Archive for August 2007

Happy Teacher’s Day

August 31, 2007

Ruins of St Paul's (Da San Ba). Macau. March 2007.

 HAPPY TEACHER’S DAY

I like this candid photo alot. It was taken on the last day of class in April, before the students graduated and we went our separate ways. Just looking at my toothy grin is an effective reminder of the reason why I gave up my office job to be here. Because I really want to offer a listening ear, because I want to keep them in school, because I want them to know somebody cares, because I want to be here when they are lost.

Felia is right about culture shock. Since coming back from Laos I have had difficulty adjusting to the noisy students and have become quite dejected. But of course, there are other reasons to explain my listlessness.

I still have not recovered from the cold which began in July. And my most recent medical check-up revealed that I’m unable to efficiently absorb the medication I’m taking for thyroid deficiency, which explains why I constantly feel tired and fat. Basically, my hormones are quite all over the place.

So actually the past week had been quite tough, but yesterday evening, an angel made things better. You may remember Baoqiang, one of the boys who came to see me off at Changi when I left for Laos.

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The big boy with tiny eyes and a tanned complexion had messaged me several times to get hold of me in the office. But I was busy in class the whole afternoon. Could it wait till tomorrow, I asked. No, was the answer. He had to see me yesterday.

When we finally met at 430pm, he said, “Teacher, tomorrow I going to Shanghai for one-month attachment so must give you this today.” He handed me a mug and a card. The sweet boy went through some effort to get hold of a picture of me and the Student Seminar kids in Hong Kong, and got it printed on a mug. The mug read “Happy Teacher’s Day.”

My eyes were moist when I read the card. “Thanks for looking after us for the past 6 months or so. Not just that, you left a piece of memory in me forever.”

When I recounted this to my mother, she as always, gave me words of advice and encouragement. “Such students make you want to go on. You can’t save them all. But even if only 1 student appreciates your effort, you have succeeded. The children, they know it if somebody treats them well with sincerity. And they will reciprocate your efforts .”

I never expected Baoqiang to be such a thoughtful boy. He hardly has any expressions, and seldom speaks. He looks like a tough guy who prefers to be alone. He hardly spoke to me while we were preparing for the Student Seminar. That was why his gesture came as a surprise. I didn’t know I had left such a good impression on this boy.

I only have 1 gift this Teacher’s Day. And this gift was enough to make my heart swell and dance, sending warm currents with each beat. I had a sense of fullness and contentment I have never experienced.

It was the only present I needed this year.

p.s. On this special day, I would like to pay tribute to 3 teachers who have impacted my lives. My mother, who after 30 years, still wants to give her best to the children, and who has become my mentor after I started teaching. My colleague, Ms CL, who has been in the college for over 20 years, who stills wants to be here for the kids even if it means working with people she hates. My Maths teacher in Primary School, Mrs Kwee, who is still with Maha Bodhi School 15 years after I left. I’m still using her formula to calculate percentages.

Thank you teachers. You are truly my inspiration.

That is the beauty of being a teacher. You never know how much impact you will leave on the kids, and how long it will last.

Am I a lotus?

August 29, 2007

How do you maintain your integrity and sanity in a place with jaded people and where injustice thrives? In a place where people obtain what they do not deserve because others allow them to get away?

If I get into trouble just because I uphold what I believe, instead of following the norm, will it be worth it? If I kick up a big fuss because I find things unacceptable, am I then “uptight” and “unable to relax”?

If everyone around you was warped, how do you stay sane? If things around you were done wrongly, can you spot the difference and choose a different route?

My mother’s only wish for me as I was growing up was for me to be like the lotus flower, which emerges from a muddy pond to produce beautiful untainted petals. Will I be strong enough to resist the temptations? Will I have the strength to get through this?

Is this the end of the road?

August 28, 2007

I am back to reality, spending my days around rowdy teenagers who lack discipline and respect. Today, I sat in a corner looking at the barely filled classroom, wondering how I was going to get to kids back to school.

My colleague asked me have I changed after Laos, and how has the trip affected me. Amazingly, it has in a number of significant ways. I’m starting to wonder if there is a real need for us to be so busy all the time, to be so obsessed with the way we look or the brands we buy, to be so selfish, rude and unhelpful, to take everything we have for granted.

Perhaps the biggest change I had to cope with when I came back would be the attitude of the students. Over the past two days, I just felt that nobody in class cared about what I had to say, and conducting a lesson was a struggle with all mouths open and all ears shut.

Many of them think it’s pointless to come to school and this pained me when I think of the Hmong children who are too poor to get by, let alone get education. I hate it that I spend most of the time now disciplining the students rather than imparting useful knowledge. I feel so terribly tired worrying about their attendance and chasing them for work.

Laos was where I experienced the real taste of success and reaped fruits of my labour. It was extremely rewarding when I saw my students improve by leaps and bounds, when they nodded furiously to show me they understood, when they stayed in class during coffee break so they could study more, when everyone said they wished I could stay longer so they could learn more.

