I asked every Peace Corps volunteer (“PCV”) I met in Mongolia whether they had chosen Mongolia: if the country had been their first choice.
Universally, the volunteers conceded that they had dreamed of being assigned to towns in sunny South America or developed Eastern Europe. No one chose Mongolia, and yet with breathtaking tenacity, the volunteers have made the most of a difficult posting and achieved a level of integration I could never have imagined in this country.
The Peace Corps is a U.S. government-initiated international development program. Started by President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, the Peace Corps is a volunteer organization where the participants live for two years in a developing country. Volunteers of all ages live without a significant support structure, survive on local salaries, work in local schools and hospitals and learn local languages. (Presidential candidate Richard Nixon opposed the creation of the Peace Corps fearing it would become “a haven for draft dodgers.”)
Kennedy thought that small-scale development initiatives could help repair the United States’ image abroad. He imagined an energetic group of philanthropic Americans as a powerful Cold War “soft power” tool to combat the burgeoning feelings of anti-American sentiment created from the conflict in Vietnam.
During my travels, I’ve never seen foreigners so deeply connected with their communities than the Peace Corps volunteers in Mongolia. While the Peace Corps is often criticized for its effect on local populations and its development practices, everything that I’ve seen of the Peace Corps leads me to believe in the program and its ability to change the lives of volunteers and the communities they work within.Andrew Wilson, a Southern California native, lives in a felt tent (“ger”) by himself in Northwest Mongolia. Andrew is an easy-going health volunteer with a fair complexion and a goofy smile. His laid back attitude fits in well with the communal nature of Mongolian ger life. When troupes of children trail mud through his house, examining his electronics and devouring his American food (shipped with great expense from the U.S.), he simply grins. One child even spilled a full can of Coca-Cola on his laptop, ruining the device, and still Andrew managed to remain positive, lifting his palms skyward and shrugging as if to say, “I’m a volunteer living in a felt tent, accidents come with the territory.” Andrew now uses the Internet at the hospital where he works.The Peace Corps has a massive footprint in Mongolia. Around 160 volunteers, plus support staff, medical officers and trainers make the organization one of the largest contingents of Americans in Mongolia. In many small towns, PCVs are the only foreigners Mongolians have ever met. From what I have seen, the volunteers make an overwhelmingly positive impression. The best foreign Mongolian language speakers that I have encountered have all been members of the Peace Corps. While other development agencies send their employees to Mongolia for short stints in expensive hotels, Peace Corps volunteers are embedded deep in the fabric of Mongolian society. This immersion goes a long way toward gaining the trust and respect of the Mongolian people.
The Peace Corps Volunteers have their own lexicon: a vocabulary consisting of cryptic acronyms, portmanteaus and slang. PCV, ET, PCMO, IST, COS, CD are just a smattering of the bewildering acronyms thrown around with abandon during meetings. The organization exhibits a proud, fraternal feeling, and I suspect that creating a specific vocabulary gives the volunteers a sense of belonging while living in a society in which they are largely outsiders.
The Peace Corps has entered into a different era than when it was formed in the 1960s. Technology has changed the cloistered isolation of the experience and connected volunteers with the outside world. The first Peace Corps volunteers were completely cut off from their friends and family in America; most early volunteers were agricultural workers stationed in West African villages bereft of electricity.
On the other hand, modern volunteers have taken advantage of the Internet and cellphone revolutions that have swept through even the most remote communities. One morning, Andrew, completely covered in coal smoke and cursing about a clogged stove pipe, asked if I thought it was ridiculous that he was able call his mom in America with his Mongolian cellphone, but still had to build a coal fire so that his tent wouldn’t freeze solid. I coughed from the billowing coal smoke and told him “yes,” it did seem strange. It reminded me that the lives of Peace Corps volunteers are filled with all sorts of little anachronisms.
Andrew’s Peace Corps service ends in June. After two years of living in a tent and building more than 1,000 coal fires, Andrew is constantly thinking about the Mexican food waiting for him on his return to Southern California. With a manic look in his eye, he repeatedly described a particular chimichanga dish smothered in green chili, enchilada sauce and sour cream. He sheepishly told me that he practically dreams about the fried-burrito dish and can’t wait to eat the real thing. I think he deserves it.
In the last two years, Andrew has been exposed to more foreign culture than 99 percent of Americans will experience in their entire lives. Despite the occasional moments of frustration, he has grown from his volunteer service. The Peace Corps is almost certainly not for everyone and its development techniques might need improvement, but from what I’ve seen, the program empowers those volunteers who embrace their role as cultural ambassadors and improves America’s image abroad.
Peace Corps volunteers seems to have wholeheartedly fulfilled President Kennedy’s dream of service as articulated in his 1961 inaugural address when he famously directed Americans to: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”