Inspired by Brenna’s awesome post about her daily life as an ETA in Vietnam, I wanted to give everyone at home a glimpse of the oh-so-glamorous life of being a Fulbrighter in Savannakhet.
Most mornings are the same: I do what I can to eke out a few extra minutes of sleep before I have to roll out of bed and get ready for school. I use one of those “smart” alarm clocks that’s supposed to wake you up at an optimal time in your sleep cycle, but I think there just is no optimal time to wake up. A few snooze cycles later, I go brush my teeth and make breakfast – almost invariably eggs. I don a sinh (Lao wrap-style skirt that goes to your shins) and shirt (button-down usually, or a nice t-shirt if I’m feeling casual). I’ll usually put on a little bit of make-up, but with the ridiculous humidity, it’s futile to put on much beyond eyeliner and mascara. I chat with people back home as I get ready, as it’s one of the few hours the timezones align and both parties are awake.Tossing my computer and some folders into my backpack, I slip into my black flats, pop in my headphones, and semi-elegantly maneuver myself onto my bike. This is a challenge with my sinh, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it and don’t think I’ve flashed anyone in the process, so I’ll count it as a win.
The bike ride from our house to school takes about 15 minutes at a moderate pace and is mostly flat, though avoiding the numerous potholes and motorcyclists is cause enough to stay attentive the whole time. Still, I listen to a podcast as I make my way to campus, which typically relaxes me and puts me in a good mood before class. I reach the front gate of the university and wait a moment for the guard to lower the rope that blocks the way so I can pass through. I sidle off my bike and wipe my brow furiously as I lock it up to a table. Despite the bike ride being pretty relaxed, the humidity is above 50% and temperature hovers around 100 degrees. I am invariably a sweaty mess.
If I’m a few minutes early, like I am today, I’ll stop by the main English office. I used to have a desk here, but at the start of the semester, the department moved all of the foreign teachers to a different building. The building is brand new and the gesture was meant to be complimentary, but the new office feels very sterile and since my only reason for using the office is to talk to other teachers, it defeats the purpose to be separated from everyone. So instead, I more frequently visit the old office, hanging around for a few minutes and chatting with whatever teachers happen to be around before heading to class. Today, Thai walks in shortly after me and asks me a barrage of questions – Do I have class? (Yes) Where am I going for Lao new year? (Luang Prabang) Will my parents celebrate Lao new year in the US? (Nope) What do my parents do? What is the punishment for lying to a company you work for in the US? What is the punishment for hitting someone with a company car? How do employee contracts work? – on and on. I do my best to decipher his questions and answer, though my knowledge of the corporate legal system is fairly limited.
Unlike most of the Lao teachers who are more, ahem, relaxed about getting to class on time, I excuse myself from conversation and walk to building C for class. Building C is where all of the English classes are held. It consists of 2 open-air floors with several classrooms in various states of disrepair. I pass some younger students as I enter the building, and they go from fooling around to standing straight and bowing their heads slightly in a split second. Sometimes, a boisterous student will yell “Hello!” or “How are you?” or “How about you?” before running away without waiting for a response. Mostly, students are struck silent by the presence of a foreign teacher and shy giggles are the most response I get as I smile at them or say hello.
I make my way up the narrow stairwell to the second floor and walk towards my class. Often, a few students are hanging around outside and at the sight of me coming down the hall scurry into the classroom with shouts of “Maa lehoh!” to warn the rest of the class that Ajarn Pooja is coming. As I walk into the classroom, all of the students stand up and in unison greet me – “Good morning, teecha!” “Good morning, students!” I respond. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to respond or not, but it feels awkward not to, so I do. Someone brings me a half-sized bottle of water, which I appreciate, but feel guilty drinking, thinking about the sheer volume of plastic my daily water bottle consumption in-class leads to. The students sit down and I start class with a warm-up exercise. A few are late and stand in the doorway, palms pressed together, asking “Teecha, may I come in?”, and barely waiting for a repsonse before taking a seat. The formality of it all amuses me.
