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.


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Sorry We Stole Your Winter, Moscow! Most Americans Would Happily Return It.

So apparently it’s been unseasonable warm in Moscow of late – and presumably elsewhere as well. Well, as my international readers may not know, there’s a reason for this, and it’s one my American readers have been hearing about for the past week: America stole Moscow’s winter. Sorry, Moscow.

Winter storms Hercules and Ion hit the Chicago are with nearly two feet of snow, as well as  a phenomenon that the media called a “Polar Vortex” – an area of low pressure that pulled a wide swath of arctic air over most of the country for several days. While places like Moscow and Alaska experienced unusually warm weather, Chicago and other mainland American cities were hit with the coldest temperatures they’d experienced in twenty years.

You’d have thought the world was going to end.

Weather emergencies were declared, people told not to go out unnecessarily. The commuter trains in Chicago were severely delayed, or in some cases, canceled altogether, because the rails were freezing, shrinking, and even breaking. The Chicago Public Schools canceled two days of classes, as did my own school district – a truly unprecedented event. (By contrast, in my twelve years in that system, I never once got a snow day because the snow removal systems are so efficient.) Three Amtrak trains en route to Chicago were stuck in twelve-foot snow drifts for over twelve hours; the passengers, including my friend Sarah, were eventually bussed to Chicago when six locomotives failed to dislodge the stuck trains.

And to a certain extent, I understand the hubbub. An 8˚F/-13˚C day in Atlanta is in many ways more dangerous than a -30˚F/-34˚C day in Mongolia because Atlanta and its people are not prepared for such weather; my friend Charlotte had never owned a real winter coat before she went to college in Ohio because she’d never needed to, and I’m sure she’s far from alone. -17˚F is ten to fifteen degrees colder than Chicago is used to enduring (and that for only a few days a year), and its extensive mass transit systems don’t handle it well. The large homeless population, even with a concerted effort to shelter all of its members during the polar blast, is also at obvious risk.

But I still think it was all blown way out of proportion.

Yes, cold is dangerous, but it’s a manageable danger; it won’t kill you if you’re properly prepared. But you wouldn’t know that from the reactions of the media or the general public. Slideshows of weird and beautiful weather phenomena are cool; public service announcements about frostbite prevention and proper layering are necessary; updates on the innumerable and inevitable airport, traffic, and rail delays are useful. But it’s one thing to provide useful and relevant information  on a current and far-reaching event, and another to treat it like the end of the world.

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The image at left, for instance, is from a Weather Channel listicle entitled, “10 Photos That Show How Insanely Cold Chicago It Is in Chicago.” The story was also carried on other news networks – CNN, WGN, and whatever radio station we were listening to at the time. When decontextualized, as at left, it’s a shocking, even frightening statement. But the oversimplification misses an important point: it’s too cold for a Chicago polar bear, one who doesn’t have the fat reserves put on by her cousins up north. Some news carriers included this detail, but others went for shock value and omitted it. Unsurprisingly, it was the simplified version that made it into social media.

Another example of public overreaction, this time a Facebook post by a friend of a friend: “Please say a prayer for all those who are working out in this horrid freezing weather, including my brother, those working to restore power, working on water lines, delivering mail, picking up garbage, etc. etc. It’s too dangerous out there for any human.”

She had me up until that last sentence. I don’t want to minimize the suffering or sacrifice of the people impacted by this winter; I know it was, and is, real. Not everyone has the resources or the know-how to protect themselves properly from this kind of weather, and for these people, Hercules and Ion were truly disastrous. And I certainly agree that the good people braving the cold to allow American life to continue as normally as possible do deserve our prayers, thanks, and recognition. But while the sentiment is well-intentioned, its conclusion is alarmist and just plain wrong. No, people shouldn’t be sent to work outside if they aren’t properly protected; no, they probably won’t be comfortable, even if they’re not in actual danger. But from the average American’s reaction to unexpected inconvenience, you’d think that uncomfortable and unbearable were synonyms.

Discomfort and cold are a way of life for a lot people. Trains and buses might have been running behind schedule, but at least we have them. My car was reluctant to start during the cold snap, and its windows froze shut, but I still had a car – as do most Americans. Waiting for a delayed train in the bitter cold is not fun, but it still beats walking that distance along unpaved roads in even more frigid temperatures. And no matter how cold it was outside, the vast majority of us were not dependent on wood- or coal-burning stoves to keep us from freezing to death.

