After my arrival in Ban Sikeud on 21 February 2019, Pauline Faix, (Team VII), introduced to me Ms Bounpheng Singhalath,1 my tandem-partner during my internship at the Ban Phang Heng primary school. The more time I spent with her the better I got to know her. I experience her as a woman with a lot of drive. Her weekly schedule is fully packed: Preparing lessons, holding lessons, doing office work in school, taking extra teacher-lessons to improve her English, looking after two small daughters and her elderly parents while her husband stays in barracks over the week because he is a soldier.
This gave me food for thought. With Ms Bounpheng’s husband absent for most of the week, her weekly routine resembles that of countless single mothers all around the globe, and I found myself wondering how exactly she manages to take care of so many responsibilities and tasks with that particular ease that she radiates.
She was brought up in poor conditions but always had bigger ambitions. She worked very hard to become a teacher and made her way by going to school, working in a factory for four years to earn and save up money for university, then studying English, and finally becoming a teacher.
I asked Ms Bounpheng for an interview so that she would tell me – and you – her story.
With Prof. Martin‘s assistance, I drew up the following questions. For better readability, some of the answers were slightly edited.
When were you born?
BS: On 2 September 1980, I was born in Naxone Village.
For how long have you been married?
BS: Yes, about ten years ago.
Do you have children? How old are they?
BS: Yes I have. I have two daughter. The first, she is 8 years old. The second 4 year old.
What is/was the occupation of your parents?
BS: My parents no occupation. They are older.
Did they work before?
BS: They are farmer.
Which subjects do you teach?
BS: I teach English subject.
For how long have you been teaching at Ban Phang Heng primary school?
BS: I taught primary Phang Heng about 4 year.
(Editor’s note: Before this, BS taught English at Phang Heng secondary school.)
How long do you study to become a teacher in Laos?
BS: I study in university General English for 5 years.
What is your opinion about our tandem-teaching programme?
BS: I like, of course, because I need to learn the new team and technique I can check the move English for me and children. Yes, the programme my opinion I want to the student learn the English and I want student know speak English and student know the English with guest come to school or with the teacher foreigner come to school.
Has this changed your English?
BS: Yes, I can talk the English more and I can learn the new technique and I can learn the vocabulary more.
Has this changed your teaching ?
BS: Yes. Has the better. Example: For me I can develop the English and I can more know the English after the first I start here I don’t the English but I can know the English I can improve than last year.
Has this changed your intercultural competence?
BS: Yes, the team come they know the culture in Lao same the culture some in German and Lao and talk together about the culture in Lao. Example: For the teacher wear the skirt, Lao skirt and T-shirt some day and uniform the teacher. But in Germany wear the clothes comfortable or easy for the people but in Lao no. I like wearing sinh.
Do you now learn differently than you used to learn?
BS: It is different. I learn the writing and listening and the vocabulary and write with the programme.
(Editor’s note: Using a notebook for creating worksheets, for example. The notebook was a donation.)
Where do you live now?
BS: I live in Naxone village. I was born and the same I live.
Can you describe this place, please?
BS: From the school to Naxone village about 6 km far away.
What is it like? Is it big village?
BS: Oh yes. Many, many house in Naxone village not me only. Look like Sikeud village, the same. We have market.
Where did you grow up?
BS: Yes, my parents’ house was born no. My mother was born in Naxone village and my father from Luang Prabang Province. I was born in Naxone village in my parents’ house.
What does your parents’ house look like?
BS: Look like the middle house. Not big and not small.
How many people lived in your parents’ house when you were a child?
BS: About 6 people. My parents and my first sister, my second sister and my younger brother live in my house.
How many inhabitants live in Naxone village?
BS: About 560 people. I think for me big village.
Can you tell me about your siblings?
BS: I have siblings. I have two sisters and one brother. The first sister. She is 50 years old. She is a doctor in hospital in Naxaythong District. And second sister. She is is 45 years old. She is a worker in the factory. She has worker but now she cannot work. She is not health good and I have one brother. He is 40 years old. He is a worker. My brother is not live with me. He live in Xanthong District. He has a scientist.
You grew up in Naxone village in your parents’ house. What was it like to grow up there?
