The poor guy sitting across from me was literally shaking. It was a combination of fear and excitement but that’s a normal mixture whenever you visit the foreigner’s house for the first time. He was a freshman fresh off the bus from the villages and he was trying to decide how much longer he could stand being terrified. But his desire to learn English was just that much stronger.
I don’t teach any regular freshman courses but I do teach a special course we have for year one students who are having a hard time in class. Some of the students I teach now (Juniors) were in this class their first year and now they are doing great so we really try to get as many people in as possible. The only problem is that it requires a lot of one-on-one work and so we have to limit the number of students who are in the class which usually leaves out students who could use the class but are just above the level we let in. The worse part is when you have a student who realizes his English is lower than everyone else and desperately wants to improve and begs…and begs…to join the extra class only for us to tell them there is no more room. This was one of those guys.
He had tried sneaking into my class a few times before and had even resorted to sitting outside the window of my class when I reminded him only students on my list could join the class. Let me go ahead and tell you one of the worst things I’ve had to do as a teacher is tell a student he couldn’t come to class. He never stopped smiling at me but you could clearly see the drive/sadness in his eyes.
Well, about 2 or 3 weeks ago him and some of his friends randomly/purposefully found themselves wondering past the front of my house. I walked out and invited them in for lunch which they promptly rejected (as any Lao person who knows their manners would) but I knew they would be back soon. Sure enough, they were conveniently waiting at the end of my road as I was walking back to school silently followed me to my house.
I’ve explained to you guys how nervous Lao people are when they visit me for the first time so I won’t go into a lot of detail. Let’s just say I think they wrung their hands raw the whole 10 minutes they stayed and talked. I actually did attempt to speak in English with them but it was too much so we quickly switched to Lao which seemed to ease them up a little bit. After a few minutes two of the friends got up to leave but, surprisingly (to me and his friends), one student stayed.
And so here was this freshman student sitting on my couch…alone…in the foreigner’s house…completely petrified with only his desire to learn English keeping him from passing out (I’m not kidding…I think he was breathing irregularly the whole time). I switched back to English and asked him some basic questions I knew he would know.
Side note: Seeing a student physically sigh a sigh of relief because he understands questions I ask in English still makes me smile every time.
Eventually I got around to the question I knew he was waiting for: I asked him if he wanted to study OT (the name of course he had tired to sneak into). He looked up at me with as much confidence as I’ve ever seen in a Lao person speaking English and told me, “Yes, teacher. Very much.”
You probably understand why I decided in the moment I was going to find some way to get this guy some help. I asked him how much English he had studied before coming to college to which he replied, “Teacher, I’m from the countryside…we don’t have English teachers” which made me even more impressed that he could even speak English as much as he could. The only problem is that there was simply no room in the OT class for him. And then I found my solution. I told him that twice a week two guys (the high schoolers I told you guys about before) come to my house to learn some basic English and that I use the same lessons with them as I do in the OT class. I told him if he was free those nights he would be more than welcome to come over and study with them.
Guys, I’m doing my best not to exaggerate, but I’m pretty sure he was doing his best to hold back tears. Also, if he hadn’t of still been terrified of me I think he would’ve jumped up and hugged me (that’s only happened twice since being here). I have a lot of moments here in Laos that reaffirm I’m doing what I love but few can match moments like that when I’m able to help a student who desperately wants to learn English and actually see the joy on their face. It just doesn’t get better than that.
I’ll try to keep you guys updated on him. Something tells me he won’t be missing many lessons at my house. I hope the Christmas season is treating you guys well. Christmas was hard last year and it’s already hard now but the fact that Laos is actually having a winter…I’m talking 60’s at night WHAAAAT….is kind of helping. It makes listening to Christmas music less forced when you’re actually cold.
(Also, this post took an incredibly long time to write and I’m way too tired to proofread it. I’ll do it later.)
Things happen in Laos. Some of them are normal. Some of them are strange. It’s just life here. But every now and then something happens that makes me step back and ask, “What just happened and why did it happen to me?” I had one of those experiences the other day. Let me set it up for you.
