Luang Prabang Province, Laos - 2014
Today was a big day. I’ve lived in Luang Prabang longer than a week, I signed a contract for a house, I met a very important contact for our work here at the schools, and I had my first Lao language class. If you were to guess which one of those things had the most impact you probably wouldn’t guess the last one but that Lao language class was an extremely big deal. I’ve been studying in Lao classes for 2 year and so I should be pretty used to it but today was special. Today was the first time I’ve studied outside of Pakse, my old hometown. And it was the first time I’ve really sat down with a Lao person and analyzed just how different I’m going to have to speak to be understood here.
Just a little bit of background: Laos, like any country out there, is filled with different accents and dialects. I’ve spent my entire two years in Pakse, which is known throughout Laos as being on one extreme of the accent spectrum. People in Pakse speak very quickly and strongly. The joke is that people in Pakse are often angry at everything (it’s a joke because nearly everyone in Laos is so ridiculously friendly it almost makes you sick). Would you like to guess what city is considered the other extreme of the spectrum? Yep. Luang Prabang. The accent here is known as being very soft, slow, and almost like you are singing. Basically, completely the opposite. Today I realized why everyone talks about these two cities as the two extremes because they really are completely opposite.
Today, as I was studying with my teacher, I ended a battle that had been raging in my mind since the moment I found out I was going to move here. I decided today that I was going to do my best to learn the accent here. That may not seem like a big deal but let me explain.
For me there is a certain amount of pride being able to speak Lao with such a distinct accent. Most foreigners who come to Laos learn Lao in Vientiane and therefore have the “standard” accent but because I’ve spent my whole time in Pakse I have a very “abnormal” accent. I kind of like that. It also helps me feel very connected to Pakse. Lao people are often able to tell that I live in Pakse just from my accent. It’s also slightly cool to be able to say I speak both my languages with a southern accent.
But on a completely different and more important note my struggle with letting go of that accent symbolizes just how hard it has been to say goodbye to Pakse. I know I’ve been pretty clear on here that I love Pakse and how hard leaving has been but today was especially difficult. Today was the “official” first day of school and knowing my students will be returning to school has made me think back to all the wonderful people I know at that school. All I can think of are my students coming through my house, laughing and joking with each other, all the while preparing a very Lao meal in the middle of my living room. I loved that more than I can tell you. Luang Prabang is amazing but giving that up has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
And that’s why I might have shed a few tears when I realized I was actually going to do my best to speak Lao with a Luang Prabang accent. I don’t think I’ll ever completely lose my southern accent but I’m going to do my best to speak like the people I’m surrounded by. If I’m going to be here in this city I want to be all here. That doesn’t mean I’m ever going to forget Pakse and my friends there. That’s impossible. But spending my entire time here wishing I could be back in Pakse would keep me from fully enjoying this beautifully city and the wonderful people who call it home. That’s not fair to them. The students waiting for me at my school deserve my whole heart and I hope to give it to them.
And that’s why I may or may not have shed a tear or two today. I would have never guessed saying goodbye to an accent would be an event to blog about. But it is. Goodbye’s are never easy when there is love involved. Thank you guys for hanging with me as I’ve made this transition. Being able to get my thoughts out of my head has helped tremendously. Thanks for helping me with that.
I live here. What?
For what feels like ages now I’ve been writing on here about moving to Luang Prabang. It’s actually only been about 6 months but it feels so much longer, I think, because it’s been such an emotional journey. But here I am, writing this blog in the city of Luang Prabang, Laos. Even now it’s hard to think I won’t be walking back into my classrooms in Pakse and seeing those familiar smiles I’ve grown to love these past two years. I don’t think it will ever be easy to think about that. Those students and that city have a part of my heart that will never change. But now I’m in Luang Prabang and I’m just going to have make my heart that much bigger to fit this city and these students in. It’s a hard process but I’m willing and excited to do it.
In just a few days I’ve already discovered that this city is unlike any place I’ve ever lived. It really has no comparison. It’s definitely Laos. The people here and their sweet smiles are the people and smiles I’ve fallen in love with the past two years. The Mekong River runs right along the city just like it did in Pakse, albeit in a much smaller scale. Sticky Rice and papaya salad still reign supreme in the food markets. And yet it’s so different. Maybe it’s the famous Luang Prabang accent which sounds more like singing than talking (people have already commented that it’s obvious I’m from Pakse which my harsh/strong accent). Maybe it’s the paved streets with actual, real-life sidewalks. Or maybe it’s the fact that the history of this city is so well preserved in it’s buildings and temples. Side note: I live in a city that has been lived in for nearly 2,000 years. What?! And that’s just as far back as historians can record.
Whatever it is there is a definite change coming for my Lao experience. I’m excited to see what that change brings.
Downtown Luang Prabang with restored colonial-era buildings.
Second, very long side note:
One thing I can’t get over here are the mountains. If you know me at all or have read this blog for any amount of time you know that I love mountains. I always have and probably always will. When I lived in Pakse I thought I was in mountain heaven. I don’t even know what to call Luang Prabang. No matter where I am in this city I can see them which makes me happier than I can even tell you. It probably helps that rainy season is just about to end so all the mountains are in full lush jungle mode. I often have to remind myself to actually drive my motorbike instead of stare at the mountains (That’s sarcasm, Mom).
