And Social is what the Solomons is. I will have smiled and/or talked to probably 10 people before I even arrive at work at 8am. In a day, multiples of this. On the street, ‘hey Annabelle!’, ‘hey wantok!’, ‘hey tambu!’ – (I’ll explain those terms another time…) good morning/afternoon, evening … Not a chance to be lonely here unless I locked myself in my room, which unfortunately I spent far too much of my life doing back at ‘home’. I thought I needed to live in my own space. I only now recognise how happy I am with friendly and open people around me.
With my Wantoks; View from my balcony; IE Workshops in Rennell
I just came back from a party to farewell another fabulous human being I have met here, Michael. He originally came here as a Fulbright scholar, and stayed for longer than he was contracted to… I mean, who wouldn’t?
It was a fabulous party. Held at mutual friends’ house, ‘Pot luck’ – bring a plate. Fabulous food, fabulous company, great conversations, music, shared interests – new faces, old faces, local people and expats. Michael is a sociable person who has worked at a range of different places, and he invited them all! He is around half my age, but his playlist was excellent – huge range of music from different places and eras. This epitomizes a very different life to the one I lead back ‘home’.
People who had seen my recent facebook posts asked me about my plans for when my contract expires, at the end of August. For the first time I needed to articulate something I’ve been putting off, what am I going to do? It is June now, my contract ends in three months. I don’t want to leave but I need to go home. I want to come back.
I talked with my 85 year old father today. He said something like “So you’re looking forward to coming home, because I miss you and many other people miss you too…” My immediate thought was no, I’m not looking forward to coming home. My ‘home’ is a miserable place, a job in which I am devalued and constantly on edge, never knowing whether I’ll have work for the next semester, no chance of achieving an ongoing position. Children who I adore but I cannot continue to be their all when living a life of discontent. A complete lack of ‘community’, where I sit at home on my own and wallow in my misery. A lack of meaning and feeling as if I am contributing to the world. Here I feel as if I am on my way to contributing. To helping others achieve, to inspire, to educate, to share my knowledge and be a part of improving the lives of others. I don’t want to go home.
Is this selfish? Am I only thinking of myself? Or does a meaningful life actually matter? It seems to matter to me. I have worked hard for a long time to develop the skills that I want to share with others. I have tried to do that in my ‘home’ context, in working with students in Australian universities to inspire, to provoke, to work towards a better future for their students and the world. Sometimes this feels like an achievement, as if I’ve made a difference. And then I get my student evaluations, I get rejected for ongoing positions, I feel like I’m not inspiring, or achieving, or doing anything of any value to anyone. I feel like a failure, with nothing to offer. God I hate that feeling, but it’s real, and it hurts.
So I leave Australia, I work here as a volunteer, supported by the Australian government. I feel as if I have some purpose to what I’m doing. I feel as if people appreciate what I’m doing. People seem to acknowledge and recognise that what I’m doing is selfless – this is not for me. I have knowledge and ability and I can share it unselfishly – I simply need enough money to live, and beyond that, I will give what I can.
This is the dilemma I find myself in.
Addendum: a year later, another volunteer position in a different country…
The dilemma is still with me. Again I find myself in a position that feels right – in a position that welcomes me and my skills, where I feel I can make a difference, where I am challenged every day. As I leave home, my father hugs me and every time it feels like the last goodbye. My children hug me as I farewell them, and I assure myself that my discontent presence is more damaging than my content distance – that technology provides a channel for more communication than would be possible with my presence.
I was asked by a friend why I didn’t look for the same work in my own country – out of respect for being a closer part of my kids’ lives, and (presumably) to work for the betterment of my own country rather than overseas. It is difficult to articulate why I do not have any desire to work in my own country, but I think I have expressed this in many ways over many years.
Professionally, there are people who have training and experience in my profession who can certainly do these (local) jobs and who I would have to compete with based on questionable measures of competence. I am tired of battling to prove myself, to present myself in an ‘acceptable’ manner, to write and to speak in a way that is not true to myself and has nothing to do with what I want to accomplish and how I want to work with others. Or how I can draw on a life-time of experience that doesn’t ‘fit’ in my ‘3 page max CV’ and certainly isn’t mentioned in job interviews.
