Posted by WorkingAbroad Projects on Wednesday, 3rd January 2018
It is getting cold here. Really cold. Last night, I was coming home from teaching a lesson at Pha Tad Ke, a beautiful botanical garden across the Mekong. I was sitting in the rickety boat with two Lao gardeners feebly trying to start the engine over and over with little success. As the temperature dropped and the sun disappeared from view, I was convinced that I would spend the night there, bunking up with one of the resident gardeners and shivering my way through to the morning. My legs frozen to the small wood bench, I listened to my boat mates discuss in Lao. I imagined what they would do if we really did get stuck. I figured they knew a friend of a friend who had a boat that would eventually pick me up, but maybe not before climbing back up the stairs to the gardens to have a hot dinner of sticky rice and roasted squirrel, which they had started cooking just as I was conveniently leaving.
I started thinking about responsibility, and how I was sure the men I was with felt a great deal of it over bringing me home. Despite being stuck on the wrong side of the river in the middle of winter, I did not feel even a tinge of fear because as an adopted part of this community, I had come to trust Lao people with my life. Almost daily I find myself in situations that have slightly questionable outcomes, and not once have my Lao friends, coworkers, or students not assumed complete responsibility for making me safe and happy. Surely, this cold evening would be no different.
Fifteen minutes passed before we heard the roar of the motor, and finally we slowly made our way back to town. As the mist of the Mekong made my arm hair stand on edge, I was still thinking about the notion of responsibility. How is it that Lao people can extend such deep care to foreigners who are invading their own homes? How can we as westerners extend the same care towards locals? What is our responsibility here?
Working abroad has always felt uncomfortable to me. Like we are somewhere we should not be, like we are taking a job away from a person who should be here. But my time here has reinforced the opposite—that as a native English speaker and teacher I am filling a niche that is unfilled otherwise. Therefore, much of my responsibility extends to offering my full attention and effort towards Lao people who want to learn my language and my culture. When I bring my laptop to the library I teach at, intent on doing work, and students approach me wanting to practice English, I would argue my responsibility is to say yes.
Actually, I would argue that for all of us living abroad, our responsibility is to say yes to almost everything. An invitation to eat a meal, attend a wedding, try a new food, visit a new place. Our responsibility should not just be to share our culture, but to—more importantly—be open to experiencing the culture we chose to place ourselves in. Another huge piece of this is language. Who are we as foreigners to move to another country and expect the locals to speak English to us? I believe we have a responsibility to learn and practice the language of our host country. There are few better ways to extend the same care back to your community. Of course, some days I rather eat pizza and speak English my American roommates, but every time, I step back into my neighborhood or my caring school community and remember why I wanted so badly to live in Laos and why it is so important to maintain my daily broken Lao conversations with my neighbor Pawn who gives me bones for my dog.
One of my articulate, incredibly intelligent Lao coworkers said to me this morning, “We have forgotten about our responsibility to our community. People are so focused on living their own lives, they do not remember we must also live for others.” For me this only furthered my constant internal dispute over living and working abroad, but there was no doubt in my mind that what he said was all too true. Undoubtedly, our responsibility extends far: to ourselves, our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, and to all the strangers in between. And even though I am still perseverating over what our actual responsibility is, this I know for sure.
By WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Amy Katz
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