The universal language of football – a perfect kick-off to the “The Laos Experience”

Arriving in Laos – a warm welcome & my first invitation to a game of football

I arrived in Lao P.D.R. – my very first experience abroad in Asia – on a, needless to say, very hot Tuesday in the middle of February 2019. When we ultimately reached our final destination, the Lao-German Technical College (LGTC), my roommate for the next two months (Mr Siegfried Hadatsch) and I were taken on our first tour around the campus immediately by Dilara Erdogan from Team VII. Since she had already stayed at the college for five months, she obviously knew every spot, every person, and every little foible all around the tiny, lovely campus.
She showed us the facilities and the different sections of the college while telling us shortcuts and giving us memorable tips. But most importantly, she introduced us to the many smiling, kind-looking faces we saw on our very first walk around our new workplace. Of course, many of the students – and the teachers as well – were curious and even a little nervous when they saw the first two members of the new team. Here came two strangers who would work, learn, talk, eat, laugh, and live with them for the next months. It even seemed that they were a bit more nervous than on other such occasions, as Dilara indicated – maybe because we were the first two males to take on the challenge of tandem-work at the LGTC.

All the more beautiful and surprising it was when – in our very first 15 minutes there – we accidentally met and got to know one of our first future colleagues, Mr Saythong Insarn, who immediately invited us to play in the teachers’ football match on the following day at 4:30 p.m. Of course, I thankfully accepted right away. Luckily I had brought my football boots with me, because Mr Johannes Zeck had mentioned in our very first talk about the project that many of the teachers play football together on a regular basis, which made me think I had better have them with me in case I got to use them one day during my two-months stay. Luggage-space well spent! Never would I have thought that this day would arrive on my second day already!

 

 

Overwhelming first impressions and a thoughtful first night

After our first walkaround at the LGTC, Dilara took us to the city centre. On our first tuk-tuk ride (an experience for itself), the vehicle broke down… twice! Paired with the other impressions – the smells, the food, the climate, the architecture, the people, the traffic, and the important spots like the Night Market, the Chao Anouvong park, the Me Kong promenade, and the best local restaurants, of course our culture-shock was getting more intense.
Nevertheless, we loved our first impressions and were as overwhelmed as we were happy. As we were about to spend our first night in our small, lovely bungalow, naturally I could not find sleep immediately, although I had not slept more than 45 minutes in the last 30 hours. Getting drowned in thoughts, I wondered whether it would be hard for me to find my own way of teaching and working alongside the LGTC teachers, because I did not have as much teaching experience as they had yet. Would I be able to handle all the tasks coming up?
This – combined with the intense sense of cultural novelties I had experienced on that first day – was positively challenging in one way, but quite frightening in another. I was thinking that of course everybody seemed so nice, but would I myself be able to get along with everybody while teaching and handling a variety of new tasks? Would I have problems because we do not share any other language than English? Would it be problematic that we maybe have other deeply rooted values because of the way we grew up?

 

Playing my first game of football in Laos

The next day was just as packed with intense impressions. We experienced the first morning in our bungalow, had appointments and insights at the campus meeting even more new people, then our first lunch meal at a soup kitchen, and much else. However, it was the appointment at 5:00 p.m. I was looking forward to the most: The football game with the teachers.
At 4:30 p.m. we met Mr Phonesouk Inthaxay – as it turned out later, he would be one of the teacher-students in my Pre-Intermediate class  – who took us to the stadium. Already during the ride Phonesouk and I got on very well with each other. We talked about football clubs and individual football players – luckily we liked the same clubs! He told me he loves BVB Dortmund in the German Bundesliga just as I do, and besides that we are both rooting for Real Madrid and Manchester United when it comes to the Spanish La Liga and the English Premier League.

