Teaching in Mongolia

Amy LaCrosse '01


The plane's wheels touched down on the hard sod, and bounced once, twice.  Inside the overheated cabin, everyone was thrown and knocked about as the cabin lights flickered.  Old women with prayer beads, small children four to a seat, men wearing big boots with curling toes, parcels, packages-all were jostled about and packed even tighter together.  As the plane settled down on the bare earth with one last thump and groan, a sheep carcass came loose from an overhead bin and landed with a resounding thump and clatter in the aisle.  We had arrived. 

Immediately, everyone grabbed mismatched parcels, bags, and crying children and, as one body, pushed relentlessly toward the now open hatch door on the back of the plane.  Feeling sick, I tried to catch a glimpse of the land outside through the small windows but was pushed forward from the sides and from behind.  At last I was pushed through the door and then climbed down the rickety ladder to the earth.  I caught my breath.  The only sounds were the pounding of my heart, which seemed to have swelled to twice its normal size and taken up residence in my throat, and the wind.  The old battered Russian airplane had seemingly landed in the middle of nowhere.        

I had come to the far eastern side of Mongolia, a large, landlocked country tucked away between Russia and China.  Baruun-Urt, Mongolia's smallest provincial capital, was a tiny, ramshackle collection of abandoned buildings, rickety Chinese apartments, and Mongolian gers (small round felt tents-the traditional dwelling of Mongolians), all gathered about a Russian-style concrete square in the middle of town.  It was filled with camel trains, thousands of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats, at least half a dozen packs of semi-wild dogs, and one roaming band of garbage-eating pigs.  It would also be my home for the two years directly following my graduation from St. Ben's as an English major with a secondary education minor.




Why do I have so much? 

Why do others have so little? 

What do I do about it?


During my time at St. Ben's and St. John's, I had become seriously interested in service, social justice, and sustainable community development.  Many of my classes and activities had introduced me to issues of identity and equality.  I began to turn over questions that I could find no answers for.  Why do I have so much?  Why do others have so little?  What do I do about it?  How should knowledge about injustices affect my life?  I didn't know the answers; but following graduation, I knew I wanted to do something that would give me real-life experiences through which I could more fully explore these questions.  I knew I also wanted to gain some teaching experience, have a chance at learning another language, travel, and find time to write and read.  And, circumstances obliging, I wouldn't complain if I could hike and camp a lot too.  After much research and soul searching, I decided to apply, and was accepted, as a teacher trainer for the Peace Corps.

It amazes me to think that, given all those expectations and wants, my Peace Corps assignment actually fulfilled each of them.  I got to teach.   As a teacher trainer, it was my job to teach a group of Mongolian teachers both English and methodology.  I think, however, that I may have learned far more about the craft of teaching than I actually taught.  It was often my teachers who had to teach me how to teach in a school without good heating, electricity, or even blackboards.  I certainly got to learn a language, but first I learned the painful realities of what it is to be a foreigner isolated by language and its barriers.  I also got to travel, often in ways not open to other travelers, to parts of Asia I had only dreamed of before.  And thanks to one of the severest climates in the world, I had more than enough time to write and read.  I also lived in a tent, so in a way satisfying my whole camping wish.  In the end, I'd gotten everything I'd asked for, and a great deal more than I'd ever expected.

I was ultimately blessed with experiences and challenges well beyond the wildest limits of what I had foreseen, experiences and challenges that have had permanent effects on my life.  In seeking answers to my questions, I encountered ramifications which I still continue to deal with.  Today, as a returned Peace Corps volunteer (people often spoken of in the same terms as those reserved for recovering addicts), I live a life which is completely normal in most respects.  But there are moments when Mongolia haunts me.  

The effects of the challenges I faced are difficult to explain.  My physical challenges are perhaps the easiest to explain and understand.  When I first moved to Baruun-Urt, I had to accept that, compared to everybody else, I was about as capable as a klutzy two-year-old.  I had to start at the very beginning and accept that I knew absolutely nothing.  My neighbors taught me how to build and tend a dung and coal fire.  I had to learn the best way to fetch water from the water tank and how to use that water sparingly.  I learned how to bathe in a bucket, cook over fire, and stay warm in the depths of winter.  In the spring, when the first sandstorms came, I learned how to weight the frame of my ger so that it wouldn't blow over in the winds.  Today, I pause at the shocking luxury of turning on one of the three faucets in my apartment and watching water, hot or cold, gush from the tap.  It's wonderful to have fresh vegetables year-round and to wake up in a warm, centrally heated room.  Yet I miss my Mongolian life, the experience of falling asleep watching the lights and shadows of firelight at night, and the sense of accomplishment I began to feel when I realized that I was capable of keeping myself warm and fed, regardless of whatever storm might be raging outside. 




I live a life which is completely normal in most respects.  But there are moments when Mongolia haunts me.

When people ask me now how I'm re-adjusting to America, it's these physical challenges and their impact on me that I usually talk about.  Yet the challenges that have left the most lasting impacts on my life are the mental ones.  They're also the most difficult to explain.  I can say it was hard to be a foreigner.  I can say I felt isolated.  I can say it was frustrating and exhausting to learn and speak another language.  I can say it changed my life.  Yet even these claims are not enough.  Today, when I see someone struggling to say something in English, I am reminded of the torture of being isolated and subjugated by a language.  I remember the afternoon I was reduced to a fury when, understanding just enough Mongolian to be able to understand but not enough to speak fluently, I listened as my interpreter reduced my request for a water container to "She's complaining about a water container or something."  I remember muttering word perfect Mongolian to myself, practicing as I walked to the market where suddenly, like the girl in the fairytale, I would watch my words turn to toads as my perfect Mongolian disintegrated into choppy tangles of misplaced verbs and suffixes.  I also remember the joy, the feeling of having suddenly been set free, when I began to understand and speak with greater fluency, when I could take part in conversations, when I realized I could express myself.




Good education

provides not

answers but only

more questions.

The ramifications of Mongolia's challenges stay with me now.  Four months after my return to America, I am left with unraveling what this experience means for my life.  When I decided to spend two years in Mongolia, I left in the hope of immersing myself in the real world we had read so much about in college.  I wanted to get answers to the questions that troubled me.  The reality of what that would mean for me and for my life was one I could not have imagined.  There is a theory that a good education provides the student not with answers but only with more questions.  I could not imagine, however, that I would to be led back to the same questions with which I began.  Yet I returned home asking them with a greater sense of immediacy and urgency than ever before.  Perhaps these questions, like the memories of my life in Mongolia, will never leave me.  They challenge me now, often at the most inconvenient and uncomfortable moments.  They resurface to ask, Why do some have so much?  Why do others have so little?  How will this change my life?  For this continuing challenge, I can only be grateful.