For a long time I have just wanted to work at my best, to meet challenges head on and to use my ‘big picture’ thinking to work on immediate issues … I don’t have as much energy as I did 20+ years ago when I started on the desperate journey through academia so I’d rather put the energy and passion into the work I have, than into getting my foot in the doors that remain closed to me.
Whenever I go out in Laos, I talk to anyone who is willing to talk back (and some who aren’t, it’s true). The bigger the population of falangs (white people), particularly those just passing through, the less people there are that seem willing to chat.
As an English teacher, students often ask how they can improve their spoken English – without a doubt, having the confidence to talk with a falang is a great start, and a great opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills. But it takes a willing falang, an ultra confident Lao, and often a certain ability to get past the inevitable misunderstandings that occur. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but that of course involves too much shame, or too much effort for many people to even try.
Trying to get past misunderstandings is also the responsibility of both parties; it takes an effort, practice, and some interpersonal/cultural skills. These are ones that come to my mind, as both a current English teacher and a Lao learner – but also keeping in mind that some contexts will change the dynamics, that hierarchies (age/status), respect and culture also play a part, and the purpose for the conversation is another potential form of misunderstanding – I just wanted to practice my (limited) English/Lao and here you are asking me questions???
Slow down! Speak clearly! Enunciate every word! (Whether English OR Lao).
Use Gestures! Sign language, point to objects, count on your fingers.
Be patient. Be kind. Smile a lot!
Ensure time to formulate answers. Try counting slowly to five after asking a question – feels like a long time but often what is needed.
Remember that often Lao students only hear English from their Lao speaking teachers, including any mispronunciations. As much as possible, speak English with a Lao accent! Listen to the way they say the words themselves – that is what they will be more likely to understand.
Falangs also have accents! Be conscious of your own accent!
Lao speakers often leave off the end of the words when speaking their own language as it is not always required for understanding. However in English the ends of words are necessary for communication (plurals, tense, meaning).
Tone is another key area of difference – Lao is tonal, and the tones will change the meaning (quite dramatically) of the words spoken. Whereas in English, our use of tones is more likely to change the meaning of the phrase or sentence – eg. whether we are asking a question, making a statement, being sarcastic or making a joke, etc. And don’t think that the Lao speakers don’t also have their fun with tones and misunderstandings – just that often it is only one side of the conversation that ‘gets’ the joke. My strategy is hey, just laugh along!
Many Lao learners of English will basically learn the same structured conversations that depend on both speakers giving the standard answer or asking the question in the same order and structure it was taught!
Greetings and Introductions (Hello! How are you? I am fine thanks. And you?)
Where are you from?
Food/drinks/colours – like/don’t like …
Less experienced (ie most) students will know little else beyond these basics.
A Lao conversation is more likely to be along the lines of Sabaidee, are you good? Where are you going? Have you eaten? (in my limited understanding! – and I often get it wrong, or can’t understand anything after the 1st question…)
Most Useful words/phrases to learn in Lao:
Hello – Sabaidee
Thank you – Kawp jai
No worries! – Baw pen nyang
Remember too that there is no agreed upon phonetic spelling for English pronunciation for Lao words. Primary complications are the tones that change the meaning of words, and sounds that have no exact English equivalent. Phonetic spelling of sounds may well be pronounced differently depending on your first language/accent..
Most importantly, have a go! Lao people are, on the whole, very very friendly and appreciate a ‘good heart’ that shows in your actions
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Working as a sessional academic in a university for 15 or so years, and still be a lowly kicking ball is demoralising and ultimately soul-destroying.
Turning 50 was life-changing – time to live my dream.
Becoming a volunteer overseas for the second time in my life was that dream.
Living, working and learning in a new country/culture was also part of that dream.
My older son needed to find his own way in the world.
My younger daughter has a father who loves and looks after her, and a life in which she is happy, living, learning and thriving.
But overall, I didn’t feel wanted, needed or appreciated in that life, but in this one, I do.
