Belated Update from the Solomon Islands

Did you know that the Solomon Islands has on of the highest mobile data costs in the world?  And as a volunteer, it’s pretty hard to maintain contact with the world, let alone to update this blog and share the wonderful photos I’ve been taking, and adventures I’ve been having.  And then of course there’s the time factor, I am so busy with my current work (Inclusive Education in the Solomon Islands), but true, still maintaining a damned fine social life as well.

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 

A (Selfish?) Life in Savannakhet, Laos. (+addendum…)

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.

So the ‘dilemma of selfishness’ remains but …

Deliberating inside my Cave…DSC_9022-Optimized

This life and that one.

This life and that one.

Two Months Left … Not ready to leave!

I left that one for a multitude of reasons:

  • 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.

(from:  https://theprecariatandtheprofessor.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/im-allowed-to-feel-disappointed/ 1Jul17)

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?

DSC_9303-Optimized

 

That steep slippery slope of insecure employment

(Originally written August, 2015 for Eric Grollman’s blog https://conditionallyaccepted.com   – with thanks to Eric for suggested changes)

In Australia, we are not called ‘adjunct professors’ – a term commonly used in the United States.  Rather, we are called  ‘sessional’ or ‘casual academics‘.  And, as I understand it, these positions may include research, teaching, planning and coordinating units, supervision, student consultations, marking – yes, all the work of a ‘real’ (tenured) academic without the security.  Of course our CVs will say ‘academic’; our insecure employment status is not how we label ourselves or what we do.

 I am given a ‘contract’ of sorts, that over the 11 week trimester, I will be paid for teaching time, meetings and marking.  We can claim nothing during the 2-5 week ‘break’ when students are off on their placements.  The ‘breaks’ between trimesters means a break in income, unless, as often happens, the marking extends over this ‘break’, but that really is just stretching what we are entitled to.  My annual income can easily fall below what might be considered ‘poverty level’ and I am never sure that I will be granted any work for the next trimester.

Just back from my psychologist – first appointment I’ve had for around a year.  Because I was doing ok.  Or was it because I was doing ok for a while, and then as I sunk down lower and lower into depression, I just couldn’t even pause for a minute to even consider how I was doing?  I have written before about sessional/casual/insecure employment in academia, and links with mental health.  I want to share some of this story while it is fresh, and while I’m feeling better, and the way seems a bit clearer.  Should I use a pseudonym?  I won’t because I want to say it how it is, to make it as real as it is to me, and not pretend we can protect ourselves with some hidden persona – because that is part of the mess I continue to get myself into, by being myself, and by being as absolutely honest as I can, as me, Annabelle.

I realised I needed to seek help (again) because I was so, so angry.  I have worked so hard for so many years, studying, teaching, writing, preparing applications and for (the occasional) interviews granted for those ‘real’ positions that offer some kind of ongoing job security, to do the job(s) I am already doing.  I was working days, nights, and weekends, on preparing, reading, writing, marking, planning.  I was working so damned hard, that my house was an absolute mess, my health was suffering, my diet abominable.  I didn’t eat, I didn’t have time to eat!  I was angry that I was putting in all this work, and yet was still not achieving any recognition (beyond the pay, when I had time to work out and submit my pay claim for each hour worked, in each category – as long as it was within the limits set by my initial contract). And, no matter how much my students appreciated the time and energy I put into teaching, my employer had no clue.

I was angry because I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be simply ‘happy’.  Because I had no ‘holidays’ due – in fact, I couldn’t even work out what to do if I had a true ‘holiday’.  I had lost sight of the difference between ‘work time’ and ‘holiday time’; either I was working, or I was worrying about whether I would get any more work.  I was miserable company, every conversation seemed to come around to how angry I was, and why.  Yes, I knew I had a point, but really, that’s just how things are … suck it up.  There were no ‘answers’ that my friends could give, or that could improve how I was feeling – it’s just the way things are.

