The Brown American Who Lived in a Ger
I was at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, drinking Shirley Temples and talking to my Aunt Yolanda about joining the Peace Corps. My recruiter, Charissa, and I, had talked about Mongolia, where I would be the first African-American PCV. Usually, when I mentioned to someone that I was thinking of going to Mongolia, their response was somewhere along the lines of, ‘Mongolia! Is that an island?’ But my Aunt Yolanda, who knows everything and everybody, said, ‘You know, my neighbor Tuya is Mongolian. It’s a beautiful country.’
The next weekend, I was sitting in Tuya’s living room, drinking suutei tsai, a Mongolia tea made with milk and flavored with salt. Tuya showed me a miniature of a ger, a traditional Mongolian house made of felt and wood. As I held the little ger in my hand, I bombarded Tuya with questions. ‘What kind of foods do Mongolians eat? How can a couple of layers of felt keep a ger warm in the winter? How do you make suutei tsai? And how will the Mongolians respond to me, with my dreadlocks and brown skin?’ I remember Tuya touching my hand and saying, ‘My people will take to you like bees to honey.’
Today, I am warm and toasty in my ger, thinking about what it is like living in Mongolia when Bolormaa and Gereltuya come by. While drinking fruit tea (I haven’t gotten the hang of making suutei tsai yet) with my new friends, I am thinking of bees and honey.
Some days, I have visitors in my ger all day long. People stop by to sing the ABC song, to invite me to dinner, to bring me cheese and aaruul from the countryside, to try and twist their hair into dreadlocks, to get help with their homework, to paint my portrait, to ask if I’m warm enough, or to listen to Stevie Wonder songs. As far as how the Mongolians would respond to an African-American, I think that what’s most important to the Mongolians is not that I’m African-American, but that I’m here. They are grateful that I’m devoted to helping their community develop and to teaching English, no matter what color my skin is. In fact, to the Mongolians, I’m not even African-American. I’m not even black. I’m just gert amdardag bor Amerik hun – the brown American who lives in a ger.
Mongolians have no problem understanding that America is a diverse country full of people from many different backgrounds and cultures. But now they are experiencing it first-hand. It is a special privilege for me to integrate my culture’s rich history into the teaching of English, whether it’s using Nikki Giovanni poems as listening exercises or parts of Martin Luther King’s speeches as a reading assignment. Or hearing my English club sing ‘ABC’ by the Jackson Five.
I’m having such positive and awe-inspiring experiences here that I’ve often wondered why I’m the first African-American volunteer in Mongolia. It is such a beautiful country, and Mongolians are some of the most welcoming people in the world. Ever since before the days of Olaudah Equiano and Matthew Henson, African-Americans have traveled the globe far and wide. Why not a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia? So, while I am definitely proud to be the first, I hope that I will only be the first of many, many more to come.
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