My 5 Steps to Integrating

In the Peace Corps, we are always told, “it depends”. This motto applies to almost every aspect of our Peace Corps lives. Yet it seems to apply especially well to each PCV’s individual site. Integrating into your site depends, obviously on the volunteer, as well as the school, the location (size/population and region), teachers, community counterparts, neighbors, type of housing, personal mentality, first impressions, etc. Sometimes I wonder how I would have fared at other sites, but I got lucky; my school and aimag center are amazing.

One of the prime differences between sites is isolation/population, i.e. are you living in a soum in the middle of nowhere or in an aimag center potentially with people your age who do not work at your school? Living in an aimag center where most volunteers have apartments, it can be easy to isolate yourself. Were I to do this, my daily schedule would only involve leaving my apartment to teach classes. Luckily, I follow a set of guidelines I created to help myself become more integrated, and they seem to be working, if I do say so myself. Without further ado, here are my 5 steps to integrating.

*all steps should be stepping slightly outside of your comfort zone without feeling unsafe*

  1. Always say yes to invitations

Cooking with the elementary school’s training manger and her children

Frequently, people you may only sort of know from your school invite you to their home to meet their family. Just because they’re not one of the English teachers, so you’ll have to speak Mongolian, and because you aren’t close with them, doesn’t mean you should discount them. I had teachers and training managers at my school whom I hardly knew, as in didn’t know their names and hadn’t ever spoken to them, invite me to their homes. Even though I felt slightly awkward going over alone, these experiences led to many new opportunities. Now, I am close friends with some of them, receive more invites to various school social activities, and have had the opportunity to experience Mongolia more fully by going to the countryside and cooking with one of them. Although the first time was awkward and outside of my comfort zone, I now feel perfectly at ease and happy around my new friends.

  1. Leave your house once a day

Waltz competition I happened upon at the wrestling palace

It’s easy to become accustomed to being cooped up in your apartment all day, with your unlimited Wi-Fi, running water, refrigerator, and most importantly: Netflix. Yet, just as the hardest part of exercising at the gym is actually arriving at the gym, the hardest part of leaving your home is gathering the stamina to put on a coat and brave the weather. Besides getting hopefully fresh air (unless the air pollution is pungent at the exact time and day you leave), you also may see people on the streets you know, meet new people at the market, see cute dogs, and just experience the town. Some days the outing will be bland, but other times you’ll come back with wild stories of dust storms or blizzards almost carrying you away. Maybe you’ll even see an event happening at the square or the wrestling palace and go watch!

  1. Don’t be afraid to socialize with men

Some of my volleyball friends

As a woman in Mongolia, I was warned many times about drunk men following foreign women, cat-calling, potential sexual harassment or assault, games being played that require kissing or hint at sexual encounters, and a general warning that the atmosphere between foreign women and Mongolian men being friends is difficult. Other female volunteers I know said they fully heeded these warnings, and as a result, are not close with any of the male teachers at their school. However, I was of the opinion that men would be more likely to sexualize and inappropriately tease me if they didn’t respect me; since respect comes from knowing someone, I thought I should get to know the men at my school. I got lucky because I enjoy volleyball, and most of the male teachers at my school play in our weekly school games. This lead to me becoming good friends with many of the male workers and teachers with whom I don’t co-teach. Although I am friends with the English teachers, these friendships occasionally feel slightly more like a mentorship where they take care of me and are sort of required to be my friend as they are one of the few teachers who speak English fluently at my school. However, the male teachers I have befriended mostly speak Mongolian with me and are my friends not out of force, but because they truly want to be. The men at my school have become some of my closest Mongolian friends. I feel way more comfortable with the men at my school than I was initially led to believe I ever would.

  1. Let the day lead you

We were supposed to go ice skating with my friend. Instead we watched him exercise his horses #mongoliahappened

Sometimes you have a plan for the day, and sometimes, these plans are thwarted by what we Mongolian PCVs like to call “Mongolia happening” (eg: “I was going to come home to exercise, but then Mongolia happened, and I went to a ger in the countryside with one of my teachers for the entire day” #mongoliahappened). Let’s be real though, as PCVs, we don’t have that much work that can’t be put off for a day; our schedules are pretty free. You just need to suck it up and look at the experience in a positive light. For example, I was walking home after a long day and ran into one of my friends who is a worker at my school. I asked where he was going, and not surprisingly, I only half understood the answer. I decided to go with him because otherwise I would spend the entire evening at home. We ended up going to the ger where many of my school’s workers live. When I entered the ger, it was clear there were no teachers invited, but all the workers inside started saying my name in awe with bright eyes that followed me. I didn’t stay for too long and didn’t talk for about half the time I was there, but this was the most interaction I’d had with the workers at my school, and I felt like I got to know them a lot better. You never know what fun experience will arise from a random encounter.