As a critical educator, ‘that’s just how it is’ is not good enough.  I want to question why it is this way, how we could improve this, how ‘this way’ is making people feel, and is this how things should be?  I want to help people see that it has only become ‘this way’ in academia because we have let it happen.  Because we feel that we can’t raise these issues (i.e., insecure employment, overwork, power in the workplace, institutional priorities, economics) because of the way things are (i.e., insecure employment, overwork, power in the work place, etc.).

So I found myself sinking deeper into this angry pit of depression, and my marking was due.  And a job had been advertised for which I thought I had a good chance (actually for doing what I already do).  I prioritised the application and preparation for the interview.  I failed to impress – no job.  Dreams of getting a ‘real job’ shelved.  Again.  Marking still due.  Feeling miserable, incapable, and yes, angry.  I managed to devote myself for four days and nights, in silence, laptop on my lap, and I got that marking done, before the administrative cut-off, but after the turnaround for students to receive their feedback.  The story got around, “Annabelle – late for her marking – again.”

And I haven’t even mentioned my children.  My 20 year old son who has spent his whole life with his mother studying and working, saying that I need to do this so that I can get a ‘real’ job.  And him telling me he didn’t want his six-year-old sister having to hear the same story as I sat at the computer, days and nights, working and worrying.  His six-year-old sister now spends the week with her dad, who takes her to school and looks after her everyday needs, so that I can concentrate more on my ‘work‘ and have time for her on the weekends and holidays.

The job I had lined up for the next trimester was suddenly no longer ‘available’.  The students I’d worked with, and who expressly wanted to work with me again, had no say, and neither did I.  I managed to procure two teaching units, both of which I’d taught before, one of which I had chaired the year before.  In an 11 week trimester, students are off on their practicums for between 3 and 5 weeks.  Hence, no pay, no work for me.  No money puts my mortgage, my bills, my bare existence in limbo.

Being angry and depressed, my head was full of questions, accusations, frustrations.  What have I done wrong?  I’ve asked questions, I’ve let my frustrations be known, I’ve put myself out there.  I’ve tried hard, but maybe I really am just not good enough?  Why haven’t I published?  I don’t have time!  I don’t have support!  I am a sessionally employed teacher – my university has no support of, or even expectation that sessional teaching staff need to do research and be involved in research groups, conferences or discussions.  My student evaluations sometimes tear my heart out – but I tried so hard!  I have good pedagogical reasons for being a ‘hard marker’, for not giving straightforward answers to questions, and, at times, not responding ‘appropriately’ (an unfair accusation that I am unable to respond to in anonymous evaluations).  And the significant number of  good comments suggest that I’ve helped and/or supported my students more than any other teacher they’ve had, that they appreciated the challenges I presented them with, or asked whether I could teach them again.  And yes, the good comments mean a lot to me; they recognise and appreciate the effort I put in.  So why doesn’t my employer?  And why can’t I be ‘rewarded’ with prior notice about my teaching load for the next trimester?  Why do I have to wait and wonder, and worry, and beg, and plead for enough work to pay my bills and support my family?

Yes, there were moments when I felt as if the world was conspiring against me.  This is part of the downhill misery slope: no  matter how hard I thought about it, the only reason for not being given the work was that I had displeased someone, somewhere along the way, and this was their way of getting rid of the problem – me.  Don’t be so paranoid Annabelle!  This is not about YOU!  This is just the way it is, why it is called “insecure employment”.  There are reasons that have nothing to do with you personally.  Ah yes, perhaps, but they do affect ME personally, and I have no alternative avenue to take – aside from leaving academia?  Sadly, there are many who have taken that path after years of frustration (e.g., http://www.howtoleaveacademia.com/ ).   Leave and go where?  Ah that steep, slippery slope.

