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What it's like living and working as a Native American in Mongolia

Anthony Trujillo Mongolia

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, Anthony Trujillo discusses how his experience living and working as a Native American in Mongolia helped to fortify his identity. 

Below, we ask Anthony some questions about his service:

Anthony served as a secondary English teacher in Mongolia and worked at the Peace Corps regional recruitment office in New York City. His story – titled “Trujillo: On Being a Cultural Ambassador with the Peace Corps” – was first featured in Indian Country Today.

I grew up in Ohkay Owingeh, one of the Eight Northern Pueblos of Northern New Mexico. As a child, the thought of living in another country was only slightly more plausible than moving to Mars, but looking back it’s clear that my journey into international service started there, in the heart of Indian Country, and was shaped significantly by my connection with traditional Tewa culture and language. 

When I finished college, I began contemplating how I might bring together my varied interests. The eureka moment came upon first seeing the Peace Corps website. I knew it was something unique. 

The Peace Corps emphasized the necessity of learning the local language and culture and affirmed this with more than two months of intensive language and cultural training while living with a host family. Finances were another important factor. Though the Peace Corps is a volunteer service organization, it provided everything necessary for living and working abroad: travel, training, housing, health care and a living stipend which, though not an American salary, was plenty to live on. It was also important to know that after finishing 27 months of service, Peace Corps would provide career transition resources, a wealth of graduate school opportunities and transition funds (currently over $10,000) to help with resettling in the U.S. 

The 27-month commitment was substantial, but this was an opportunity unlike any other to represent my country and my tribe, while working with people in another part of the world. A little less than a year later, I was in a plane bound for the land-locked country in Central Asia about to become my home: Mongolia. 

Flying in, all I could see were waves of rolling green hills and plains stretching into the distance: the Steppe. In stark contrast to the view of the countryside from the plane, Ulaanbaatar, the capital, was full of activity, people, traffic, technology, and buildings old and new. It was striking to see the overlap of different eras of history and culture as semi-nomadic herders in traditional clothing conversed with businessmen in freshly pressed suits. 

As I learned more about Mongolian cultural traditions from my host family and teachers, it was fascinating to explore connections with my own tribal culture. As with pueblo culture, the land and sky play central roles in the Mongolian worldview. The supreme deity in ancient Mongolian religion is the Eternal Blue Sky. I learned that it was also important to show due respect to significant hills, rivers and trees which all had spirits, demonstrated by walking around a rock cairn at the top of a hill and adding a stone or by tying a prayer flag to a special tree. I showed my Mongolian friends pictures of my uncles, pueblo jewelers, and their work with silver, turquoise, coral, and lapis; and we were surprised to see the same materials and many similar designs used in Mongolian jewelry. 

One of my favorite exchanges was sharing music and dance. I played examples of the extraordinary traditional vocal music from several American Indian tribes. In return, my Mongolian family and colleagues introduced me to the soul-piercing Mongolian Long Song and mesmerizing Khuumi (throat singing) that completely blew me away. During the summer festival of Naadam, before a wrestling match, Mongolian men perform an eagle dance, which any Tewa person would immediately recognize as a cousin to our own sacred dance. 

It was a paradox to be so far away from home distance-wise, but, in terms of culture, to feel like I was visiting a neighbor or relative. In my work over the next two years, my cultural heritage, education, talents, and values converged and intersected more than I ever could have imagined. 

My Peace Corps experience not only brought the idea of being a cultural ambassador full circle, but gave it a deeper meaning. There were certainly challenges and differences that had to be navigated, but the circles of who I considered to be part of my family, clan and tribe expanded exponentially. 

I also learned that service, at its best, whether in one’s own community or on the other side of the world, starts with the simple act of giving and receiving hospitality and taking the time to learn from and love the people and culture around us.

Where did you live and work during Peace Corps? 