BS: Growing up in my house, we are happy and we are the move I cannot explain. We start small but now big. But now I don’t live with my parents. I move with my husband, with my daughter near from the far away with my parents. One kilometer. My brother and sister live with my parents. Two, the first she is a doctor. She moves with her husband and my brother he live in Xanthong District.
What was your childhood like with 4 children in total?
BS: I like it and my parents live small and the big for the 4 children in house. I like big family. I share room with my sisters. And my brother had a different room.
Do you have memories of your early school life?
BS: I learn the study. The first learn study alphabet in Lao in Naxone school I learn the alphabet in Lao language not the English I learn the English for the secondary school but I don’t know the English and the I go out the English to the university but I don’t know the English. I can try to read, write and listening and I can write notes when I don’t understand. I can note, I can read it, I have time but I don’t understand, I cannot ask teacher.
What did your school look like?
BS: Yes, I have the same this year but older the table older the chair when I learn alphabet in Lao. To the school I walk not ride the motorbike, ride not bicycle, I walk to school everyday. Not by Tuktuk. No no, I don’t have money. Maybe 30 minutes. Same way like secondary school to the villa. I walk. I can try to learn about to school everyday.
How was the school equipped?
BS: We had boards with chalk. When I study the primary school about 12 students in one class. Sometimes different more students 20 or 30 but for me learn 12 a class.
What subjects were taught?
BS: Lao language, math, biology and geography. I remember 10 subjects but I cannot remember I can speak to you. I can write in primary school.
How long did you go to primary school?
BS: 6 years. Secondary school 3 years. I move to the Wasang village. I move the primary school and the high secondary school in Wasang school not Naxone village only. There is no secondary school in Naxone village.
So you lived in Naxone village and walked to secondary school?
BS: I have a motorbike. Oh no, I have a bicycle, very old bicycle for my sister, my brother give to me. Some day my motorbike broken. I go with my friend. Some day I cannot come to school because I don’t have motorbike.
What happened after secondary school?
BS: Highschool 3 years in Naxaythong district.
What subjects were taught there?
BS: Biology, Lao language, the English and sport and history and geography. English to the high school to the university.
So you went to high school for 3 years and after that you went to university?
BS: After high school I go to the worker in the factory. I stayed about the 4 years. Sometimes I work in the “Trio” factory 2 years. In the “Bimack” [a factory] in Sikay Village two year. After works I have more money I go the secondary again. I stop the study I go to the work factory for the make the work for the money to pay education. I worked 4 years to get to university. I was born in poor my house not rich.
What did your parents think about school?
BS: Nothing, my parents we are work farmer not more students. They think school is important.
Who paid for your education and upkeep?
BS: My parents give a time to me and I have time I can pay I can to work and my husband sent money to me that I can go to school [university]. My parents pay for secondary school and high school. But the university… no.
Why did you want to become a teacher? Why English?
BS: I like the teacher [the profession of being a teacher]. When I study in high school I don’t know the English. My friend talk with me: “You don’t know the English. I think you cannot a teacher.” No, I think I go to the teacher and I want to the English teacher and not another subject not another biology, photography, history. I don’t like. I like English. If you look at me, I told my friend. I want to an English teacher. My decide.
What do your parents think about you becoming a teacher?
BS: No problem. My parents said: “It’s up to you. If you want the English teacher, if you want to worker. Up to you.” No, I want to be English teacher only. (smiles)
Did you ever think about becoming a farmer like your parents?
BS: No, I like only the teacher. No option for me.
Are your parents proud of you having become a teacher?
BS: Yes, my parents and my husband: “Oh, you can do it.” Yes of course. I want to improve the English. I want to learn. My friend come to school from Madame [Engel], say to me have a project to the… for the teacher English good. Thank you for the project have a teacher come to me. Another people I don’t know but for me I like and I can talk and I can speak English because some work I do it with together and I can show my friend when I worker or when I study in high school my friend talk with me: ‘”Oh, you not a teacher English.” No, I can try. But now I can Teach English. I can happy now. I can proud. I am a teacher. Thank you for my parents give a time to me and thank you for Madame give a time to me and I can speak English very well from her. Because [before] her [she] said: “No, why you don’t answer me?” When I saw her, I go to the toilet. I’m afraid of her when I saw the teacher from Germany, I afraid of her. But now I can talk, I can speak. When I don’t know I can ask them. Thank you for my friend don’t like me and don’t talk with me: “You don’t speak English.” But now I can speak English. I am teacher. I like it.
