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Understanding the Culture of Questions: A Story Celebrating Service

Robert Galloway, an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Mongolia, shares his story of service and cultural understanding.

Ed. Note:The Peace Corps program in Mongolia opened in 1991 and has hosted nearly 900 American volunteers over the past twenty years.  Volunteer Robert Galloway arrived in Mongolia in 2010 to teach English.

As an English teacher, I’m eager to introduce my students to question words early.

“Yagaad” is Mongolian for “why,” and I enjoy hearing it because such a word really deserves at least two syllables.  For a question that so rarely has an answer, just as interesting to me is when it is asked.  At home, it was a steady stream of family and friends asking me why I was going all the way to Mongolia for two years.  Now that I’m here, the most common conversation I have is, “Do you have a wife, Rob?”  “No,” and without a breath in between, “Yagaad?”  I used to be taken aback by this; the question sounding to my ears like, “Why, what’s wrong with you?”

My reflections on service are usually based on the small and trivial aspects of my exchanges in Mongolia and the natural human curiosity we hold for one another.  In my ninth month here, “yagaad” has slowly been replaced by “why” in my conversations with students, signaling to me that they now expect and desire my answers to be in English. They’ve stopped asking about a wife and started asking about why America celebrates Martin Luther King Day, why I enjoy reading so much, why American families live in the ways that we do.

One of my ninth graders surprised me early on a Saturday morning by knocking on my door: “Good morning teacher, may I chop your wood for you?”

“Really?”  I asked, more than a little relieved for the help.

“Yes, I would like to talk and practice English with you.”

“Sure, why not?” I said.

What I’ve come to know is that the Peace Corps is a time when “Why?” becomes “Why not?” both for Volunteers and the people and communities we aim to serve. Each encounter is full of possibility, and the frequency with which I get to answer these questions about myself, and ask them of others, is a small and everyday measure of my impact here—the world becoming a slightly smaller classroom and all of us as students becoming a little more curious about our neighbors.

Why not?

Robert Galloway, 24, is from Wayzata, Minnesota, and serves as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Mongolia