I feel as if I’ve been on my way to turning 50 forever. I went back to higher degree study in 1999 after finding out that my Graduate Diploma of TESOL did not entitle me to teach in Victoria. I eventually completed my Masters and then my PhD whilst working as a sessional academic in 2011, aged 44. At that time I had a 2 year old daughter and a 15 year old son. My CV was pretty good; I have never stopped working, always being independent and thirsty for new knowledge and experiences. I had been interviewed for a few academic jobs (tenured), but at that time the message was always … finish your PhD first. I still remember how at that time I felt invigorated and energetic, hopeful and happy to become an ‘expert’ in whatever it was they considered necessary in order to give me an ongoing position. And as anyone who has also been through the gratuitous process of applying and being knocked back, that energy and invigoration is likely to soon get sucked out of you.
I finished the PhD and found that my university faculty no longer had any work to offer me. I seemed to have reached a dead end there – after 12 years or so of studying and working in the same faculty, I got to one of those low points between contracts and had to accept that I had been labelled something along the lines of ‘troublemaker’ and that I would just never be good enough. Yes, I’m allowed to feel disappointed … (see below).
And the rules had clearly changed along the way, not just ‘finish your PhD’ but ‘finish your PhD and a mass of publications in highly ranked journals to show you are serious and publishable’, ensure your work ‘fits’ the current milieu, and that you are already ‘known’ as one who will succeed within that …
Where/when do you realise you have left your run too late?
I’m allowed to feel disappointed…
[…] I shared my experience with students, colleagues, and friends—anyone who asked me how I was doing got a real answer to that question. I made things very uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially my institution or anyone who couldn’t handle my public airing of feelings or the reality of academic labor practices.
Luckily, I was able to get sessional work at the university just a little lower on the ranking scale, and a little further from my house. Some more insufferable job interviews for the work I was currently doing as a sessional, an underlying sense of humiliation and failure, and my 50th birthday looming closer. Four years spent doing the work, walking the walk, talking the talk, improving my practice and knowledge and learning ways to ‘suck it up’ as required for a sessional who wants more work for the next semester. My writing was often focused on my experiences working as a sessional and teaching/lecturing in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy, with a primarily critical sociological viewpoint. At that time I wrote about the ‘problems’ of diversity and social justice, critical thinking/teaching/reflection, student evaluations, the precariousness of sessional work and mental health implications. And lived it.
* * *
I began looking for overseas volunteer work that matched my credentials, preferably in South East Asia. I found a job and had a phone interview in which I was able to draw from all of my experiences, the good the bad and the shocking, along with how I learnt and what I learnt from these, and how this experiential knowledge would be useful for working in a place where the challenges are not simply theoretical, but which impact on every aspect of your life, every day.
It was my first successful job interview in around 20 years.
And now I am in my last 2 months of my assignment. Wanting to do more. Wanting to come back and continue my work. Applying for such positions and being told my years in academia, whilst useful for knowledge and theory, do not cut it against those who spent the last 20 years of their career working in ‘development’. And at the age of 51, what do I do? Where do I go next? How do I find the equivalent to that appreciation and meaning I have in my life at this point?
I was diagnosed with T1 diabetes in 1977, at the age of 11 years.
I was admitted to the Royal Children’s hospital (Melbourne) almost in a coma. I stayed in the hospital and was ‘trained’ to look after my condition over 2 weeks.
I was embarrassed and ashamed at that time and didn’t want anyone to know. My older brother (by 9 years) had been diagnosed at age 9 but he never talked about it.
My mother took the brunt of my care. She boiled my glass syringes and reusable needles every night, to soak in Methylated spirits until required. I had to test my urine, using a dropper, test tubes and a magic tablet that was dropped in the tube, changed the colour and then was then measured up against a chart.
At the age of 13, more complications for my life after a serious car accident (Anglesea, during a Diabetes camp run by the RCH).
Needless to say, my teenage years were a mess, but I survived!
Skipping a few decades, I am now 51, working as a volunteer in Savannakhet, Laos – a little known landlocked country between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar. I have two amazing children, a boy aged 21 and a girl aged 7, who still live in Melbourne where I grew up. I did a lot of study over the years, culminating in a PhD (Education) in 2011. I volunteered in the Solomon Islands in 1994 after spending two crazy years in Kalgoorlie (Western Australia). I never believed that having diabetes should stop me – and it hasn’t.
