Teaching Lao students to sing Wang Fei’s ‘May Friendship Last’
Three years ago, Chang Tianle, the youngest of the second group of Chinese volunteers, taught English for half a year at the Youth Development Centre of the Vientiane Provincial Youth League Committee. Her memories are still fresh in her mind. She liked to recall the “thatched house joke” that always makes her laugh her head off. It was September 2003, at the Youth Development Centre of the Vientiane Provincial Youth League Committee. After she had settled down, a Lao teacher of English came to visit her. Pointing to a photograph showing a thatched house on the wall, the Lao teacher asked: “Is this your home in Shanghai?” Chang Tianle was so surprised that she almost fainted. It was in fact a photograph of Chang’s father and mother taken in the Nationalities Cultural Park in Hainan. This shows that although China and Laos are neighbours, their peoples know little about each other.
Three years have now passed, and more and more Chinese have come to Laos to do business. The two peoples have begun to know each other better. For most Lao people, what comes to mind about China are “Yunnan” and “Chinese merchants”. So, Gu Chenkie, the leader of the sixth group of Chinese volunteers, took upon himself the additional task of introducing China to his students in the Chinese language. Gu, who loves ancient poetry, inserted into his language class Chinese songs, poems and Chinese geographical knowledge in the hope that Lao students would know more about China. He also gave his Lao students names with Chinese flavour, such as ‘Ah Yue’ and ‘Ah Wen’.
In his first class just after the Mid-Autumn Festival, Gu taught the students to sing the pop song ‘May Friendship Last’ (one of the representative songs sung by pop star Wang Fei) adapted from the poem by Song Dongpo, a great man of letters in the Sung Dynasty. In his second class, Gu drew a map of China and told the students about its administrative divisions. During the break in grammar class, he read out the Tang Dynasty poem ‘Thoughts at Quiet Night’ by the famous Tang Poet Li Bai. “I have brought with me the book ‘Poems of Tang and Song Dynasties’ and will introduce them to the students,” said Gu.
There were 20 students in Gu’s class, mostly government functionaries or university and middle school students. ‘Ah Lei’, who worked with the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the best student here. He had studied Chinese for four months. Occasionally responsible for receiving Chinese delegations, regarded the Chinese language very important because it is becoming an international language. That was why he took time out to go to this class. The same was true with Supawan who worked with the Lao State Physical Education and Sports Commission. She had learned some Chinese but forgot it after a period without practice, and had to pick it up again. The 20-year-old Ah Wen, a student of the Business School, was the most active in the class. She came to the class simply because, she liked the Chinese language. Twenty-four-year-old Li Guo Ming (pronunciation) had just graduated from university. He came to the Chinese-language class in the hope of finding a good job, like an increasing number among Lao youth. Chinese-operated companies in Laos pay more than the local companies and a person who can speak Chinese would get the upper hand in applying for a job a Chinese company. The ideal job Li Guoming visualised was a being a clerk at the Chinese language department of a university. Officials from the Lao Youth League Central Committee also said that while more and more Lao youth were learning Mandarin, there were not enough qualified teachers of the language.
Joy: hundreds of thousands in the pocket.
Although they went to Laos with different purposes, the 13 volunteers have the same feeling: It is a great relief and life there is much better than imagined, only that it is too hot.
The city district of Vientiane is not big. A few days after temporary settlement in a hotel, the volunteers became familiar with the surroundings, forming in their minds a picture of their work and life in the following six months.
But that does not mean that there are no difficulties. The first brain-teaser was the conversion of the currency. They were quite taken aback after seeing the Lao currency for the first time: the kip came in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000 and 500,000 bills. Each volunteer suddenly became a person worth at least ten thousand, and often they had hundreds of thousands of kip in their pockets. Likewise, for the first-time arrivals, there seemed to be not much of a difference in the currency in terms of design, colour and denomination. Each time they were going to pay for something, they had to read the numerals on the bills several times before parting with the money. Zhu Yuchen, who loves to crack jokes, said that they had created a method of managing the money: put the money of the same face value together, just like playing poker.
The kip’s exchange rate to the Chinese currency is about 1,250 to 1,200 to a yuan. Most Lao shops and restaurant accept both U.S. dollars and kip. To calculate how much RMB kip cost, the volunteers converted the kip amount into U.S. dollars first and then converted from U.S dollar into RMB.
Immersed in the illusion of being “men of ten thousand yuan”, as popularly known in China, some careful volunteers found that the prices of daily necessities were slightly higher than in Shanghai and that they had to grapple with how to spend their money wisely.