These are just a few of the hundreds (probably not exaggerating) I’ve already taken.
This is what it looks like to drive around this city. Yeah. I live here.
I’ll be keeping you guys up to date on here more often now that things are settling down. I’m still not moved into a house but we are getting there. Until next time
Even though I live on the other side of the world I still pay quite a bit of attention to what’s going on in America and honestly it’s not very encouraging right now. One event, in particular, seems to have risen to the forefront of everyone’s Facebook feeds and news articles: the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
I’m thankful to have gone through three very distinct chapters of life before moving to Laos and as a result I have friends across the whole spectrum. I often have opposite views being posted on whatever is the current issue of the day. I like this because I get to see what multiple sides are saying. The death of Michael Brown is one such issue that has galvanized all sides of my friends. I’ve seen a lot of anger from all sides and the more I’ve read the more I’ve realized Laos has something to say about this.
Laos is completely different than America in almost every way. I had read tons of stuff about Laos before arriving but I stepped off that airplane having no real idea what was going through the mind of the average Lao person. Things happened I didn’t understand and no matter how much I tried I couldn’t make any sense of it. Two years later, I understand things better but it’s still not that much. Understanding something different than you doesn’t take overnight but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. In two years, the thing I’ve discovered to be most helpful in this goal of understanding Lao people is to simply listen to them. I can’t tell you how much of my time involves sitting down with Lao people, asking questions, and listening to their answers but that’s what it takes so I do it. I don’t always agree with what they say but as much as I like to think I know, I really don’t because my life experiences are so much different than the majority of Lao people. It’s a difficult process but I do it because I love Lao people and I want to understand them.
So what does this have to do with what is going on in Ferguson? In all the articles, responses, and posts I’ve seen lots of passion and anger but there’s one thing people don’t seem to be doing. Listening.
Let’s be real for a second. I’m a white male who grew up with a very privileged life. It doesn’t matter how many black friends I claim to have there is no way I can relate to what kind of life the average black male lives. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that my life is as different from that kind of life as someone’s life here in Laos. For example, I don’t understand what it feels like to be stereotyped because of the color of my skin. I don’t know what it feels like to have everything I do, including how I talk and how I dress, questioned because of my skin. I don’t understand these things and no matter how hard I try on my own I won’t ever be able to understand them. I can, however, listen to those who do know what it feels like. That’s what Laos has taught me. Go to the people who have experienced the things you haven’t. Listen to them and do it with an open heart and just maybe you’ll be able to understand their actions a little better.
Are we really doing that with the protestors in Ferguson?
A lot of people point to the violence that has come from the protestors but many of the protestors are saying they are angry because their voices haven’t been heard for far too long. Before you blame them for violent protest just think about how much blame lies with those who haven’t been listening. I don’t know what you believe about “life callings” but I know I have been called to love. I try to understand Lao people because I love them and I try to understand the people who are protesting about Michael Brown because I love them too. I challenge those who read this blog to do the same. Many people are too afraid to listen because they think it means you give up your own voice but that’s not the case. Everyone has the right to a voice and a response but listening first will help you respond in a more knowledgeable way.
I think we all want a more peaceful situation in Ferguson. There is a lot of anger and a lack of understanding. Laos has taught me that the best way to understand is to listen.
It’s done. I’ve said my final goodbyes and I no longer have my own house in the city of Pakse (although my Lao family has already told me their house will always be my house). If my last onslaught of posts didn’t speak clear enough it was a pretty rough goodbye but that’s what you get when you love a place as much as I did. It’s just part of it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Even with so much emotion going on I couldn’t ignore the awesome things that will be coming up in the future.
Number 1 is the fact that I am currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This place, by itself, is a pretty awesome place but it’s also where I was introduced to Southeast Asia. If you’ve followed me from the beginning you remember I spent one month here before moving to Laos. Even though I am
slightly immensely partial to my Lao students my first students in Asia were actually Khmer. Even though I only interacted with them for one week (I was taking classes the other weeks) I’ve always remembered how much fun I had in those classrooms. Just like in Laos, the students here are in a perpetual state of smiling and I love it.
I’m here to help new teachers as they train and if the teaching in the classroom is my favorite thing to do my second favorite would be to help others get into a classroom. Getting to see these awesome people begin to fall in love with Southeast Asia fills me up in ways I can’t even explain. I know I probably come across as slightly crazy and obsessed with the people in this part of the world but trust me, I’m not the only one. There’s just something about hanging out with people who have the same heart as you.
It’s hard to believe but in just over a week I will be moving to my new home in Laos. Luang Prabang. It still hasn’t sunk in that I will be moving to one of the most beautiful places you could possibly live. But I am. And I get to teach more Lao students in the process. How did this happen to my life?
Stay tuned for more updates coming soon. In the meantime look at this picture I took from the Royal Palace here in Phnom Penh.
If the picture looks crooked it’s just you. It’s straight. Trust me.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia - 2014
They call Cambodia the “Kingdom of Wonder”. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly centered around the fact that they have Angkor Wat but it also appears the Cambodian sky is making sure it’s not ignored.