Tag Archives: Vientiane College

Happy Halloween!

Laos is a country familiar with ghosts.  From my conversations with friends and students over the past year, I’ve gotten the impression that nearly everyone, at least a tiny bit, believes in pii–in ghosts or spirits.  Naturally, some of those beliefs are more serious than others, but the concept of spirits existing all around us, both bad and good, is quite prevalent.  This is visible just walking down the street and taking in the wide array of “spirit houses” outside nearly every business or home: miniature buildings to appease the spirits of the place, with small offerings, from liquor, sticky rice, and bananas, to Pepsi and cookies.  Some are flashy, covered in mirrors, and neon paint, others modest and minimalistic.  But they’re always there.  For some, this is a tradition, perhaps less a literal belief than to promote general good luck, but still entrenched in the culture.

A sampling of spirit houses, from right to left: Bangkok, Vientiane, Bali.

And from the urban legends I’ve heard, the pii are all around me here.  On Halloween night, a Lao friend started recounting tales of all of the spirits in the surrounding area, from the “scariest ghost in Laos,” according to him–a little girl who eats live chickens (and sometimes children)–to which places in town have particularly high concentrations of spirits (for example, one area on a main road, where all of the ghosts of people who have died in traffic accidents congregate).  He spoke half as though he were recounting simple facts, and half as though he was just trying to freak us out.  “Do you really believe this?” I asked, after a story about a ghost over the bridge in Thailand.  He just shrugged and said, “Maybe.  Why not?”

So perhaps it makes sense that the Western tradition of Halloween is becoming quite popular.  In talking with Australian coworkers, I recently realized how American many of the traditions I associate with Halloween are.  Many asked, “Do you actually carve pumpkins every year?  And go trick or treating?”  A such, these traditions were an essential part of my first Halloween celebration with the new American Embassy scholarship program.  Two of my good friends are teaching and developing this brand-new two-year program, that teaches both English language and American cultural customs to underprivileged local high schoolers.  As the first of the American culture celebrations, the roof at Vientiane College was decked out in orange and black, the American ambassador was in attendance and 60 high school students carved greenish Lao pumpkins with scarily large knives.  A few of the other American teachers and I joined after class to help out (and mostly to feel nostalgic for childhood).  After jack-o-lanterns were aglow (with minimal loss of blood), we hid in various classrooms to jump out and scare “trick-or-treating” students before handing out candy.

Saturday night  was the main show, costume-wise.  Kongkhao, a favorite hangout among expats, was hosting a “dead celebrity”-themed Halloween party, so naturally, we had to go all out (the day my life ceases to involve sporadic necessity of costumes will be a sad one).  I was Audrey Hepburn, and was joined by a posse that included the likes of Albert Einstein, Amy Winehouse, Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, and a very dead rockstar.

A peek into the classroom: YLPF1 students working on Halloween masks.

Pumpkins? Check. Costumes? Check.  Halloween should be over, right?  Because I can never let a celebration pass by without drawing it out as long as possible, this was not the case.  Halloween Monday was a party all over again.

Teacher--leave me alone and let me work on my mask!

I conveniently had both of my Young Learner’s classes on this day, which was a great excuse to let lesson plans slide and allow both my and my student’s excitement to join forces for some just-barely-under-control fun classes.  With my smallest children we made Halloween masks and then played a version of “Red Light, Green Light” that involved walking around like zombies (and turned out to be a surprisingly good listening exercise).  My older class sat around and told scary stories, most of which involved–that’s right–more pii sightings around their houses (and even Vientiane College!).

After the last gluesticks and scraps of colored paper were finally cleaned up (along with the vomit of an over-excited 8 year-old), I headed out with a few coworkers to some final Halloween festivities.  Though it was a Monday, bars, restaurants, and clubs across town had huge Halloween parties on.  After all, if you’re going to celebrate a foreign holiday, why celebrate it on the wrong day?  After visiting a few of fake-cobweb strewn venues in the city we ended this year’s holiday watching an elaborate costume fashion show with some of our awesome TAs at one of the city’s fancy clubs.  Now the costumes are back in the closet for the time being, but the seemingly endless stream of holidays that mark the fall term marches onward.  Next up: birthday, That Luang Festival, and (eventually) the rest of my stories from Australia.

This is an accurate depiction of how it feels every time I enter this class.




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Changing Seasons, Changing Houses

Though there’s much more to be said about my trip to Australia, life in Vientiane continues to pass by quicker than you can say bo mak kin tin gai (I don’t like to eat chicken feet).  So I’ll interrupt the whales and kookaburras for some updates from this side of the Mekong.

One of the most quintessentially Vientiane photos I've taken.