My numerous chronic, but invisible health conditions, my children, my mortgage, my advancing age, my single parent status – none of these are reasons to get any special treatment.  But I do find myself at times railing against how much I have to deal with, and yet how little recognition or reward I receive for what I put in to my work.  I know, of course, I’m not alone there.  But to just suck it up?  Not complain?  Not share my story?  Not imagine that something could be different?

Advice to Self:

Don’t ask difficult questions; don’t ‘rock the boat’; don’t bring up the issues that everybody just has to deal with; don’t remind those who manage to work with the system of how they’ve had to compromise their ideals; and just do the job you’re being paid to do.

Of course, my psychologist does not suggest that my ‘issues’ would all be fixed if it wasn’t for the conditions of my employment.  Perhaps my ‘choice’ of employment is a result of the ‘issues’ I have.  Maybe the ‘precariousness’ of my employment is a choice that relates to my inability to commit?  Perhaps my commitment to honesty and asking the difficult questions, and interest in critical consciousness in all that I do is also a precursor (or result) of these ‘issues’?  I have no idea, and will be going back to my psychologist to try to learn how to avoid tripping over into that pit of angry despair again.  But, unfortunately, the issues that I have raised here and elsewhere are unlikely to go away.  And I really hope that others are able to avoid the pit, and maintain a dignified and fulfilling balance in their academic and personal lives.  And to keep on talking about it.

(Advice to Self be damned!) 

 

Later…

I recently completed a course in ‘mental first aid training’, that I thought might help me with better responding to my students’ needs, and situations I seem to find myself in as a confessor and ear to students with various serious issues impacting on their studies and their lives.  As a sessional, I had to battle a bit to get accepted into the course, which was for ‘all those who have direct contact with students’.  Hmm, sounds like something helpful for we casual teaching staff that take on a huge amount of the face to face work with students.

I completed the two day course and enjoyed it.  I didn’t learn a whole lot I didn’t know about mental health issues, but I did learn a whole lot about myself.  I learnt that this is part of my calling, that being an ear and a consoler for those suffering mental health issues, and in helping to support and encourage them through their course, is a large part of why I do what I do.  And why I do it in the way/s that I do.  And why I pine for collaborative and supportive work environments, rather than competitive, dismissive and nasty ones.

As a sessional, I have been told – by union representatives and by sessional, contracted and tenured peers, that I am doing a disservice in spending my time with students when I am not paid for it, not expected to do it, and increasingly, not even entitled to do it.  This role belongs to those for whom it is written into their job descriptions, and no matter that they are overworked, have no prior or working relationship with these individuals, or do not have the personality or desire to take on this role, I should leave it to them.  Somehow this will show that sessionals should be paid for this responsibility if they take it on, that managers and unit chairs are somehow better at this role than sessionals, and administrators are cleared of responsibility because this is made clear to all involved.

Again, as a sessional, I want my story to be heard – that is, a huge part of my satisfaction from my job, and recognition that what I do means something to someone, is through my contact with students.  Yes, unpaid time that I put in responding to emails, meeting with students and staying after class, that give me an opportunity to use my skills and to help a student in their time of need.  This is time well spent.  And I can come home to my family and tell them about this, and they feel proud – that their mother/daughter really cares about who she is working with – they see that this is what gives me some feeling of worth, so different to the rest of the frustrations I come home with.

I have been teaching sessionally for a long time now.  I am no longer a poor student trying to support my way through to my PhD.  I am an experienced, thoughtful, critical and reflexive practitioner and I am able to use my life experience to both teach and support my students in their journeys.  I am not looking for more money, simply some recognition and security in continuing the damned good job that I am doing.  But most of all, I do not want my role as mentor, as a willing ear, as a supporter, advisor and voice for my students’ needs and rights to be taken away from me because I am not a ‘real’ or tenured employee.

(2,345 words)

 

A life that just gets better!

(Post Written for Diabetes Can’t Stop Me  link to post here)

Some Introductory details:

  • 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!

on the bike-Optimized

Culture shock of a different kind.

