“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (Heraclitus)
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a new series about learning to work with Lao partners, written by an expert and ex-pat. Ms Beate Pinisch spent the first 25 years of her life in East Germany and studied agriculture. She met her future Lao husband at university and subsequently moved to Laos with him. All in all she spent more than 20 years in Laos and held different jobs in different environments: From the Prime Minister’s Office to the smallest and poorest villages in the South of Laos. She worked for big international organisations – multinational and bilateral, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and private firms. After those two decades she finally realized that the grass on the other side of the river is greener and went to check it out. She worked in Cambodia and Myanmar, moved to Thailand and later on to the Philippines. She then followed her family members to Europe and now lives in one of Germany’s greenest cities: Karlsruhe.
Imagine moving from Asia back to Germany after two decades, just on a whim – following where your finger points to on a map: in this case Karlsruhe.
Imagine further having co-authored a long-forgotten booklet called “How to work with your Lao partner”, and then somebody, half a world away from Lao PDR, researching intercultural communication with Lao people, thus finding the booklet online, tries to locate one of the authors of exactly this booklet, and this somebody happens to be exactly from your city! This happened to me early in 2017.
Out of the blue, I was contacted by Prof. Martin, who asked if we could meet for coffee in town. Our first chat about Laos turned into a three-hour conversation. Soon after, I received another message asking whether I would be interested in visiting her seminar “Global English: Teaching English in Asia” as an expert guest. And now, after having held a guest lecture about “Linguistic and cultural barriers to language-learning”, I am finding myself writing my first contribution to the Laos blog of my “finder”.
What follows is not an exact repetition of my lecture, but an elaboration on a few selected issues. There will be more. Enjoy!
Differences in perception, cultural barriers
„The voyage of disovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.“ (Marcel Proust)
I firmly believe that we humans come with a built-in “rejector” of the experiences of other people and are therefore doomed to make our own experiences. This is fine as long as this does not cost us friendship, face, or reputation. Intercultural learning can help putting one’s strange experiences in context. Perhaps my contribution to this blog can help you grow your „new eyes“.
The blog is written by (mostly) young people with a special connection to Lao PDR. I am very happy to have been asked to contribute to it by giving some hopefully helpful insights into how to discover and remove linguistic and cultural barriers to communication and language-learning in Laos. I will concentrate on situations and features that may easily lead to misunderstandings, on differences in perception, and on situations where you – the volunteers working in this project or other foreigners working in Laos – might feel at a loss.
I am sure that you – readers – will find out we have lots of things in common with the Lao culture. I encourage you to go out and find those for yourselves, and from the articles published here so far, I can tell that this has been an ongoing process from the start.
The graduates and students of the PH Karlsruhe arriving in Laos probably have two basic concerns: How to deal with the challenges of such a different culture, and how to make the learning of the English language more effortless and worthwhile for their pupils, students, and tandem-teachers.
Let us first talk about some daily issues, because this is where communication starts.
Punctuality: What you see and what you get
Germans have a reputation of being punctual. We need to be able to plan our day from morning to evening. I have even heard of people who plan every day of their holiday weeks before. And because we have lined up one event after the other (first hairdresser then car repair then hurried shopping because we might be late for whatever is planned for the evening), there will be a chain reaction if one of those is delayed.
If I chat too much with my hairdresser, I might lose my hard-won appointment with the car-repair person, or the shops might be closed, or its special offers expired or sold out… deadlines, deadlines, deadlines.
Different in Laos: If I have an appointment I go there to be there. To meet with other people, to exchange gossip, to enjoy myself, to catch up on events. Take the hairdresser example: Leaving the place with my hair done is just a pleasant side-effect of an hour of chatting, laughing, wondering, hearing shocking stories, and other such entertainment.
I have no appointment at the car repair shop, but my car needs an oil change. So I drive to the garage and am told to wait. I spend my waiting-time cheerfully chatting with other customers until I have my car back, oil changed and all. Or I come back later.
Editor’s note: I made a similar observation when I saw long-distance coaches break down en route. Everybody gets off the bus without showing surprise or displeasure, starts chatting or napping until someone spreads out a blanket and people start sharing their food. While they are having a picnic, someone eventually repairs the coach. This may take many hours by the looks of it, but people seem to enjoy the break.
The counter-culture shock comes back in Germany, at Frankfurt Airport, when I have barely waited in the arrivals queue at customs for maybe 5 minutes when the first person shoves their trolley into my heels because I do not inch forward instantly enough.
