Friday, June 6, 2014

The people in our (Luang Prabang) neighborhood.

We spend a lot of time telling you about the local sights and the delicious food, so I thought I would change it up a bit. In Luang Prabang I had the opportunity to tutor English students through a program offered by Big Brother Mouse. (It's a great organization and I highly recommend clicking the link and reading more about what they do in Lao.) I'd like to introduce you to the students I talked to during those six hours. In no particular order, they included...

  • A spunky 18 year old novice monk who loves computers and loves to talk! He was probably the easiest student of the bunch - I'd ask him a question and his answer was often in the form of a ten minute retort. He was very willing to share his experience as a novice and offered to tell me anything I wanted to know about Buddhism. (If only I'd had advanced notice, I could've come up with better questions than "what do you think happens after you die" and "tell me about the 10 rules you must follow"! Eventually I had to change the subject; I am very interested in, but so under-informed about, the topic that I couldn't even formulate intelligent questions.)

    This young man speaks several other languages already and has taught himself everything he knows about computers. Originally from Cambodia, he decided to become a novice in Luang Prabang to increase personal opportunities he wouldn't have had living in his small farming village. He has two years before he must decide whether he wants to be ordained or pursue another route in life.

  • A 25 year old in his third year of university - really sharp, really funny, and really fluent. This young man is from a small farming village and was the first in his family - and also his whole village - to pursue higher education. He wants to master the language so that he can return to his village to teach English.

    He wanted to practice pronunciation so he leafed through his textbook and we had some fun learning how to correctly pronounce words like "rhinoceros," "manufactured," and everyone's favorite, "hydroelectric power plant." He would watch me say words and then repeat my mouth's movement as he repeated the word, something I've not seen many other English students do when they practice. I was impressed.

  • A 20 year old in her second year of college. ("College" here takes three years, "university" takes five years. I haven't quite sussed out what the difference is in the degrees.) This young lady was pretty timid and mostly listened to my conversations with the 25 year old guy, but over the two hours we spent together she did share that she comes from a village in the north. Her grandparents have a rice and corn farm; they sell a lot of their corn to a factory in Thailand that makes candy. Her parents are divorced and her mother now lives in Thailand so that she can afford to send her daughter to school. This young woman thought she might want to be an English teacher but she hasn't decided for sure.

  • A 25 year old currently studying business law at the local college. He's from a small farming village up north and is the only one in his family to pursue higher education. (I had met him when Patrick, Kim and I hiked Phu Si - Patrick was talking with another novice and this young man stopped to ask if I could help him with his English homework. I said sure, then spent the next five minutes trying to remember what the heck an indefinite pronoun was... and then we got through his homework.) That night we talked about school, his family, my family, our cultures, sports - all kinds of things. He has a great sense of humor and a very mature approach to life and his studies.

  • A 22 year old whose family moved from their village to the city for a better life. He's pretty much the polar opposite of the business law student - he plays guitar and wants to work in the tourism industry when he gets out of school. (But don't tell his parents that - they wouldn't approve.) He wants to see snow someday - most people in Vietnam and Lao have never seen it. Even though many Laotians are married by age 18, he can't think about marriage or children yet. He's got more important things going on in his life right now! Like sepak takraw, a local favorite sport - the guys all looooooooved to talk about this game!

  • His friend, a very shy young man who didn't speak much English and was mostly there to observe and listen. Putting yourself in that situation takes quite a bit of courage and I admired him for showing up and patiently sticking it out. He did perk up when the other two guys started talking about sepak takraw.

  • A 22 year old studying English so that she can return to her small village and teach. This gal was really sharp and she came prepared - something I both admire and appreciate (as it makes pop-in volunteering go a little more smoothly).

    We practiced pronunciation and I helped her with some written homework. Then she told me about her village, her farm, and a wonderful festival that occurs every January where folks dress up in traditional costume, eat good food, reconnect with family and friends, and perform traditional ceremonies. (If a Santa outfit counts as a "traditional costume", it sounds a lot like Christmas.)  She invited me to visit again next year so that I can join her for the festival.

  • Her friend, an energetic young woman who could only stay for a few minutes but eagerly pulled out her illustrated World Atlas book as soon as she sat down. She found the page featuring Oregon and had me read the text aloud, asking clarifying questions when I said a word she didn't recognize. Then we turned the page and I had her read aloud, and we and the other two students talked about words they didn't understand or places they hadn't heard of. (Explaining the how and why of Mount Rushmore was definitely one of my more interesting experiences over the week.)

  • A 20 year old, very shy, who had only been studying for about 7 months. He clearly understood my questions even though he couldn't always find the words to answer them. Like so many of the students, he came from a small village and wanted to return to his village to teach English after he was done with his studies.

  • His friend, also very shy but eager to practice. He was actually from Vang Vieng province and was therefore the first person I met from a place I'd been here in Lao. After a few minutes another volunteer showed up so he left our group of four to talk with her one-on-one, but he seemed really nice and very excited to learn.

  • An 18 year old who appeared to be straight out of a surfer movie. He'd grown up in Luang Prabang and obviously had the advantage of being surrounded by western culture and foreigners speaking English for most of his life. He spoke clearly and quickly, asking me all kinds of questions and stating that he wanted to go into the tourism industry. If he could improve his English (which was already better than all our Vietnamese tour guides combined) he could stay in Luang Prabang, learn more of the local history, and be a tour guide here. If not, he'd be assigned to a rural area, presumably to lead treks and teach about the three different Lao cultures.

These bright young men and women with their similar stories all began our conversations with the disclaimer "I don't speak very well", but in truth they are all quite humble and most could probably run literary circles around the yahoos on today's American reality shows. English is not the easiest language to learn, especially when your native tongue has no tenses (present, past, future are totally new concepts). These students choose to spend two hours (sometimes more) a day practicing with foreigners; they choose to live far from their families so that they can learn English; they choose to work hard at their studies instead of watching TV or goofing off with their friends. Their families sacrifice a lot to put them through school, and they take this sacrifice seriously. I am quite certain they will succeed no matter what they choose to do.

Talking with them gave a really interesting perspective into how other cultures see Americans, and I hope I was also able to impart some reality into their vision of our shiny American life. "Not everyone in America has a job." "Actually, a large part of the midwest is farmland, just like a large part of your country is farmland, and our farmers work pretty hard for not a lot of money too." "A lot of people move to America for a better life but not everyone is able to find a job and support their family." "Yes, Americans in general live longer than people in other countries - but many older people have no income and no family to support them." Et cetera.

The students ask the foreigners lots of questions during these sessions; no topic is off limits. There were times when I felt pretty self-conscious answering them - "Actually I quit my (steady, well-paying, good-intentioned, non-manual-labor) job and sold all my belongings to travel the world for the past year and counting." "No, I'm not married. Yes, I'm almost 40." "No, I don't have kids... No, I don't want kids - why? Well, I... just don't." "When I get back to America I'm considering farming." Their blank stares at this last answer were pretty priceless.

Tutoring at BBM was a really great experience. I walked out of every session with a slightly guilty feeling which I tried to transfer into a heightened awareness of how lucky I am, and how much I want to stop fretting about stupid things (or being cranky about anything) and just enjoy this amazing opportunity. On the micro level I still have some challenges with this, but on the macro level I think I'm doing pretty well...

1 comment:

  1. much more inspiring than the band of barely-employable idiots that i've recently been placed in charge of / =