  1. Hang out with your teachers outside of classes

My counterpart/friend’s husband and youngest child

When you live in an apartment alone in a foreign country, it can be easy to separate your work life from your home/fun life. As a result, your counterparts get grouped into “work life” and consequentially, are not part of the group with whom you hang out. However, getting to know your counterparts outside of class can foster relationships that lead to better cooperation: more dialogue, sharing of ideas, and a better understanding of your colleague. The teachers at the school are people too, with families and lives that they enjoy sharing with the foreigner. Plus, your language skills will improve as you’ll practice and learn new vocab. Believe me, you’ll feel more comfortable stepping into your teachers’ room at school when you’re entering a room full of friends.


These are some steps that have worked for me to feel more at ease in my new environment and have created many friendships. By following my self-imposed rules, I have felt how my integration into my life here has improved throughout my 8 months at site. I can’t wait for what the future will bring!

My First Tsagaan Sar

Цагаан Cар (pronounced Tsagaan Sar), which translates to White Moon, is the three-day Mongolian celebration honoring the lunar new year. This year for Tsagaan Sar, two of my friends and I went back to visit our respective host families in Selenge, where we lived for two and a half months this summer. Arriving in Selenge required two approximately 7-hour bus rides: one from Arvaikheer to Ulaanbaatar, and the next from Ulaanbaatar to Selenge. Including travel days, we were away from site for 5 days, which meant we got to spend three whole days with our families. Unfortunately, we were only in Selenge for the first two days of Tsagaan Sar and were travelling back on the last day. The three days of Tsagaan Sar typically involve visiting families. On the first day, family elders are visited; on the second day, nuclear and extended family members are visited; finally, on the third day, friends are visited. People both visit other homes and host visitors, so Tsagaan Sar scheduling can be a bit difficult.

It was wonderful seeing my host parents and host brothers again! My first full day in Selenge, I helped my family prepare for Tsagaan Sar, which mostly entailed cooking: meat, potato salad, and egg salad. Buuz is the main feast during the holiday, so luckily my family had already made and frozen their 1,500 buuz. The table was also decorated with a sheep’s bum of which people cut and eat slices throughout the day and a pastry/candy tower. The morning of the first day of Tsagaan Sar, the men climb a mountain to watch the sunrise, while the women prepare the house for visitors. Once the sun has risen, the women are greeted by the men. After this ritual, my host father had to work, so I went with another PCV to visit families we knew in our soum. At each house we visited, we were offered buuz (Mongolian dumplings) and vodka; this meant we were a bit tipsy, to say the least, and very full. Luckily, the second day, my host father was free, so we went out to the countryside to see my host mother’s sister and her family. We spent the entire day in the countryside with cows, goats, sheep, horses, and hunting dogs. This was the longest I’d spent in the countryside, and it was an entirely new and extremely appreciated experience. The next morning, with a sad farewell, we left to return to Arvaikheer.

Upon arriving in Arvaikheer, we did not go back to school because……. we had a week-long Tsagaan Sar break (gotta love Mongolia and all its school breaks)!! Little did I know that my Tsagaan Sar visits were far from over. For the next two weeks, I visited various teachers’ and community members’ homes. Since presents are given to visitors by the host, I finished the holiday with many wonderful trinkets.

When school started again, I was hoping to get back into the swing of classes. Yet this was not to be. In my first two days back, I only attended one class, which turned out to be a shagai competition (Mongolian traditional ankle bones game). Not only did I attend, I also participated in the competition. We played various versions: one was like jacks, a “horse race”, and a shagai flicking game. However, this was a competition in one class.

The next day, I was called to the gym frantically. It turned out, that there was an entire school competition in three categories: deel fashion, shagai tournament, and wrestling. Students were in and out of the gym the entire day, so I’m still unclear whether any classes were taught and if they were even attended. What was clear however, was the excitement of all the students, especially during the wrestling competition. In Mongolian wrestling, the goal is to take your opponent to the ground. The students were split from 6th-8th grade and then 9th-12th grade. This meant that boys of various ages, heights, and weights were pitted against one another, making for quite the interesting matches.

What I enjoyed most of all, was seeing families and communities come together in their pride for their culture and the holiday. I am excited to celebrate Tsagaan Sar in Arvaikheer next year!


