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“The Quiet American”

November 1, 2010

I’ve successfully passed my second American holiday in Mongolia. Having spent a few holidays alone and in a new place (I’m thinking of my year in England here), I have always seen the act as a milestone—of progress, moving forward, sure—but also a marker for reflection and memory.

Halloween isn’t a terribly family oriented holiday to those of us in our 20s. I’ve spent the majority of my last half-dozen at a party or on the couch watching The Shining—something of a tradition for me. In Mongolia, I have neither available to me, and it’s got me looking back at a few of those earlier Halloween milestones—My college roommate as a pile of dirty laundry, my college roommate as Dennis Hopper from Easy Rider, some other friends as every phase of Britney Spears. This last one has got to be one of the most exceptional group costumes I’ve ever seen—we had Mouseketeer Britney, First Hit Single Britney, Boa-Constrictor MTV Music Awards Britney, and Crazy Bald Hit You With an Umbrella Britney—seriously, way-to-go girls.

I didn’t try to dress up here, I already stick out enough; I sort of play dress up for a living in Mongolia anyway. From 8AM to 4PM, I’m an ESL teacher, not exactly a line of work I’d ever envisioned for myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m completely unqualified to be doing this, and putting on a bow tie and cardigan every day to go talk about countable and uncountable nouns can sure feel a lot like a costume. The other one I wear a lot is “The Quiet American,” to borrow a phrase (read “title”) from Graham Greene. Which part of that identity is actually me I wonder: the “Quiet” part, or the “American?”  My silence stems from my lack of Mongolian language skills rather than any inherent facet of my personality. Anytime I do manage to chirp up in conversation it’s sort applauded as something funny and slightly perverse; like those animals that balance on two legs at the circus. I’m getting used to that, and because it happens more, Mongolians are getting a little more used to my interjections.

And the American part…well, I am an “American” for people here by virtue of the fact that I’m the only one around for a hundred miles. But these “American weeds” I wear are about as representative of the country’s whole as Uncle Sam is (coincidentally, a spectacular costume worn this year by the lovely KJB). Being seen as a representative of my country is at once an easy and impossible thing to do.

It’s hard to tell which of these capes are genuine and which are assumed or invented by necessity. I often wonder if my fellow Volunteers (or maybe just ex-pats in general) also feel this way. Here, I’m a group costume unto myself: Teacher Rob, American Rob, Colleague Rob, Quiet and Introspective Rob, Volunteer Rob, Development Worker Rob, and deciding which one is appropriate at any given time isn’t easy now, and probably never will be.

All this is a milestone of memory, alright. I’ll always remember the Halloween I spent in Mongolia, dressed-up like myself and pretending to be as many versions of that self as can be supported here. So much of this first year seems like research and development on the roles I play, but I am hoping that by this time next year I’ll be giving thanks for having found just the right one.

Happy Halloween everybody.

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