The seasons, they are a-changing.  The rainy season, whose daily deluges we have been enjoying (or suffering…depending on if we’re indoors or out when they hit) for the past few months has officially come to an end, with the end of Buddhist Lent (awk pansaa) last week.  This was celebrated with the seemingly universal holiday mix of the traditional with the modern and absurd, and I’ll have more to say about the Boatracing Festival soon.  For the moment, the rain and the heat have yet to fully loosen their grip on the city, but some new crispness in the air at night hints at the “cool” season to come.

The third week of term is already well underway, and classes are no longer feeling new.  Once again, I’m teaching my preferred mix of young and old learners, advanced and beginners.  I’m come to really appreciate the opportunity for variety in my teaching life at VC.  The kids are adorable and so full of energy, but sometimes I need a break to talk to people I can relate to at a higher level.  Conversely, when I’m facing a room of silent college students (having flashbacks to some of my own distracted precepts at Princeton, in which I repentantly say “Okay, now I know how it feels, I’m sorry for not participating more!”) it’s nice to escape to a Young Learners class where stickers will elicit unbounded enthusiasm.  To put it in another way–I don’t have a favorite class.  They all balance each other so nicely.

This term I’ve got two groups of Young Learners, one of which is the youngest I’ve had yet.  Several of the students are only 6 years old, and painfully cute, but also painfully challenging to deal with at times.  I’m glad that I’ve been studying Lao because I can understand the translations of almost everything I’m attempting to teach them.  But sometimes even a common language won’t help translate 6-year-old logic.  Last week, one of the tiniest boys in my class walked up to me in the middle of the lesson, his hands in the respectful nop position, and said “Khoi pen wad.” (I have a cold).  Not sure what he wanted me to do about it, I nodded, and he sat back down and proceeded to pour an Oishi Green Tea all over the table.

I’m especially excited about my advanced classes this term, as I’m teaching both Personal Identity and Creative Writing, both of which involve reading literature and talking about the elements of storytelling and self-expression.  This is something I like teaching as much as I’ve enjoyed studying it over the years.  Finally, I’m teaching a group of daytime students who are studying to go to do their Master’s in New Zealand next year.  They’re in the final term of study before their departure, and I’m doing Information Literacy with them, yet another class that brings me back to college in my mind, as we talk about the organization and vocabulary of Western university libraries.  They’re all excited about watching New Zealand proceed to the Rugby World Cup final this weekend, as are all of the fans of Lao Rugby here.

The Cat: ungrateful and audacious, but hard not to love. Photo credit: Ilse

In the week before I left for Australia I rather haphazardly shuttled all of my stuff (it’s incredible how much you can accumulate in a year!) from my old house to a new house.  Probably the most amusing thing to move was our adopted stray cat, which got carted over in a carrier on the back of a motorbike in the pouring rain. Luckily The Cat, as it’s known, seems to more than have recovered from this traumatizing experience and made the new house its kingdom.  It’s lot in life has improved dramatically since it found us last year but, in typical feline fashion, it shows little to no gratefulness.  The new house has an admittedly strange aesthetic, with sliding class doors in random places, mirrored columns, and waist-high display cases filled with old dishes and Hmong dolls, but it’s beginning to feel more like home.

I’m living with three new PiA fellows.  Mike is also a teacher at VC, and is volunteering for Lao Rugby.  Ilse works at the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, and she and Kyle, our fourth housemate, who works for the World Wildlife Fund, have already managed to guest lecture about environmental issues at Vientiane College.  All three of them have blogs as well this year, so if you can’t get enough Lao updates, here are some more, each with a very different style.

View from our driveway. Photo credit: Ilse

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Term 3: Changes

Sunset over the Mekong- 6:27pm.

Sunset over the Mekong- 6:41pm.

Sunset over the Mekong- 6:54pm.

My return from July travels with my mom marked the beginning of a new era of my life here in Vientiane.  When I came back, the two new Vientiane College fellows, Mike and Charlotte, had arrived, making me officially a second-year (although I haven’t actually been here for a full year yet).  Over the course of the past few months, friends have been moving out of the city one by one, starting with Nanny in June, Alex in July, and Alex-girl this week.  In the last few weeks the final Lao fellows for the year–Anna, Kyle, and Ilse–have all arrived, rounding out the Laos group at eight.  While I’ve been sad to see good friends go, it’s also been exciting to meet new fellows, and it has caused me to reflect on my time here.  It’s shaken up my routine a lot, which has certainly made me sad at times, but is a positive thing overall.  Showing new people around has gotten me to revisit favorite places and good memories.  Their enthusiasm and fresh eyes have encouraged me to branch out and notice things in the city that had previously gone overlooked.  I’m almost jealous of all the new arrivals for getting to experience everything for the first time, as I remember my own excitement when I first arrived.  But where was I one year ago now?  I still had no idea there was even a possibility of me moving to Laos.  So I certainly have so many unknowns to look forward to in the coming year.