When we arrived and got out of the air-conditioned van, I became aware of the prevailing heat again. It was almost 40 degrees Celsius. Luckily the “Victory Stadium” (& restaurant), where the game took place, was a sheltered hall without walls so the air could circulate and the strong sun did not shine directly down on us. It was an amazing feeling to see a football pitch with palm trees in the background.
I was also impressed by how many people from the LGTC that I met during the last one and a half days were present, as well as many others who I was glad to meet on this occasion for the first time. Not everyone I met there could speak English – or many were just too insecure or shy to speak English with a new volunteer who had just arrived in their midst. Even though my first impressions of the people I had met until then were great, I suddenly perceived a language barrier between many of us. Unlike Mr Phonesouk or most of the LGTC staff I met yesterday, many of my new acquaintances have not taken English lessons yet or only began to do so recently. I wondered how we would communicate on the pitch and how we would establish our strategic approach against our opponents.

The game was about to start. I was a little bit surprised to see that even the director of the LGTC, Mr Gnommilavong Khamsavay, participated and welcomed me as one of his team members. Johannes Zeck (“John”) also arrived in time and participated, while Dilara and Siegfried came to root for us.
KICKOFF!
Suddenly communication worked without speaking a word! Hand signs, facial expressions, body language – and the game itself showed us the way we needed to act together to be successful. Now and then I suddenly heard a few English terms from people I thought did not speak English!

Luckily my jetlag was not too bad, and the heat was bearable while having fun, fighting for each other and laughing, but I was still happy when I got into the shower afterwards. I realised my exhaustion only then. Coming back from the dressing-room, I saw all the friendly faces, which I had mostly met at the campus, but who I felt I had only just really gotten to know during our game, were sitting around a table. They were all smiling at me and invited me to sit with them. Dilara, Siegfried and John were there, too, well supplied with food and beverages. It was the first time since I arrived that I really had the time to conduct more extensive conversations with my new LGTC colleagues. Before this, I had rushed from one overwhelming impression and the next little smalltalk to the next.
Now, after having made contact by playing together as a team (or as opponents), many more of the people found the courage to talk to me. Even though many were not confident with their English, now they had the urge to talk to me/us. We talked about the game we played, talked about football in general, about my stay and the upcoming weeks, about Germany, Lao food, and many more subjects. The more time passed, the better we understood each other – it got rather late. Since we all still had quite a lot of work to do for the next day, after several hours we headed back home – but not without arranging the appointment for next week’s football match.

 

Starting to feel at home and getting into teaching

The next day – my third day in Lao P.D.R. only – I already felt very much at home in this place. Almost everyone I bumped into on campus I had already got to know in the two previous days – most of them during the football game. I felt this was simply a key to fully arrive here, much sooner and much more quickly than I could have imagined. My worries of the first night had completely vanished, and I was all the more highly motivated for the upcoming tasks. Living and working in Laos can be very spontaneous and impulsive – not to say sometimes chaotic (from a Western viewpoint) – and this often leads to very challenging, rapidly changing tasks. Through all this, there always was this stable point of reference for me: The football game on Wednesdays at 5:00 p.m. at the Victory Stadium.

Even though the football team of Laos never made it to a World Cup1 and is only ranked at 188 out of 209 countriesin FIFA’s Men’s world ranking, football seemed ubiquitous in this country for me. When I walked around Vientiane Night Market, I did not only see football kits being sold at many of the stalls, but there were almost always some Lao teenagers in sight wearing a football shirt of a player they admired. When I and my colleagues went on a bus trip to Laos’ former royal city Luang Prabang, which is situated about 250 kilometers north of Vientiane, or when we were riding our bicycles along the Me Kong, discovering further small villages for ourselves, every few kilometres we saw children playing football. Sometimes they played on sophisticated football pitches, for instance at some of the better-equipped Lao schools, or sometimes just on a field with makeshift goalposts. Some children I never met before even invited me to get off my bike and take some goal shots with them.

All of this makes football always a part of my memories – besides the wonderful people, the amazing food experiences, and the beautiful nature – when I think about Laos and reminisce about the wonderful time I have spent in this beautiful country.

Text by T. Pelka

Photos by T.Pelka & S. Hadatsch

 

Notes

1 Worldcup https://www.fifa.com/fifa-tournaments/archive/worldcup/index.html

2 Ranking https://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/men/

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