One of the goals Chris and I have during our time abroad is to volunteer in some capacity, ideally finding English tutoring programs for young adults or kids. It’s one of the best ways to meet people and to learn about where we’re visiting; also, English-teaching is clamored for here, a much-needed and beneficial skill for locals, especially as Laos further develops tourism to support the country.
Chris found a program in Laos called “Big Brother Mouse,” a non-profit organization committed to English-teaching and literacy among locals. Big Brother Mouse is 100% run by Lao people; however, it is dependent on volunteers and donations in order to continue its reading and English learning programs. Volunteers can participate in 2-hour sessions either in the morning or afternoon to simply chat with students interested in practicing his or her English.
On Sunday, after spending the day at the gorgeous Kuang Si Falls just 45 minutes outside of Luang Prabang, Chris and I went to Big Brother Mouse to participate in the 5pm-7pm evening session. As soon as we arrived at about 4:50pm, I saw two young students already sitting at the table eagerly waiting for someone to talk to.
I approached a student named Kong who was sitting at the far end of the table in the corner. After both shyly exchanging standard salutations – hello, how are you, my name is Liz, my name is Kong – Kong right away jumped into the conversation and asked me a question.
“Where are you from?” he said slowly, enunciating each word. I replied slowly too, with the response I’ve learned works best here in SE Asia: “I am from America.” Kong nodded eagerly in understanding. I pointed out the United States on the map, then zoomed down to the dots that make up the Hawaiian Islands.
“I grew up in Hawaii,” I told him, wondering if he would know it. Kong stared back at me nodding but not understanding, confirming my suspicion that “Hawaii” was not in his vocabulary or geographic comprehension. I’ve gotten used to my saying “I’m from Hawaii” as a conversation starter – a trigger for head-nodding and responses like “Ahhhh, Hawaii. Yes, I love Hawaii. Kauai is my favorite island…” Of course, that’s not how the scene played out here. I explained to Kong that Hawaii was part of America and similar to Laos in terms of “hot weather,” “rain storms,” and “palm trees and fruit trees.”
“Hawaii is a set of islands in the Pacific Ocean,” I said further, hoping to spark the “aha!” understanding I was looking for. I realized later that Kong, having lived in land-locked Laos his whole life, probably has never seen the ocean. I was surprised to find out that he had never even been to Kuang Si Falls, a 45-minute tuk tuk ride outside of Luang Prabang, a place Chris and I had just visited earlier in the day, swimming and enjoying the beautiful, cool water.
I learned more about Kong in the next 30 minutes before other students started to arrive. Kong is a 17-year-old high school student from a village one hour away. He is one of seven kids to parents who are rice farmers. He has been living with his uncle in Luang Prabang for the past few years so he can attend school. Kong is one of the first in his family to learn English and goes to Big Brother Mouse and Mekong English Center as often as he can to practice and get help. He is taking many classes – biology, physics, chemistry, civics, mathematics, Lao culture and English – but English is his favorite. Kong’s girlfriend Batchua lives four hours away in a small village in eastern Laos at the northern tip of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a region heavily affected by unexploded ordnance (UXO) leftover from the Vietnam War (or secret war on Laos). He hasn’t seen Batchua since last year but talks to her on his cel phone weekly.
When I asked Kong what he likes doing in his free time, he said learning English and listening to music. He then pulled out a folded piece of paper, a print out of song lyrics with yellow highlighter and notes scribbled all over it. The lyrics were of his favorite song “Why Not Me,” an Enrique Iglesias original, but Kong showed me a music video from a Thai or Laotian cover version. We read together, line by line, through the lyrics, practicing how to say certain words like “trapped” and “shattered.”
Kong was my favorite student that session. He is an eager learner though quite shy. Whenever he couldn’t understand me or couldn’t figure out how to respond in English, he’d look down and say “sorry, sorry.” I asked him to teach me a few Laotian words and phrases, hoping that would make him feel more comfortable and confident. He laughed each time I said something incorrectly or perhaps ridiculous, but made me repeat the words and tones until I got them right. I appreciate that he didn’t let me off the hook with an incorrect tone or accent.
When more students arrived, we used Kong’s notebook to learn about opposites. After explaining the concept of opposites, we went through a series of words. What’s the opposite of hot, what’s the opposite of happy, what’s the opposite of rich.
Some of the more advanced students had other questions: “What’s the difference between ‘power’ and ‘authority’?” What does “poorly” mean, how is it different from “poor.” “What does ‘particular’ mean?” (I struggled with how to describe “particular” in a way that didn’t use similarly advanced words like “specific” or “exclusive.” Chris explained it best using a banana scenario: If you have a bunch of bananas and you want a banana that’s not too green, not too ripe, not too big, not too small – you want a particular type of banana, one that you want to eat.)
After the session, I said goodbye to Kong, Ongkeu and some of the other students I got to chat with. One student, Thaison, a soon-to-be university graduate, stayed back to chat with Chris, Stefan (a Danish guy we had just met) and me outside of Big Brother Mouse. We all decided to grab dinner at the night market buffet. During dinner, Stefan showed us a hand-drawn map of all the places he had been in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and now Laos. He, Chris and I chatted about where we had been in the world and where we would travel to next.
Thaison, an eager learner, listened to us patiently. I kept peeking at him as our conversation continued on about our world travels, knowing that his world travel was much different than ours. His aspiration is to learn English so that he can move to Minneapolis, a place he’s dreamed about going because it’s where his sister lives and where he plans to live too so he can earn a fortune for a few years before returning to his village in Vietnam. He dreams of building a house where his future family and parents can live. According to Thaison, without parents, “there’s no moon or stars, and food has no taste.” He can’t wait to take his parents to see Halong Bay in Vietnam.
One of my learnings from the day is not something I was naive about or unaware of before: I’ve always known that traveling for fun and vacation is a luxury and a privilege, a first-world pastime. But for many people – the States included – it’s not even a concept. Kong has never been out of Laos, he has hardly been away from his village and only “traveled” to Luang Prabang because he is lucky enough to go to school. Thaison’s dream is to travel to Minneapolis, a place he wanted to know more about because it’s a major stop along his ultimate journey. I was embarrassed to know so little about Minneapolis, a place Thaison thinks about daily.
Big Brother Mouse provided an awesome opportunity for some give-and-take learning. Chris and I were there as “teachers,” but really the learning was a two-way street. I hope these experiences continue to humble me and deepen my respect for people from different places and situations. Above all, I hope that I can be as helpful to the folks I’ve “tutored” as they’ve been in educating me.
More photos from our time in Luang Prabang: