)

For example:

The fear of being perceived as idealogues runs so deep in writers of my generation it undoubtedly steers us away from certain subjects without our knowing it. The fear is that if you fall short of perfect exectution, you’ll be called “preachy.”

But falling short of perfection when you’ve plunched in to say what needs to be said–is that so much worse, really, than falling short when you’ve plunged in to say what didn’t need to be said? (High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 230)

[apologies about the inability to cite properly – most Kindle books aren’t paginated]

That last one is what really gets me. I am good at saying things well; I’ve been told that for a long time. I know how to take words and shape them to be powerful, or persuasive, or beautiful. But these excerpts struck me to my core; they made me question why I was writing in the first place. Yes, I can say things well – but in the light of such conviction, I’m unsure whether anything I have to say is worth saying.

There’s nothing like that sort of uncertainty and lack of confidence to gum up the works, and my ability to work on my story grew more and more impaired as the month wore on. But my ability to write other things was unaffected. This is the most active my blog has ever been, and I have a lovely long list of future entries waiting to be written. A bout of anger and nostalgia, unintentionally coupled with the new Taylor Swift album, led to the beginnings of a poem that I won’t inflict upon the Internet. It’s bad, and it’s pretty standard post-breakup material, but even so, poetry is not usually the medium I reach for when the need for self-expression calls. For one to pour forth like that is a noteworthy event.

And I’ve written a lot of things that haven’t made it onto this blog (yet) – journal entries, responses to articles friends have posted, and so on. when presented with the choice between working on a story that has yet to come to life and recording and analyzing an event that actually pertains to my day-to-day life, or that I want to remember, I think I know which I’m going to choose. My estimated output for today is probably about 1800 words – they’re just not in my novel.

So maybe I failed at National Novel Writing Month. But if you take out the “Novel” bit, I think I did alright.

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Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving twice. I’m hard-pressed to recall the specifics of our big family celebration; we’ve had so many, and they do run together. Last year my dad’s youngest sister and her family hosted one major holiday, and we were late because the pumpkin pie wouldn’t set. My family hosted the other, and we stayed up late talking to the visiting members of the Burke Zoo Northern Branch. I was also serenaded, repeatedly, by my father and uncle with the Evans Sweetheart song, a bit of god-awful sentimentality straight out of the 1950s. But as I had recently started dating an Evans Scholar, an order of which my father and both of his brothers are members, I suppose it was sort of inevitable. My point, I suppose, is that while I do remember scraps of both those holidays, I couldn’t tell you which was Thanksgiving and which was Christmas.

But that was my second Thanksgiving celebration, and I remember the first much better. My roommate and I “pre-gamed” the holiday – not by getting drunk before going out drinking, as the term usually implies, but by celebrating with our friends at school before going home to celebrate with our families. We invited a bunch of our friends over (I think there were around ten of us all told), spent the entire day in the kitchen, and used every casserole dish that kitchen had.

I mean that literally. You can’t even see all the food in this picture.

It was completely worth it. This was my second family we were celebrating with, my home away from home. It wouldn’t have felt right not to celebrate with them in some way. I don’t think we said grace, as is traditional at Thanksgiving dinner, but we certainly felt blessed. To show how blessed, we each took a leaf (I had gathered and pressed a large number of colorful leaves earlier that autumn) and wrote the things we were thankful for upon it. Quite a few of them referred to the family we had created there.

Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and apples, cranberry sauce - we even had green bean casserole.

And the food was delicious.

This Thanksgiving, inevitably, has been rather different. Once more, I’ll be celebrating it twice. Round one was last Sunday, when the nine American residents of Erdenet gathered at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s apartment. We had to make do with chicken instead of turkey, but the food was still delicious, and I ate far too much of it.

Still, it wasn’t the same. I managed cranberry sauce of a sort, but it lacked the bite of the real thing. More importantly, the atmosphere was different – companionable, but nowhere near as close-knit. I made friends at Miami whom I counted as sisters; I have yet to find sisters here. And though we had all the trimmings of the traditional dinner, some of the spirit of the holiday was missing. There was no acknowledgement of the things we were thankful for, and I missed that.

In my classes today, I tried to make up for that. I thought about playing “Over the River and Through the Woods” for them, or trying to teach them some Thanksgiving-related vocabulary, but neither would be particularly meaningful to them. So I replicated last Thanksgiving’s leaves: I broke out the construction paper, gave each student a piece, and asked them to write the things they were thankful for upon it. It took some translation to get the message across, but they did it. Some of their responses:

  • I am thankful for family.
  • I am thankful for education.
  • I am thankful for mother, father, brother.
  • I am thankful for Mongolia.
  • I am thankful for horse.
  • I am thankful for sportsman.
  • I am thankful for winter.
  • I am thankful for Chinggis Khan.

Rather a mixed bag, but they clearly understood the point of the exercise. And they didn’t copy the list of examples I’d provided straight off the board, either; I saw them checking through their notes for vocabulary words and asking the other teacher what words were. That’s a lot more engagement and comprehension than they usually show!

As for me, I’m thankful for a lot of things. For my family, even if I can’t go home to celebrate this glorious holiday with them. For the snow and trees and mountains that beautify the earth and the sunny days that make winter bearable. For cats and the way they always make me smile. For living in an apartment where I don’t have to worry about going to the bathroom outdoors in sub-zero weather and can (almost always) take hot showers when I want them.

But the one that hits most urgently this year is that I’m thankful for my friends – for the old friends who’ve kept up with me and supported me through a rough October, and for the new friends I’ve made here. I would probably learn Mongolian faster if I had no one to talk to in English, but I would be awfully lonely in the process. I am incredibly grateful for the Americans here; seeing them at least three times a week, even if two of them are to run English activities for the community, is part of what keeps me sane. I am grateful for the Russian and Mongolian friends who have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am deeply indebted to them for helping me with things like navigating the postal service and giving me a place to stay during this weekend’s trip to UB. I would be completely lost here on my own.

Whether you celebrate it or not, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.