Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Serving in Mongolia as a (Married) Couple

Quick Tips
1.       Share the adventure of a lifetime with someone you love
2.       PC challenges are often easier with two people
3.       Never feel lonely or isolated
4.       Time together away from demands of American life
5.       Long winter of living in close quarters together
1.       Isolation from Mongolians because you are a family
2.       Language can be more challenging to learn
3.       Couples are separated during PST
4.       Long winter of living in close quarters together

I think we've gotten accustomed to not smiling at the camera like Mongolians.

I was recently perusing a number of PCV married couple blogs and realized that almost all of them had a post dedicated to serving as a married couple. So while that has been the unofficial theme of our entire blog, this post is meant to be helpful for prospective volunteers and to provide a look into the challenges and benefits married couples face in Mongolia.

Sally and I went to a PC informational event in our freshmen year of college. We listened to a return PCV’s experience and adventures in the country of Georgia and were completely captivated about doing PC together. At the time the policy in place was that couples could serve if they had been married for one year prior to departure.

Sally and I set out to make our dream a reality. We finished college, took a few years to work in Birmingham, got married, and eventually after years of working toward a goal, departed for Mongolia in 2015. Since our departure to Mongolia, PC has changed its policy toward couples. Now any couple is allowed to apply to participate in PC; it doesn’t matter how long they have been together, their sexuality, or if they are married or not. This change of policy is an attempt by PC to be more open minded; however non-traditional couples are still limited as to which countries they can apply for because many developing nations, including Mongolia, have not yet accepted modern interpretations on relationships.

For Sally and I, PC service is the accumulation of mutual dreams and hard work.  We love the opportunity to share this journey and adventure with each other. In many ways our service has been easier than other volunteers because of this. We do not deal with isolation and loneliness because we have each other. Sally and I have also been together for a long time. Our past experience and the reliable fixture we have become in each other’s lives makes smaller challenges of service easy for us. 
Our mutual desire to accomplish PC is a huge factor for us in combating the challenges and disappointments of PC.  Often couples in PC end up terminating their service because one person really wanted to do PC and the other was only partially invested. In these cases PC service can put enormous strain on a relationship.  If there is any advice I can offer to future couples, it is that it is vital to your relationship that the choice to do PC be a mutual desire and dream.  This is not to say that the reluctant partner will forever or always remain reluctant. Many couples that are riding on one person’s dream end up growing together and sharing the experience, but to embark on two years of isolation from your country and family is really something that both people should be invested in. To do it on one person’s dream means that the relationship must face an incredible challenge, one that could make the couple stronger or could lead to resentment and fracture.

Setting aside that spiel, Sally and I have found that there is a cultural difference in the way a PCV is treated by Mongolians when they are single verses when they are married. Mongolians are extremely family oriented. This meant that during the transition period of being new at sight at the beginning of our service, Sally and I were often left alone because Mongolians saw us as a family and figured we did not need anything else. This isolation was nice after the rigors of Pre-Service Training, but it also meant that it was hard for us to reach a point of integration into our sites.  A volunteer who arrives at a new sight by themselves in Mongolia is often overwhelmed by helpful neighbors and coworkers who are amazed that someone would be living alone and take pity on the lonely American. This of course varies from site to site, but there is a clear cultural difference between single volunteers and couples.

A second challenge to PC service in Mongolia is overcoming the language barrier. As a couple, this can be even more difficult because you are rarely completely isolated from other Americans. This of course varies from site to site, but there is usually a clear difference between a single volunteer who is isolated in a small village vs volunteers who are always around other Americans. Mongolian can be especially challenging as a language because it is so removed form English in sounds, words, and characters.

 PC Mongolia still separates couples into separate host families during Pre-Service Training. (Check out post from the summer of 2015) The reason they do this is because it is believed that this allows couples to integrate better and to learn the language better. The practice of separation during the first few months of service is common in a number of PC countries around the world. During PST in Mongolia, couples are allowed three weekend visits to spend time with each other. This means that a strategic couple never goes more than 3 or 4 weeks without seeing each other. Another factor that makes this separation easier is that all volunteers are issued cell phones with unlimited calling among similar carriers. So couples are still able to communicate via phone and text during PST.  Even with all of this PST was the single most difficult time of our service. The separation was mostly frustrating. 

For us, the benefits of doing PC together far outweigh the challenges.  This experience has been an incredible growing experience and it is wonderful to share it together.


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