28th December 2016

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.

  • matilda in Bangkok
    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 to Stoilet controlsamitivej 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 – skyline up for skytrain 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!skytrain family

 

skytrain inside

  • 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!
  • no warm beerIt 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.

Loving Life.  Tilly with view

New Year Reflections…

Midnight (or so…) 1st January 2017, Bangkok, Thailand

The Big ‘ol time clock has just clicked over to 2017.  And what a year it has been!

So many deaths – celebrities, innocent civilians around the world, refugees seeking asylum, so many needless deaths of those who happened to be born, or to be, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  I   am sorry for so much loss, for so many.  Somehow, I am still here and so grateful for all that I am, all that I have.

At the beginning of 2016, I worked as a casual academic in a Melbourne University.  I desperately tried –for more than 10 years, to apply for the ‘holy grail’ – to be a tenured – ongoing academic, doing what I loved to do, improving what I was doing, and to just have someone say – give her a go … she deserves it.  But it was never meant to be.  In my 40s I was energetic and passionate, I would have done anything to be what ‘they’ wanted me to be.  OK, I never did establish my ‘expertise’ in any particular genre or discipline, I just wanted to work at something I felt passionate about – I could have become whatever ‘they’ wanted me to be.

In March of 2016 I turned 50 years old and actually felt very happy to be where I was.  I was never sad about what I hadn’t done, I was proud of what I had achieved, and particularly proud to have two incredible children, to have achieved my PhD, to have a house to live in and food in my fridge.  I paid my bills, I had savings in the bank, I lived near the beach and I had opportunities to follow another of my dreams, to volunteer again – this time in South East Asia.

I finished my work at the end of 1st semester, and prepared to pursue my next dream – my escape?  My saving grace?  An adventure that I so missed?  A real challenge?  An opportunity to take a chance and to draw on my experience, my passion, my abilities, my desires, my spirit?  I had finally managed to succeed in a job application to work as a volunteer in Laos.  With thanks and eternal gratitude to Pol, my daughter’s father and guardian, and Rani, my son who would now have to look after himself (and my house), I was able to pack my life away in the shed and embark on a dream.

So at the beginning of a New Year, I am so happy about the last, and hold so many hopes for the next.  I just ask for more of the same – joy, adventure, challenge, gratitude, and good (enough) health to get me through.  I give thanks to my family and friends – old and new – and want only the best for them too.

Thank you.

Good, Better, Best, Never let it rest!

dsc_5995GOOD, BETTER, BEST … NEVER LET IT REST!

I’ve moved from a crazy culture that seems always to be in an urgent hurry, to one that isn’t.  And I’m loving it.  I tried the good, better … but was never the ‘best’ – of course!  So like a dog chasing its tail, I never got to where I (thought I) wanted to be.  I didn’t get that prized tenure, I was judged ‘not good enough’ for every job I applied for.  I saw the people that got that prize, and it didn’t look like much fun.  Because there is always another hurdle before you get to the next prize.  And another after that.

I don’t know a lot about Buddhist culture but it seems to me that in comparison to the one I’ve left, where you must achieve NOW! or at least in this life time – after all, it’s the only one we’ve got, there is a different way.  If I don’t get it right in this lifetime, I’ve got another chance.  Another lifetime.  I will try, but I won’t have lost anything by not reaching that prize.  Because I can try again in the next life time.  And the next.  And the next…

I interpret this to be equivalent to making the most out of what we have – now.  To see merit from good actions, leading a good life, rather than simply to judge and be judged on ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

Slow down.  Live a good life.  Be kind.  Be generous.  Do the best you can. And forgive yourself.

Personal Health & Wellbeing – surely it takes precedence?

Today I was sitting in my Lao language class and I realised that I’d forgotten to reload my pump (insulin supply) and it had run out.  I was running on empty.  I mentioned this to my colleague Susan, who has been fully briefed on potential issues for a diabetic and she said – you must go now and fix it up.  Thank you Susan.

