brainy business

I spent the last five days in Thakhek, a rather sleepy little town in the South. Remember how I claimed it was only about 5h away from Vientiane? Well, I was wrong. It took us decent 8h to get there. First of all, because our bus was much slower than the Pickups that usually belt down the roads here. Plus, we stopped like every hour for pee breaks because my colleagues drank so much Beerlao on the way. You see, the workshop we were heading to is part of a 2year program called “Training of Master Trainers”. The roundabout 40 participants, who are all working in (non-)formal education sectors, take part in workshops about various topics every few months and when everyone gets together, it’s a merry reunion. The innocent might call the little bender “team-building”.

So from the second the engine of the (extremely pink) bus started, the speakers were booming on full volume and there was not a single minute when they didn’t sing karaoke or cracked naughty jokes and anecdotes. Man, it was like a highschooltrip. I first got a little irritated about the noise (we are talking about electro thai-pop here…) but eventually, I started to enjoy myself. The absurdity was just too funny… Every couple of hours, they played an English song for me and it was always the same one: Passenger – Let her go. I don’t know why it is so extremely popular in Lao, but EVERYONE knows it over here. So after a while, I would hum along and take alternating glances at my clapping and dancing colleagues and the passing landscape with its rice fields, water buffalos and overgrown mountains or nibble on the various snacks that got passed around: Fried banana chips, pieces of Pomelo, mints that tasted like clinical mouthwash. The principle “sharing is caring” is a life philosophy for Laotians. I also spent quite some time analysing the music videos and pondering if I was ever able to keep such a stiff smile on my face or dance like this without feeling ridiculous…. Then again, I’m sure I too look ridiculous when I hop around like a lunatic to the beats of Deichkind.

When I managed to snooze, there would soon be someone clapping near my ear or exclaiming the shrill JIIIIIIIIIIIIHHHH cry which seems typical in Lao when people find something hilarious. It was certainly an experience but next time, I won’t forget to pack earplugs… Our pink party shuttle did arrive eventually and we checked into our rooms.

So why were we here? This workshop’s topic was gender. You know, only a few years ago I still belonged to those women who would claim that gendered language (such as “Student*in”) was unnecessary and would hinder the reading flow. I would sigh how I couldn’t be arsed to sign up for “yet another geeeender seminar” at uni and that I wouldn’t feel discriminated against at all. Well, my perception has changed when I grew older and the topic has actually become a really sensitive one for me. Consequently, it was a really interesting week for me, but also a frustrating one at times.

Lao is still pretty conservative and traditional gender roles dominate. I have many female colleagues here, but Vientiane does not reflect the average situation in the republic. So when I noticed that the women kept quiet when men uttered (in my opinion) sexist statements, my first impulse was to jump up and join the discussion. But I didn’t because of various reasons:

  • I still don’t know enough about the culture and traditions here to judge. And of course I had a different upbringing and education than those people and got raised with different values. It’s great that the issue is discussed at all. That’s a first step into the ‘right’ direction.
  • There was an extreme language barrier. Only a few of the participants spoke decent English so all discussions were in Lao and I expected to miss details in translation… And it is usually those little details than can make a statement a provocative one.
  • I was not a participant of the workshop, I was here to support the trainers where I could and write a report about the whole thing: content, timetables, interviews, feedback, pictures etc. Me included, there were only three foreigners at the meetings and it surely wouldn’t have helped to point our fingers at the group and tell them how “we do it at home”. Lao PDR will find its own way in its own time. And let’s be honest: Western countries have an equally long journey ahead of them until reaching their dream of gender equality…


One of my colleagues posted this in our ToT group chat.

So I kept my poker face on and I only intervened a couple of times when I came across biological ignorance such as “women shouldn’t work when they have their period because it reduces their fertility” or “women don’t have testosterone that’s why they don’t grow a beard”. Otherwise, I kept my mouth shut. But I did discuss a lot with the other trainers during the breaks, especially Anita, our gender specialist from India. Very inspiring woman. And later in the evening, I would lie in my bed and have the usual questions going round and round in my head in angry loops: How come that a woman gets the slut-label when she’s sleeping around and a man gets high-fives for the same behaviour? How come that a successful woman is considered to be bossy and frigid and an influential man admirable? Why are women still paid less? Why do we buy pink dolls for girls and blue trucks for boys? At this point I’d like to include another short youtube clip about gender roles which I really like. #likeagirl



So all week, I thought a lot, discussed a lot, worked a lot and then pondered some more. But this is not a blog about gender, so I won’t go more into detail (also, I don’t want to get all furious again before going to bed…).

The evenings were nice in Thakhek: I went jogging at the river and had dinner with my colleagues. Here, I discovered a new favourite drink: Laogria! Like Sangria, only not with red wine but something much more yammie and lots of fresh fruit. So refreshing! I’ll share the recipe with yous as soon as I find it. The last evening, a few of us went to visit a nearby temple, prayed and watched the sun set together. Afterwards, the whole group had dinner at a lovely riverside restaurant. Soon, people were singing karaoke (I can’t stress the popularity enough, you will see a karaoke bar at every Lao street corner!!) and dancing to the tunes of the live band. A lovely evening and we stayed out until the wee hours.

But if you think that people were too hungover or tired to have a farewell party on the bus – far from it! The return took us 10h and my head was aching by the time we finally reached Vientiane. We also stopped at an impressive cave on the way back, but I haven’t got around to sort out the pictures yet… So for now, only some impressions of the workshop. If you ask yourself why we often form an L with our fingers  – it’s all about LIFELONG LEARNING!! 😉