Tag Archives: Vientiane International School

Farewell from friends makes my heart sing

Our school’s end-of-year party generally features a buffet dinner, a little entertainment and formal farewells to the departing staff. As one of the those departing staff members this year, I was dreading a sappy send-off. Usually I love being the center of attention, but not when the situation turns me into a blithering idiot. (The potential is always there, I know, but good-byes are particularly tricky.)

So when the farewells got under way at our party Saturday night, I tried to keep my mind otherwise occupied with catty remarks to my table mates, snuggles with a friend’s baby, and a trip to the bathroom. Another departing teacher, Terese, had a teary moment with the microphone that nearly broke my own emotional dam, but I held it together. Soon my picture popped up on the screen, and I knew there was no avoiding it. However, instead of the usual videotaped comments from friends and colleagues, my special GFs Carol and Nikki took the mics and announced they had a live farewell for Tony and me.

I quickly dashed back to my seat for the surprise performance. As the first notes of “Hotel California” floated from the speakers, I clapped with anticipation. That’s one of my signature karaoke numbers, which I have sung (badly) at many local restaurants and parties. I thought it would be a fitting final tribute, but no, it was even better than that. With the help of accomplished songstress Candice Broom, they had written new lyrics full of references to life here in Laos, special moments we’ve shared in Vientiane and plenty of inside jokes. They knew exactly what I needed: love and laughs, free of sob-inducing gushiness.

I was too thrilled and stunned to think of picking up my camera, but Tony took this photo. If I find out someone filmed it, I’ll post the video later.

Here are the lyrics:
Pinky Beef Pot (sung to the tune of Hotel California)
On a small lonely campus, humid breeze in my hair,
Warm smell of shrimp paste, rising up through the air.
Up ahead in the distance I saw a shimmering Wat.
My head grew sweaty and my clothes grew wet,
Thanks god I got my shot.
The students entered the doorway, I heard the late bell.
Then I was thinking to myself this could be Heaven or this could be Hell.
While I sipped on a Diet Coke, and tried to show them the way,
There were voices throughout the town; I thought I heard them say,
“Saibaidee to the restaurant Pinky Beef Pot
Such a lovely place
(Such a lovely place)
Such a lovely taste
Living it up at the restaurant Pinky Beef Pot
Organ meats and beer
(Organ meats and beer)
You can find it here.”
Her mind is PYP twisted, he’s got the DP bends.
They’re praying that India puts them on the financial mend.
Oh the noise in the courtyard, hide under the ‘squito net.
Some things you want to remember, some you have to forget.
So I called to the mei baan, “Please bring me my wine.”
The students make me so tired I go to sleep before 9.
And still mortgages are calling from far away,
Wake you up in the middle of the night just to hear them say,
“Lar con to the restaurant Pinky Beef Pot
Such a lovely place
(Such a lovely place)
Such a lovely taste
No more family nights at Pinky Beef Pot
What a nice surprise
(What a nice surprise)
Just wish they had French fries.”

Now, here it is again with explanatory notes and shameless plugs for old blog posts.
Pinky Beef Pot (sung to the tune of Hotel California)
On a small lonely campus (Vientiane International School), humid breeze in my hair.
Warm smell of shrimp paste (Southeast Asian staple ingredient), rising up through the air.
Up ahead in the distance I saw a shimmering Wat (that’s Lao for “temple,” and there’s one on every corner – see my Wat ‘O’ the Week posts).
My head grew sweaty (reference to the scorching heat) and my clothes grew wet (reference to the Pii Mai holiday, when the monks doused me with a hose – see the blog post Wat Watnak – or should I say “Wet” Watnak?),
Thanks god (we picked up the extra “s” from the Turks when we lived in Istanbul) I got my shot.
The students entered the doorway, I heard the late bell.
Then I was thinking to myself this could be Heaven or this could be Hell.
While I sipped on a Diet Coke (Tony’s cocktail of choice), and tried to show them the way,
There were voices throughout the town; I thought I heard them say,
“Saibaidee (“hello” in Lao) to the restaurant Pinky Beef Pot (one of our favorite Family Night destinations – see the blog post, Family Night – Pinky Beef Pot)
Such a lovely place
(Such a lovely place)
Such a lovely taste
Living it up at the restaurant Pinky Beef Pot
Organ meats and beer (self-explanatory, no?)
(Organ meats and beer)
You can find it here.”
Her mind is PYP twisted (Primary Years Programme – the convoluted elementary school curriculum framework of the International Baccalaureate Organization), he’s got the DP bends (Diploma Programme – the International Baccalaureate’s curriculum for grades 11 and 12).
They’re praying that India puts them on the financial mend (our new jobs at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India, come with a big pay raise! Wahoo!).
Oh the noise in the courtyard, hide under the ‘squito net (don’t mess with Dengue Fever).
Some things you want to remember, some you have to forget.
So I called to the mei baan (Lao for “housekeeper,” although ours has never actually brought me a drink of any kind), “Please bring me my wine.”
The students make me so tired I go to sleep before 9 (true dat).
And still mortgages are calling from far away (investing in one of the most oppressed cities in the U.S. might not have been our most fiscally responsible decision … just sayin’),
Wake you up in the middle of the night just to hear them say,
“Lar con (“good-bye” in Lao) to the restaurant Pinky Beef Pot
Such a lovely place
(Such a lovely place)
Such a lovely taste
No more family nights at Pinky Beef Pot
What a nice surprise
(What a nice surprise)
Just wish they had French fries. (I loves me some French fries!)

