I’ve always found volunteering one of the best ways to make a real connection. In Laos, there is a desperation to learn languages, especially English and Chinese. A language is perceived to offer a fast-track up the economic ladder. In Luang Prabang, there are scores of private schools that offer language training but Big Brother Mouse is one of the few that was set up as a not-for-profit, Lao-owned business.
At the outset, its mission was to fill a void in books published in the Lao language and it has expanded to offer a selection translated into English. They added an elementary and post-secondary school in the countryside outside Luang Prabang (Big Sister Mouse) as well as a range of free courses in the city.
I was able to join them for an open session our last morning in Laos. Seven days a week they invite English speakers to drop in for a few hours. I was warmly greeted and sat at a table waiting for someone to join me. After a few minutes, a 19-year old woman, Hina, sat across from me. It was time to begin. We each started tentatively with the basic exchanges when you meet someone – where are you from, tell me about your family, etc. The purpose was to teach but it was not clear who the student was in this scenario. I talked slowly and tried to introduce new English vocabulary and improve pronunciation but I had so much to learn about Lao culture.
The conversation veered significantly when tears started to well up in her eyes and she told me that her boyfriend had broken up with her the previous night. His Mother had told him they would never have a happy marriage since under the Chinese Zodiac their birth years (rat and rooster) were incompatible. It veered to a darker place when she told me of the suicide of her cousin that week. We talked about the way our cultures looked at suicide and the dark mystery that leaves us with grief and unanswered questions. This was clearly much more than a basic English practice-session.
When she had to leave for work, a trio of young Hmong men walked in and I went from a drama to slap stick comedy. Koob had a sly smile and a facile use of English that he employed to tease me and his two friends. He works for a trekking company and hopes to move to Thailand to continue to move up in the world of tourism. Hawj was an exceptionally diligent student – peppering me with questions, asking for help with specific challenges he faced with grammar and driving the conversation. He worked at two restaurants and participated in free morning and evening sessions at Big Brother Mouse. I asked him what he did for fun and he was perplexed. After a few tries, he understood and said that pleasure would come later – now he must work and learn in order to be successful. Suav was a full-time student in English and technology but was very shy. I tried to draw him out but Koob would usually jump in to steer the exchange to a joke. After an hour with them, I was still chuckling. This video give you a sense of the experience.
I found myself volunteering again when I stopped at Khaiphaen for lunch. I needed a quick meal before we left for Hanoi and knew that Khaiphaen was part of the TREE global alliance of vocational training restaurants that educate street kids and other at-risk youth. We had enjoyed a meal in Phnom Penh at one of these restaurants (In fact Jane and I tried deep fried tarantula – I don’t recommend it) so I was glad to have this opportunity in Laos. While I was there, all of the wait staff sat together at a table to hone their math skills between bringing out dishes and my waiter ended up sitting with me to practice his English.
There are so many people striving for a better life. I only hope that the time I spent volunteering had half as much value to the young people I met as the blessings they gave to me.