When I finished my masters degree I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I knew I wanted to get out of New Zealand for a while and I needed to earn some money. But Guy wanted to stay in Wellington and keep building his career. So we compromised and I got a job teaching English in Vientiane, Laos for six months (he visited me for two weeks halfway through, and we met up in Bali at the end of the year). A strange sounding compromise to some I admit but we’ve never really had a conventional relationship.
Anyway I thought I’d share the best and worst of my time in Vientiane. The first few months of my stay I was really unhappy and couldn’t wait to come home. The last couple of months I gradually grew happier and when I left I was actually quite sad to go. I don’t think I’ll ever return, but I am glad I have fond memories to look back on. It was a formative time in my life.
I taught English at Vientiane College to a range of students (eight year olds to sixty year olds and a whole bunch of teenagers) and it was one of the best jobs I can imagine having. I’d never taught before but I took to it quickly and did a good job (I think). I fell in love with my students especially my teenagers who made me laugh every single class with their crafty excuses for not doing their homework (“the rain made it hard to concentrate”, “I was watching TV to practice my listening”).
I had days where I liked it less than others of course and there were parts of it I didn’t enjoy like handing back low grades and giving them tests – but overall I had so much fun, and I think I made a small difference in some of my students lives even if only temporarily. I’m looking forward to teaching again in Central America!
Laos food (or at least the Lao food I was brave enough to eat – I didn’t go near the blood soups) was delicious. Just about every second night after work I’d walk a couple of blocks to the That Luang night markets and buy grilled chicken and pork, sticky rice and papaya salad. Gosh I miss them so much! There were also these amazing coconut jellies that a little old lady used to sell on the side of the road that were dangerously delicious.
I also miss the fresh produce. Admittedly it was more limited than what I’m used to in New Zealand but what it lacked in choice it more than made up for in flavor. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted fruit as fresh as the pineapples, mangoes and bananas bought from the roadside tuk tuks.
The cost of living
I sometimes think ‘once a student always a student’ – or maybe I’m just cheap by nature. Or maybe it’s that New Zealand is so damn expensive to live in. Whatever the reason I loved that I paid $250 a month for my own apartment, and that my weekly grocery bill was about $25 (including beer/wine) and that a dinner or lunch out never cost more than $5 for a really nice meal.
I was also earning good money ($3000 a month) so I literally couldn’t spend it all if I wanted to. It allowed me to travel, to buy some presents for Guy, to pay off some debt, and best of all for the first time just not worry about when my next pay was coming I’d never had financial freedom like that before – and I’m not gonna lie it was pretty great. 🙂
The lack of things to do
There really isn’t much to do in Vientiane – except eat and drink and although I wouldn’t have thought it possible even I got tired of doing those. There were also several team sports that were popular with expats but working in the evenings ruled me out from joining those (not to mention my complete unco-ordination and lack of sporting enjoyment).
Before I went to Vientiane I was reading a blog by an American who was living and working there. She advised anyone moving there to bring several sets of tv programs to watch during the rainy season when it wasn’t nice to go out. I laughed thinking she must be a real introvert to be able to get through so many seasons in a few months. Of course, she was right. I watched the first four seasons of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy not to mention catching up on the last two seasons of Once Upon a Time, American Horror Story, Nurse Jackie and Justified. That wasn’t just in the rainy season either.
Being away from Guy
We’ve been dating for a long time (coming up on twelve years) and we’ve lived in different cities in New Zealand for two of those years so we weren’t completely unprepared to be so far apart. But it was still incredibly hard and made a difficult experience even worse. I don’t think you can fully appreciate how straining a long distance relationship is until you go through it (I certainly couldn’t). It’s hard enough trying to merge two people into one life when you’re under the same roof, but when you’re miles apart and functioning on different time zones, interacting with different people, and having completely different experiences it’s a hundred times harder. At least it was for us. I’m immensely grateful that we live in a technological age with cell phones and email and skype.
As difficult as it was I’d honestly do it all over again. I talked to so many people who told me “I couldn’t do what you’re doing” and it got me wondering how many dreams go unrequited because one or both partners are scared. We struggled and we suffered, but I’m proud that we found a way to both live our dreams.
I’ve already written about my experience with culture shock in Samoa here, and unfortunately it wasn’t much better in Laos – in fact I think it might have been worse because unlike in Samoa where it quickly abated and I fell into the groove of Samoan life after a week or so, in Laos I don’t think I ever reached a level of comfort. There were so many things that I just didn’t like, or didn’t want to accept it ultimately never felt like home. Although I was sad to say goodbye to my friends and students and the food, I didn’t have anywhere near the same heart wrenching sadness that I experienced in my final days in Samoa.