by an adult who keeps on learning
Luang Prabang, Laos
That’s what we’re into as an educational philosophy and methodology….and where we are staying right now is a perfect environment.
We have the top floor of a house (three bedrooms, a landing big enough to spread out on and a bathroom – that white one in the picture). Downstairs a family lives in two rooms and the third room is free for more guests. Next door – and when I say next door I mean you can touch the house from our one! – and in the surrounding houses there’s the same kind of set-up. That means there are quite a few foreigners down this alleyway, but there are even more Lao. And they have welcomed us into their family, giving us food all day long, teaching us how to cook over their fire, allowing us to cook them a Kiwi Pumpkin Soup (although they really struggled with us roasting the pumpkin first – they wanted us to chop it up and steam it, the way it is done here – and they were very dubious about putting it in a soup! Soup is supposed to be a clear broth with green vegetables and perhaps noodles floating in it, not a thick stand-a-spoon-up-in-it substance….and when push came to shove, they didn’t end up eating it with us, but some other travellers joined us instead!) As we have sat around the fire everyone from the grandparents to the little children and all the sons and daughters and uncles and aunties have filled us with Lao language. This is only our fourth day with them and we can carry on a conversation (albeit haltingly) at the market or on the street.
The most polished one goes like this:
Hello, excuse me. 2kg sticky rice. Enough. Good. 12,000? Thank you very much.
By halfway through that spiel the stall owners either side will have crowded over as the rice seller tells them I’m speaking Lao. I insist “noi noi” (little little), which, to them, just proves the point that I really can speak Lao. So then we get into the stumbling conversation as I try to drag out the right words.
I can tell they’re asking me how many children I have so I say, “Eight children. I have four boys. I have four girls. Little foreigner two years old.” Then they are convinced I know what I’m on about and the questions come thick and fast. The ones I understand refer to the children’s ages, which would make sense when I’ve just pointed the conversation in that direction – good thing about having eight kids is you get to practise lots of numbers. Inevitably they then tell me I look “very beautiful” for so many. And I get to say “39 years”. And then throw in some more words I’ve learnt just because I can: “Little foreigner is very beautiful” (everyone says that to ER2 who is usually on my hip in a wrap and I learnt it very quickly). This really gets the Lao flowing and I get lost. I’d like to be able to say “I don’t understand”, but the best I can do at this stage is “I don’t know” – and that’s only when I don’t get stage fright and forget it – I’m sure I came out with “have no money” one time!!!!! Then you throw in a few “good”s and “thank you very much”s and point to your rice and say “very delicious” and move on.
Four days of virtually living WITH this extended family has taught us things like *knife* and *goodnight* and *tired* and *toilet* and *walk* (useful with the tuktuk drivers) and that the word for happy is the same as the word for monsoon. Plus we can count to 99,999. And get this – for one hundred you can say “loi ning” or “ning loi”. It doesn’t matter which way you choose. Same with a thousand – sen ling or ling sen. same same!
Yes, living in someone else’s house is a great way to learn. And it’s not just the house. Everyone *lives* outside. All the cooking is done outside in between half a dozen houses, with motorbikes zipping up and down, washing draped over clotheshorses, a table and a few low stools scattered about. Early in the morning everyone creeps around in pyjamas with a towel or shawl draped around their shoulders for warmth as they rinse their faces at the communal multi-purpose hose or tiptoe further up the alley to borrow a neighbour’s fire to start their own. They pound their spices and split their firewood all on the same patch of concrete embedded with stones and edged with bricks. I haven’t quite got over the fact that they all – we all – live out on the street, sharing food and laughs. And when we disappear inside, they follow us and just stand there at the top of the stairs, watching, peering into the rooms to talk to whoever is going to sleep! Although this is well outside our range of cultural norms, we don’t mind and invite conversation. That’s got to be why we are learning so much.
We are learning about foods we would not bother buying at the market (ta laat), because we wouldn’t have a clue what to do with them. We are learning what to do with the hard bitter fruit growing just outside our door. We have learnt we don’t want to try it again! We are learning about hospitality. We are learning we have been given good prices on our shopping expeditions (it’s nice to know we’re not being ripped off!). We are learning another culture’s view of children – today a particular eight year old was banished to sit on the step for a time and everyone took pity on him – when I said, “Bo dee” (“No good”) they looked astonished and explained to me he’s just a child, and children do not know. Children are good. (At least I was 99% certain that’s what they were saying and repeated back the words I knew to make sure I had understood). I think my eight year old knows not to antagonise the animals! And if he doesn’t, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn here with the chickens, dogs and cats.
Tags: children, dress, food, intergenerationalism, learning, money, parenting, postcard: Laos, tradition