If my time in Mongolia has changed me in any single, lasting way, it’s by changing my perspective. That’s a big part of why I picked Mongolia in the first place: I wanted to experience life outside the first world. I returned with a new appreciation of just how easy things are here: washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the floor, traveling across the city, the state, or even the country. When I’m stuck in traffic now, I’m more likely to be frustrated by the people around me who are frustrated at the traffic than by the traffic itself.

And when it’s not just a little traffic – when it’s a near-total log jam of transportation in which flights are grounded, highways closed, and trains stuck in snow drifts or canceled for fear of derailment? A lot of people turn downright ugly. Sarah told me, and the reporters who swarmed the passengers when they finally arrived in Chicago, that while arriving nearly a full day behind schedule was certainly less than ideal, the conditions on the train were reasonably comfortable: they had heat and light and were at least fed dinner, though there were no snacks and only limited water. The conductor made the rounds of the train and kept the passengers up to date on what Amtrak was doing to try to get them out.

The conductor’s attempts to maintain communication and keep things light were not reciprocated by all of the passengers, however. The conductor learned many new things from angry passengers, including “who she was, where she should go, and what she should do with herself,” including a number of word she hadn’t heard during her time in the Marines. In her shoes, I probably would have told the passengers in question that if they thought they could do a better job of getting the train unstuck, they were welcome to go out and push. There were also rumors of a fistfight, though Sarah did not witness it. The news was rife with interviews of similarly bilious grounded airline passengers.

I understand that the travel delays impeded people’s ability to go on carefully-planned vacations, or visit sick or dying loved ones, or to attend important career events. In their shoes, I’d be frustrated and angry too. But there’s only so much anyone can do when the puts a twelve-foot snowdrift in the way of your train, and taking your anger out on the conductor does nothing to fix it. It is not the railroad’s fault that the train does not have the supplies to feed its passengers several unscheduled meals; did no one think even to bring snacks with them?

These things happen. Winter happens. And while it doesn’t usually happen this badly in Chicago, it happens a lot. Winter inconveniences are just one of the hazards of living here, and I think if more Americans knew just how soft we have it and reacted accordingly, they’d be a lot more pleasant.


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Outreach Trip, Part VI: Identity Crisis in Uliastai

It’s amazing how dramatically a few months in another country can alter your perspective. After a few weeks of sub-zero weather (that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius), a brief venture up to the mid-twenties is a heat wave. You cast aside your down-filled coat and myriad base layers with glee; you float about town on your daily errands, the T-shirt and sweatshirt you have deemed adequate insulation barely heavy enough to keep you on the ground. When the long-anticipated arrival of spring breaks the temperature up to a whopping 50 (that’s 10˚C, for the non-American readers), you gallivant to dance practice in a tank top.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest world capital, it’s true, but obscene cold is not Mongolia’s only claim to fame. With 604,000 square miles (1.5 million km²) and a mere 3.18 million people to its name, it also holds the first-place ranking as the most sparsely-populated country in the world (though that falls to 5th if you count dependent territories). That’s like spreading the population of Chicago across an area the size of Alaska – the city proper, mind you, not including its many suburbs. And once you consider that more than half of these three million people live in the capital city, it’s more like spreading the population of Naperville across the same land area.

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square kilometer.

Spending time here, unsurprisingly, skews your perceptions of population. I live in the second-largest city in this country – but since there are only three cites, you could just as easily call it the second-smallest. My hometown of 18,000 people is considered a small suburb in Illinois; the next stop on our outreach trip, the comparably-sized Uliastai, is a pretty big town by Mongolian standards. After days of eating lunch at the lone guanz of this or that soum, and attempted stops at those with none, it felt big to us too.

Uliastai from above. Doesn't look like much, but it felt it.

Uliastai from above. Doesn’t look like much, but it felt it.

In keeping with the size of its population, Uliastai boasted an impressive four Peace Corps Volunteers. Bianca, Bill, Brian, and (the sadly non-alliterative) Karen met us at the hotel and then led us to a place called Crystal. We followed them across town, through unmarked doors, and up a flight of stairs to find ourselves in a restaurant with beer (all in cans/bottles, but at least they had Fusion), a dance floor, and a menu that included chicken. Really, what more could we ask for?

