After one day in Luang Prabang I started to wonder if I would once again be packing up my bags sooner than expected and moving on, but then I remembered Big Brother Mouse. I stumbled across this place months before taking my trip but stored it in the back of my mind knowing that I'd have to pay a visit. The organization has an impressive story, beginning as the brain child of one eager boy, Khamla and has now become quite an impressive venture. The major intent of the organization is both publishing and distributing books, making them accessible to children all over Laos. As I read the story of how they began it hit me that I never considered some children grow up without access to story book. Kids in America (and other developed) nations may scoff when they get a book as a gift, but to some children that could be the gift of a lifetime. Aside from book production BBM also offers free English lessons and resources to students in the city. From 9am - 11am and 5pm - 7pm students are allowed to come and read books and newspapers or practice their English with volunteers (if any come).
Despite walking in the complete opposite direction the morning of my first visit I managed to arrive on time and was greeted by an eager young boy named Pang. I wasn't really sure what to expect from the next two hours but was ready to find out. After teaching educated yet shy kids in Korea and eager but poor kids in Siem Reap I knew this experience could fall on either end of the spectrum, or right in between. A few more boys arrived over the next 15 minutes along with an older couple from Australia (also volunteers). I spent some time going through the customary "Introduction questions" with Pang, Laos Bai, and Li Hu but soon shifted to a new group of students after more volunteers began arriving. I was now seated with Vang, Yen and Sangkam, three high school students who couldn't have reminded me more of my previous students in Korea. They each had characteristics that immediately shined through: shy, charming, funny, and of course quiet but all equally sweet and sincere. I can still remember their faces and match them to their Korean counterparts as I sit here writing this, I think it's safe to say my favorite part of teaching is the students. The two-hour 'class' flew by and before long the owner of BBM was asking us to wrap it up, as it was time for lunch.
Aside from working on introduction questions (which we went through a few times as new students arrived) we also spent time working on vocabulary, pronunciation and definition questions which the boys had prepared in their English notebooks. It was impressive to observe the level of initiative some of these boys took in improving their English ability. I was surprised by some of the questions the boys asked, similar to Korea they had some bizarre vocabulary, the difference though came in where they found these words. In Korea, students have complex textbook questions which lead to them learning obscure vocabulary words (ultimately in preparation for their SAT test) whereas in Laos these boys find the words on their own. Sometimes it's from a book or newspaper article they happened to read, conversation with a friend, or simply overhearing a tourist in town. When these boys hear, see or read a word they don't understand they are quick to store it in their memory or notebook so they can ask about it later.
Although these students have limited resources (books, computers and native speakers) their English level was commendable, if not impressive. Like any language learners, they claimed shyness and were modest about their ability. The boys range in age from roughly 17-22 but all presented themselves with a high level of maturity and poise. They were polite and eager to learn about both me and my life but also not afraid to share details about themselves. Compared to Korean students their eagerness for English was refreshing, although it's a bit unfair to compare. These students chose to come practice English so likely they are the more advanced and eager students from their classes, surely not ALL Lao students share the same thinking. Later visits proved this theory correct when I met an American man who has been living and teaching in Laos for 10 years and told me that yes, the classroom is just like any other, some students eager to learn while others prefer to sleep.
I had such a positive experience at my first visit to BBM that I decided to return for the PM session and again and again for the days to follow. It was common for each session to begin with only a few students and volunteers but to soon fill the entire table, sometimes overflowing to other sections of the room. On one Saturday morning (when I contemplated not going) I wound up being the only foreigner in attendance, making me glad I had decided to attend. I was actually a bit surprised when one boy told me "[I] come often but sometimes there are no native speakers (tourists/visitors) so [I] go home". This saddened me, but I wasn't entirely surprised. For the number of white people (excuse my assumption that they're all tourists) walking around town it's a shame to find out that these seats sometimes go empty.
I highly urge you to take two hours out of your day and stop in at Big Brother Mouse, the students here will make you happy you did so. There are no teaching requirements, all that's asked is that you show up and spend some time talking to the boys. They're eager to learn about each and every person that steps through the door and are usually more than willing to tell you about themselves. No matter if you make one visit or 10 the boys will remember and appreciate it and it's likely you will too, I know I did.
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.