During my time volunteering at Big Brother Mouse, I learned so much about the lives of the students who went there to practice their English. Here is a sampling of what I discovered.
The Life of a Student
Dao’s story is typical of many of the students I met at Big Brother Mouse. He is from the Hmong ethnic group, is sixteen years old, and comes from a village several hours away from Luang Prabang. He moved to the outskirts of the city last year to study in a high school and take English classes. He lives in a small hut with one of his relatives.
Dao spends his mornings at Big Brother Mouse practicing English with foreigners. He takes an extra English class in the afternoon, attends high school classes, and goes to the tourist areas at night to meet more foreigners and practice English.
One morning, Dao picked me up on his motorbike and we rode for about 40 minutes outside of the town to where he lives. He encouraged me to take pictures so that I could show people “the life of a student.” Dao’s family has a small plot of land on a hillside in a beautiful location, full of banana trees and tropical plants. His older sister lives nearby with her husband’s family. We visited a private butterfly farm built by his sister’s father-in-law.
I learned from Dao that in the Hmong culture, he must get approval from his family if he wants to have a relationship with a girl. If the family disapproves of his choice, then he cannot pursue that relationship. Dao’s parents and younger siblings continue to work as farmers in his village. Despite not having much money, his father told Dao to focus on his studies and not to find a job while he is in school. His parents support him as much as they can, but there are days when he has to go to a relative’s house to find food.
The Life of a Novice
There were always several novice monks at Big Brother Mouse and I had the privilege to learn about their lives as they practiced English. Novices and monks are revered in Lao society (as well as in other Buddhist countries) and it is important to observe the rules of etiquette when interacting with them, such as not touching a novice if you are female and not asking him to play a game in class. But underneath their saffron robes, these novices are teenage boys with Facebook pages and many dreams for their futures.
Novices enter the temple usually to get an education. Most will leave the temple after finishing high school, but some will continue to study and may become monks. As one young novice told me, “If I stayed in my village, I wouldn’t be able to go to school.” Another novice complained that his younger brother had left the temple to return to the village after just one year. “He’s lazy,” said the older brother, Novice Ton. He did not understand why his younger brother couldn’t see the value of studying in the temple and learning English.
Being a novice, though, can be hard. They wake at 3:30 for chanting and praying. At 5:30, the novices and monks from the twelve temples in the area gather in Luang Prabang to request alms from the public. They walk down the main street collecting offerings of sticky rice and other food. The rest of the day is spent studying and praying. Novices attend classes at the temple, at a regular school and possibly private classes as well. Their two daily meals are eaten before noon. No meals are eaten after noon.
“I do not want to be a farmer. I was already a farmer until I was ten years old, and it is very hard.” Novice Thong shared this with me one morning, and I heard it from many other students as well. Novice Thong, who is 17 years old, is interested in photography and has studied it on his own. He is not sure when he will leave the temple, but he knows that if he does, he will need his older siblings’ and parents’ approval. “If they do not approve, I will not leave, because I do not want them to be unhappy.”
I asked Novice Thong’s brother, who had spent eight years as a novice before leaving, if he missed anything about being a novice. “I miss having the time to study,” he said without hesitation. Now that he is no longer a novice, he must find a way to support himself and can no longer devote his days to studying.
In addition to students who study in the city, I also met younger students who came to Luang Prabang for the three-month holiday to live and study at a free English school in town. I met a man who works twenty hours a day, six days a week, and spends any free time he has practicing English. I met students who had dropped out of college after one semester because they could no longer afford the fees, yet they continued to study on their own. The life of a student is not an easy one, but I never heard a complaint from anyone I met.