Sunday, October 19, 2014

Returning - Mundane Weirdness

It’s been three months since I came back from Mongolia, and I’m adjusting fine - mostly. At least I no longer fall asleep at 9 AM, or random points throughout the day.

For the most part, living in vastly different places has convinced me that people are pretty much people everywhere. But some stuff is always different. I never had an experience that was dramatic enough that I would call it culture “shock” - a feeling that overpowers you rapidly when contemplating all the vast differences between countries simultaneously and makes your sweat gush and lungs gulp and heart explode. For me at least, the feeling upon going from place to place, especially moving back to an old place, is what I would call “mundane weirdness.”

When you go to a strange country, you will probably check every book about that country out of the library, practice greetings (with terrible pronunciation, because you’ve never heard the language spoken before), look on Youtube for their folk (or pop) songs, and become instant friends with everyone from that country and ask them a million questions. Soon you will know so much that you could probably write the Wikipedia article on that country, but you actually don’t know much at all. Despite your worthy preparation, when you arrive, all you can reasonably expect is that it won’t be like what you expect. That’s practically a law. You are like the blind man in the Mozi, who can say that black is the darkest color, but couldn’t recognize a giant black ball right in front of him.

Most people know that, but nevertheless forget that it works the other way too: when you go home, home is not what you think it is. PCVs should know better, since Peace Corps spends most of COS conference prophesying reverse culture shock, and exhorting them to be ready. Repent sinners, the end of service is near! In all likelihood, you will ignore them, because you’re thinking of a million and two other things, and you won’t read about the numbered stages of culture shock or make a list of your expectations and think critically about it. Even if you are expecting to feel weird though, you will be shocked to find that there is another shock you have not foreseen: you can’t be sure what will be weird, or when.

Instead of happening when you get off the plane and see McDonald’s, palm trees, bald eagles, Abraham Lincoln, and your mom, it happens when you realize that all the pens come in packs of five and the guy at the checkout counter won’t open a pack and sell you just one. You half expect him to, until you suddenly think, “Oh, that’s right.” Once I went to buy "a" blank CD, and ended up buying a ten-pack. Until I saw the ten-pack I had not once thought that it was absolutely certain that I would have to buy a prepackaged quantity. I seriously believed I was just going to walk in and walk out with a single blank CD. It was very mundane and very weird.

(Incidentally, six years ago when I went to Japan, I had an encounter with mundane weirdness when tried to replenish my three-ring binder. I found lined paper with two holes, and four holes, but not three holes, no matter where I looked. When I finally asked a Japanese salesman where the three-hole-punched paper was, he stared at me and told me such a thing doesn’t exist.)

It also happened when I stepped on my mom’s heel and stuck my hand out reflexively. I had to squint to make sure that she actually kept walking without turning around to shake my hand or even slowing down. (In Mongolia, if you step on someone accidentally, you should shake their hand.)

It’s like the confusion when your car keys are not on the table where you put them, until you remember where you actually put them. Furthermore, you know that you will misplace your keys or wallet or something sometime, but you never know when you will misplace it, so you can’t prepare for it, even though you know it will happen. The subtle, odd feeling, the persistent low-grade strangeness hides behind everyday things. You may “get used to the weirdness” and forget about it while it lurks, until it seeps out in some trivial occurrence. Mundane weirdness appears less and less often over time, but it’s probably just sleeping.

Apparently, I can’t post on time even when I do have internet access. Some things don't change.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Deel Day

Today I had the opportunity to take, not a shower, but a full immersive bath. I thought I saw bruises on my leg, which turned out to be just dirt coming off. When I was finally finished, the water was brownish grey and there was a ring around the tub.

Anyway, last week my school had National Costume Day. It's had an entire deel week before, but the past two years we only had one day. Everyone had to wear to wear a deel, and any other traditional hats, boots, and other things if they had them. Since I wear a deel almost every day anyway, this wasn't too different for me personally. However, in the afternoon we had a ceremony for all the teachers, staff, and students to parade around in their best Mongolian wear.

As a bonus, I present this diagram of a deel, courtesy of our school's технологийн багш.