Truth be told:
I am an impatient person. I confess it.
Not, when it comes to teaching. And not when my adorable nieces beg me to play a 50th round of hide-and-seek. And no, not even when our ancient Lao kettle takes forever to boil water for my morning tea.
But I am terribly impatient when it comes to realizing plans or acquiring new skills. So I arrived here two weeks ago, learnt about my official duties and settled in quite smoothly. It only took me about a day to plan a handful of lessons and tell everyone that I was ready to start. But neither did I anticipate the thick wall of administration I was about to hit; nor the Lao “work ethic” which is quite different to what I’m used to.
To start with, I really want to stress that I put “work ethic” in quotation marks on purpose. I do NOT mean to say that Lao people in general act like this and neither do I want to judge my workmate’s behaviour. I just couldn’t think of a more suitable word. Long story short: Most things happen much slower here than back home… Very often, me and Bella are the first persons to come into the office and remain alone until 30min to 2h later, the others arrive one by one. And it’s not uncommon to leave early either. Or not show up at all. I was super confused and even a little irritated at first, but after speaking to DVV, I understand better. You have to know that working for the government is a mere bonus on the CV for Lao people. The positions (especially teaching!) are miserably paid and most of our workmates have second or even third jobs. It’s a huge flaw of the system and one of the reasons why Lao PDR is still underdeveloped in educational matters (plus there are serious infrastructural issues, many villages are still extremely remote). I understand my colleague’s behaviour a lot better now – I wouldn’t put all my energy and time into a job that cannot feed my family either…
What seems similar to Germany though is the fact that everything needs to run its proper administrative course in Vientiane. It took me days to get approval for my proposed teaching schedule and even longer to finally meet the librarian and convince her to allow me access to the library (why only she has a key, I don’t know). The poor woman was too ashamed of the dust and spider webs and claimed that she needed to clean up first. Naturally, I am trying to treat everyone as politely and respectfully as possible, but man, I’ve really had some frustrating work days lately. Sometimes, meetings were cancelled or started 2h later than agreed-on and more often, people I needed to talk to where not even in the office. And then – sadly enough – someone died and all work stagnated for days. Don’t get me wrong here, I think the Lao tradition of visiting the deceased person’s house to support the family is a great one! It’s just that I only have 3 months here (sustainable help – a mere illusion, but I guess I knew that it advance…) and I am more than prepared to start working properly. So pleeeaaase, why don’t you just let me!?
Okay, if I’m honest it is not THAT bad. I did spend quite some time in the office planning out lessons and learning about the Lao curricula. I also taught several English lessons for children and observed some teachers and their lessons. Also, the meetings with DVV were always very helpful and productive (no, we do not drink Beerlao all the time). But as I said: I am an impatient person. And annoyingly motivated. Hopefully, I have pushed gently yet persistently enough to get the ball rolling. And if I’m honest, it couldn’t do me any harm to relax a little.
In fact, it seems as if Lao decided to stop me just for the latter purpose: For the last four days, I was lying flat on my back. Suffering from some tummy bug – jeez, what an Asian cliché. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the details… Needless to say I was gutted to cancel the planned weekend trip 😦 Cudos to Bella for putting up with me, I am a terrible patient: Gimme an hour of morning energy and I will forget I was ever sick, doing all the usual stuff in usual speed until that behaviour kicks me right back to bed with a thundering roundhouse kick. But it reminded me that I was planning on blogging some more about Lao food. I will. Whenever the thought of fermented fish sauce does not make me feel nauseous anymore…
For now, I will close that rather frustrated post with a quote from Kata Fodor, a former intern of DVV:
“Many of my experiences gathered here allowed me to see certain challenges in their actual context, and helped me understand that every community is different, with varying needs capabilities and levels of engagement. Therefore, it takes a great deal of practice, devoted attention, patience, as well as trial and error to find a solution with the community that meets the needs of the people, respects the environment and others, and is sustainable on the long run. (…) First world external agencies have to be especially careful when supporting development projects in the region not to replant the destructive seeds and elements of “our” way of thinking, but to support (to the best of our knowledge) a development path, which is fair, culturally embedded and owned by the people living there.”