Interview with a Former ESL Teacher in Laos

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I recently exchanged e-mails with Max Messner who runs the financial blog MaximizingMoney.com and lived in Laos in 1999. Max taught English there for over a year and raved about his experience.

Thanks to Max for sharing his experience and enjoy his stories!

A: When were you in Laos?

M: I lived in Laos around 1999 – 2000 for a little over a year in total, living in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

A: What led to the decision for you to teach there?

M: I wanted to travel and live somewhere that was completely different from the United States, and I also wanted to teach English overseas. An opportunity arrived to live with a family in Luang Prabang in exchange for teaching English locally, so I jumped at the chance.

A: How did you find the job?

M: The family I lived with in Laos introduced me to local Lao teachers, who provided me with teaching opportunities at teacher training colleges as well as teaching younger students at night schools. The need and desire to learn English is very prevalent, so I also taught English out of my host family’s house, which was popular with kids and young adults in my village. It was all volunteer work, and one opportunity led to another. There was never a shortage of willing students.

A: What was the experience like?

M: It was truly one of the best experiences of my life, and I learned more from the people of Laos than I ever could have taught them in return. The great thing about teaching or working abroad is that it really gives you an opportunity to integrate into the community, make close friendships, and get to know both the people and the culture of a country. The people of Laos are extremely kind and generous, and I was accepted into their homes and lives wherever I lived or traveled.

Since I learned to speak Lao while living there, I was able to communicate with people directly, and this also allowed me to provide them with details about my own culture, so that we could get a better understanding of each other.

I am eternally grateful to the family I lived with and the Lao friends and acquaintances I met along the way for inviting me into their culture and giving me a better understanding of my own.

A: What was the cost of living?

M: The cost of living was extremely cheap. The Lao currency is the Kip, and with the unbelievable exchange rate to the U.S. Dollar, I was able to live for more than a year for well less than $1,000.

I lived extremely frugally, but compared to U.S. prices, everything I needed was next to nothing. Meals were just pennies, traveling across the country by bus was a few dollars, and even when I rented a home (an extremely nice home) in Vientiane, I paid practically nothing compared to U.S. rental prices.

I think speaking the language helped, as I was always able to pay what the locals paid, but even with the slightly inflated “foreigner” prices, traveling in Laos is still one of the most affordable destinations in the world. Of course, the downside to this is that Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, which is why it is so affordable to foreigners.

A: Did Living under $1,000 a year include rent?

Actually, living under $1,000 for the year did include some rent. While I was living in Luang Prabang with my host family, I did not pay any rent, although I did help pay for food and some other expenses, but I did rent a very nice home while living in Vientiane with some friends, and we paid about the equivalent of $150 per month for several months.

I know it sounds unbelievable, but the exchange rate at the time worked extremely well in my favor. Many Lao people have family members in the United States from the Vietnam War era when the communist government took over in Laos (Laos was involved in the war in many aspects, although never officially according to the U.S. government), and these U.S. family members send money back home, which some people then use to build more “modern” homes than the traditional wooden stilt homes you’ll find across the country.

In addition, I lived simply and there aren’t really too many ways to spend a lot of money in Laos if you don’t go out of your way to do so. Travel by bus is cheap, I had “family” throughout the country I could stay with while traveling, and I spent much of my time teaching, so I just wasn’t spending a lot of money on a day-to-day basis.

My budget even included bribing government officials to receive a work visa in order to stay for so long beyond the standard tourist visa. I was officially working for a company out of Thailand that was located in Vientiane, although I never set foot in the factory. I was told if the police ever checked my visa that they would recognize the official’s name on it and know not to mess with me. Tourism was still relatively new when I was in Laos, so the prices for foreigners have probably gone up somewhat since then, but bargaining is the rule in Laos, so I’m sure it’s still quite affordable for travel.

A: What’s something unexpected about Laos that you wish you knew going in?

M: I don’t know if there is something necessarily that was unexpected about Laos that I wish I knew going in. I had a lot of time to prepare before I went, so I studied the language, the history, and everything else I could find out about the country. Of course, studying a country does not exactly prepare you for living in a country, but nothing I experienced while I was there would have made me wish I had chosen a different destination.

One thing about living abroad, especially for someone from a Western culture living in such a remote and different destination, is that you don’t realize how much you’ll miss the little things of your own country. Communication with my family was extremely difficult, as you couldn’t just easily pick up the phone and call home like you might do from Thailand or other more technologically advanced countries. I also just missed the little things about American everyday life like ordering a pizza or going out to the movies. However, I went into my experience full force and was prepared to give up everything I knew for the time I was there.

A: When did you come back?

M: I came back in late 2000. After living in Laos, I had so much more money left over that I decided to travel across India before coming back to America, so I spent about 8 weeks in India prior to coming home.