I have a wonderful house here in Laos. The school has been gracious enough to let me live on campus for free. I have two bedrooms, both with air conditioning, a sizable living room, a bathroom with a western toilet, and a kitchen. The only thing is that the kitchen doesn’t really have that much counter space. Especially when you have a stove top and an oven. I’ve been meaning for a while now to get a table for my kitchen so I can put my oven on something and free up some counter space but I have yet to see anything in the markets that seemed to fit what I wanted. I was getting close to giving up and just get some of the scrap wood around my house and throw something together.
Well, the other week I had a group of people over and was talking to some of them about getting/making a table and one of my students heard me talking about it. You actually know about this student. He’s the one I posted about who makes all the wood furniture. You probably see where this is going.
Well, he looked at my space and promptly told me he had a table he had made that would work really well. Awesome. I don’t have to make a table that would fall apart the minute I put my oven on it and I can help my student out. Silly me for thinking he would agree to let me pay for it.
Well, the other day he found me after one of my classes and told me, “Teacher, I brought your new table to your house. I’m sorry, Teacher, it’s not very beautiful.” I was actually kind of relieved to hear that. I was afraid he was going to give me one of the really nice ones I had seen and not let me pay him for it and then I would feel guilty for taking something he could sell for a lot of money. I could handle getting a free table that was ugly. Clearly I haven’t learned anything since coming to Laos.
I walked back home and walked in to find this sitting in my kitchen.
I just stood there for a few minutes trying to register the fact that a table from Log Home Living had not only found its way into Laos but into MY kitchen. Surely he was just keeping it in my kitchen because someone far richer than me had bought it and he needed a temporary place to keep it. I looked around for this ugly table he had told me about.
Nope. Only this one. With my oven sitting on top of it.
In reality, I should’ve know this would happen. Anytime a student has ever done anything for me it’s always been above and beyond the expectations I’ve had. Its partly because I’m foreign, partly because students here in Laos have a high respect for teachers, and partly because students do good things for their teachers so they will get good grades. You thought you knew brown nosers (sp?) in the USA. You may have even been one. But tell me, would you ever build an entire new addition to your teacher’s house? Or harvest their entire rice farm for them? Because that’s what I’ve seen these students do for the teachers here.
Before I go on let me make this clear, I have made it known to every single one of my students that the only way to get an “A” in my class is to study and make good grades on my assignments. They know and believe it. But even knowing this they still offer to do tons of things for me. Usually they are small things like never letting me clean the dishes when they all come over for lunch or if they see me carrying something across campus they will carry it for me. Every now and then, though, they try to do something big. Like bring me a table from a log home showcase.
He showed up at my house and I told him there was no way in this good earth I was going to take the table without letting me pay for it. He tried so hard to make me take it for free but I wouldn’t have any of it. I enlisted the help of my closest Lao friend to talk with him (you have to use a third person to really communicate stuff here) and through that I found the most he would take is 100,000 kip. Go back up to that picture for a second. Keep in my mind he made it himself. Meaning he got the wood, cut it, carved it (or whatever you do form the wood), glazed it, and then brought it from his village which is about an hour away. Oh, and it’s solid wood and probably weighs around 175 lbs. Ok, now go and look.
With all that information you are now prepared to know how much 100,000 kip is in dollars. $12.50. Twelve freaking dollars and fifty cents is all he would take for that ridiculous table. I’m still trying to figure out what I did to deserve such an awesome table. Without a doubt, I love it (actually, the first thing I did upon seeing it was Skype my parents because I knew my mom would be insanely jealous. Love you, Mom). But I feel guilty for even having it in my house. My students shouldn’t be doing this kind of stuff for me. It’s all…too much. They already basically kill me with kindness every day and then one of them has to go and do this. It’s like asking for some candy and having a 7-tier wedding cake show up at your house. Too much? Maybe. You get the point.
Moral of the story: Lao people will make you question how good of a person you are. Because they slaughter in the “being nice” department.
And they make some pretty awesome tables that all of you now want.
I typically don’t hear those words from the person I’ve grown closest to since being in Laos. We’ve spent a lot of time together over the past year and I’m really starting to feel like I’m getting to know him and I don’t think the feeling is mutual.
