When you’ve been here long enough, you can listen to how people talk and figure out where they’ve learned their English. If someone uses “like” a lot, they may have worked at a guesthouse and have been talking with young backpackers. Monks have a particular patter, characterized by questions asked in a series of expressionless order. Many men who have been both a monk and a guesthouse attendant often become guides and the unpunctuated patter and casual confidence of their pasts can be identified. They often sound like a tape recorder. Ask a question and the closest related monologue will start.
Of course, there are dozens of good excellent guides out there, but I am targeting them because of their comfortable position on the hierarchy of desired jobs. They are revered because they can own guesthouses, drive vans and look cool with foreigners. They are admired because they look like they’re communicating in English. If their crown is left uncontested, the bar will never be raised.
On one occasion, I was impressed with the abilities of a secondary school student and felt he was full of promise. I asked the, “What do you wanna be when you grow up?” question and was surprised that his highest aspirations were to be a soldier or a guide. Maybe that’s not that different from children in developed countries who aspire to be a professional athlete or a singer. There aren’t many role models to choose from. Nonetheless, I begged him to reconsider, only later to understood that being poor and connected, it could be unrealistic for him to aim to be a doctor.
In another case, I met a student who had worked his way up through the highest cadres of academic performance. More aware of his choices, said he wanted to work in a private company and make money. That’s a very sensible plan though I have to admit I was hoping he was going to say something like, “I want to use my talents to give something back to society.” Reality check for me.
Maybe the hard realities of life here is that most students don’t have the luxury to have dreamlike futures. In contrast, A LinkedIn survey of developed countries confirmed that 70 % of the respondents feel that taking pleasure in their work is the highest priority. 8% said that helping others is important. The average Lao is probably most concerned about job security, a pension and health insurance. That narrows the choices way down.
Can’t being a teacher be a good compromise? Working for the state will give them security and benefits. Pay raises will wipe away that era when people would say, “If you want to be a teacher, it’s better to raise pigs.” In fact, there has already been a dramatic increase in applications for teaching colleges and there is the hope that all those empty rural classrooms will be filled.
The next step is to produce good teachers. Not just good teachers, but excellent teachers. Will students some day dream about being a teacher, a profession in which they will gain personal satisfaction and pleasure? Can helping others become a priority? We’re hoping that once the status of teaching is higher than raising pigs again, our teachers will have chosen their professions for the right reasons.