A: How was your time in India?

M: Well, where Laos was laid-back, slow-moving, and emerging from its ancient history, India was in-your-face, fast-paced, and a mix of modern and medieval. I knew when I got off the plane in the middle of the night in Calcutta and was surrounded by swarms of luggage-wallahs competing to carry my single bag a mere 100 feet that I was in for a completely different and unique experience.

After a few eye-opening days in Calcutta, I traveled by train all the way across the country to Bombay (Mumbai). Traveling by train is essential in India and an experience in itself. On that first train trip, I sprung for the extra comfort of a semi-private compartment, which I shared with two kind businessmen who introduced me to the politics, social classes, religions, and culture of India. It was an incredible introduction for my trip. From Mumbai, I meandered up to Agra and then around to Bodh Gaya until I returned to Calcutta to catch my plane home, with many little side-trips and excursions along the way.

India is an extremely diverse and beautiful country, from its many different religions and ancient architecture to the cultural diversity of its people, which I found endlessly interesting and enlightening, but it can also be an overwhelming experience when unexpected. I remember when visiting the Lonar meteor impact crater on my roundabout way to the Ajanta Caves that upon resting in my room after the long and bumpy bus ride, I opened my door to find more than a hundred children sitting outside just waiting for a chance to look at me, as if I was the attraction for them.

I often found myself surrounded by people like this when I was off the beaten path, and although it can seem like somewhat aggressive behavior in some regards, I usually found that it was fueled by curiosity instead. However, you definitely need to know how to stand your ground when traveling through India, as you will be met with a variety of inquiries and a barrage of beggars, especially at train stations and in the larger cities, where the truly hopeless children will break your heart with their poverty-stricken hands outstretched for charity.

Beyond this, the Indian people are generally warm and kind. I was invited into people’s homes for dinner, received politely when I asked questions on the street, and always met with good wishes wherever I traveled. The Indian people are extremely proactive and outgoing, which is why (I imagine) you can find Indian populations in almost every country throughout the world, including Laos.

One of the great things about traveling in India is that English is one of their main languages, so communication is easy and allows you to get to know everyday people on the street, and if you ever get confused when talking to someone, just nod your head slightly from side to side in the Indian manner, which generally seems to be a sign of agreement and understanding. Overall, I was incredibly overcome with India’s beauty, its history, and the diversity of its people, which have left a lasting impression on me long after I departed the land.

A: How was it re-adapting to America?

M: It was a bit of a culture shock coming back to America in some ways, but it’s also my homeland, so it was like stepping back into something very familiar and seeing it in a different light. It was such a profound experience for me personally that I found it hard to convey that experience to my friends and family in response to the common questions you get, like “What was it like?”, so I never felt like I could do the experience I felt justice. For a long time, I just wanted to go back or travel somewhere else, and I didn’t really want to jump back into the American lifestyle, whatever that may be.

A: How has your ESL experience helped you today?

M: I did teach in America for some time after I returned, but I don’t think it lived up to my experiences of teaching in Laos, so I gave up teaching a long time ago. My students in Laos were so eager to learn and thirsty for knowledge that it was a bit of a letdown to deal with the disciplinary requirements of teaching in U.S. public schools.

I don’t want to generalize all American students, but it was hard going from having students come to your home to ask you to teach them more to having to ask students to listen and writing disciplinary referrals for students who don’t know how lucky they are to have a chance to get an education. I don’t teach anymore, although I still imagine I may travel overseas to teach again someday in the future, but my ESL experiences and my overall experience of living in Laos has helped me live a fuller life and appreciate everything that I have been given in life.

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Thanks again to Max for sharing his story and make sure to check out MaximizingMoney.com, the financial blog that offers bonus opportunities, promotional deals, investment ideas, and discount offers to help people earn extra cash and make more money in their everyday financial transactions.

If you have any questions about Laos, feel free to leave them in the comments!

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4 Comments

  1. noi says:

    im glade you go to laos and like it. i would like my family to learn english but the teacher in laos didnt teach it right.

    [Reply]

    rattana Reply:

    would like to teach in Laos..where are your family locate? can i go and live there just to teach. please email me private. thanks!

    [Reply]

  2. Alexander says:

    It is important for your readers to know, in case they are planning to come to Laos, that the financial situation is quite different now than it was in 2000. A very nice home in Vientiane for $150 is no more than a pipe-dream now. Vientiane is a very expensive place to live compared to Bangkok and to Thailand generally. Prices do not reflect standard of living and are rising more each month in response to the increased number of visitors arriving either for tourism or longterm stay. The same is true of any location in Laos where foreign visitors have set foot, Luang Prabang in particular.

    [Reply]

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