My Exploration into Gender

In the US, gender stereotypes are slowly being broken down. Yet in Mongolia, some students have yet to learn the difference between “sex” and “gender”. “Sex” is the term used to define the sexual reproductive organs with which a person is born, while “gender” refers to either society’s view of the biological sex’s role or a person’s own perceived view of his/her sexuality. A couple weeks ago, I taught a class with my counterparts that had the students identify gender stereotypes present in Mongolia and ultimately tried to instill in them that these stereotypes are restrictive and do not mean that people who do not adhere to gender roles are any less of a person.

The class turned out to be more complicated than expected as some of my counterparts (CPs), after the first day of the lesson, told me that they think stereotypes are good because they show people how to act. In what ultimately became an educational discussion, various teachers and I discussed why gender stereotypes and stereotypes in general are restrictive. When discussing how many men in the US can cook and that some men are stay-at-home dads while the moms work, my CPs seemed skeptical that this would be possible in Mongolia. I informed them that I know of at least three couples where the husband cooks more frequently than the wife. In response to this, one of my CPs exclaimed, “wow, what a lucky woman”! I learned that although women may want changes, these changes are only present in Ulaanbaatar and, according to Mongolian woman, are largely nonexistent outside of the capital.


After this discussion, the classes were more on track with the goal of the lesson. I learned an outdated Mongolian idiom: “үсний урт оюун ухаан богино” meaning “women have long hair, but their intelligence is shorter than their hair”. This was a phrase that came up during each class as an example of gender stereotypes that Mongolian students would understand. Afterwards, each class was split into four groups: two male groups and two female groups. One group from each sex was assigned to discuss stereotypes or words regarding “act like a man”, while the remaining two groups discussed “act like a lady”. There were some phrases that came up frequently, such as: men have a higher position in society than women, women are the light of the family, women have long hair, men have short hair, women are more emotional, men are the support of the family, women can have a baby, men cannot have a baby, etc. It was interesting seeing how students’ responses got longer, more detailed, and generally more insightful each consecutive grade up. My favorite comments came from one of the 7th grade girl groups writing about men; they were quite the sassy bunch:

  • Men are in two groups: ones who understand women well and ones who don’t
  • When boys make mistakes 1000 times, girls continually say sorry
  • When girls make one mistake, boys start World War 3

Overall, it seemed that the girls writing about men had respectful and mostly positive views, yet some boys writing about women had negative and almost contradictory views, saying that “women take problems more seriously than men, but their quality of work is lower” or that “women respect men” (but do men respect women?). Although most groups wrote that men rank higher in society than women do and have higher-up positions, one group of proud girls in 9th grade wrote that “women have a higher position than men in society. If a man can do it, so can a woman, so women should have higher positions in society”. In 9th grade, more comparisons were made: women are the engine of the car, men are the wheels. Check out all the students’ comments below!


At the end of the lesson, students were asked: “if a man is cleaning the house, does this make him less of a man?” (although the Mongolian translation came out to mean “if a man is cleaning the house, is this necessary work?”… apparently the phrase “less of a …” does not translate or have an equivalent in Mongolian). Out of all the classes in grades ranging from 6th to 9th grade, only one student responded with “necessary”. Surprisingly, the student was male. All the female students vehemently stated that it is not necessary for a man to clean the house. Now, I have a few hypotheses as to why the girls, for whom house work is an extra chore, said “not necessary” while the boy said “yes”. Adult women receive the brunt of the house work; this means that the girls, who complete household chores, are not yet overwhelmed. Perhaps this leads them to feel that completing the house chores is a sense of pride and the necessity of men cleaning the home would undermine the quality work they do. In addition, the sole boy who answered “necessary” was raised by a single mother after his father passed away, giving him a slightly different point of view on gender stereotypes in Mongolia.


By the end of the lesson, I could never be sure whether I had ultimately reinforced gender stereotypes or demonstrated that adhering to stereotypes can be detrimental. As a result, I always made sure to end the lesson by asking my Mongolian counterpart to say “all human beings, boy or girl, experience a range of emotions and desires not limited to their gender.  We learn stereotypical behaviors through how society thinks men and women should behave. Mongolians are diverse in many ways, and diversity is growing every day, creating the need for tolerance and empathy.” Hopefully, my students have at least been introduced to the ways in which gender stereotypes limit their potential.

Throughout my time in the Peace Corps, I have learned that the changes that arise are not monumental, but rather small changes in how people think that will eventually be passed down through generations. I’m hopeful that my students learned that they must not be confined to the limits of their gender.