I was once told that when joining the Peace Corps, it will not be the place that you discover who you are but rather learn more about yourself than ever before. This is mainly due to the immense amount of time you will have on your hands. The average time a volunteer spends in country is 27 months or about 820 days or 19,680 hours that will be spent doing what you chose to do: getting to know your community, spending time with site-mates, reading books, watching videos on YouTube, researching techniques for your designated sector, traveling around the country that you are serving, and, of course, doing the work that you were assigned to do. But there is a chunk of time that isn’t accounted for; the time you will have to just think or realize a few things that go on around you.
In my 24 months of time already spent in Mongolia, I have come to realize a few things about myself that I do not think I would have learned while still living in the United States. Some are negatives that turned into positives and realizations that changed me for the better. These are the three (3) that I learned about myself and the Peace Corps:
1. Coming to terms with my depression and anxiety: Since I can remember, I have always had a slight case of depression while growing up. From serious situations I will not get into to times when I was bullied in elementary and high school to times that I felt I wasn’t doing anything of substance with my life. One thing I began to notice was the time frame in which I would feel the “blues” for lack of a better word. It would occur most frequently during the winter months, which I had an inkling about before leaving for the Peace Corps but didn’t pay much mind to until I had to live in a country where winter lasts about half the year. I began feeling depressed for much longer than previous times.
This, also, made me realize that I had anxiety. There were times that I would think twice before speaking on topics with others, I would replay things people would say to me or about me repeatedly to the point of anger, or even began having mood swings which would sometimes cause me to snap at people that were not the source of my upset. Then, there was the worry. Worry about failing the Peace Corps mission, worry about my family back home that was now about 8,000 miles away from me, worry about no one liking me, worry about not getting anything done, etc. I could probably make a list just based off the worry I endured while here in Mongolia.
There came a time where it truly became so much that I would isolate myself from others purposely because I needed to figure myself out and I felt that there was no one that could possibly understand what I was going through. These time frames that I spent alone allowed me to come to terms with my depression and anxiety. I started off with telling my closest friend and sister while I was at a low point. With this, I took some steps to shift out of this funk I was feeling and was able to put my energy into focusing on when I felt this way and to just breath when there was a slump in my emotions. I think about all the positives that I have going for me and try to stay off of social media which usually triggers depressive thoughts. I, also, put my energy into baking and the projects I wanted to get done while still serving in Mongolia.
But, not everyone understood or will understand that mental illness is actually a valid reason for someone’s mood shifts or withdrawal. Which brings me to my second point.
2. Peace Corps and forced friendships: Once you finish Pre-Service Training or “PST,” you are sent off to your sites in which you will serve for the following 24 months of service. As soon as this happens, you will see who will or will not be your “site-mates.” Site-mates are the people who will also be in the same site as you. There could be 1, 5, 10, or none, it just depends on the placement done by Peace Corps managers.
Peace Corps Mongolia is special for this because we are the most spread out of any country in Peace Corps today. This means that your closest friend could be a 10 hour bus ride away or even a 2 to 3 hour flight away. Mongolians are nomadic people and, therefore, are sparsely gathered together unless in the capital of Ulaanbaatar. This creates the severe distances between each “soum” or town.
With that being said, you are stuck with whoever your site-mates are. It creates dependency relationships between people. The sense that you need this person to survive during your time in service. This could come in the form of sexual relationships, a Peace Corps best friend, or, even, a person that you cling on to because they were in your cohort. The relationship can take many forms but it is up to you to decided whether this relationship is a genuine one or a forced one.
I was stuck on a stupor, for quite a long time, of thinking that I needed to be close with my site-mates, that I needed to spend every waking hour that I had with them, that I needed them to get through service, that I had to get along with them, or just try to. It wasn’t until the middle of my second year of service that I realized all of the aforementioned is absolutely not true. I didn’t need to force myself to do anything that made me feel uncomfortable or swallow the pill of someone’s personality just because that is the way they are. I decided to treat myself with respect when it came to picking who my friends were or who I would chose to get close to.
I have gone over this statement in my head over and over again: “I am not the person I was in America that I am in Mongolia.” And at first, I would say this because I felt different while being in country but, as time past, I have come to realize that I meant I wasn’t my actual real self when being around the people I had to consider my friends here. I was putting up a front of who I actually was and hiding who I truly was around people in fear of being judged. Which I was, constantly.
In the same vein, I was able to come to terms with the idea that not everyone I would encounter in this world would have the same level of morals, ideas, acceptance, and empathy that I had. In my encounters with people who weren’t from major cities, I have noticed a huge difference in how they reacted or acted around others. And while I thought this was quite strange, I’m sure they felt the same way about my liberal and outright ways. So, I came to terms with all of this and just knew that not everyone needed to be my friend. This isn’t high school, thought at times it felt like it, and I didn’t need to care if everyone accepted me. And, of course, to always remember that there is a huge difference between an acquaintance and a true friend.
3. People at home not quite grasping or wanting to grasp what I am going through: Obviously, I know that people who haven’t gone through the experience of serving in the Peace Corps would never understand what it is actually like to have these special kinds of frustrations and irritations that come with it. Through out the last 24 months of my service, I constantly would spew all my worry, nervousness, irritation, excitement, joy, etc… about things going on during my time in Mongolia. While some people would say, “Oh that’s part of the experience!” or “You wanted to do that!” it is not what I would like to hear at that moment in time.
But, going back to the previous realization of knowing not everyone is your friend, I was able to utilize those who I did see as a friend within my cohort. With them I shared my experience being able to relate to each secret, hindrance, or whatever experience we were going through. It was as though I had someone who could understand what I was exactly going through. And while this is a fantastic aspect to lean on they won’t always be available to chat upon our return to the states and I am still left with a sense of dread that when I do want to talk about my experience with family or friends back at home, I will be met with the nod of a head and a change of subject because they will never quite understand.
The people at home, while I wish they would all pause their lives just for me (just kidding), kept moving forward while I did the same here. In turn, they have a lot to deal with instead of listening to me rant about the time I ripped my pants on horseback or the time I shat myself while sitting next to my new boss and why it was the most hilarious thing to have happened to me. I have had come to terms with that idea and I have already experienced it first hand when visiting home last summer and on call with people back at home. It comes with the job, so to speak. To put in into perspective: I could never understand what it is like to be in the military and, though I would show interest in some stories of a returned soldier, I could never relate or, quite possibly, could get bored listening after a while. Wouldn’t you? Not everything everyone says is mind bogglingly great or peaks our interest.
But, this is just what I had to come to terms with while serving in Mongolia for the United States Peace Corps. These stood out to me the most and while each volunteer’s experience is different, not all of the experiences will be like mine. I needed to learn these things and these were just some steps in my journey as a volunteer that helped me grow and develop a new perspective on myself and others.
“Sometimes people think they know you. They know a few facts about you, and they piece you together in a way that makes sense to them. And if you don’t know yourself very well, you might even believe that they are right. But the truth is, that isn’t you. That isn’t you at all.” - Leila Sales