(To avoid confusion I have put our guide’s name Lao in italics to differentiate from the word for the Lao people and language.)
He begins by introducing himself and stating his age as 28 or 29. He is not sure but his uncertainty is matter of fact. He is of the Hmong people from a remote village in the northern mountains of Laos. His name is Lao but he is not named for the country. In the native language of the Hmong people it has another meaning and a slightly different pronunciation. This is the closest the Lao language comes to the name his parents gave him.
We asked him how he came to learn English and become a guide. We have asked this question to many guides in various countries and the answer for the most part is similar and succinct. Lao’s story was personal and heroic.
Lao started school at about 11 years old. The closest school was in a Lao village, a 13-14 hour (yes, hours) walk down the mountain. He and several boys from the village were sent to begin school. On the first day the teacher had the boys reach their hand over their head to touch the opposite ear. If they couldn’t touch they were sent home and told they were too young. The other group was deemed ready. The teacher asked Lao how old he was. He said, “I don’t know.” The teacher asked the next boy and the next. Each answer was the same. Over and over the boys responded “I don’t know.” The teacher instructed them to ask their parents on their next trip up the mountain.
The boys stayed in the Lao village during the week, only returning to the mountain on the weekend. The parents gave them money for school and for food. Public school is not free in Laos. The boys didn’t use their spending money because they could not speak the Lao language. That was one of the first challenges for Lao, to learn the official language of his country. Lao and the other boys returned home on Friday. He asked his mother how old he was. She could remember the season that he was born in and tried to work backwards taking into account that he had five younger brothers but the task was too much for her. She simply said, “I don’t know.” Saturday he helped with the farm. On Sunday he cooked rice and vegetables to take with him to eat during the week and then began the 14 hour trek down the mountain to return to school.
On the next school day the teacher again questioned the boys, “How old are you?” Again, boy after boy responded with, “I don’t know.” The teacher needed birth dates to complete their school records so he told them, “You are all probably born between 1983 and 1989. Choose a year but do not copy your friend. Lao looked to the boy on one side. He had written 1985. The boy on the other side chose 1987. So Lao chose 1986. He also picked his birthday as February 13. In his culture they do not celebrate birthdays so he had to choose his own.
Lao and the other boys had officially begun their education; school during the week, climbing the mountain on Friday, working on Saturday, cooking and returning each Sunday down the mountain. Week after week. The trek up and down the mountain was not only long but very dangerous. Tigers and bears lived on the mountain and the boys were vulnerable. Some were killed on their travel. The young students grew afraid and decided to quit school. But Lao’s father was chief of the village. He had been outside the village and knew that education was key to the development of the country and the people. So despite Lao’s and his mother’s objections, he continued his trek up and down the mountain every week.
And then there was no money to pay for school. Lao had a friend who lived in the village and was more knowledgeable about school things. He told Lao that he could join the Buddhist temple as a novice and go to school for free. So Lao, raised as an animist, became a Buddhist novice, donning the orange robes, shaving his head, and following the rules and teachings of Buddhism.
The life of a novice was not easy. They would rise early in the morning around 4:00 am. The day began with praying and chanting in the temple. Then they would go through the village gathering alms (food) from the villagers. After eating breakfast from the almsgiving, the young boys would attend morning lessons. It was not much different from public school but included Buddhism classes. Lunch break would occur at 11:30. They were fed with food brought to the temple by villagers. They had to finish eating by noon as no eating was permitted after the noon hour. They returned to school in the afternoon and completed their day with more praying and studying. There was no dinner and bedtime came early so that they could rise again the next day.
The village was poor and the food given to the temple was not always enough. Lao grew skinny but he was learning. He no longer had to climb the mountain as he was not permitted to go home. His family came to visit him and upon seeing his undernourished body, his mother wanted to take him back to the village but his father wouldn’t allow him to stop his education. His mother cried and screamed at his father but in the end his parents returned to the mountain and he returned to his studies.
One day during chanting his friend (who to my understanding was visiting from another temple) got up and was speaking to visitors. Lao was curious and began to listen to their exchange. It fascinated him, this new language. He could speak Hmong, Lao, and some Thai but this was much different. He asked his friend later what language they were speaking and his friend told him, “English.”
Lao wanted to learn English so his friend told him he would need to go to the temple in the big city for school. At 15 he left the small village temple and joined the temple in Luang Prabang, the largest city in the northern region. His friend instructed him to buy a book in the market on English so that is what Lao did. He memorized the conversations in the book and was ready to start practicing with the English speaking tourists who came to the temple. He approached the first person and asked, “What is your name?” The man replied, “John.” Lao thought, “This guy doesn’t know how to speak English” and moved onto to another tourist. Again he asked, “What is your name?” The tourist replied, “Mary.” Again Lao thought she couldn’t speak English. He approached a third tourist, “What is your name?” The man said Joe and Lao was confused. Then the man corrected himself and said, “My name is Joe.” At last, someone who knew how to speak English the way it was in the book! It didn’t take long for him to realize that all English was not exactly like the 38 sentences he had memorized.
When he finished high school he made the decision to leave the temple to go to a three-year college as he could not remain a novice and go to college at the same time. His parents had no money for tuition. He planned to work first to earn money but then luck fell his way. A cousin of his parents came to him and gave him the money for the first year of school. He was proud of Lao’s education and only asked that some day when Lao had a good job, he would pay him back. So Lao began college and worked to pay for his room and board. He did well in school but the money he was making was not enough for the second year’s tuition. Again luck found him. A relative who emigrated to America was visiting her daughter and son-in-law in Lao’s home village. She knew the importance of education. She gave Lao the money for the second year and asked only that someday he help the children of her daughter if they needed it. He promised and returned to college again working to pay for room and board. The third and final year came and there was no money again. This time there was no luck. So he moved to the capital city of Vientiane to find work. He worked the night shift from 11:00 pm to 7:00 am. Then he would go home and have breakfast and go to another job from 9:00am until 4:00 pm. He slept 4 hours a day. He worked hard for one year and saved his money until he had enough not only for school but also to pay off his debts. Then he returned to college to finish his degree.
It was in college that he studied English. There were no tourism courses. The college was in Luang Prabang, one of the smaller cities and the English teacher was not a native speaker who himself had difficulty with pronunciation. Still, this is where Lao learned. After college he saw an ad for a job as an adventure guide. Being from the Hmong people he was comfortable with trekking, climbing, etc. So he signed up and started his life as a guide. Spending time with native speakers he learned quickly that his education had not been enough and he used each trip to learn more and work on his pronunciation. As his English improved he understood that being a regular tour guide earned more money than an adventure guide so he found work with a tour company.
Today Lao dresses like many businessmen in slacks, a button-down, and dress shoes. It is only in his voice as he tells his story that you can see the vulnerable, curious and yet determined boy that climbed up and down the mountain. He has supported his brothers through school and supports his parents who still live in the village where he grew up. His father’s foresight has made him an example to the Hmong children as to the value of education and he supports his native people whenever he can. He is fiercely proud of his heritage and follows traditional customs but has a modern sense of humor and is knowledgeable about all aspects of his country, from customs and tribes to politics and economics. In low season he uses his extra time to continue studying about his country and is currently teaching himself to play the Hmong flute. He searches still for knowledge of the world around him.
As Lao told us his story during, there were several times I had to fight the tears. (The story of trying to speak English did bring tears of laughter. I only wish you could hear that one in his own words. Hysterical!) He spoke calmly and without embellishment. We asked few questions and instead let him tell the story in his own way. On some level I think he understands how brave he was but he would see it more as obedient. We however were inspired by the enormity of the challenges he has overcome.