Vientiane College

In addition to adjusting to many changes around here (including a move in the next few weeks), I’ve been kept busier than ever with Term 3 at Vientiane College.  On the advanced level, I’m teaching Core 3 (Alex’s class, which deserves its own post at some point) again, as well as another Professional Writing class, this time about writing business letters, resumes, and memos.  My two young learners classes are wildly entertaining.  I have a young learners elementary-level class who I have now taught three terms since arriving.  As a result, we are so comfortable with each other that planning is a breeze and the students are not shy at all to ask me, rather than the TAs, questions or definitions of new vocabulary, which is quite an accomplishment for many.  My second YL class is at the pre-elementary level and is about space and dinosaurs–two topics that most kids (myself included) couldn’t be more excited about.  My daytime classes from last term having ended (with several of my students earning AusAID scholarships!), I’m now teaching writing to the Army during the day.  The class is a group of Lao military officers, many of them teachers at the military academies here, who are studying at VC for four terms to improve their English skills.  The variety of classes I’m teaching this term, along with my other responsibilities at work, ensure that I haven’t been bored once during this transitional period.

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Term 2: Halfway There

Time is passing quickly at Vientiane College.  Since the Pi Mai celebrations that kicked off the beginning of term, the first half of Term 2 has sped by.  Midterms are past, and there are only a few weeks of term remaining.  For my daytime students, this means that their tests, which we’ve spent all term preparing them for, and which will help determine whether or not they receive a scholarship to study in Australia, are approaching in the next few weeks.  Stress levels are high, and the teachers are doing the best we can to try to keep them both relaxed and focused on their long-term goals.  My Young Learners Fairytales class now has Goldilocks and the Billy Goats Gruff under their belt, and are preparing to tackle Jack and the Beanstalk next.  Exciting things are also happening in Core 3, the class that Alex is developing, and I am co-teaching, this term.  We’ve challenged the students a lot, but they’ve managed both to keep up and impress us weekly with their thoughtfulness.  I’m looking forward to the upcoming personal essay assignment, but I’ll write more about this another time.

Some teachers celebrating the halfway point of the daytime program with our students.

Term 2 has been punctuated with many celebrations, as usual.  There has been Easter egg decorating, a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, a birthday party, and the Vientianale film festival.  We’ve also been celebrating the arrival of several restaurants that have set the Vientiane expat community abuzz.  Perhaps one of the few things that passes faster than time here is word of mouth among expats.    New arrivals include a tapas restaurant (iBeam), a European-esque sandwich shop (Benoni), and a cafe, Common Grounds, that serves burritos! (the only thing previously missing from Vientiane cuisine).  In addition to the feasting and fiestas, I’ve traveled out of town for two long weekends this term.  Updates about my Bangkok weekend and village trek are coming soon!

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The Past 2 Weeks

School has only been in session for two days and already the recent holiday seems like it was ages ago.  It started with a 3-day jaunt to Chiang Mai (which I visited before in January), in northern Thailand, with some of my favorite Aussie coworkers.  They were staying all week, so we had an apartment and sampled the ex-pat life in the neighborhood with another friend living there.  This meant that my time there was mostly spent perusing markets, eating, drinking, and laying by the pool.  Highlights included the Sunday Walking Street, when a downtown street is shut down and turned into a phenomenal handicraft market, and the best mangoes/cashew chicken/noodle soup I’ve ever tasted.  Though it’s embarrassing to admit, we also visited the “Tiger Kingdom,” where you can pet tigers of differing sizes (we chose “smallest” and “largest,” of course).  I won’t attempt to try to defend paying to pet a captive wild animal.  So, I’ll only say–touching a tiger was really cool.  It’s off the bucket list.

Little did I know when I took this that these would be the Most Delicious Mangoes Ever.

Chiang Mai market snacks: pork rinds, sausage, and chili dips.

Tigers sleep up to 18 hours per day.

After the three relaxing days in Thailand, it was time to head off for the main part of my trip–to Myanmar (Burma).  I went there alone for the first few days and later met up with the other Princeton-in-Asia Laos girls when they arrived.  It was: hot, fascinating, fragrant, lively, spiritual, friendly, and one of my favorite places I’ve visited so far.  Look forward to more thoughts from the trip (and Pi Mai Lao!) coming soon.

Now I’m here back in Vientiane, two days into Term 2, 2011.  Though I’ll be very busy with work, like last term, my courses this term are more exciting than ever.  During the day, I’m continuing with the adults’ scholarship prep class, this time focusing on teaching how to write for the IELTS exam (something like the TOEFL in the US).  I have two young learners’ classes: one are 8-15 year-olds who I’ve taught before, and another are 8-11 year-olds who are learning about Fairytales this term.  That’s right: I’ll be reading/acting out/discussing Goldilocks, Cindarella, the Big Bad Wolf, and more with some young Lao children.  I can’t wait.  I’ll also be teaching Professional Writing to advanced students who want to learn how to write proposals and reports in English.  The final class, and the most unique, is a new course that my housemate Alex has been developing, about exploring and reflecting on personal identity through literature.  This will be a new experience for the students on many levels, and I’m excited to share more about this class as it progresses this term.