Wow.  I thought about how many times I’ve sat in classes, meetings, doing busy work or whatever situation – even socially with friends, colleagues etc., and put my own (diabetic) needs last.  No I can’t let my diabetes be an inconvenience to others, I must keep going and then when I do get the chance to fix things up, I deal with the consequences on my own.  The soaring out-of-control blood sugar levels, the ‘hypo hangover’, the difficulties in getting the body into catch up mode.  The panic and distraction of trying to work out where I might get a syringe from, how I might get my levels back under control, how I might get home myself to access my supplies.  And I’ve done all this on the quiet because I never wanted to bother anyone!  I didn’t want my ‘problems’ to become other people’s problem.

So after 40 years of having diabetes, for virtually the first time I have been given the permission to prioritise my health and wellbeing over everything else.  I have a whole action contingency plan (under medical insurance) so that if I need to get specialised help, I will.  Other people who might be able to get me over the boarder to Thailand or to better health care have been briefed.  I have a whole team that is actually at the ready to take care of my health needs if it became necessary.

After a life of ‘looking after myself’, and not wanting to bother anyone with my condition(s), and never wanting to appear to be any more helpless than anyone else (when in actual fact I have virtually never taken time off work due to my chronic condition(s) – no work/no pay being partly the reason!), I have finally found my self in a position where I feel entitled to put my health and well-being needs first.  And this is as a volunteer in a developing country.  What is wrong with our ‘first world/Western’ mentality that it has taken me this long to feel that I can?

First Post from Lao PDR

DSC_5827.JPG

All so good, all so happy!!!  My Room with a private balcony at Hotel Lao.  Perfect.

Started off at 3.30 am on Wed. 31st August with my baggage for a year.  Met up with Susan who will also be working in Savannakhet and almost 24 hours later, put my head down on the pillow in my French Colonial style hotel room for a dead to the world sleep.  Phew!  No disasters, just lots of queuing, waiting, walking (never knew how big Bangkok airport actually was!) queuing, and transiting.  Oh, and more queuing.   Some thoughts I noted down on the trip…

It’s been difficult staying set on my goals with all these goodbyes and unknowns.  Matilda and Pol, dad, Rob and Helen and Rani this morning – they all matter so much to me and there’s no promise that I’ll see dad again – he’s so tired…

2hrs from Bangkok:  I’ve been dozing for hours.  Thoughts slowing down.  I remember feeling guilty, no, selfish.  Dad seems to have come to terms with me leaving by concocting a story that I was working for the govt., taking on a very important role as a representative of Australia and tax payers.  He made me out to be generous and altruistic.  I’m glad he’s made sense of it this way, but when I reflect I can’t help but think that I’m simply being selfish.  I’m going where I want to go and doing what I want to do, and deserting my family in the process.

In fact I dread the idea of living at a snail’s pace [in Melbourne] simply to keep things humming along in the same way.  My ambitions have never been to simply succeed and maintain the status quo, or to get the most excellent job and work my way to the top.  Sure there’s been moments when I’ve applied for jobs and imagined such a life but I never get it.  And if I did, I can imagine the initial interest/passion would soon wane.  [Life is too precious].

Last leg – Flight to Vientiane

I’m not quite ‘getting’ that I’m embarking on a year away, working in a strange country and culture, away from familiar ‘comforts’ of home.  Yet I’m excited but I’m sort of resigned to it – I decided this was what I wanted to do, and now I’m almost there.