Still, that is what he told me yesterday. It all centered around a picture I was showing a group of students and friends.
This one, to be exact. These are my nieces. Feel free to be insanely jealous.
Before I go on you need to understand that family is the most important thing for Lao people. Without question. Most of my students are separated from their family at the moment because of school but if I were to ask them what their plans are after graduating I could make a fairly certain guess that over 90% would say they plan to return home and live with their family. Or at least live in the same village as their family. Some of you, both parents and children, might be cringing at the thought of staying together for most of your life but I’m telling you for these guys the thought of being far away from one’s family is unthinkable.
And so, as everyone was oohing and aahing over how beautiful my nieces are, my friend looked at me told me he didn’t understand me. He followed his statement up by saying he didn’t understand how I could stand to be so far away from my family. I may not have been homesick before that moment but I was doing the best I could to hold the tears back after that comment.
It’s true, I love my life here. Almost every day I wake up amazed that I live on the other side of the world doing something I love. I can say with complete confidence that I would not be any happier anywhere else. Still, I can’t explain how hard it is to be this far away from my family. The people here in Laos think I’m crazy, including my closest Lao friends, for living so far away from my family and sometimes I think it too. Some days are harder than others, especially as Christmas season gets closer, but I’m able to make it for the same reason I miss my family so dang much. It’s because my family is just that awesome. I miss laughing with them over the most ridiculous things and being made fun in just the right way to know that they love me to death in the midst of their joking. But I also know they’ve supported what I’m doing over here 100% since the first day. A guy really couldn’t ask for a better family than that.
And that’s one thing I’m happy to teach Lao people about family. Love doesn’t stop just because you’re far away. My family is proof. I don’t think I’ve loved them more than I do now and there’s no sign of that stopping.
Love you guys and miss you!
Do you realize how lucky you are?
Just think about it. If you are reading this blog chances are English is your first language. If that’s the case then you’ve been spared the torture that is learning English as a second language. You think I’m joking but this is what I’ve learned the past year as an English teacher here in Laos. Do you remember all those “fun” years of English class in high school or college? Do you remember how much fun you had trying to get all those ridiculous grammar rules straight? Well, imagine having to learn those again but it’s not even your native language!
I’m not sure why I’ve been noticing it more this year as opposed to last year but so often I teach something and am dumbfounded at how confusing learning English is for these poor students. In their honor, I’ve decided to post every now and then about some of the craziest things I find. Most of these we don’t even think twice about because it’s second nature but when you have to teach it…or heaven forbid, learn it…you start to realize how ridiculous our language can be.
So without further ado, I give you the first edition of “English is crazy, yall”
Let’s start out with something simple. Well, at least as simple as it gets with English. We all know when you want to show possession all you have to do is add an apostrophe followed by an “s.” “Bob” changes to “Bob’s.” Simple enough.
"Noah" might change to "Noah’s" but by golly if you dare use a third person singular (he/she/it…just in case I already lost you. Don’t feel bad, the only reason I know that is because students kept asking about it). Oh no. "He has a big house" is fine but poor you if you think logically and try to write "He’s house is big." I mean, it makes sense. Follow the rule, right? Wrong. "He’s" doesn’t show possession, it’s just the short form for "He is." You’ve gotta go ahead and change the whole word in order to make "he" possessive. So now, you not only have to learn about "he" but you’ve got to learn about "his." And that’s just one of the third person singulars.
Some of you might be thinking, “Noah, chill it a little bit. You’ve just go to memorize a couple more words and you’ve got it. No big deal.” Oh let me tell you. When you learn a second language and try to speak it so many different things are going through your head that just one extra step can almost derail you entirely. The fact that I don’t have to worry about changing the whole structure of a word to make it possessive in Lao makes speaking Lao way less stressful. Granted I might have to worry about other things like tone and such but Lao grammar is way more simplified when it comes to referring to people and possession. I mean, they don’t even have separate pronouns for “him” and “her.” Talk about simple. Boom.
So it comes down to this question: Why do we make a rule about adding apostrophes and such and then turn around and say you can’t use them with a certain group of words?
Because English is crazy, yall.