By Eric Banford
ITHACA – Having spent the past two years in Mongolia doing “the hardest job I ever loved,” Victoria Jordan is back in Ithaca happy to share her experiences with others.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, Jordan went to Mongolia in May 2014. After two months of training, she began working with her students in Darkhan, the second largest city in Mongolia.
“I had an apartment that had Russian architecture and was very nice,” she said. “Throughout Peace Corps a lot of people today go to cities where there’s running water, hot water even, and it’s not all huts and thatched roofs like people think.”
The Peace Corps is a volunteer program run by the U.S. government whose mission includes providing technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries.
“Before going to Mongolia, I might not have thought to make you a plate of cheese, apples, and peanut butter, but there it is very much a custom where if you go to anyone’s house you are always offered some food,” Jordan said while bringing out snacks to share with this writer. “One time I went to my supervisor’s, and she knew I was a vegetarian, so she opened a can of creamed corn, and it was yummy.”
There was more to her Peace Corps motivation than simply volunteering abroad.
“I actually had a hidden agenda in going in that I wanted to see if I wanted to go back to teaching,” said Jordan. “I really loved teaching, it’s as fun as it ever was. The one-on-one, the one-on-30, whatever.”
After finding work locally and building her savings back up, she hopes to get right back into teaching abroad.
Despite the ease of teaching students, Jordan found it much more difficult to teach teachers.
“They had been teaching a long time, so the only way I could do it was to also think of them as English learners,” she said. “So I did classes with them that had a focus, like preparation for an exam. If I used good teaching techniques, then they learned the material, but they were also learning about different ways of teaching.”
The Mongolian teaching model is still heavily influenced by Russia, according to Jordan.
“Here’s the teacher who knows everything, and here’s the students who knows nothing,” she said. “It’s a model that Peace Corps really tries to take apart and to emphasize a much more student-centered learning experience, which I really like.”
Cultural differences presented an interesting dilemma for Jordan as she interacted with community members throughout her stay.
“As an example, this was one of the strangest things to ever happen to me. I was up at 6:30 a.m. and there was a young woman who has blindfolded herself and she’s outside kind of moaning and groaning and walking around with her hands extended. And I have no context for this,” she said, laughing. “And I couldn’t do anything! You don’t always know what is cultural and what is an aberration.”
Another cultural difference that Jordan struggled with was Mongolian’s sense to time and commitment.
“We could arrange to have a meeting, and it could be really important, and many times it could be canceled by something like a volleyball game,” she said. “It would really frustrate me, and I’d go home and slam my door! But then I realized that those were the times when the cultures were clashing. And that’s all it was.
“When you think about nomadic tradition, you do what’s right at that moment. And because of that I think they are a lot less stressed than Americans,” Jordan added. “So my big take away was trying to remember that when I am upset, it often relates to the different, subtle norms that we grew up with. There’s a culture there in that individual, and there’s a culture here (she placed a hand on her heart). The more we can remember that, the better our chances are of not having a conflict.”
Jordan’s adult daughter, Audrey Gray, has also spent time teaching English abroad, first in Moscow and now in Vietnam.
“I was able to watch her teach and I’m very impressed. She came to visit me in Mongolia, which was wonderful after not seeing her for a whole year,” said Jordan, who hopes to visit her daughter in Vietnam and to find a teaching job there as well.
“People often say ‘That’s such a great thing that you did,’ but they forget that there are also selfish reasons for volunteering,” said Jordan. “It’s such a great opportunity. You get to choose the countries that you want to apply to, and if you don’t get it you can try for another.
“You get paid the same wages as a local person would make, so you’re not going to save much,” she added. “But they are really pushing diversity now, so anyone is welcome, and I’d encourage people to take the plunge.”