Was your parent’s schooling different?
My parents think of me: “Yes, you can do it and you can speak English with foreigner.” And my friend think…When with my friend foreigner come to my house I can interview to them. My father he is: “Oh, you very good.” My father can speak English some words. My mother no. He know the English, he know the Lao language. He [she] don’t to school my mother. My father went school. My father he learn another subject in temple. When he was young he is the Buddha. He learn the Lao language in temple not in the school. My father say when he was young he not the money, he has a war, World War II.
Do you raise your daughters in the same way your parents raised you?
BS: I don’t know in the future but in the future I want to my daughter the first she is the doctor. And my second daughter I want to she is the policeman or soldier. In the future but I don’t know my daughter. I have a plan but my daughter don’t have a plan. But my daughter she like it doctor.
What is the same, what is different in their upbringing?
BS: Yes, different. When I was young I can poor money, but my daughter I cannot for the money I can pay. Give to her. Another, if you want to go to the doctor her to the doctor. I can pay give to her. The second, she want to learn I can pay to her. I cannot poor.
How important is the opinion of others to you?
BS: My best friend, she is the important for me. My friend is important to me. Every time when I have time talk with her, if I do it Activity (Editor’s Note: “Activity Time”) I can show her, I can ask her some I write or I long the I ask her all the time. This is important.
What is your motivation to be part of our programme?
BS: The programme I ask the student the move the English [help pupils who wish to “move” by improving their English]. They know the English and I want to be the parent for me student interesting the English more. I want the students to learn more.
What are your wishes for the future?
BS: If impossible I want to go to Germany I want to invite [visit] my friend Svenja and Jessica.2 I want to know he [how she] live in Germany.3 The same me or different me. I want to know. I have more friends in Germany [from other previous teams].
What are your wishes for the future of our project?
BS: Before the student I want the student come to visit another country and China, Germany, Thailand, and Vietnam. Important that student go to another country, because some student move or speak English the better. They can more. The parent can send to them to another country. Learn about culture and another country.
Thank you very much!
It is always a special treat when one of our Lao partners agree to do an interview4 and share photos, because it gives us and our readers a more personal impression of Laotian culture, living conditions, and what it takes to “move”.
Thank you, Ms Bounpheng, for your readiness to answer my questions and for sharing so many thoughts and details of your life story!
Text and interview by E. Heinz, with notes by I. Martin
Interviewee: B. Singhalath
Photos by V. Wecker & B. Singhalath
1 Other blog articles by Ms Bounpheng: “The teacher vunlunteer from Germany” by Bounpheng Singhalaht” (21.01.2016); “Letters from Laos – ‘My ongoing education as an English teacher’ by Ms Bounpheng Singhalath“(20.12.2017).
3 The Lao third person singular does not differentiate gender.
4 Editor’s note: Previous article-interviews on this blog and interview-videos on “Live documentation”:
Spotlight on intercultural encounters – An interview with Ms Mittaphone Sichampa and Ms Phovang Inthavong by M. Weis (4 March 2019); Interview with an Chilean expat in Vientiane – The Bacan Café by M. Frahm & J. Unterweger (1 March 2019); Traditional Lao weaving – an interview with Ms Khamsee Thanbounhueang by M. Linder & N. Wickmann (15 February 2019); Karate Kid(s) – how Mr Sai ignites a spark for karate in his pupils by S. Walschburger (27 March 2018); A wish for better education – An interview with Mr Khamsing Nanthavongdouangsy by M.-T. Kirsten (23 February 2018); The good soul of Ban Phang Heng Secondary school – An interview with Ms Saysamone Singhalath by L. Malchow (5 February 2018); Farewell to Hilderstone College – an interview and letter from England by Ms Mittaphone Sichampa by L. Shutler (2 September 2017); An Interview with Lathsamy Chanthavongsa by I. Stryj (4 April 2016); Interview with Bouangeun and Souphaphone by F. Frister (28 January 2016). Interviews with pupils by Team IV on “Live documentation”.