How Tunga Changed My Life

I came into Peace Corps open-minded in just about every way, except for one: I was determined not to be in a relationship. I made it a rule that I wouldn't date anyone while in the Peace Corps. Our trainers and Peace Corps staff members quoted numbers to us, the average number of Volunteers in every group that have relationships, get engaged, get married, and on and on. I zoned out during that part of training. I had too many plans, including (among other things) eventually becoming President. Seriously. I wasn’t about to be sidetracked.

One of my closest friends in the Peace Corps, Todd, would tell me something later that really sums everything up... "One thing they don't tell you in training, one thing Peace Corps never warns you about, is this: people are going to love you."

This goes double for Mongolian people. Peace Corps Volunteers are kind and generous across the board I would say, but in every country we served we are out- loved and out-helped by the people that we are supposed to be loving and helping. What Todd said was true and it turned my plans to mush.

When I met Tunga for the first time she slowly and silently started to pull my world apart. I've always considered myself an unusually calm person - she was calmer. I've always thought I was generous and patient - she made me look like a child. In almost every way, Tunga was harder working, kinder, more collected, controlled and forward-thinking than me. And she never had to say a word, I understood these things just by watching her.

In The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch wrote some simple dating advice for his daughter, who wasn’t yet two years old. Randy himself only had a few months to live due to his cancer, but he knew what advice he wanted to give her when she was ready to start dating boys, "Ignore everything they say and just pay attention to what they do," he said, "Because if you do that, you're not going to make all the big mistakes." I couldn’t agree more.

When we first met, Tunga didn't speak English and my Mongolian was still in toddler stage-one. This made it even easier to follow Randy’s advice. Language became less important and action became everything.

When I watched Tunga I saw how she interacted with people. She was kind all the time, everywhere, with everyone. She smiled and laughed more than anyone I had ever met. She was always helpful. She was always generous and the way her family interacted reminded me of my family on the other side of the world.

Just by being herself, Tunga showed me layers I hadn't even considered - ways of being that I had only touched on in my best moments like the meditation retreat.

I came into Peace Corps as a typical volunteer probably does - as a "helper." In a sad twist of irony, however, I also came in with limits to how much I was going to love people. That's the reason Todd's statement has stuck with me over the years - people loving you is hardest when you have put up limits to how much you are going to love them. This can include "professional v. personal" barriers as well as "I'm not going to get into a relationship because I want to become President someday" limits.

Tunga changed my life because she helped me see my barriers for what they were and allowed me the space to move past them. I was standing in my own way. I looked good on paper, but I was limiting myself by putting my value on future events instead of appreciating people and opportunities right now, right in front of me.

Instead of loving people, I was "helping" them.

Instead of growing, I was trying to be productive.

Instead of being myself, I was hiding who I really wanted to be.

Tunga helped me see those things, but not by telling me about them. She never pointed anything out, she never talked about it, and she never asked me to change. She just showed me through her own actions what it could be like for me. She loved people with a kind of abandon that I'd never seen before. She didn't "help" people, she cared about them and treated them like friends. She approached every opportunity as a chance to grow, she never complained even though she had every right to, she never asked for an easier life even though everyone I know would have begged for one, and she was herself in private and in public, everyday. She was unlike anyone I had ever met and, maybe most importantly of all, she didn't need me. I loved being around her just because of who she was.

It's been especially interesting for me to learn that a relationship is never supposed to hinder you, it's supposed to empower both people in the relationship to be their authentic selves.

I think this is true for friendships, but especially for romantic relationships. It's easy to get into a dependent frame of mind, where one or both of the people feel like they "need" each other. I think that's a mistake.

Tunga didn't need me and I didn't need her. She was fine without me, actually she was great without me. She still is. That allowed us to start not from a place of dependency, where the other person fills some need in us, but instead from a place of appreciation.

I love Tunga for who she is and it's a pleasure to be around her. In fact, I think everyone is a better person when they are around her.

It’s been more than three years since we met and even though our language skills have increased dramatically, it's still action that defines our relationship: how we treat one another, how we care about others, how we smile, help and give.

In that time I’ve also become one of those statistics that Peace Corps quoted to us during training. I broke my one rule of not dating someone during Peace Corps and by breaking that rule, I discovered the most amazing person I have ever met.

Also, for the record, she assures me that I can still be President someday if I want to be.

We’ll see.


This comes from the chapter "People are going to love you" in my book Enough.