After my adventures in Phonsovan and Vang Vieng I returned to Luang Prabang where I began to spend more and more time at Big Brother Mouse. As I volunteered there I developed duel feelings of both hope and frustration. The boys attending the conversation classes showed such enthusiasm to learn and improve their English, even if it meant give up other things to do so. I've definitely come to realize how often 'we' (many developed countries) take our opportunities for education for granted. Learning can come for free but to have a proper education there's always a price to pay.
My first eye opener came when I was talking to a novice monk who informed me about the 'path' to becoming a monk. This boy plans to quit the temple when he turns 20, the age at which one is eligible to become a full monk and instead pursue an education. I often wondered what motivated the many young monks I saw to enter temple life, I now know that their highest motivator is simply the opportunity to get an education. Of course the boys have to follow temple lifestyle (waking up before 4 am, being restricted to two meals per day, no exercise, and various other rules) but they also get a chance to learn. Many boys move to the city, leaving their family many hours away with little opportunity for visits, in order to join a temple and study. After years of hard work the boys likely quit temple life at age 20 and [hopefully] go on to University. This may sound extreme for those that are used to an easily accessible education but for many of these boys it's the only way. The scary or maybe sad part is that many of these boys aren't even guaranteed to continue on to University. As another of the students explained to me, "There are too many students in Laos". Now, more than ever before there is a desire from the youth to complete a higher education unfortunately though, there is not enough capacity for them all.
Many times speaking with these kids I was reminded of my students in Korea. The problems of high school kids are the same around the world, but sometimes felt on a whole different level. In Korea, students learn English to get into the best university or get a better job, while in Laos it's simply for the opportunity. Competition and pressure to succeed is felt all around the world but it's interesting to note the differences in the severity of these pressures across borders.
For those that are lucky enough to study at University there are more potential problems and barriers that may stand in their way. I talked to one student who explained that he would like to study law and live in the city, but because he is the only son in his family, it is his responsibility to move home to his village and help care for his parents. Family obligations are highly revered throughout Asian cultures and although it's something I respect, I can't help but question some of the problems it can and does cause. This boy explained to me that he has four sisters all of whom have all married and gone to live with their husbands (and often times his parents) ultimately leaving him to care for his own parents. I'm sure it isn't the parents intent to limit their sons potential but in this culture that's just the way things go sometimes.
Speaking of women, their opportunity for high education is even worse. Often the girls never even get close to having the chance to begin a higher education, forget about the chance to attend university. As another boy at BBM put it, "Girls in the village have nothing else to do so they get married, sometimes at 16 or 17, and have kids." Coming from a country where women equally represent (if not exceed) the number of their male counterparts attending university it's eye opening to see the stark imbalance in other countries. Over the course of my visits to BBM I only encountered a few female students, one of which attended regularly. Sadly an education is simply not afforded to many females, especially those living outside the city limits.
I was impressed by the individuals that came to Big Brother Mouse ever since my first visit, but after learning about all of these problems my respect for them continued to grow. It's no surprise that many people, when faced with adversity have a natural inclination to give up, but from my experiences these boys showed quite the opposite. Whether it was entering a temple school (even without interest in doing so), moving hours away from their families, knowing they may never make it to university, or selecting a major (psychology) which isn't even offered at Laos Universities, these students persevere.
After teaching in Korea, where I sometimes felt the students didn't appreciate or value my (a native teacher) being there, it was interesting to hear these kids talk about learning. Many students made comments related to their lack of resources and how it affects their level of learning. Not only do they lack proper English books and computers but there's a shortage of native teachers in Laos, while so many other countries employee them by the hundreds (if not thousands).
Although I didn't pick up a new job at the local high school and settle in to a new life in Laos, I'd like to think that my numerous visits to BBM helped at least one student. Despite feeling that I wasn't doing much the students feedback made me realize otherwise. During my second week of visits a few students made comments such as "You must like it here, you come often" and "You're a good person". As I talked with other volunteers we agreed that the few hours a day we spent with these kids could in no way be considered work. We enjoyed our time with these kids, learned something from them and the more I talked to them realized just how much our visits meant to them. I can only hope that others share this thought and decide to share a little of their time and lend a hand.
Big Brother Mouse is a great organization built from hard work and perseverance inspiring others in the very same way, I would highly encourage you to check out what they're doing.
Learn more about Big Brother Mouse, their initiatives and fundraising
Often overlooked on the backpacker trail, this is a destination to not be missed. Without the influence of 7/11, Mc Donalds or Starbucks this is a country that offers a raw, rich experience.