I was messaging with a friend recently who was asking about my experience in Mongolia thus far. At one point he inquired if my program was at all rigorous or if it was proving to be all “yaks and yurts.” Not quite all yaks and yurts, I replied. Of course, he was talking about academics, but I found myself thinking how no part of my study abroad semester was all “yaks and yurts.”
Study abroad academics are often seen as a chance to take classes that are kind of silly, or different, or totally unique to the culture you’re living in. Like bag-piping, or South African botany, or Mongolian language. Most importantly, it’s a chance to take classes that you would never have a chance to take on your campus at home. With SIT Mongolia, I’m taking classes that cover topics like geopolitics and Mongolian pastoralism. And while those may sound like more serious topics, the structure of the classes are still quite informal, mainly due to the sheer number of guest lectures and field excursions we have. Still, the classes raise some very interesting questions that have global resonance but are still totally unique in the context of Mongolia
It is way too easy to romanticize living and traveling in a country like Mongolia. Regardless of what you imagine when you think of Mongolia, the majority of my time is actually not spent blazing across the steppe on camel-back, herding goats and sheep with my best nomad friends. In fact, as one of my classmates pointed out recently, the time spent doing really cool stuff can sometimes seem pretty disproportionate to the time spent, say, surfing the Internet or trying to do homework (I say try because Mongolian language is effing hard and that class is kicking all of our butts).
In fact, living in Mongolia is usually pretty unglamorous.
Take the city, for example. Living in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, is not exactly, shall we say, easy. It’s a city that’s congested and polluted and can simply seem overwhelming. And we spend a lot of time in the city.
Besides city life, there’s language. Having the vocabulary of a toddler gets old pretty darn fast. It makes connecting with anyone who doesn’t speak English difficult, to put it mildly. It also makes simple errands like grocery shopping or going to the bank a daily lesson in humility.
Finally, there’s the regular ups and downs of life that, when put in the context of a different culture and country, can make daily life just that much more difficult. Normal, petty upsets can sometimes seem exacerbated because of the foreignness of everything.
But all that’s okay. Believe it or not, it’s those unglamorous days, when you’re feeling grumpy and stretched to your breaking point, that force you to grow and adapt. At home, the familiar surroundings and routine allow most everything that happens to slide away like water off a duck’s back. In a strange city, in a ger on the steppe, in a new host family’s apartment, however, the small details that escape you at home become oh-so-obvious in your new environment. Hence the growing and learning.
It’s a beautiful thing. And it’s why I wanted a study abroad semester that would be a challenge. I didn’t want all yaks and yurts. Okay, in a literal sense, I totally did, but figuratively speaking, you know what I mean. I wanted to have days where I would sit there wondering what the *!$% I had gotten myself into. So I try to remember that during the days when I only want to curl up in my bed at home and eat pumpkin cheesecake.
At the same time, there has not been a single moment when I have regretted my study abroad choice – I’m so glad I picked the program and the location that I did, and I can’t wait for the remaining six weeks I have here. So if you haven’t yet gone abroad and/or are looking at where you might want to go, take time to really think about what you want from the experience (there are no wrong answers to that question) and consider the dividends that can be gained when it’s not all yaks and yurts.
– Heather Cook, DUSA Blogger
For further study abroad adventures, check out Heather’s personal study abroad blog, www.excessivefreedom.wordpress.com.