Class continues, with me writing things on the board, punctuated by activities where students practice speaking, reading, writing, or listening, depending on the class. It’s a good lesson if I maximize the amount of time students are talking in English and minimize the amount of time I’m standing in front of the classroom with 25 confused faces staring at me. Between erasing the board, I hope my sweat stains aren’t too bad and try and avoid getting black smudges from the board all over my hands and on my nose. I usually fail at both. But most days of class are alright; class happens and there’s a few students that understand what’s happening enough for my lessons to work and after 90 sweaty minutes of this, we’re done.
Today are midterms though, and my class invovles watching students as they take the test, ensuring that no cheating is happening. Cheating isn’t viewed with the same gravity here as it is in the states. Desks and walls are covered in scribbled vocabulary and definitions in a variety of languages – English, French, and Lao are the most common, though you can sometimes spot some Japanese or Vietnamese in the mix. Mostly, I just give periodic announcements to “Only look at your own paper,” because everyone seems to have a bad case of the wandering eyes. I also walk around the class periodically and answer questions. Often, this just means restating my written directions a few different ways, hoping that one of them is understandable. Sometimes, I’ll be called over only to have the student point at the paper and stare at me blankly. To this, my attempt at explaining is broader. Invariably, I get an “Ohhh, okay”, though I don’t always feel as if they’ve actually understood, bur are rather just accepting that they don’t understand the question. I’m not sure which of the two is more frequent, and worry about it.
After class, I bike home and immediately change out of my sinh, opting typically for shorts and a t-shirt. I’ve gone from being fairly fashion-conscious to dressing like I’m ready for gym class pretty quickly between the oppressive heat and relatively conservative dress code. I’m thankful to have the air-conditioned haven of my room and lay down for a few minutes before going to the (non-ACed) kitchen to cook lunch, usually some sort of stir fry or – especially lately – veggie noodles. I retreat back into the air-con to eat and then poke around online for a bit.
Many afternoons, I bike into town (straight down A1, left at the black and yellow building) to Lin’s Cafe. Lin’s is an expat favorite and my personal go-to in town thanks to their amazing iced coconut coffee. I’ll hang out there for a few hours, talking to Art (one of the staff) or any of my expat friends that happen to be around, and grading, writing, or watching Netflix. After I’ve run out of things to do, I pack up and bike to my gym, King’s Fitness. King’s is the newest gym in town and opened shortly after we moved here. It’s a really nice facility and though the cardio equipment feels more like home-use machines rather than commercial models, their weights are great. Most days I grab some free weights, a yoga mat, and a towel and do the Men’s Health Spartacus work out. I’m positioned right across from the most absurd machines the gym has – two vibrating platforms that you stand, sit, or place various limbs upon. The implicit promise is that they “jiggle your fat away.” I’m a bioengineer, so trust me when I say that this is clearly ridiculous. Just to back up my assessment, I tried one for a few minutes while looking for papers online that would explain whether or not these machines were effective. Spoiler: Nope, unless you’re very elderly or disabled. Still, almost every woman at the gym spends a good half hour on them. I typically weigh myself as I leave. The first few times I did this were extremely awkward. I stood on the scale and everyone that worked at the gym that was around leaned over to see the number. While I’m not particularly self conscious about my weight as a number, I am very aware that I am Amazonian in stature compared to most Lao women, so any number that would pop up on the scale would be massive in the eyes of the staff. Now, I weigh myself as fast as possible in order to avoid this kind of scrutiny that is culturally totally acceptable here.
I bike back home and Theresa or I cook us dinner. It’s nice having so much free time because I can devote a lot of time to cooking meals. Making dinner is one of the most relaxing parts of the day – it’s usually a bit cooler and I’ll have a podcast on in the background. Over dinner, Theresa, Mari, and I chat about our days. It’s really nice to have the others as a support system because if struggling, we can vent our frustration in a healthy way rather than having to bottle it up. We shoot the shit for a bit before retiring to our rooms. Most evenings involve a mix of knitting, Netflix, reading, and chatting with people back home, once they’re awake. I’ll do this until I’m tired or until it’s about midnight, whichever comes first, before falling asleep in the cool the fan and air-con environment of my room.
The days pass lazily, and though I do get bored from time to time, I am thankful for this break from the busy Western world to which I will soon return. Until then, I’m enjoying the slowness and stillness of life and the relative lack of responsibilities I’m afforded here.