Not to say I’ve always been in the best of health, or particularly well-controlled. My teenage years were a disaster – but having diabetes in a way stopped me from going as far awry as some of my friends did. I have spent some time in hospital on occasions from DK (Diabetic ketoacidosis) and learnt a lot about my body and control in the process. I felt close to death on occasions, and this is frightening, but gave me more determination to survive.
My son was born in 1995 (I was 29) – I spent 5 weeks in the RWH (Royal Women’s hospital) before his birth because of my badly controlled diabetes and risk of preeclampsia. He was induced early, weighed 5lbs at birth and is now a healthy 21 years old.
My daughter was born in 2009 (I was 43) – and that was when I was able to go on pump therapy which has changed my diabetes control incredibly. Another gorgeous healthy baby, induced but much easier than the first time around. She is now an incredibly delightful child of 7, so much like me that I’m afraid she will be the next diabetic to join our extended family (currently – 2 siblings, 1 cousin and his child, 1 uncle – and who knows who else draws the next short straw?).
So, at the age of 51, with 40 years of diabetes under my belt, I am proud to say that it has actually incentivised me to conquer the odds, and do the best I can for humanity. Here in Savannakhet, I am working at a Teacher Training College, with teachers who train young people from rural areas, so that they are able to return to their villages and share their knowledge as a teacher. I feel appreciated for what I do, and I am so glad to be of help however I can. Life here is not necessarily easy – complete lack of availability of the medications I need (I had to bring as much with me as I possibly could, and have cut back on blood tests and some medications so they don’t run out), the heat is constant – I’m always sweating, the food is so different to home, there is no suitable medical care locally and I must travel to Thailand or Vientiane for appropriate treatment for any problems that occur.
On the upside, I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever been before in my life. I have everything I need. My insulin requirements are much less than when in Australia (yes, even with the dreaded rice as a staple of my diet) and I have had incredible experiences and adventures. And I appreciate life and every moment so much more. I really thought, as a young badly controlled diabetic, threatened with blindness, amputations, and kidney disease for all my sins, that I would never get past 34 years. Well I have, and I’m loving it!
After four months in Laos, and now spending New Year in Bangkok, I’m really feeling the differences between a more developed and less developed South East Asian location.
People try to understand you – a little bit of Lao, a little bit of Thai (not so different) and English language gets you by. Taxi drivers do their best to understand where you need to go, shops have people outside to help you with your bags and hail a taxi, AND explain to the taxi driver where you need to go.
The hospital/health system. Incredible by comparison. We went toSamitivej hospital and each counter we went to, they were able to explain what was required and where we needed to go. The toilets serve you well too – western style toilets with the
additional service of rinse and blow dry, front and back, and a temperature control thrown in. I have an appointment to return for my chosen doctor and a dental check, for very reasonable prices. I have a piece of paper that has my appointment details, doctor etc, in English and Thai.
Taxis have meters that seem to offer very reasonable prices. The airport has a taxi service that gives you a price and helps you to find your taxi – I even got escorted to the smoking area by the friendly guy who got our taxi for us, who then shared a smoko with me. The taxi drivers do everything they can to help you locate your destination.
There are also motorbike ‘taxis’ – you agree on a price and off they go. The first (and only) time I did this I had a heavy backpack and found a rider (they wear flouro tops and seem to hang out in groups in particular places). He was amused with my Lao (he was from Laos) and typically first tried to rip me off big time, then I got him to agree to my price. I got on the back and spent the next 10 minutes or so holding onto the back of the bike for dear life, half expecting the weight of my pack to pull me off backwards, as he charged off first at all the lights – in the dark and heavy traffic he rode like a madman but as usual, got me (feeling shaken but very relieved) to my requested destination.
The roads (sort of) work. There are crossings … best to cross in a group, perhaps put a hand out to let them know they need to stop/slow down, but people drive on the right (left) side of the road and obey the traffic signals.
The BTS – sky rail service works really well. Clear maps to get around, no traffic to contend with, not long to wait, and clear instructions to stand on the side (with guiding arrows) to let passengers off. People even line up to get on!
I later discovered how to use the local bus and underground railway systems. Bargain prices, efficient services – links up with BTS service (which services all of the large main shopping centres) and easy trip to/from the airport. Most of the bigger bus stops have multiple buses stopping but there will be a person in uniform who I found was a great help and source of information when required.
Hot water comes out of the taps!
