Henry "Trip" Edington ('08) Shares His Alumnus Experience in Mongolia
My name is (Trip) Henry F. Edington III. After 10 years of working full-time and taking a few classes each semester, I finally graduated from UAH in the spring of 2008 with a double-degree in Sociology and Psychology, and the first from my working-class family to do so. Ever since I was young, I had dreamed of traveling to and visiting far away, exotic places, and my study of Sociology and everything that entails only deepened my desires. Luckily, I was able to do so at the expense of someone else.
Before graduation, I did as many do and started thinking about what I was going to do when I got out into the real world. Somewhere along the way, I heard about the United States Peace Corps and, after learning as much as I could, I decided to apply. What better way to see the world than having the government pay for it? As many will tell you, the process of applying is the hardest part about joining the Peace Corps, so I put on my Patience Pants and took care of doctor visits, eye care appointments, interviews, and reams of documents. When I was finished, I was told that it could be anywhere from a couple of months to more than a year before I would be placed in a role, and I would be told all about it then.
I was anxious to get away as soon as I graduated, so when the recruiter called and said that they were sending a team to Mongolia a few weeks after graduation and wanted to know if I was interested, I jumped on the opportunity. I flew to San Francisco where I met everyone else in my group and spent a few days of orientation, then we all flew together to Mongolia. In Mongolia, our group stayed together for about five days, then we were all separated and spread throughout the county to live with our new host families for a little more than three months while we studied the language, culture, and our new roles. As much as we have all read about culture shock, it’s hard to understand until you actually experience it. There was no forgetting that I was on the exact opposite side of the world, alone, and with very limited language skills.
Some people didn’t make it through training before quitting. The reasons were varied. One girl hadn’t disclosed that she had some kind of “condition” that wasn’t suited to the clime of Mongolia. A married couple quit because the husband couldn’t get over being sent to Mongolia instead of somewhere that speaks Russian, which he had previously studied. He was struggling with the language and, because married couples are separated during training, he couldn’t handle it on his own. A few people were away from home for the very first time and couldn’t cope, so they returned to more familiar territory. After training and being sworn is as official Peace Corps Volunteers, there were others who left before their two-year contract expired.
For those of us who stuck it out, we celebrated together for a few days and then received our work assignments. About half of our group were assigned as English teachers while the other half was split into Business Development, Health Services, and Community and Youth Development, all depending on our particular backgrounds. Due to my education and experience with youth, I was assigned to the Community and Youth Development sector and went to work in the smallest, furthest, poorest district of the capital city in the Social Policy Department of the Governor’s Office. I was to teach Life Skills to local youth and train social workers and peer educators how to give those lessons after I was gone. Life skills are things like Money Management, Relationship Management, Nutrition, Alcohol and Drug Awareness, and all those other things that youth really need to get under their belt before they become adults.
There are three kinds of housing in Mongolia. The most traditional is called a “ger” and looks almost exactly like the Native American’s wigwam. Basically, it’s a round tent designed especially for the nomadic herders living on the steppes of Mongolia, ranging in size to accommodate one person or 10. Another style is a small, wooden house. Other than shape and building materials, both the wooden house and the ger are similar in that there is no indoor plumbing, little electricity, and heating and cooking all comes from a stove that can use dung, wood, or coal. You must go outside, even during -50 degree weather, to use the restroom and find water, be it from a well or a river.
The third type of housing, an old Soviet block apartment, is what I lived it. I had electricity that might go out at anytime; water that could come or go, and was only ever cold; and old radiator style heaters that never got above 58 degrees, controlled by the “steam factory” in the centre of town. I had a small, two-eye stove to cook on. In the winter, I used two -25 degree sleeping bags to keep warm at night and wore four layers of clothes whenever I went outside. Mongolia has an almost eight-month winter, so it seemed like I was always cold. I’ve actually known it to snow in July. I’ll never forget walking home one day and finding, upon my arrival, that there was ice on my eyebrows and eyelashes, and that ice had fused the scarf over my face with my facial hair. It took quite some time to convince myself that I wasn’t frostbitten.
Sometime after being there around a year, the Mongolians started getting a little more used to the “foreigner” that lived with them and I was invited to do all kinds of things with friends that I had made during that time. For a small little village that was eight blocks wide and three blocks long, with a population of about 1,200, there always seemed to be something going on. Kids, as they are wont to do anywhere, could be seen everywhere, at all times, playing with anything. I saw familiar games of hopscotch and unfamiliar games involving a long piece of string and girls jumping in, on, and over it. The seniors often had meetings where they all wore their traditional clothes and as many medals as they could find. Many women had medals that were in recognition of large families. Mongolia’s total population is right at 3,000,000, making it the least densely populated country in the world, so the more children a woman has, the better it is, and the more medals and money she receives from the government.
The local community centre often had dances that I was always invited to. They always started out with everyone sitting around the walls, staring at each other, until one brave soul would ask a woman to dance. Sometimes, that one brave soul was another woman. They wanted to dance, and it didn’t matter if a man had the courage to ask them. Mongolians typically have two ways of dancing. First is the classic Mongolian Waltz. I don’t know about waltzes, but I’m told that the Mongolian is different from it’s Western counterparts, especially considering that it can even be done to 50 Cent’s “In da Club.” That’s something you’d have to see to believe. I never learned how to waltz. The other way to dance in Mongolia is to get in a big circle with all your friends and take turns dancing in the middle. That’s when people, mostly guys, take the chance to show off some of their silliness. As long as your were in the middle, you could do what you wanted and receive only applause for it. I did as little of that kind of dancing as I could get away with.
