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

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Communication in Laos

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?
    • Occupations/workplaces
    • Family
    • 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)

Declaration of human rights in Lao

Sample text

Transliteration
Manut thuk khôn kœ̄t māmīkẏat sâk sī, sitthi, sēlī phôp læ khwôm smœ̄ phôp thàw thẏam kân. Thuk thuk khôn mīhēt phôn læ khwômkhit khwôm hian swàn tôw khɔ̄̄ṅ phai khɔ̄ṅ mân, tǣ̀vồ manut thuk thuk khôn khwan paphʉt tàṁ kân khʉ̄ kân kâp pianốy nɔ̄́ṅ kân.

Translation

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/lao.htm

Food adventures in Laos… because they always are an adventure!

Getting a ‘good’ (in the taste of the consumer of course) coffee is quite an adventure.  Whilst in Vientiane I regularly went on missions to get myself a ‘café Lao’ – now you would think that whilst in Lao, do as the Laotians do – well every time I asked for one it seemed they would look at me in confusion, usually say no, and no, we don’t know where you can get one.  Even places that proudly had their “coffee” signs displayed.

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The most authentico!

I thought I’d hit a jackpot when I asked this man, and he nodded, and proceeded to offer me a seat and make me a coffee in the ‘traditional’ way.  I would ask for ‘café dam, bo namtarn’ – black coffee – no sugar.  *I also found later that ‘no sugar’ meant nothing, I need to say bo sai namtarn – no take sugar – for it to make sense*  Now what he made me was certainly drinkable, but I was starting to wonder if my stomach would ever settle, and had to wonder about the ‘quality’ of the coffee he was serving.  But I did enjoy the ‘tea chaser’ a refresher served with every cup of coffee.

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Cafe Lao

My also newly arrived friends were looking for ‘real coffee’, like back home so we had some enjoyable but rather pricy cups of decent coffee at a few of the better establishments.  Once we arrived in Savannakhet we had to renew the search.  After a while I wasn’t craving it any more anyway, so I often stop by a little place near my work for a morning café Lao, and even reverted to agreeing to a dollop of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom – I actually needed a bit of a sugar fix at the start of the day.  So that is now my regular and I get to meet all sorts of interesting people – usually blokes who are sitting around, usually drinking tea, but always agree to me sitting with them at the table.

local-sttc-cafe

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I think that might be me! 

 

Our little ‘Avalon Café’ close by also now knows how we like our coffee (hot!) and treat us well, if with a bit of bemusement after we had a few of our Lao language lessons in there.

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Not my house – under the table at Teacher’s Day!

Of course coffee is but a small part of our culinary experiences.  I’ve also fully briefed (and will continue to do so) any reader of my predilection for local beers, in this case ‘Beer Lao’.  Taken to buying it by the crate load now that I have my own house and fridge to keep them in (12 bottles for 95,000 kip – $AUD15.70 – compared to the ‘normal’ price of 10,000 kip – $1.65 – per bottle from just about any random store).  Very happy with my Beer Lao – as most local people are getting to know.

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Making do for breakfast!

In Vientiane our hotel was very close to a fruit stall that served freshly cut ripe fruit.

Once in Savannakhet, we discovered that it was actually hard to find ripe (souk) fruit, especially cut up and ready to eat.  But the market is great and there are many choices of fresh produce available.  I tend to avoid the meat section and have never bought any – the closest I get is a tin of tuna.  Any dsc_0753meat dishes I save for going out – or the occasional nibble at a party or event.  But I do
love my fresh produce – oh the biggest juiciest
avocados and limes are heavenly!  Tomatoes and cucumbers are a hit, and a variety of greens and different types of fruits and vegetables.shopping5

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Yummy mango-steins!

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shopping1shopping7shopping6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often, dsc_0766my Lao work colleagues share their lunch with me.  They find my tastes pretty amusing, and my horror at some of their dishes.  I will try anything, but I won’t pretend to like it!   The fish was a winner, the frog and bamboo (image – thanks BouaKham) was not!  Sticky rice (the Lao specialty) rolled up with fingers and a bit of whatever is going is the regular offering.dsc_00131

 

 

 

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Trying to reciprocate the sharing with my vegemite sandwiches – not a hit with locals or foreigners alike!

 

 

 

 

 

 

white-house

Had a meal out with Bob (I’ve had many meals out with Bob…) at the ‘White House’ – so named because it is, well, White!  And clean white is pretty rare around here – an upmarket establishment sure but we have to try them all out!  Felt like a great place to drink Gin and Tonics on the terrace but it was lunch time so we made do with delicious icy cold fruit smoothies (no sugar added!).  We had a delectable salad with salmon, bacon, egg and greens, and a fabulous pizza – the best part being the buffalo milk mozzarella – delicious!

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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.

Laos Update – and apologies for the neglect… (Day 13!)

Aura Residences, Savannakhet, Laos 13th September 2016

http://www.booking.com/hotel/la/aura-residence.html

Check it out – it’s great!  All amenities, compact studio apartments, well located to walk to centre, all new, air con and excellent free wifi!  And we’re here for the next month…

  1. Finally got a decent internet service that can cope with WordPress!
  2. Starting to work out how to organise, sort, name, upload my photos…
  3. Moved to Savannakhet (5 hours drive south from Vientane)
  4. Been busy settling in:
    • looking for long term housing,
    • meeting work colleagues,
    • finding our way around town,
    • meeting locals and expats around town
    • keeping up with social media (phew is that ever hard work!)
    • Laos language lessons
    • finding decent coffee to drink (I’m not really fussy but it’s been fun trying)
  5. Completing our ‘in-country briefing’  5+ hours in the car and more…
  6. Did I mention drinking coffee, drinking beer, and socialising?

As you can tell, busy on important stuff!  I know I will have more time to do what I want to do with this site but for now, excuse my neglectful absence.  Still writing a lot in my journal, taking pictures, exploring the food and shopping options.  Cooking some meals and eating a range of different food out about town.  Having lots of conversations with people from around the world, and Lao people with more or less exposure to Westerners.

And to finish off, a collection of coffee shots from Vientiane (more on my mobile phone still to come – this uploading and formatting is taking me a long long time!)