Cigarettes have (really ugly) warning messages on them, and cost much more than Laos…
The prices are high by Lao standards, but this is what ‘development’ equates to. Better wages, better health care, a more educated population. Being able to get out there and get what you want, and be understood in our mono-lingual ignorance inevitably costs us!
It reminds me that Lao PDR still has a long way to go to achieve its 2020 goals to move out of ‘least developed’ status. There are so many challenges, and generational change is a long slow process. I love Laos, I love the people, I love the friendliness, I love the passion that I see in people who want better. But change is gradual, change is slow, and change is not all good. Savannakhet is such a perfect place for me to be right now because I love the pace, I love the ‘small town – everyone knows everyone’s business’, I love my home and the family that looks out for me, the hotel/café around the corner where they all know me and greet me, and are happy for me to sit and use their wifi, some days for a very long time! I love being one of the very few Australians in the area, and being able to talk to anyone I see in the street or sit down with in a café or restaurant, and always be interested in the stories they have to tell.
Another week or so here in Bangkok may spoil me, I don’t know. I’m not really one for big city life, and would rather be happy with any small achievement like finding Vegemite in the one shop in Savannakhet that sells it (at 7). Nor can I afford to stay too long, but will drink up even the time to sit in my wonderfully kind friend Bob’s apartment and chill, along with being able to access his wifi while my daughter sleeps.
(Probably not so appealing to the squeamish – but good lessons to be learned…)
Some Pointers from a non-medical perspective:
Keep any open wound clean and covered when outdoors. Use your bottled water, and keep a supply of dressings.
Draw a circle (with pen) around any red areas. This is a sign of infection – if it is getting bigger, you have a problem.
Get any escalating problem seen to! Check the cleanliness of any medical help you get!
Don’t leave it, it is not like something back at home that fixes itself.
After too many tales of wheelchair bound travellers returning to Australia for treatment of infected wounds in the tropics (hey Kyra, hey Nik) I never wanted to get to that stage. So when I fell over a drain (no I wasn’t drunk… see future post for the state of the footpaths in this region…) and grazed my leg, I made sure to clean it thoroughly and report it to my ICM (in country manager – for ‘just in case’ insurance purposes).
The graze seemed ok and I covered and kept it clean, although was a raised lump underneath that wouldn’t go away. After a few weeks I thought I’d better get it seen to. I happened to walk past a clean looking medical clinic whilst away in Pakse (we’ve been warned not to get treatment for anything serious locally – I’ve visited the local hospital and can vouch for this!) I went inside and surprisingly the guy at the desk had some English and took me in to see the doctor. Again, minimal English but he ordered a blood test to check for infection, and sent me off with the nurse (who had no English at all).
She was good, laid me down on the bed and began work. She cleaned it. Then she dug a hole in it. (youch). She put what looked like a metal scone tray under my leg. Then she squeezed it. (oooouuuucccchhhh). Hard. And harder. I could feel something running down my leg and sat up to see … (bluuurrrrrgggghhhhh). Well it was mostly blood. Coagulated blood. And clear fluid. She made me lay back down AND KEPT ON SQUEEZING as hard as she could. By that time I was biting into my finger and making little yelping sounds.
The big lump under my skin was not quite so big by the time she stopped squeezing, but she hadn’t finished yet… She kept on saying, encouragingly, what I thought was ‘saep lai’ – which in my limited Lao means ‘It’s very delicious’! Couldn’t be, surely? (Later I checked my dictionary, the word for ‘infected/inflamed’ is ak-sayp – I’m guessing this might have been what she was referring to…) By that time I was saying no, no, that’s enough! I then watched her as she took off her sterile glove and began cutting a strip off it. I think I must have been distracted by more pain as she worked away and was utterly relieved when she covered it up and let me go. The doctor wanted to know how to spell ‘divorced’ and was very happy at learning a new word in the form filling exercise, and sent me off with a warning that it needed to be checked again the next day for more cleaning and signs of spreading of infection.