And here, I just feel so disregarded and taken for granted. I almost cried in class today because only 6 people turned up. When I phoned their form teacher, she said they found the lesson “boring”. I always try to do my best, but I don’t know what Singaporean students want their teachers to do so they find lessons “interesting”. Juggle balls or walk on steel ropes?

I’m not sure if this means my time here is up. Maybe I just need a good rest because I simply exhausted. Or maybe I should just be impulsive, pack my bags and go back to Laos.

An emotional end

August 26, 2007

And so, just as I predicted, I fought back tears at Wattay International Airport, as I hugged the ladies from my class goodbye. They had ignored my pleas for them not to come and showed up at the airport to see me off on Saturday morning.

On Friday, the class organised a farewell lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant because I had casually mentioned that I enjoyed the grilled Vietnamese sausage, Neim Nere, which I chanced upon one day at a roadside stall.

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There, we enjoyed lots of Neim Nere. You break them into small pieces and wrap them in rice paper along with lettuce, spring onion, mint leaves, starfruit, green banana, strands of thick beehoon, beansprouts and then dip it into a lovely sweet sauce. It was really scrumptious.

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We also cooked thin slices of beef, pork and fish in soup over small electrical cookers and dip them into a tangy, spicy sauce. Surprisingly, none of the students ordered Beer Lao. I heard that was because they were going to receive their certificates from the Singapore Embassy representative in the afternoon, and they didn’t want to appear woozy.

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When the time came, I sat at the back of the class cheering for the students as they went in front to receive their certificates from the rep. At that moment, I felt like a proud parent. Some of them were fast learners, some of them were very hardworking, some of them were lazy, some of them were slow, but I like to believe they all put it effort over the past month to improve their English.

I like everyone in the class very much. They are all very good-natured and very special people. It brings me so much joy to teach a class who is so eager to learn, so participative, so warm, appreciative and each armed with a wicked sense of humour.  I was truly sorry to have to leave them. Looking back at my worries and apprehension about the stint when I left Singapore, I feel a little silly. That was totally unnecessary.

The class got quite close too among themselves. On Thursday afternoon, they asked if I could let them go a little earlier as they wanted to play soccer at the field behind the training centre.

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I did agree of course, and walked over with the women to cheer the men on. They were really passionate about the sport and I must say some of them were really quite good. Needless to say, beer followed after football with the losing team chipping in more to pay for it.

Before we parted ways on Friday afternoon, they gave a short speech to thank me and I was really trying hard not to cry as they each bid me goodbye. They also collected money to buy me a lovely mango-coloured silk shirt and an exquisite blue silk skirt with gold trimmings as my farewell present.

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Afraid that I would be in a state of devastation if I returned to the hotel alone, I suggested going to Ms Phonepapay’s house just so I would be distracted. There, we played with her three dogs, ate longan from the tree in her garden and also met her mother, who was the principal of Nong Duang Secondary School.

Incidentally, that is the school which my college is helping to build a library for. She showed me photos of the community work done by Singaporean students, and I spotted my director in some of the pictures. What a strange coincidence!

After leaving her house, we headed to Moon the Night Restaurant for dinner and beer. I didn’t return till about midnight and hurried to pack and get a few hours’ rest. My driver, Boonyang dropped me off at the airport, and I gave him a watch I bought for him at the Morning Market and US$4 to thank him for taking good care of me.

I sobbed as I plonked down at my seat on the flight to Bangkok. Though backward and relatively unheard of, Laos offered me so many valuable lessons in life. It taught me to be patient and polite. It showed me such kindness, sincerity and warmth which I have never experienced in a developed country.

It dawned on me that poor people, those who are not pursuers of materialistic gains like me, are the ones who are truly happy and contented with their simple lives. It was there where I experienced and enjoyed life’s simple pleasures. A traditionally home-cooked meal on a straw mat, delicious rice noodles prepared in an unhygienic way and place, children flying kites in an open field, running around in rags but with a smile so wide.

There is not a hint of selfishness, no angry faces, no harsh words, no resentment, though they own and get by with so little. Family comes before work. Most of them travel home to have lunch with their parents.

It makes me reflect on my own life. Have I been consumed by the materialisic virus, poisoned by capitalism? Have I lost my values and basic respect for human kind while being distracted by the pursuit of money and a false sense of happiness?

I have never been so touched and inspired by a country that I cry for it on my way home. Yesterday I did. For Laos, a beautiful forgotten land with its charming people.

When I wiped away my tears and opened my eyes, a 8-year-old Laotian girl sat next to me, flashed me a lovely smile and said “Sabaidee”. 

Magical moments in Luang Prabang

August 22, 2007

With the misty mountains as the backdrop and swollen rivers flowing gently through the city, Luang Prabang offers truly breathtaking scenery. It is only 35 minutes away from Vientiane if you fly on the 70-seater Lao Airlines ATR, which offers amazing views over the landscape during take-off and landing.

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The mountainous region around Luang Prabang is home to many waterfalls and caves. From the city centre, it is easy to find travel agents offering day trips to these scenic attractions.