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Happy Lao New Year! Sabaidee Pii Mai!

Floral shirts, silver pots of perfumed water, marigold garlands, mounds of sand, wet hair and a general spirit of excitement can only mean one thing here in Vientiane: Pii Mai Lao!

Lao New Year takes places April 14-16, and the celebrations are just getting started. Friday was our last day of school before a two-week vacation, so we held a special Pii Mai assembly. First, children strung garlands of marigolds and frangipani, the Lao national flower. Primary and secondary kids worked together with the assistance of Lao staff members.

That’s Tony in the blue shirt helping them thread needles.
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Then secondary students explained the legend behind some of the Pii Mai traditions, followed by a skit about the annual Miss Pii Mai contest and a water blessing ceremony.

The flower-clad crowd.
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The Miss Pii Mai skit.
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One of the “contestants” played this beautiful Lao xylophone.
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The water blessing.
We sat in a row, and a group of students knelt in front of us, taking turns pouring perfumed water full of flower petals on our hands. We poured a little water back on their shoulders to return the blessing. Beautiful!
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I was honored to be one of the teachers chosen for the blessing ceremony. My friend Eric and I commiserated about how we must be pretty special to get selected. Ha! Turns out they picked us to represent the departing staff. (Unfortunately I hadn’t told my students yet that Tony and I are moving to India, so some of the kids were quite confused and thought I was leaving that day.)

After the water blessing demonstration, classes met to bless their teachers. This is one of my favorite experiences of the school year in Laos. The children offer such heartfelt appreciation for their teachers. Very touching.

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Water plays a big role in the Pii Mai holiday, so people inevitably get wet (whether they want to or not). In that spirit, our assembly wrapped up with water games on the soccer field.
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Other random shots from the day…
Earlier in the day, the Early Years classes (3- and 4-years-old) had made these sand stupas.
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Detail from the flower arrangement hanging over the entrance to the assembly.
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Tony and me. Yes, he got a new shirt so we didn’t have to look like twinkies in orange again. (See last year’s blog post for a good laugh.)
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Carol prepares for her advisory class blessings. (The secondary kids were not nearly as respectful and gentle with the water as the little kids were.)
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Pa is a lovely guy who works in the PE department.
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I don’t know this little girl, but she’s stinkin’ cute.
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Nikki, Carol and me.
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Want to know more?
The Lao American Coalition in San Diego has a nice website with a summary of the Pii Mai legend. My blog post from last year’s assembly also includes details about the Pii Mai traditions.

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Christmas with the Hossacks!

As an Army brat, I lived in many places in the United States and Germany before landing in Kansas for college. Every time my dad delivered the news that we were moving AGAIN, I felt a mixture of emotions – grief (it’s always hard to leave friends and routines), relief (a chance to start over!), fear (what if nobody likes me?), excitement (new people, new adventures), and curiosity (so many unknowns: food, people, weather, school, lifestyle). But I always remember my mother saying, “You’ll see those friends again!” In the military, paths cross again and again.

And so it is with international teaching!

This week, we’re celebrating the holidays with our special friends Amy and Scott Hossack and their awesome little guy, Blake. We worked and played with the Hossacks for four years in Shanghai, so we were thrilled when they decided to spend part of their Christmas break here in Vientiane.

