On February eighth I left Mongolia on Peace Corps Medical evacuation. Not only was this sudden but also turned out to be a huge culture shock. I went from living in a small, slow paced town where I was used to being one of only two native English speakers to a large, busy metropolis with a population of over four million. I had been in Mongolia for only eight months, but upon my return to Boston, I felt that it had been an eternity. I was becoming integrated into a new culture and Boston did not quite feel like home to me anymore. I felt like a foreigner, my skin and language part of the majority but inside I was different. I had been thoroughly affected by my eight months in Sukhbaatar, Selenge Aimag, Mongolia.
I felt myself, on a regular basis, making little cultural and linguistic mistakes in America would not have happened. For example, when I got onto the subway for the first time since my return, every time I bumped into someone I would use the traditional apology for bumping into someone, “ochleray”, or “please forgive me.”
Along with language, I was also making mistakes that would be considered rude by American standards. I seemingly had forgotten that waiting your turn at a store, ATM or when getting on a bus, while not important nor a regularity in Mongolia, was very important to Americans, and prompted, on a few occasions foul words on the part of the people around me.
My friends and family, on the other hand, had a very hard time understanding my experiences in Mongolia. While I would share them, it was evident that they did not truly understand what Mongolia as like, or exhibit the same cultural awareness or sensitivity that I had become accustomed to. For example, one of my friends would, on several occasions remark on how “weird Mongolia must be” when I talked about “gers”, holidays, and food. It became frustrating and made me ponder on comments I might have made about other cultures before I went to Peace Corps.
Returning to Mongolia after two and a half months was a whole new experience. I was nervous and questions ran through my head. Would people be welcoming after a sudden absence of two months? How would I explain why I had been gone? Would I be able to go back to life as normal? All worries that would be put to rest the second I got back to my site and was greeted at my home by gifts, hugs and laughter on the part of my counterparts.
What was more, was the fact that the culture shock I had felt in Boston did not seem to exist in Mongolia. I got right into the swing of things and have now seemed to feel more a part of the community since my return. I feel home.
So what have I taken from this experience during my service? For starters, I think I have a new found sense of how Peace Corps service and living in a community for an extended period impacts a person. Second, I also have a come to understand more about cultural integration and how important it is too being productive even when events come in your path. I could have been negatively impacted by my leave if it hadn’t been for the fact that I have established a home in a place that is so foreign.
Karissa Hultgren is doing Peace Corps service in Mongolia as she earns her master’s degree in Educational Studies at Wheelock College. Read some of her earlier posts about her Peace Corps experience.