Back at the hotel the next day, after letting my ICM know, and him putting all resources into immediate action, I was waiting to be picked up by a car that would take me back to Savannakhet to pick up my things before getting to a place with more medical help. My friend and colleague (working in Pakse TTC) was with me and I thought I’d better check the wound and wash it down, and re-cover it (the nurse’s handiwork with a bandage had actually fallen off as I was walking and it was looking like a right old mess). So I poured some bottled water over it and wiped around it to make sure it was clean. I noticed a little bit of white stuff on the sore part, maybe a bit of stray bandage, so I pulled on it. Poor Debbie was my witness as I pulled out about 10cm strip of plastic sterile glove OUT OF MY WOUND. (gulp, eeerrrrgggghhhhh)
OK, get over it, driver was getting impatient so cleaned and covered it again and got into the car. The driver also had no English – he was not the regular driver, and I realised later when we were driving around lost in Savannakhet that he had no idea where to go. The trip that took the bus 5 hours was done in about 2 ½ hours. We passed every vehicle (and animal) on the road. He drove like a mad man. He refused to stop for anything, even though I was hanging out for a smoko. When it started getting dark (about 5.30pm) I could see why he was in such a hurry to get on the way. All those obstacles on and beside the road – bikes with no rear lights (often they ride with no front light on either, and on either side of the road), slow vehicles, cows, goats, dogs … bad enough in the daytime – far worse at night and in a hurry!
Well, made it home ok – forgot to mention the other complication, my phone had broken, being Sunday the shops were closed, my (work) computer is a dud and won’t let me get online, so I was also relying on other people with phones… Thanks to Debbie in Pakse, and Susan in Savannakhet, and David (ICM) for his initiative, all things were put into motion. Finally home I packed my bag (medications, passport, clothes for a few days) and managed to make contact with the medical insurance company and send them the latest photo of my wound. I seemed to remember in the case of an infected abscess a few years ago (another joy of diabetes) that it was useful to draw with pen around any swelling or redness so hence the artwork around the wound in the photos. Luckily it didn’t seem to be spreading or swelling up further.
The next day the medical insurance people were still umming and ahhing about whether or not they’d cover me for a trip to a decent medical facility. They decided yes at about 3pm and I headed straight off to airport for the ‘4pm flight’. By that time the last plane was fully booked and I was put on standby – first they just said no, then after talking with David on my new phone (I’d been busy that morning – new phone but almost completely broke) said they would know by 6pm if there were any ‘no-shows’, and hence a seat available.
At 6pm, after hovering around the sales office for 20mins, they asked me in, took my passport, looked at the computer and I got the ‘computer says noooooooo’. Sorry? No! Look, I need to get to the hospital (big sad face). Some more tap tap tapping on the computer and it seemed that one seat had appeared out of nowhere, and it had my name on it! Phew. Flew out on the 4pm plane at 6.30pm, surrounded by empty seats. Huh? But then we flew south to Pakse and got off the plane to pick up the rest of the passengers and sure enough, it was full to brimming! Onwards bound, north to Vientiane, and taxi to good old familiar Alie and Hotel Lao. And my Korean friends at the nearby restaurant who still remembered me from 6 weeks ago and invited me to join them.
Set off to Australian Embassy Clinic the next day. Dr Michelle is a breath of Australian speaking fresh air. I love her! And she speaks the Aussie Lingo! Even if she does make babies cry (the previous patient was there for her jabs). She congratulated me for coming in and having it seen to, and commented that the Pakse Clinic had actually done all the right things – blood test, cleaning out the wound and keeping the wound open – hence the rubber glove trick. Put me on antibiotics (Augmentin Duo), took a swab to check what the infection was – ie what antibiotics would work – cleaned and covered it, and asked me to come back so she could check it the next day, and then for reassessment on Friday.
It is now Wednesday, and she is pleased with progress. Still oozing, still red and inflamed, but getting better! So fingers crossed that the wheelchair will not be needed in my case!
After a number of checkups and some good times in Vientiane (luckily I only had a sore leg, no other symptoms) I was declared fit and ready to travel on Tuesday. Unfortunately no flights to Savannakhet until Saturday so this little trip for good medical intervention turned into quite a long stay away from my home and workplace. I have learnt some more lessons along the way and had rather an eventful two weeks. Left work on Wednesday October …. Headed for Pakse (see Pakse and Beyond post) and returned to work itching to get going on November ……. Wouldn’t want to be in a hurry! (Luckily I’m not…) Bor Pen Nyung (it’s ok…)