Early in my time in Mongolia, the Peace Corps Country Director told us that because it is such a difficult country for foreigners to work in, if we were to do nothing more than to make a positive cultural impact on our host communities, we would be considered a success. I soon found out for myself just how difficult it was. I think the biggest problem is the language barrier. Imagine everything that you know right now, and then try to get that information across to someone in a language that you have only been speaking for a very short time, with no translator. It’s a struggle, and I’ve known people with graduate degrees not be able to convince a Mongolian that they really did know what they were talking about. It’s frustrating and can lead to other difficulties if you don’t channel that energy somewhere. I know some who quit because of it. I chose to occupy my mind with learning as much of the culture and language as I could.
Since there were no tutors where I lived, I made the hour long trip to the city by way of a micro-bus. It’s about the size of a VW van and is made to hold no more than 15 people, though I’ve actually never seen that small number in a micro-bus. There were always at least 20, and sometimes up to 30, with people and things crammed everywhere and on top of everyone. It’s miserable, and the extremes of summer and winter only make it worse. It’s one of those experiences that you can only get in a developing country; and one that I actually miss sometimes. The drivers all drive like they learned how to on a Nascar track and only the stern talking-to of an old grandmother would make him slow down for more than a minute or two. I know of one micro-bus that wrecked and killed everyone in it. That year, my district chose to not have celebrations for the national holidays that were around that time.
The Mongolian language is a harsh, guttural, agglutinative one, written in Cyrillic and with a few more letters than the Russian version. The “agglutinative” part means that you just keep “gluing” suffixes onto a root word to change the meaning. One word in Mongolian usually translates to several in English. After you start to get the hang of that, it’s a struggle with the general grammar of the language. The sentence “I will to go to the store,” in English translates directly from Mongolian as “I store to go will.” My thinking always gets so twisted around that my English often comes out as if I were speaking with Mongolian grammar. (I think that’s called code-switching.) I am proud to say, though, after two years of studying, I tested at the Advanced level, which would go on to help me meet my wife.
I had been in Mongolia for about a year and a half when I met my wife. That was enough time and then some for me to learn that Mongolians don’t think of dating the same way as Americans, and, in fact, don’t really have a word for what we think of as “dating.” Mongolians enter into romantic relationships hard and fast. Even though there might be nothing formal, Mongolians could move in together within a few weeks and start calling each other husband and wife; and it would be recognised as such by the government, too. My wife started out fast, but I was expecting that and slowed her down to something more comfortable for me. I was lucky that her parents were okay with her marrying a foreigner and gave me a few passes on some of the more traditional aspects of asking for her hand.
It’s often said that Mongolians are where Americans were during the 1950’s, and this is definitely so when it comes to “meeting the parents.” When I first met my wife’s parents, it was a big deal. Before I arrived, I stopped and bought gifts of candy and milk and presented them with the proper ritual at the door. They had a big meal waiting for me and were more than happy that I ate all I wanted and wasn’t shy about asking for more. Some months later, I had to formally ask my wife’s family if they would give their permission for us to marry. I bought expensive gifts for her dad, mom, sister, and brother and had to observe the appropriate rituals when presenting them after making a speech about how I would always care for and protect my wife-to-be. Because I was a foreigner, they agreed after only one round of gift-giving. Mongolians usually have to go through this three times in as many days, with the gifts being bigger and better each time. After they accepted my gifts and agreed to our marriage, my wife-to-be, in their eyes, belonged to me and I could do with her as I pleased. I still like to joke about that today.
Even though my wife’s parents were okay with her marrying a foreigner, many other Mongolians weren’t quite so happy about their bloodlines being polluted, and several weren’t so subtle in letting us know. My wife was called a prostitute and cussed, while I was spit on and almost got into fights whenever we went out in public. It seems that no matter how far around the world you go, you will always find someone who doesn’t like you because of the colour of your skin. Being a Caucasian male from America, this was a really big change. I was used to being in the majority, and in Mongolia, there is no way to hide that I was, most definitely, a part of the minority. Eventually, we walked a little apart when we were out in public so as to draw as little attention as possible.
Eventually, my time to Mongolia came to an end and I found a job and moved back to America. If you have ever heard of reverse culture shock, you might have also heard that it is just as real as regular culture shock. There is no doubt that it was for me. It took me a long time to get used to no one understanding me when I spoke to them in Mongolian. I’m still amazed when I go to almost any kind of business and the employees actually give me some attention and offer help. I still struggle with being direct and a bit gruff when someone does something they shouldn’t. But, after having been back almost three years now, I’ve become used to most things. I have, though, consciously become a minimalist in most aspects of my life. I think that has helped keep me grounded and serves as a small reminder of how much I have here, compared to how little I had in Mongolia.
My current plans involve keeping my Mongolian language alive as much as possible and save up enough money to return to Mongolia with my family within five or so years. It’s a simpler way of life that I often find myself longing for. I also want to study at the graduate level while there. I keep in touch with my family there and have helped them start their own business. I hope to return one day and help them expand it and maybe open a business of my own. Until then, I can be found reading as much as possible and dabbling in a bit of writing.
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Dr. Mitch Berbrier
Department of Sociology
The University of Alabama in Huntsville
344G Morton Hall
Huntsville, AL 35899