This is where I wonder about my selfish motives.  But then again, it is not as though I ignore the potential impact it may have on my kids (I actually believe it is a wonderful thing for them too).  I probably ignore, or just cannot know, the impact it might have on me [or them].  I don’t have ‘planned outcomes’ – generally it is unknowable.  Like so many other decisions we do or don’t make – we don’t know how it will turn out, or impact on all those involved.  But business/management – even teaching/education, is full of ‘outcomes’.  A ‘good’ project will be one with specified outcomes and steps to achieve those delineated results.  Is that really what life is about?  And why is it that I am always so keen to talk about ‘life’, rather than career, earning potential, possessions, reputation?

 

 

 

 

 

Language & Culture: Laos (& workplace communication)

Language & Culture: Laos  Background notes for teachers in the Adult Migrant Education Program by Jean Brick (1984)  

Book produced by the NSW Adult Migrant Education Service (borrowed from Deakin University Library)

Interesting reading!  Clearly some changes may have happened in the 30+ intervening years but I imagine that knowing the older or more traditional forms of address and a bit of history remains useful.

Some items of particular interest to me in regards to cultural expectations and relationships – I am somewhat nervous about establishing relationships with my work colleagues as I have a fundamentally (privileged) Western ideal and expectation that hierarchies and level of respect ought to depend on actions rather than given titles, which can of course take some time.

An interesting aspect relates to obligation and use of please/thank you, that helps to make sense of why my automated sense of ‘manners’ – ie everyone deserves to be thanked or spoken to politely – is not directly translatable in other cultural/ethnic contexts.

When speaking to shopkeepers or market sellers it was usual to say ‘Get X’, omitting pronouns and using command forms.  Respect was not necessary as payment was involved (p28)

The concept of obligation plays an important part in determining the level of politeness used in speaking.  Children are bound to their parents, students to their teachers and employees to their employers by a network of reciprocal obligations which are continuously renewed and reinforced.  Words such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are seldom used in such relationships as services rendered or accepted are part of the network of obligation.  This obligation must be discharged by service or payment of respect and support.  Thanking in this context would appear insincere.  Nor is thanking appropriate in situations where service is part of a job, for example, in a shop.

Lao students may find the Australian system of politeness which is largely determined by the degree of difficulty or disruption involved, difficult to master.  They may unwittingly give offence by omitting polite forms or ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when speaking to younger people, subordinates, Australian friends or people whose job it is to serve because in Laos such forms would sound insincere.  

Conversely, when speaking to older people or people of higher status, (eg teachers, employers, managers, etc) they may sound obsequious or over-polite because they attempt to translate Lao respect into English politeness.  (p40)

I found this section particularly interesting because I’d just read an interesting article Cultural orientation to Australian workplaces by Dr Lynda Achren (fine print vol 36#2 2013) in which she discusses the ‘hidden hierarchy‘ in Australia’s apparent egalitarian workplaces, and how CALD learners [culturally and linguistically diverse] find this aspect of Australian culture very difficult to understand unless taught/explained quite explicitly.

The problems for CALD learners in Australia seem very relevant to the problems I envisage in working within a more overtly hierarchical society where lines of command are far more clearly delineated and performed.  “where superiors are treated with deference and addressed verbally in terms that demonstrate respect and mark their place in the hierarchy” (p13) which does not sound like my ‘natural’ way of doing things(!)  Problematic issues may result in discomfort, cultural confusion, loss of face, misunderstandings, unclear roles and responsibilities, knowing how to ask questions or give instructions, appropriate levels of in/directness…

Gaining greater awareness of our own culture and how our language reflects our culture, helps us to recognise that there are other, equally valid cultural perspectives, equally valid ways of thinking and doing.   Being equipped with tools for noticing cultural difference, for being aware that ‘something cultural is going on’ helps provide all language learners and trainees with the intercultural communication skills required for a multicultural society and its multicultural workplaces. (Achren,2013, p16)

The section of the Language and Culture book on Laos entitled Politeness, respect and obligations is of course of particular interest to me.  Not that I’m reading it to learn the ‘rules’ of this society (the book is, after all, 30 years old) but in effect, the author Jean Brick articulates more general ‘cultural’ differences I’ve always been aware of through teaching and intercultural communications, but never quite been able to articulate, and all too often, to understand the whys behind the differences.

