Using my gifts

My superpower is to see someone else’s point of view as easily as I see my own. This is a gift when it comes to working with people from different cultures, as I have been doing most of my professional life. It has helped me be an effective English language teacher, and it has helped me adapt to life here in Laos, Southeast Asia, where I have been living since September.

However, this same ability is a curse when it comes to other things. For example, when I was a student, I hated multiple-choice tests, because I could always justify more than one correct answer. It’s also a curse when dealing with linear Americans whose expectations bump up against my polyvalent nature. I feel much more comfortable in the high-context social setting of Laos than with Americans who bludgeon you with their directness.

The other day I invited an American colleague out to meet some of my new friends, teaching associates at the university. They had asked for help with teaching materials for English classes. After brief introductions she asked to look at the textbooks they were currently using for English classes. Without any preamble, she told them it was the wrong textbook for that course, effectively causing them to lose face. This criticism would be normal in the USA for visiting consultants, but here where relationships are more important than the actual work, it seemed a huge cultural breach. It was uncomfortable to be caught in the middle. I am certainly no diplomat, but my ability to see both sides so clearly allows me to explain one side to the other, to patch things up, to move forward in friendship.

When my job description changed for the third time in four months, I just smiled and rolled with it. I can sacrifice my individual need for a routine schedule in order to focus on the softer skills. I may not be teaching regular classes, but I am building connections with people. Family, food, clothing – these are all areas where it’s easy to find something in common. I’m learning to sit quietly and listen to what’s not being said, and to accept what is offered. It’s slower than I’d like, but I’m earning the trust of Lao people I work with by accepting their culture wholeheartedly.

I met another American woman who’s lived in Southeast Asia for a number of years. We met over coffee, and I felt like I was being interviewed for a job. She extracted more information from me in 30 minutes than I usually share with colleagues over several months. I quickly adapted to her communication style, answering her explicit questions honestly, and stating what I needed. I must have won her respect because we exchanged valuable information, and now we’re friends. At least on Facebook.

In Laos, Facebook is another cultural phenomenon that I’ve had to adapt to. People use it for everything: apartment rentals, restaurants, small business advertising, even Ministry updates. Businesses of all kinds will have a Facebook page but no website. Of course it’s also used for social networking. I expected to keep my separate spheres, as I did in the USA. But when work and social life are so strongly interconnected, sharing personal photos and videos is a must. Lao people love to take pictures, and we’re all friends on Facebook, so it looks like I’ve got the most exciting job surrounded by groups of happy people, dancing, singing, and drinking Beer Lao. In reality, these relationships are my job, not the 9-to-5 teaching.

It’s taken months to build these relationship and I cherish them because I’ve worked so hard to build connections.









Eleven days

They say that for getting over jet lag it takes the same number of days as there are hours of time difference in the new place. In other words, if you travel from New York to Los Angeles, it takes three days to get over jet lag because there’s a three-hour time difference. I’m now eleven days into my new life in Laos, a time zone with an eleven-hour difference from Eastern Standard Time. I should feel right with the world, but I am still actively adjusting to a new culture where very few people speak English, it smells funny, and I don’t have a car.

Riding a bike home to my little apartment surrounded by tuk-tuks, SUVs, and motorcycles without getting run off the road was a major accomplishment. Then I figured out where the little supermarket was and how to load up groceries into my backpack. Water is really heavy. Yesterday I met with Ministry of Education officials and didn’t understand 99% of what was being said. I need to learn Lao. But I looked good in a long traditional silk skirt that I borrowed from another American woman and had ironed by the lady who cleans the apartments. She also helped me figure out how to put it on. I’m pretty good at speaking via gestures – what would you expect from a lifelong English language teacher?

A surge of self-confidence wells up in my head as I cross each new challenge off the “firsts” list. Find a place to live, tell the taxi how to get there in the dark, find the bicycle that M. left me, pay for a meal, get the Embassy badge in just the right color, and talk to the little boy who lives in my building – hey he speaks English! I can’t complain: I’ve got air-conditioning, CNN, and a swimming pool. Who cares if I’m a little too far from the American Center to walk?

My job is a little slow to get started but that’s okay. A woman who’s been here for years told me that P.D.R. does not stand for People’s Democratic Republic – it stands for Please Don’t Rush. I’m happy to pace myself, recognizing that I am privileged to work in this amazing country and eager not to be a pushy American.