It was at this dinner I realized I was suffering something of an identity crisis. Of the eight Fulbright ETAs and Researchers my age, six live in the capital. Consequently, Lauren and I see them but rarely; I had missed Joe’s visit to Erdenet at New Year’s, and so the last time I had seen any of my four travel companions was at Thanksgiving. Nor have I done a particularly good job of keeping in touch with them. I did not know, for instance, that Lucas had started an NGO, or that Eli had become the second ETA to have his appendix removed this year (yikes!) I knew enough about the other ETAs that the standard ground for get-to-know-you smalltalk had already been covered, but so little about their recent lives that the only real questions I could ask were of the vague, “so how have you been?” variety.

Instead, it was the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I connected. The Fulbrighters in UB have access to a large network of expats, but our scope in Erdenet is rather more limited. There are a few older, married Americans here with whom we interact less frequently, but between community English events and weekend gatherings, I see each of the 6 Erdenet PCVs (and Lauren) at least once a week. So unlike the UB Fulbrighters, I spoke the lingo already; I could ask the PCVs we met along the way about their COS dates, what they’d done at IST, and what they thought of their CPs’ English and teaching skills.

One of the things I admire about the Peace Corps is its centralization and the close-knit feeling that follows from it. All the volunteers from each round meet each other and are given phones programmed with the numbers of the other PCVs in the country; the second-year volunteers all come to Thanksgiving in UB, as do most of the first years with the time and money to do so. Even if, as a PCV, you don’t really know a certain other volunteer, you probably have a friend who does.

For those who become topics of discussion by the inevitable gossip mill, this isn’t always ideal; if you want to keep your private life private, don’t date someone in the Peace Corps. But for me, at this table in Uliastai, it meant that even though I had never met any of these people, I still had things to talk about with them. I could ask Bianca about her host mother in Hutuul, whom everyone at the training site had loved; back in Tsetserleg, I had already known the bare bones of a project Bryce was describing because Gracie had talked about picking it up next year. I might not have known these people, but I’d heard stories about them, or about other volunteers whose experiences were more like theirs than my own.

The Peace Corps is a community in a way that the Fulbright is not, and the volunteers in Erdenet adopted Lauren and me into that community when we first arrived at their site. After spending so much time with them, it seems that I identify more strongly with the Peace Corps volunteers than with my fellow Fulbrighters! Several of my travel companions even asked if I had thought about joining the Peace Corps after I finished my grant, since I seemed to like it so much. I haven’t given the possibility much serious though, but I do know this: I would have had a more productive and enjoyable time in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer than as a Fulbrighter.

Our time in Uliastai also served to demonstrate to me just how much a difference that sort of community can make – just to those who are part of it, but to the larger group it serves. By the time we reached Uliastai, we had been giving presentations for the better part of a week. I was grateful that the others devised a rotation that constantly switched up which presentation we were delivering, and with whom, as it kept the whole thing from getting too tedious. Even so, our visit to Brian’s school the following morning was the third time I had done the Universities in America presentation, and the second time I had done with Joe. But more importantly, it was a first: the first time that any of the students had actually taken the opportunity to ask us questions. Some of the students were even skilled (and brave!) enough to pose their questions to us in English. And even those who stuck to their native language were often asking about programs and scholarships they could use to study in America.

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Uyanga translating for our bravest and most responsive audience (not including Gladys)

Four English speakers together can do what one alone cannot: form a speaking club that exposes learners to authentic spoken English. Offer students multiple people with whom to practice, or incentive to improve their skills until they are comfortable doing so. Form a consistent schedule that doesn’t require events to be rearranged or canceled because one person is sick or swamped with work. Work together to overcome the bureaucratic, linguistic, and logistical obstacles they encounter along the way. Brian’s students, by daring to raise their hands and ask about ways to get themselves to America, showed us just how much more effective English teachers are in groups.

When I returned to Erdenet at the end of the trip and resumed participation in the seminars, conversation nights, and moving screenings my situates (another PC term I’ve adopted) organize, it would be with a renewed sense of appreciation. Neither my students nor my co-teachers are motivated enough to take advantage of these opportunities, but I’m always encouraged to see the number of others who are. I’ve learned songs, games, and teaching methods from assisting at the Peace Corps events, and I know that the folks around me have my back when I need help navigating life with limited language ability. I’m hooked into a network of friendly, skilled, and resourceful people who know what there is to see in their area and how to get there, and who don’t mind visitors crashing on their floors. Most importantly, I’ve got friends with whom to share the crazy, frustrating, amazing experience that is living and teaching in Mongolia.

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Nine Americans, six Mongolians, one Russian. Halloween in Erdenet.