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Intercultural experiences in Sri Lanka and Laos – a comparison

Since our time in Laos is coming to an end, we contemplated the best way to wrap up the last three months in Laos and at the Lao-German Technical College in writing, as a summary for our readers.

In March 2018, we – Svea and Tara, graduates from Mainz University (Germany) – were accepted as guest volunteers into the BHS programme here, after a similar teaching experience in Sri Lanka. Therefore, a comparison of our observations and experiences in Sri Lanka and Laos appears to be a reasonable approach to honour our time here.

 

Sinhs and Sarees

The very first thing that we noticed about Laos was the dress code. While female teachers and staff in Sri Lanka wear sarees, female lecturers and administrative personnel in Laos are required to put on sinhs. Personally, we were very happy about this change of clothes because sinhs are not half as complicated to put on as sarees. Even a practiced hand needs at least twenty minutes to properly adjust a saree, whereas it takes only a few seconds to slip into a sinh.

A saree consists of roughly six meters of fabric that is wrapped around you. The sinh, on the other hand, is merely a skirt with a layover, which allows you to sit on the floor cross-legged with no bare skin showing. Both versions come in many different shapes and colours, even in black, which is a fashionable colour in the West. Both are usually made of silk or cotton.

Education

Regarding the education systems we worked in, there were very few differences, as both the Sri Lankan and Lao colleges offer vocational training programmes in a very similar way. Both combine theory with practice and offer workshops in which the students develop their practical skills with special equipment provided by the school for each department. In fact, the SLGTI (Sri Lanka-German Training Institute) incorporates six different sections, i.e. the Food, Construction, Electrical, Mechanical, ICT, Mechanical, and Automotive departments. The LGTC also offers studies in six different fields, which are Automotive, Metal machinery, Electro-Electronics, Welding-Plumbing, Heavy Equipment, and Agro-Machinery. Both institutions concentrate on teaching their students both practical and technical skills.

The students’ behaviour is equally respectful, reticent, and shy. However, as soon as they get to know you, they surprise you with their enthusiam and motivation. It needs to be said, though, that the level of English proficiency of Lao students is very low – even by comparison to the North of Sri Lanka, which is just at the brink of economic development. The underdeveloped state of this certain part of the Sri Lanka is mainly due to the fact that these parts of the country suffered the most during and after the long years of war that just ended roughly a decade ago.1

However, Sri Lanka’s literacy rate is exceptionally high: 92% of the population is able to read and write. This is remarkable and highly unusual for a developing country, and it is indeed the highest in all South East Asia. Laos, on the contrary, scores a literacy rate around 79% at present. However, estimations vary (one finds deviant figures in different sources).

Due to the fact that English is a lingua franca2 between the two major ethnic groups, many people, in particular in the highly developed South, speak English very well. In fact, Sri Lanka is home to Singhalese as well as Tamil people. These two groups are not only (mostly) separated geographically, with Singhalese people living in the West and South of the island and Tamils inhabiting the East and North, but they also grow up with different mother tongues. Even though there are individuals that are able to speak both languages, English is commonly used to overcome this barrier and is therefore considered a valuable new subject in schools.

By comparison, Laos still is aiming to improve when it comes to increasing and acknowledging the importance of the English language in the new global context, especially in view of the role English plays towards a successful ASEAN integration (English has been the “lingua franca” in the ASEAN since 2016). Institutions like the LGTC are therefore seen as beacons in this context, and they will surely live up to the challenge.

In fact, both the cooperations between the University of Mainz (Germany) and the GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, Society of International Cooperation) in Sri Lanka and the project coordinated by the PH Karlsruhe and BHS Corrugated in Laos follow a similar goal and strategy. Both intend to increase the English level at the respective institutions. The PH project, however, does this work at the level of teacher education.

In the BHS Laos project, there are two groups of volunteers that are split up between the two places, i.e. the three schools in Sikeud (7 volunteers) and the LGTC in Vientiane (3 volunteers). However, we did not join the project under the usual circumstances, but volunteered as external applicants to work at the LGTC during the summer this year.

The project in Sri Lanka caters to the different centers and colleges that are part of the VTN project. Depending on the number of volunteers (which so far spanned from 2 to 6 per batch), we attended to schools and students there. By contrast, in Laos the didactic education of the teachers played the major role. While we mainly focused on the students during our time in Sri Lanka, the Laos project mainly provides education for the teachers who are interested in advancing their English skills. Therefore, in Laos, we implemented tandem-work on didactics and methodology.  In general, one can say that our work placement in Sri Lanka prepared us in an excellent way to take this a few steps further in Laos. The Laos project aims at enhancing future teachers’ practical skills for an international and intercultural context.

 

Diversity

The Asian continent offers a bountiful diversity of different cultures. In fact, Laos and Sri Lanka represent this fact each in their very unique way. First of all, both countries are mainly Buddhist. However, in Sri Lanka four different religions come together, i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.