For my service, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia from 2005 to 2007. Mongolia is sandwiched in between Russia and China. Its climate can be extreme, with temperatures in the summer reaching the mid-90s and in the winter, plunging to -30 or -40. Nevertheless, Mongolia is an incredibly beautiful country with grassy plains and hills that stretch out for hundreds of miles in every direction and a rich culture that is just as long and expansive going back to the time of Genghis Khan. 

What was your main project while serving in Mongolia? 

I was invited to be a Secondary English Teacher in a local public school teaching children in fourth to 11th grade. I viewed my assignment through a couple lenses. First of all, Peace Corps is about strengthening relationships between people and countries and being able to communicate is the first step in developing respectful relationships. It was important to me that my students saw that I valued their culture and language. Secondly, prior to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, I studied vocal performance in college and there was a deep connection between my musical background and my teaching. For one, I incorporated music into just about every lesson and, since Mongolians love to sing, this was by far the most successful teaching technique I used. Also, I saw my job as helping my students discover and strengthen their own unique personal, professional and academic voices. 

As you explain in Indian Country Today, you felt a near kinship with the people in your Mongolian village in the way that you bonded over your Native American heritage. As a result, what exactly did you discover about your own cultural identity?

My own cultural identity is multi-faceted, but being immersed in a completely different culture gave me two very different experiences. On the one hand, Mongolia is a completely different culture with its own unique culture and complex history that are vastly different than my own. At the same time, having grown up on a reservation in rural New Mexico, there were aspects of Mongolian culture that seemed very near to my own experience – the desire for self-determination, a pride in cultural heritage, some anxiety about what the future holds for the continuation of traditions and language. These are questions both Native communities and Mongolians wrestle with. A significant part of my motivation for joining Peace Corps was to help a community in another part of the world meet these challenges and, in doing so, to get another perspective on my own culture and community.

Through your Peace Corps service, did you educate people in your communities about diversity in America? 

My Peace Corps service in Mongolia definitely offered a new perspective on diversity in the United States for the students, teachers and community I worked with. The only images of Native Americans most Mongolians have are from old Western films. They’d really never met contemporary Native Americans. I used this as an opportunity to explain to my community that Native people and cultures are still alive and vibrant. By the end of my service, people were proud to introduce me to their friends and families as a Native American. 

Conversely, what did you learn about the perception of diversity and race overseas? What challenges or insights did you encounter when educating others? 

Through my service, I learned a lot about how people in other countries view diverse populations in the United States. Primarily, American culture is viewed through the lens of what’s portrayed in entertainment through TV, film, sports and music because this is what people have access to. On the one hand, our current entertainment culture does show that the United States is a diverse place. However, many of the stereotypes that come through are wildly out of sync with the realities of day-to-day life in the United States for many communities. As a teacher, I often used entertainment as a springboard for having conversations around diversity and inclusion in the United States, especially with the older students. We would then move to talking about minority groups within Mongolia, how they are treated, and tangible ways of showing dignity and respect to others. It was a great way of cultivating empathy and openness. 

How did your service as a Peace Corps Volunteer fuel your work as a Peace Corps recruiter? 

After returning from service, I was fortunate to work for Peace Corps in recruitment where my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer fuels my work on a daily basis. First of all, I think the amazing relationships I developed through my service and the students and teachers whose voices were strengthened and encouraged through our work together. Then I think about the thousands of Volunteers abroad right now who are developing stronger connections and coming alongside others to create more opportunity and growth for their countries – that’s an incredibly inspiring and hopeful thought! 

What would you tell other Native Americans who are looking to join Peace Corps about serving overseas? 

Being a Native American in Peace Corps is a highly rewarding experience. For me, it was an incredible privilege to represent my tribe to Mongolians as well as other Volunteers. Peace Corps has opened up a wealth of opportunity professionally and academically through benefits such as graduate school fellowship opportunities and non-competitive eligibility for government jobs. In my recruitment work, I want to make sure that Native Americans, and Americans of all backgrounds, have the opportunity to have a positive impact while representing their home communities abroad through Peace Corps service. The 27 months go by quickly, but the perspective and professional experience we gain through international service can change the way we grow as professionals, individuals and as members of our tribes for years to come.