As this book was published in the 1980s, it is interesting to recognise that a lot of my TESOL training around this time, and after, has taken a different turn, towards non-essentialising discourses, avoiding cultural generalisations and stereotypes, and the integration of differences within and across, rather than just ‘between’.  One of the consequences of this (I think) was that everything became that little more vague, and less specific.  Many of my students have struggled with what they call my ‘refusal to answer questions directly’ or too much ‘abstract thinking’/unclear instructions (oh how I love student evaluations).  So when Achren (above) mentions ‘explicit instruction’, and this book lists quite explicit functional expressions, I am a little hesitant (but surely all Lao don’t do it this way?  And surely I don’t have to do it that way because someone 30 years ago wrote it in a training manual?) but at the same time, who wouldn’t want some insight into how the following functions may be performed in different and/or more appropriate ways in different contexts?

Part B:  FUNCTIONS

The following sub-titles here include:

  • Harmony,
  • Loss of Face,
  • Feelings …

INFORMATIVE

  • Confirming
  • Predicting
  • Correcting
  • Describing

INSTRUMENTAL

  • Advising,
  • Complaining,
  • Requesting,
  • Giving instructions,
  • Ordering,
  • Promising,
  • Seeking Permission,
  • Suggesting,
  • Warning,
  • Refusing

AFFECTIVE (Expressing)

  • ambition
  • surprise
  • anxiety
  • pleasure
  • anger
  • wants, wishes and needs
  • likes and dislikes
  • preferences
  • satisfaction and dissatisfaction
  • sympathy
  • good wishes

INTELLECTUAL

  • ability/inability
  • opinions, agreement and disagreement

INTEGRATIVE

  • introducing
  • asking for repetition and clarification
  • attracting attention and interrupting
  • greetings, leave-taking
  • apologising
  • complimenting
  • congratulating
  • inviting
  • offering, accepting and refusing
  • thanking
  • exchanging small talk

Some interesting excerpts (to me! – my highlights):

the establishment and maintenance of social harmony is very highly valued … and all things that potentially threaten such harmony are discouraged.  In their dealing with each other people are expected to be respectful, considerate and cheerful.  the overt display of emotions, especially anger or irritation is frowned on.  Given direct opinions or openly disagreeing are also discouraged as they can lead to disharmony (pg41)

The concept of ‘dignity‘ or ‘face‘ is extremely important … avoided by conducting arguments or disagreements at length by giving reasons and by avoiding direct statements of opinion … stress is put on appearing cheerful at all times, regardless of mental state.  Smiling is, therefore, an appropriate reaction covering a wide range of emotions from happiness to anger, embarrassment and sadness … strong displays of emotion, especially negative emotions such as anger or irritation are taken as lack of discipline and can cause loss of face … (pp.41-2)

Laotians tend to avoid correcting others in all but extreme cases …when correction is necessary it will be given in a softened form, roughly translated as ‘I think this is better’.  Alternatively, it can be appropriate to offer to do something for a superior rather than point out his mistake (p 44)

Making complaints is rare… The high status of teachers means that complaints about schooling are avoided.  In Australia, students are likely to drop out of class rather than complain … In general, complaints are avoided because they create disharmony and because it is usually felt that nothing can be done to alter the state of affairs and complaining is a waste of time (pp47-8)

It is rare to make a direct request … A request from an older person or a superior sounds very brusque if translated into English.  Requests from subordinates or younger people are frequently implicit rather than explicit …If the request is made explicit, the reasons for making the request are always given first… (pp48-9)

Commitments to do something are often not seen as binding and time limits are very seldom put on expressions of willingness to do something.  If a person says that he will do something is usually means that if he can, he will and if he cannot, he will not.  If a person, having said that he will do something, subsequently fails to do it, then he might say:  ‘I’m sorry, I forgot’ and this would be accepted as an adequate reason for failure to do the promised action.”  (pp50-1)