When it comes to ethnic groups, Laos with its 49 different ethnic groups has more variety than Sri Lanka. Laos has plenty of communities that are spread all over the country, These are roughly divided into lowland, upland, and highland people, while Sri Lanka is basically divided into two ethnic groups, Singhalese and Tamil. In Laos, these numerous ethnic groups have lived in peace next to each other most of the time.3

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has suffered from a war between the two communities for decades, which ended in 2009, leaving particularly the Tamil North and East in an underdeveloped state. Since then, programmes such as the VTN project have been implemented to increase skilled labour in the area. Furthermore, it brings together students from both groups in one classroom to counteract further separation.

 

Food and Drink

Moreover, we were instantly struck by the huge difference in the menus. The food in Sri Lanka was mainly based on pastries and rice, with rice and curry being omnipresent. The plain dosai s originally an Indian dish but available all over Sri Lanka and usually served with different kinds of curries.

Laos, however, presented itself with a diversified cuisine. We were astonished by the variety of dishes with all kinds of vegetables and meat. Our favourite food is crispy noodles with a variety of vegetables and chicken in a thick broth.

Even though using chopsticks is not a Lao custom in particular – the Lao either eat with their hands or use cutlery – chopsticks can be found in any restaurant and accompany most of the meals. This was exceptionally challenging for us since we both were not familiar with it at all.

After all meals people in Sri Lanka tend to drink a milk tea for good digestion. This  follows the British tradition of adding milk (and sugar) to black tea. Sri Lankans, however, prefer to create a similar effect with milk powder, which makes the tea even sweeter and thicker. It is also always served hot.

Being highly attached to our cherished Sri Lankan daily teatime routine, we were faced with difficulties in Laos. The first surprise was that it was difficult to find a Lao version of it, since it only seemed to be available at a certain time of day. The next surprise was the orange colour of the drink, which seemed rather unnatural.

We came to learn that this version was something totally different: The Lao use green tea as a basis and add an orange-coloured powder, which results in this appearance. Furthermore, it is not only served warm, but also cold, with lots of crushed ice. After being sceptical initially, we have now come to cherish it.

Both these very different countries have impressed with their very own charm and warmth. Overall, we can highly recommend to seek any possibility to dive into the (working) culture and everyday life of both countries.

As regards us two – we will surely come back!

 

Text by S. Röhm & T. Wedemeyer

Photos by T. Wedemeyer, S. Röhm & M. Fonseka

 

Notes

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Sri_Lanka Accessed 16 July 2018 12:30 pm IST: Sri Lanka is governed as a semi-presidential representative Democratic Republic. The President of Sri Lanka is both Head of State and Head of Government, and of a multi-party system. The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos, on the other hand, is a one-party socialist republic. Unlike Sri Lanka, Laos is also listed as a HIPC (highly indebted poor country).

2 The term “lingua franca” defines a language that is used for communication in between groups that do not share the same mother tongue. However, this term is controversial in the 21st century, as critics and linguists such as David Crystal have pointed out: It is a relic from British colonial rule and is now related to the American influence.

3 However, in the sixties, Laos was heavily bombed during the so-called “Secret War”, in which the US released an estimated number of 270 million cluster bombs over this small country. Laos is the most heavily-bombed country in the world per capita in world history. The US were attempting to support the Royal Lao government against the Pathet Lao over a course of 9 years. For further reference see Education in Laos (Part II) – Parallel education systems during the Lao Civil War (1954 -1975)

4 The Vocational Training in the North and East of Sri Lanka (VTN) project is a cooperation between Sri Lanka and Germany and funded by the GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit – Cooperation for International Collaboration) with support of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung, BMZ). The project addresses demand-driven education in the North and East of Sri Lanka to further the economic as well as independent growth of the region.

5 Before British rule both major ethnic groups, Singhalese and Tamil, lived peacefully next to each other. However, segregation was propelled at multiple occasions. This has its roots in the British occupation, in which the country was still called Ceylon. British rulers supported a communal representation by placing the capital Colombo in between the two major areas of the country. (The West and South are dominated by the Singhalese population, while the North and the East are mostly populated by Tamil people.) Afterwards, more and more acts and rules were imposed that eventually led to a dominating Singhalese representation in the country, which is still present to this day. The Ceylon Civil Act in 1948, for example, stripped away the citizenship of Indian Tamils – making them stateless overnight. As a result, many were deported so that when they were finally acknowledged full citizenship only a small number of Indian Tamils remained in the country. This was followed by the change from English to Sinhala as the official language, making it impossible for non-Sinhala speakers to continue their work in the public sector. These and several other matters led to an uprising of the terrorist group Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighting for an independent state. The conflict lasted nearly 30 years and was eventually settled in 2009.

6 Many dishes included carrots, leek, sprouts, onion, and silverbeet.

References:

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/lingua-franca Accessed 16 July 2018 12:59 pm IST
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_Laos Accessed 16 July 2018 1:29 pm IST
http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/ Accessed 16 July 2018 1:43 pm IST
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Civil_War Accessed 16 July 2018 11:02 am IST
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos Accessed 18 July 2018 5:47 pm IST
http://www.mohe.gov.lk/index.php/en/about-ministry/overview Accessed 21 August 2018 11:11 am ECT
https://www.indexmundi.com/laos/literacy.html Accessed 21 August 2018 11:12 am ECT
http://www.davidcrystal.com/?id=3541 Accessed 23 August 2018 12:26 ECT

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