In the taxi from the airport. So excited!
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Playing in my classroom.
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Blake chillin’ on the daybed.
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At the riverfront playground.
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Too shy to ask for a swing, Blake hovers as the school-skippin’ Lao girls SMS their friends.
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Cycling along the Mekong.
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Snack-n-play at Paradise Ice Cream.
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Have yourself a merry Lao Christmas

Whenever I reminisce about Christmas in Laos, specific images will dance in my head: pink butterflies, a water buffalo in a Santa hat, children doing the limbo, and perhaps best of all, our school’s tae kwondo instructor in the role of Santa.

These images come not from drug-induced dreams but from last night’s VIS Family Christmas Party. School staff members and their families ate, danced, sang karaoke, and enjoyed the spirit of the season. Whether or not they celebrate Christmas, everyone looks forward to the month-long break starting in a week. The end-of-semester feelings of relief, anticipation and joy permeated the crowd.

As a member of the Social Committee, I showed up early at the open-air Long Loerth Restaurant, which was already strung with thousands of twinkly lights. (You know I’m a sucker for twinkly lights.)
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Apparently a wedding had taken place earlier in the week, so rather than take down the pink butterflies, interlocking hearts, vases of fake flowers, blue-and-white balloons, and yellow photo backdrops, we just decorated around them.
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The restaurant featured a spacious garden with two fountains and an odd collection of statuary, which provided a fun play area for the children (who all got Santa hats as party favors).
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The evening started with games for children – musical chairs, limbo, and freeze dance – led by my beautiful friend, Lae (in the long striped dress).
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After dinner, I called all the youngsters back inside and asked, “Guess who’s coming?!” They quickly gathered in front of the stage to wait for Santa’s entrance. Not quite sure where he was, I tried to distract the kids by making them sing “Jingle Bells” and then copying my Santa calls. “Oh, Saaaanta, where aaaare you?” and such.
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Suddenly, Master (hmmm… I don’t know his real name…) appeared at the restaurant’s entrance and dramatically worked his way to his impatient little flock, stopping to give hugs and handshakes and to scoop up and spin unsuspecting spectators. Finally, he reached the stage and began passing out presents. The Social Committee had shopped for all 57 children in attendance, and the adults’ Secret Santa gifts were also under the Christmas tree. Master did little to speed up the process. Each recipient received a sweaty kiss on the cheek, a gentle tae kwondo punch, a surprising hoist under the armpits for a quick toss into the air, or at the very least, a loud announcement of his or her name with an enthusiastic pat on the back.
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Master got a surprise of his own when Nikki strolled to the stage to claim her gift and planted a big kiss on his mouth.
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Lae and I invited everyone to take a Christmas cracker, but Lae didn’t know how to say “cracker” in Lao, so we decided in was “cracKERRRR.”
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Eventually, we unplugged my iPod (which played Christmas music for most of the night) and turned on Lae’s dance party tunes.
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One of my favorite parts of the evening was seeing our school’s security guards, cleaning ladies, gardeners, and handymen out of uniform and surrounded by their beloved families. Greeting their spouses, meeting their children, playing with their babies, I felt the language barrier disappear.

Seriously, who’s to say that pink butterflies don’t have a place at Christmas?

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Flash Flood Freakiness

As we wrapped up our first week back at school, I was feeling neglectful of The Guide Hog but too busy to do anything blog-worthy. And then Mother Nature handed me a story.

Rain pounded Vientiane overnight, but that’s nothing new in this wet season. As we headed out the door for school this morning in the deluge, I donned my water-resistant ride-to-school pants, purple plastic poncho and polka-dotted gumboots and then climbed on back of Tony’s motorbike. I prefer to hitch a ride rather than pedal on days like this.

When we arrived at school, we parked the bike and walked toward our classrooms. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until we turned the corner around the administration building. The whole field and playground area had transformed into a lake. My first thought was, “Rain day!” But then I remembered where I was. If we canceled classes for every downpour, we’d have to teach all summer to make up the missed time. No thanks.

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I often work with small groups at these outdoor tables, but unfortunately, none of the children came to school in hip waders today.
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I had supervision duty here at break time, but my main job today was to tell kids, “Don’t even think about it!” To make up for the playground prohibition, I taught them how to play “Red Light-Green Light” on the sidewalk. That was a surprisingly big hit.
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The hallways in the secondary building were literally crawling with every little creature seeking refuge from the flood – spiders, roaches, crickets, beetles, frogs, snakes, snails, you name it.
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Many of us felt disconcerted that our 2-year-old campus could experience such terrible flooding problems. We worried that a poorly designed drainage system might lead to weeks of indoor recess (every teacher’s nightmare). We wondered if the land would eventually return to its previous incarnation as a rice paddy. Our new director asked if I knew what a cubit was in case we had to build an ark. (I didn’t.)

