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My first impressions of Laos, its people, and schools – by Sara Stöhrer

I have been here for 10 days now and would like to share some of my first impressions with you.

Laos is a very beautiful and green country. When you fly from Bangkok (Thailand) to Vientiane (Laos) it is super interesting how the landscape changes from accurately planned streets and fields, set up in parallel lines, to a green country of just a few streets and houses. There are, indeed, not a lot of good streets here as far as I can tell. The street to our house, for example, is very bumpy and dirty. When it is dry, the street brings a lot of dust that makes it hard to breathe without coughing, and when the street is wet, the road is filled with puddles and it gets very slippery and muddy.

When I first met the teachers at Ban Phang Heng secondary and primary school, I had a hard time understanding them. They were all very happy to meet me and wanted to ask me all kinds of questions, but because I wasn’t used to their pronunciation yet, I could not really understand them. I could see the disappointment in their faces and felt bad for not understanding them. The teachers mostly struggle with the pronunciation of final consonant sounds, so if they want to say “Nice to meet you” it sounds more like “Ni to mee you” ([Nai tu mi ju]). The Laotians I have met so far are very friendly: They invited me to their house, their wedding, or to have dinner with them and they even secretly paid for the meal at a restaurant.

 

Before coming here I was told that Laos is a very poor country, so I thought that I had to watch my belongings all the time so they would not get stolen. However, here in Sikeud, you can leave your bike or scooter in front of a shop without locking it and it will still be there when you come back again. The same goes for our house: It is almost never locked and thieves would have an easy job stealing from us. This part of not having to worry about your things being stolen is definitely something that I am going to miss.

Laos is a country that is very different from Germany. When greeting a person, for example, you do not shake hands, but you bow down with your hands put together in front of you. What is interesting and weird to me is that students at school that are taller than me bow down very low to make themselves shorter than me. This is one of the many cultural customs that I have to get used to. Another one is that the Laotians in Ban Sikeud take off their shoes when entering a shop. But not only that is different: In school, teachers and students all wear uniforms. The teachers have a brown uniform and the students a black skirt or black pants and a white shirt. Whenever they have a school break the pupils are allowed to take off their uniforms and put on street wear. The lunch break here is extraordinarily long and goes from 11:30 to 13:30. In that time some pupils go to the market nearby or their parents come to school to bring them food. Others go to the cafeteria on campus where one can get noodle soup, rice and curry, all kinds of candy, and sodas. The food in Laos is usually very spicy and often you cannot really tell what you are eating or you can tell what it is and therefore do not want to eat it, like roasted grasshoppers, toads, or a chicken claw. At least I don’t want to eat it – but other team members are more courageous and try eating it.

The elementary school children are very cute and some try to put into practice what they have already learned to say in English. They come up to us volunteers and say “hello”, “good morning”, “good afternoon” or “what’s your name?”

Every (English) lesson Lao-style here is pretty much the same: The teacher introduces words and makes the pupils speak after him/ her many times, which creates a very loud noise in the classroom when there are 60 pupils shouting and repeating after the teacher. After that, the teacher writes the new English words or something in Lao on the board and the students have to copy it into their exercise-books. End of lesson.

I am very surprised how calm the pupils remain during those lessons because in German elementary school classes the children would probably not be able to sit through all their classes like that if they were held in that way. When playing a language game in class, though, you can tell that they are very happy to be doing something different and fun.

Every day I teach a Lao elementary school teacher from Ban Phang Heng school in English. I took a long time to realize how very different Lao and English are. There are next to no accordances! Obviously they differ in letters or signs and also in sounds. Moreover, Lao does not even use punctuation at all. Things like a period/full stop, comma, or exclamation mark are simply a mystery to them, let alone capital letters. What makes communicating with non-English speakers difficult, too, is that Laotians do not use gestures or body language to talk. Consequently, talking with one’s hands and feet does not help them understand what I am trying to say. In school this makes teaching English to the children very challenging as they are not used to discovery learning and cannot try to figure out what the other party is saying. Instead they just repeat after you. It takes a lot of patience to keep on trying to make them understand and still use gestures. But I must say that after a while the children usually understand what I am trying to communicate to them. So I am very curious to see where this project is leading us and I am looking forward to seeing the teachers and the children improving their English more and more as well as getting used to new teaching methods.

Text & photos by S. Stöhrer

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