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

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

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

One Week Pre-departure

I have just spent four days at my ‘pre-departure briefing’ – information, advice, networking, and an absolute brain overload!  And too much food.

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As the departure date looms, I just have to maintain the pace – fill in all those little bits, tick off the ‘to do’ list (that really only exists in my overloaded head) and go through all the doubts, worries, trepidations and fears that are to be expected before setting off on a big journey.

During the four days of the briefing I learnt all of the rules for what I (we volunteers and ‘representatives of the government of Australia’) should and shouldn’t do, say or think.  What to say and what not to say, how to behave and how not to behave.  We learnt that there are people employed to support us on our ‘missions’ (my word, not theirs) and there is in-country, international and support from home if we find ourselves in need.  I learnt that our roles involve ‘capacity building‘ (the new catch cry for international aid).

Overall, I learnt that a hell of a lot has changed since I volunteered 22 years ago.  That changes in line with neo-conservative government have far flung consequences that have a significant role in how we might attempt to live a meaningful life.  That our ‘freedom’ only extends so far in what we are able to do, to say, to choose.  Or to share.

I have organised two ‘see you later’ parties to share with friends and family.  I have spent time with my gorgeous children and organised for their trip to come and see me for Christmas.  I have said farewell to my dog, my house, and my life in its current state.  One of my colleagues at the briefing said ‘oh, but it’s only a year’!  I think of a year in my child’s life and it is huge.  I want my year to be huge too.  We only have so much time in this life – I want to make the most of all of it.

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One Month Pre-departure

Got my motorcycle (scooter) licence

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Ready for the op-shop pickup

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All vaccinations completed…

Put on weight (thanks dad)

Read up on Laos history

Met up with my new Lao volunteer colleagues 🙂

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Joined Savannakhet expats Facebook group

Burned 20 yeDSC_0283ars of tax returns, bank statements, bill payments

Celebrated my son’s 21st birthday

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