Luckily, our facilities manager, a spunky Thai woman named Ben, found the source of the problem. She borrowed my boots, waded into the flood water, and discovered the school’s drainage system worked perfectly to channel the water off campus and into large ditches. Ben also discovered that the pooled water in the ditches was a popular fishing spot for village children. When the heavy rains and flood run-off created a strong current in the ditches, the children used their problem-solving skills and built a dam, effectively trapping the fish and flooding our campus.

After Ben dismantled the dam (and survived an encounter with a large eel), the water and the drama quickly ebbed.

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Sok dee pii mai!

Pii Mai (Lao New Year) is next week, and Vientiane is getting ready. Today our school held an assembly to mark the occasion.

I had noticed Hawaiian luau-style shirts for sale all over town lately, and I just figured they were hot with the tourists. Fortunately, my Lao colleagues set me straight: Flowers play a major role in celebrating Pii Mai (pronounced Pee My), so floral tops are de rigeur.

While running some errands on my bike, I stopped at a roadside stand and bought one for about $3.50. The guy looked me over and recommended an XL, but I grabbed a bright orange man’s style in a size large. Later, Tony bought one for himself, but his blue-and-white shirt was a size medium. It was even too small for me! Why, oh why, won’t men try on clothes before buying them? But I digress … At school today, he traded with my friend, Whetu, whose shirt was too big, so he and I both ended up in orange as though we’d planned it.
How cute are we?
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The floral shirts definitely brightened up the school today. I especially loved the little boys who wore matching flowery shorts.

Our assembly included explanations and dramatizations of the Pii Mai traditions, music, a demonstration of water blessings and finally a big circle dance (although the clueless falang turned it into more of a dreamy mosh pit).

Afterwards, classes met on the lawn, where students blessed their teachers and asked for forgiveness. Isn’t that a fantastic tradition? Children dipped a small cup into a large silver bowl to scoop out some water and flower petals. They poured a little water on their teacher’s hands or neck and said, “Sok dee pii mai!” (Happy New Year!) and offered other good wishes. The teacher then used his or her wet hands to sprinkle some water back on the student. Because I’m not a grade-level teacher, I didn’t have a designated spot, but many of my students called me over to receive their blessing. It was really beautiful. I expected the children to get wild and silly with the water, but they were shockingly respectful.

A few shots from the assembly:

Out on the grass, we all participated in the water blessings.
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Kindy kids

Here are some details about the Pii Mai holiday lifted from Wikipedia. According to our Lao staff, this is pretty accurate:

Water is used for washing homes, Buddha images, monks, and soaking friends and passers-by. Students first respectfully pour water on their elders, then monks for blessings of long life and peace, and last of all they throw water each other. The water is perfumed with flowers or natural perfumes. The idea of watering came from the legend of King Kabinlaphom, whose seven daughters kept his severed head in a cave. The daughters would visit their father’s head every year and perform a ritual to bring happiness and good weather.

Sand is brought to the temple grounds and is made into stupas or mounds, then decorated before being given to the monks as a way of making merit. There are two ways to make the sand stupas. One way is to go to the beach, and the other way is to bring sand to the wat, or pagoda. Sand stupas are decorated with flags, flowers, white lines, and splashed with perfumed water. Sand stupas symbolize the mountain, Phoukao Kailat, where King Kabinlaphom’s head was kept by his seven daughters.

Another way to make merit at this time is to set animals free. The Lao believe that even animals need to be free. The most commonly freed animals are tortoises, fish, crabs, birds, eels, and other small animals.

Flowers are gathered to decorate Buddha images. In the afternoons people collect fresh flowers. Senior monks take the younger monks to a garden filled with flowers, where they pick flowers and bring back to the wat to wash. People who didn’t participate in the flower picking bring baskets to wash the flowers so the flowers can shine with the Buddha statues.

There is an annual beauty pageant in Luang Prabang to crown Miss Bpee Mai Lao (Miss Lao New Year). There are many beauty pageants in Laos, but Luang Prabang – the old capital – is widely known for its Nangsoukhane pageant. There are seven contestants, each one symbolizing one of King Kabinlaphom’s seven daughters.

During Lao New Year, there are many spectacles including traditional Lao music, mor-lam, and ram-wong (circle dancing). During the daytime almost everybody is at the temple worshipping, hoping to have a healthier and happier life in the new year. During the evening, people of all ages go to the wat for entertainment.

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