There’s a Lao expression, baw bpen nyang, that loosely translates as “no problem.” It’s used in a variety of situations to mean anything from “don’t worry,” – as in the tuk-tuk driver saying, “it’s the wrong change, but don’t worry, I’ll give you Thai baht” – to “you’re welcome” – as a response to letting a student at the American Center join a class even though they didn’t register. Baw bpen nyang seems to be a way of life that I have no choice but to accept. For a Westerner used to taking charge, it’s got some advantages.
Riding a bicycle loaded down with water bottles from the minimart can be a challenge under any circumstances. But riding after dark, with motorcycles criss-crossing in front of me, while sandwiched between two cars jockeying for the same lane can raise it to a different level of stress. I’ve got a fierce determined look on my face and a bright beam of light to mark the potholes. Traffic seems to move around me in an effortless dance that I don’t understand. Baw bpen nyang. I make it home drenched with sweat just before a torrential rainstorm floods the street. Relief!
During my first week in Laos, the U.S. Embassy staff introduced me to some officials at the Ministry of Education, where I am supposed to be working with Lao teachers of English to help develop a curriculum. I knew that I wouldn’t be starting my job right away; it’s not like the U.S. where schools start in lock step just before or just after Labor Day. It’s the first time an English Language Fellow has been asked to do this work so I knew it would take some time to get all the paperwork completed. While I’m waiting for my official job to begin, I’ve been getting out to meet teachers informally. Baw bpen nyang. I’m resourceful and resilient I tell myself. Okay, I’ll admit it’s been a little stressful not to have a real job yet. But as soon as people learn that I want to visit their schools, they invite me to observe or teach a class. It’s been fun to be back in a classroom doing what I’m best at: teaching English language learners. It turns out I’m pretty good at networking, too. I’m excited to meet Lao teachers, to see them trying new methods and to watch students brighten up when they get a sentence right. I can feel the energy and enthusiasm of the young people here, and it’s a little bit contagious.
Yesterday I invited one of the Teaching Assistants from the American Center out to lunch. Today he’s invited me out to his school to meet some teachers. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day, so I’ve got a couple of boxes of American candy to offer the head master. His cousin is coming to pick me up in an air-conditioned car. I’m wearing a traditional Lao skirt, a sinh made of silk, and waiting for rain to stop. I get a message in perfect English, with a smiley face, “My cousin is in the temple and I’m waiting for him to come back.” You know what I’m thinking: baw bpen nyang. I’m trying to convince this guy to enter the ASEAN Youth contest. He’s got the skills to make it work, and I can help him craft a strong essay. If he doesn’t meet the deadline – well, I guess there will be other opportunities.
Sometimes when I’m beginning to feel a little lost and confused, a new person shows up to help me. This week one of my dreams came true: I got to go out on the Mekong River in a long boat. It’s a few days before the Boat Racing Festival, Boun Xuang Heua, one of Vientiane’s biggest events of the year. It’s understandable that Ms. S didn’t really want the responsibility of an extra falang woman when she was trying to launch an international crew safely before sunset. But my new friend, JC told her I was “a professional” and since I just showed up, baw bpen nyang, she let me go out in the coaching boat. What a thrill! It felt at once foreign and familiar to watch 48 people paddle in sync in a gorgeously decorated boat, counting the rhythm in Lao: nung, song, saam, sii, haa…
It will take a while for me to find my rhythm in this new place. My experience tells me that it’s best to be patient and wait for things to happen instead of trying to force them. I’m learning that something magical and uniquely Asian happens when you simply plant an idea, then sit back and let it grow.