The most famous waterfall around the area is Kuangsi Waterfall, located 25km from Luang Prabang. The ride there in our minivan was great. We passed by open fields through winding roads and avoided buffalo herds with children on their backs.

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Kuangsi Waterfall is not especially high nor awe-inspiring, but the green surroundings in the national park offer both locals and tourists a good place to relax. On the way back from the waterfall, we stopped by to visit Ban Na Oune, a small Hmong (Lao ethnic minority) village.

Here, be prepared to be ambushed by swarms of children who will pester you to buy their handicraft, which is an assortment of pouches, keychains and friendship bands. “You can buy from me. 5,000 kip. You can buy. Buy one. Please buy one.” And when you don’t, they turn ugly when you whip out your camera, and shout, “NO! Don’t take photo!”

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Luang Prabang itself is a lot more touristy than the capital city. On the main street, there are plenty of interesting restaurants and shops full of character. Souvenirs are widely available. The sights are also easily accessible by foot.

We climbed 328 steps to reach the top of Phousy Hill and enjoyed a panoramic view over the entire city. There are also a few temples and plenty of Buddha statues on the hill, and monks studying English as they enjoy the peace and tranquility at the summit. We also visited Wat Xieng Thong, a temple dating back to the 16th century. The temple’s unique sloping roof is a special characteristic of Luang Prabang architecture.

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At the back of the temple lays the Mekong river, gliding past so silently each day. We chartered a long-tail boat and rode down the murky waters in the late afternoon, waving to people working and playing along the banks.

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The night market is a must if you do visit Luang Prabang. There are no throngs of crowds so I enjoyed moving leisurely along the streets and checking out the wonderful array of local products.

I am glad I decided to join Kim and Shir-leen in visiting Luang Prabang. It is such a beautiful quaint town with rustic guesthouses, great food, amazing sights and warm people. It’s a special place like no other I had been too, leaving me wonderful memories of a very magical weekend.

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Colourful Lao silk scarves

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Champa flower – the emblem of Laos

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Kittens sleeping in Luang Prabang

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My room in Villa Sokxai Guesthouse

A night of Laos goodness

August 21, 2007

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Last Thursday, I put on my Lao skirt because I was invited to dinner at one of my students’ place. A few other people from the class came along too. After we finished our lesson at 4pm, Sengkeo drove us to pick up some ingredients from a wet market before heading back to Phiangdavone’s place.

It was quite a long ride to her house. We travelled on the highway toward Thailand and turned off at a side lane flanked by beautiful rice paddies. There were also large lotus ponds which gleamed in splendour as the sun set. Finally, we turned into a bumpy dirt road where houses were blocked by the lush vegetation. “I live in the forest, ” Phiangdavone joked.

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It reminded me of the time I visited my auntie’s house in Muar when I was quite young. The rural landscape, chickens running in the yard, overgrown bushes and plants and plenty of mosquitoes. Phiangdavone has some weaving machines on the porch and she employs a few teenage girls from a countryside province to make cloth for Lao skirts.

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At the back of the house, the ladies were preparing to cook. It was a dark kitchen with a zinc roof. One of the flourescent lights had blown. The actual cooking took place in a straw shed beside the house. Branches were gathered from the woods, dried in the sun and then used to start the fire. I volunteered to help slice the mushrooms, garlic and onion, but it was really difficult to see what I was doing without sufficient light.  

“Hey Cindy look at this!” Phiangdavone lifted the lid off a pail and I screamed. There were 5 frogs jumping among some water and leaves. All the rest laughed. “That’s our lunch tomorrow, we caught them in the field.”

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I came out to get some air and light after 30 minutes of chopping, and chanced upon one girl extracting the juice of yanang leaves. A little crab with its pincers removed sat quietly in a basin of water, waiting to be grilled.

The juice of yanang leaves in the most important ingredient for traditional Lao Bamboo Soup. It helps to thicken the soup and gives it the beautiful olive colour. The Bamboo Soup is slightly spicy and herbal in taste, with plenty of crunchy bamboo shoots and succulent pumpkin chunks.

Halfway through photographing the crab, I was distracted by the loud sizzling pan. I turned and saw the other girls deep-frying the Mekong grass carp. It is a very simple way of cooking this fish but it tastes amazingly good. The flesh is soft and juicy while the skin is crispy and fragrant.  

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When the food was ready, we sat on a straw mat in the living room and helped ourselves to the food placed on the floor. I was once again too excited and greedy to remember to take photos of the food and the chefs.

It was a hearty meal and a wonderful experience to dine with her family and people from the class. Overlooking us was a black, furry spider slightly smaller than my hand, crouching in a corner, waiting for its dinner to come along.

We downed our Beer Lao and continued feasting.

Lao Barbie

August 20, 2007

You can brush my hair and undress me everywhere.

Imagination, life is your creation.

I’m a barbie girl, in a barbie world.

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!

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(Spotted: Lao barbies in a shop selling silk clothes and bags next to my hotel. I couldn’t help but marvel at how cute they are, sitting so coyly in their Lao skirts)