While it is possible to refuse a request, the way that this is done varies according to the strength of the ties of friendship or obligation that exist between the two people…  might suggest a later date on which the person making the request could talk to him [which is] understood as a refusal.  … For small things, such as being asked to a party, it is usual to refuse by citing a prior engagement.  (pp53-4)

Expressing anxiety … There is no distinction between fear and nervousness.  Expressions of pleasure are muted and are primarily conveyed through intonation … it is not usual to open gifts in front of the give or to express pleasure … A gift produces an obligation which will be repaid at a future date … Pleasure [in relation to food] is shown by eating the food … (p.55-6)

Rather than stating boldly that something is liked or disliked, it is usual to approach the subject indirectly.  The reason for linking or disliking something is stated rather than the fact of like or dislike … others will remain silent rather than disagree … People seldom talk about their personal likes and dislikes because it is felt that such things are of no interest to others (p.57)

People usually tend to downgrade their abilities and achievements as to do otherwise would be interpreted as boasting or immodest behaviour and as such would be severely criticised … It is rare to state opinions or to agree or disagree directly.  Instead, reasons are given for or against a particular opinion and the listener is left to draw his own conclusions … On all occasions, being forced to admit fault involves loss of face.  People avoid putting themselves or others in a situation that involves admitting being wrong … The appropriate response to the query ‘do you understand?’ is to smile and say nothing. (pp59-63)

In general, Laos do not apologise as much as Australians, especially for minor offences.  For major offences, restitution is expected… Relative age and status is more important in determining the depth of the apology than the degree of the offence… It is very rare to pay anyone a compliment [or to congratulate] … People never comment on how beautiful a baby is.  Instead it is usual to say that the baby is ugly as this discourages the spirits from taking the baby[!]  (p.66-8)

It is not normal to offer either food or drink to a visitor; rather it is assumed that a visitor will drink and it is automatically provided.  The guest would be asked, ‘have you eaten?’  It is usual to give a negative answer, and it is expected that the guest would then either join the family in eating or if the family had already eaten, to eat by himself…   (p.69)

And finally …

Exchanging small-talk

In general, people tend not to talk about themselves, their own activities or problems.  It is also unusual to ask people about their interests or to talk about personal interests as the assumption tends to be that personal interests are of no interest to others.  People do, however, talk about other people’s activities, often in a critical way.  This acts as an important regulator of social activity as people are often reluctant to do things that might result in others criticising them.  …  questions on age, marital status … number of children and whether or not contraception is used[!] …

People also talk about jobs but mainly in relation to wages and promotion prospects … common to ask about the cost of an item … An account of the cost of various things bought for children can function as a way to showing degree of affection for the children 

Educated men might talk about politics but few women would do so.  Sport is a popular topic among men but not women who tend to talk about traditional women’s concerns – fashion, cooking, handicrafts and the family.  … It is not polite to express lack of interest in a topic of conversation nor to attempt to change the subject.  Both can be accomplished by falling silent and not commenting on what the speaker is saying.  (pp71-2)

Wow, it will be really interesting to reflect back on this further down the track.  I suppose I’ve highlighted (without commenting ‘directly’ as such – see, I’m learning) particular points that I envisage having some personal difficulties with.  As I stated above, my own fundamentally (privileged) Western ideals and expectations, combined with a feminist and (I hope) socially just perspective, may well have to take on some new forms of agency and performance over the ensuing 12 months!

References:

Language & Culture: Laos  Background notes for teachers in the Adult Migrant Education Program by Jean Brick (1984)  Book produced by the NSW Adult Migrant Education Service (borrowed from Deakin University Library)

Cultural orientation to Australian workplaces by Dr Lynda Achren (Fine Print vol 36#2 2013)