So why be angry at people who have other priorities? Having said that, I need to point out that in my personal experience this perception about punctuality only applies to private life. In all my years in Laos, my Lao colleagues were never ever late for a professional appointment. If anyone was late, it was the foreigners who had read about the “Lao rubber clock” in their travel guides and showed up half an hour late.
Privacy is much cherished in German society. We come home from work and close our door behind us. Mostly, we eat our meals alone or with immediate family or flatmates. If we have prepared an especially good meal or baked a nice cake, we might bring a bit of it to the (also closed) door of our favoured neighbour, who will accept the gift and close their door again to eat the food in privacy.
Do not expect privacy in Laos. The houses are built differently, and often doors are open when the inhabitant is in. There might be a fly screen that is closed, but one push and you are in the house. But of course you, as a polite person, will announce yourself with the loud question: “Yoo bo?” (anyone in?)
After the answer “yoo” (yes), you go in.
The first question will always be “have you eaten yet?”, and the polite answer is “yes”. You will be asked to sit down and will be given a glass of water or tea.
Then the small talk follows. It may happen that you admire a particularly beautiful wall hanging or make a remark on how well the coriander seems to grow in the neighbour’s garden, and you end up being offered the wall hanging and some coriander plants. Whatever is out in the open is there to be seen, touched, used, and commented upon. This includes – ladies, note this – cosmetics and other things in your bathroom.
Editor’s note: Reversely, when your Lao guests visit your flat for the first time, you will understand why they comment on and touch more or less anything that strikes their fancy. And as our rooms are very full of things by comparison, this may continue for a good while.
One could assume there is no privacy in Laos, but this would not be correct. There just are different boundaries. The sleeping room is taboo. No guest will ever enter the sleeping room in another home (except at weddings, but this is a different story). The contents of drawers is off-limits, too.
Some rural communities have established their own rules, depending on their ethnic traditions. In the course of my work I have come across villages where entering was forbidden by placing certain items, for instance straw ornaments or statuettes, at the village entrance. Another ethnic group had the custom of marking a house that should not be entered (because the inhabitants were out) by placing the ladder away from the house. Only when the ladder leans on the balcony, people may go in. Look at the house on the left: The ladder leans away from the house. Nobody is in.
Lao people feel a mix of horror and pity at our wish to be (left) alone. Being alone is terrible, an alien concept no Lao person is used to. Babies accompany their families everywhere, there are always siblings to play with, great-great uncles to visit, colleagues sitting in the same room, and friends for after-work parties. And this way, of course, people always know a person who knows a friend or a family member of yours.
Editor’s note: I interviewed 58 staff members at the Lao-German Technical college in the autumn of 2016 before establishing English classes there, to ascertain their individual spoken English language levels. To get a „conversation“ started, I tried the usual questions, what is your name, what is your job here? Those who were able to understand me I then asked whether they lived with their families or shared a room in the dormitory. I had noticed that some staff whose families lived too far away also lived in the students‘ dorm, and I was interested in finding out more about it. (At least I did not ask whether they lived alone in town.) When I asked them how many people they shared a room with, I was confronted with puzzled faces. They did not know or could not say exactly (“maybe 8”). After a few of those exchanges, I realised I was asking a culturally irrelevant question. Instead, I asked how many family members they had. This was met with clear interest, and I now got longer answers to listen to.
Whenever a German visitor came to my office, the lady at the reception desk would ask them whether they knew “Beate”. Both parties ended up perplexed: The German visitors at being asked such a question; the Lao receptionist at them not knowing me.
There are also very few taboos when it comes to asking for personal information. A favourite, especially when talking with foreigners, is always “how much is your monthly salary?” This particular question does not seem to be too popular among the Lao themselves, who have invented a very diplomatic reply. If you are asked this question, and you will be, just answer: ”Pho yoo pho kin” (enough to pay for housing and food).
Editor’s note: It was an exciting moment when Team III was first introduced to the Lao teachers in Phang Heng secondary school. A female teacher addressed the male volunteer: “You look very exciting”. There was uncertain laughter (did she mean „excited?“) when the next question came: „Are you single?“
This little flashlight on behaviour on a more personal level shall suffice for this time. Should you, my esteemed readers, not request me to write another piece along personal topics (comments are very welcome!), my next blog entry will deal with linguistic barriers of teaching English in Laos.
Text and photos by B. Pinisch
Editor’s notes by I. Martin