More about Burma coming soon!

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Final Report: End of Term

In some ways it seems like a lifetime ago that I was sitting at the Lao cafe next to Vientiane College quietly panicking about standing up in front of a classroom for the first time.  Yet in others, in seems impossible that ten weeks have passed already and it’s time to say goodbye to my first classes.  The momentum of the end of term began about two weeks ago, as the deadline to submit reports (final grades) drew closer.  We have to give each student a grade on several different skill areas (attendance, participation, speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary, homework), so the amount of grading and assessment necessary to fill out the reports is quite high.  The idea of giving out actual letter grades was pretty daunting at first.  As a recent graduate it seemed strange to suddenly be the one making the grading decisions, and I realized both how tedious and difficult some things can be to grade (reading and grading 20 single paragraphs takes me forever…I can’t imagine grading multi-page essays).  It seems like every time I think I’ve worked out the perfect system to fairly grade an assignment, the students do something unexpected that forces me to try very hard to be subjective.

All in all, the term has been incredible.  The learning curve was steep and I feel so comfortable in the classroom now that it’s hard to imagine the stress of the first few days.  My students have been frustrating and hilarious.  Somehow this job has managed to be both easier and more difficult than I imagined at first.  The parts that I thought would be hard (standing in front of a class for an hour and a half, planning lessons, improvising when there is extra time to kill, managing young classes) have proven to be a lot more natural than I expected.  Other things (grading/assessment, working with adult classes, giving clear instructions) are much more difficult.  I’m looking forward to returning to new classes next term, and hopefully doing things just a little better, using the experience I have now.

Today I have my very last classes, after concluding the other two on Wednesday.  I did an activity on American slang with the older of my young learners’ classes on Wednesday (we were wrapping up a unit on talking about foreign languages), which ended with an activity that may have been more fun for me to watch than for them.  Each of them had to perform a short skit using the slang they learned, and most went something like this: “Hey dude, what’s up?  Want to hang out?  Don’t be totally lame.”  (Except with a few more grammatical errors thrown in).  I’ll have this class again next term, which they don’t know yet, and I’m pretty excited to get to see them progress to the next level.  In the two adult classes, I’ve ended the term with review Jeopardy.  I remember having a lot of fun with this in high school, and they seem to feel the same way.  Tonight I’ve have my final young learners Pre-Elementary class, which promises to be a frenzy of barely organized chaos–highly competitive review games (every game is highly competitive, especially if stickers are involved), candy, and stickers galore.  I’ll definitely miss this class next term, but I know that I can look forward to a “Hellooo teacher!” every time I pass them in the halls next year.

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Pull-T Club

As the culmination of our unit on music in my young learners elementary class (the theme of the whole course was “Let Me Entertain You”–movies and music), I had a Lao band come to class for the students to interview.  In the classes before, they had the chance to write and practice questions in English for their surprise guest, who turned out to be three members of the Lao hip-hop group “Pull-T Club,” an up-and-coming group with a current hit single here.  (This music video is pretty funny, because it features lots of daily sights like Joma, my favorite coffee shop, and Patuxai.  It makes my life here feel a lot more glamorous since it’s worthy of the backdrop of a Lao rap video.)

Three members of Pull-T Club posing. Note the ring that says "LAO" in diamonds.

The students were bundles of excitement when class started, trying to peek out into the hallway to see when the guests were coming.  When they finally arrived, the kids (who are about age 9-14) alternated between being really shy and giggling uncontrollably as they raised their hands to ask questions like we had practiced.  The singers didn’t speak English fluently enough to respond in English, so their answers were in Lao, and I tried to pick up as much as I could, which was still very little.  Questions ranged from the relevant (Do you write your own songs?), to completely random (What is your favorite color?), to barely understandable because of the amount of girly giggling (Do you think our teacher is pretty?), but the guys were good sports (The answers were yes, red and green, and Yes, of course). Another highlight was a brief rap demonstration and singalong session.

YLPRE5 and Pull-T Club.

Almost every student in the class had an iPhone, Blackberry, or some other fancy camera phone and at the end everyone wanted both individual and group photos with Pull-T Club, who were dressed up in their rap gear (one guy had a ring that said “Lao” in diamonds).  Next, everyone wanted autographs, of course.  It was already fifteen minutes past the end of class when the TAs and I finally had to chase everyone out and tell them to go home.

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