Managing an Exchange Program in Laos

Katherine in traditional Laos clothing with her colleague Ana in Hmong clothing

Katherine has just started a master’s degree program in Peace and Conflict Studies in Uppsala, Sweden. We spoke online. My thanks for the photos.

Katherine’s story

Why don’t you tell me how you happened to go to Laos, what happened, what worked out and what didn’t.

It wasn’t my goal to work and live in Asia. I did Peace and Conflict Studies as an undergraduate at American University in Washington, D.C. with courses focused on the Arabic language and Middle Eastern issues. I was preparing for work on peace-building, particularly with the relationships between the US and Israel/Palestine, Iraq/Afghanistan.

I wanted to work abroad in order to get more experience. I’d also been in D.C. for seven years and desperately needed a change of scenery. But, having lived in D.C. for so long, I had taken on some of that competitive mindset, and I wanted to work in a more-or-less “active” conflict zone in order to show my seriousness and get some experience to help me move to the next stage in my career.

I ended up at a faith-based, peace-building organization. I was drawn to faith-based institutions both because of my own personal beliefs and because I felt they were uniquely situated to make an impact where sometimes other types of organizations can’t. Being connected to a religious group immediately gives a peace-building project or organization legitimacy and influence among their believers, influence which can be used for good. That’s why I thought of working with this organization in Israel and Palestine, but there weren’t any positions available. My next choices were in Latin America because I spoke Spanish quite well.

But the position I found most interesting was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Long story short, I came close to getting the job in the DRC, but the organization went with someone else, and five months later I still didn’t have a job.

At this point I was told I was a great fit for the organization although it hadn’t worked out with the DRC. Would I consider a job in Laos? At the time I found this extremely disappointing. I felt let down and confused about what to do. I had no interest in Southeast Asia, where I felt the work would be too easy.

It’s so funny to think of now. I thought I was being open-minded, but my worldview was limited in many ways. The job was managing a youth exchange program, which I didn’t consider to be serious peace-building. However, I wanted to get out of DC, and this was a great option.

Now I can’t even imagine my life without Laos or without the youth exchange program and all the people I was lucky to meet along the way. In Laos I learned a lot about how to be at peace within myself and in my personal and work relationships. That peace is highly valued in Lao culture, which is focused on group cohesion and harmony. I truly believe that God put me where I needed to be instead of where I wanted to be.

What experiences did you have with culture shock? Like maybe having a temper tantrum in the bank, for example. That was common in China when I was there.

At one point, I realized it had been four months since I had hugged another human being. Maybe now with Covid 19 a lot of people can relate to that. I found it strange to feel so deprived of physical contact. I talked with other expats about it, and eventually an American friend and I decided to hug each other several times whenever we met.

I felt sad when I was in a situation where a hug would seem natural in America but was inappropriate in Laos. It was difficult to see friends who were important to me and not be able to throw my arms around them. But the few times I tried to do that, I discovered it made people uncomfortable.

I had the same experience with a close Korean friend, but my Filipino friends like to touch.

This is not to say that Lao people don’t ever hug each other. But Americans, particularly those from the West Coast, may even hug while being introduced. In Laos that would create a scandal. Eventually I adjusted. I made more international friends, got closer to my Lao friends and started picking up the other ways in which Lao people show affection and caring via body language.

Was your host family assigned by your organization?

Katherine and her host family at the wedding of an extended family member

Yes, through the cultural exchange program I worked for. They thought it would be a good fit because they knew I was Catholic and my host brother was too. If I wanted to go to mass, we could go together.  His family was in the pool of host families because he’d been a volunteer in America about eight years earlier.

How long was he in the States?

Our volunteers go for eleven months.

That’s long enough. So getting back to you and your cultural adjustments, do you have any more stories?

Yes, on the job I was supposed to be a team leader and I needed to run meetings with mostly Lao people. I felt it was appropriate to open up a discussion topic and then—because others might not want to leap in and offer an opinion—I’d be the brave one and offer mine first. “This is what I think we should do.” I think that came to me without my wondering whether this was a cultural assumption about leadership.

Later I learned that I was making it difficult for others to share their opinions. As the chairperson and a foreigner, I was seen as having more power than the others—which I found surprising. By speaking first I was unintentionally signaling that I’d decided how the issue would be handled. In Laos by speaking first I was giving the impression that I viewed my opinion as the most important. The one to speak first was supposed to be the one who felt the most strongly about the issue. Giving my opinion first meant that, if someone else spoke afterwards, a confrontation might ensue, which Lao culture tries very hard to avoid. There are some sweeping generalizations here, but that’s what I understood. Nowadays I think the Lao way is often useful, and not only there.

Actually, when I taught undergraduate and graduate literature classes in the US I did something similar. The first two class periods would be spent on the students’ interpretation of a work, and I would just take notes. Then on the third period I’d give my interpretation and respond to theirs. Otherwise, the students might have just taken on mine—even maybe when they disagreed—and not been challenged to think for themselves.

Korea and Japan also have their own ways of making decisions, and they’re not at all obvious. So expats there have similar problems.  

So much of what I understood about being a good leader had to be flipped on its head. That brought up a lot of self-doubt and confusion, like maybe I wasn’t qualified for the job. I had to seek the advice of many Lao friends and colleagues, and I am extremely grateful for all the support and encouragement I received in that first year. I would never have learned the language or understood the culture more deeply on my own. Anything I achieved was due to a Lao friend generously helping me.

Katherine receiving a blessing from her Lao colleagues in a Baci ceremony

The second year was much easier than the first. Working with different people taught me that no matter what the culture, the success or failure of a relationship depends on the willingness of both parties to work together.

Can you give me an example of cultural conflict westerners have when they arrive in Laos?

Yeah, one is the sense that, while people will communicate, if you don’t understand the Lao way, it can appear that people are not being forthright.

Ok, how about an example?

Sometimes host families wanted the volunteer, the host child, to do something, but they put it in the form of a suggestion or invitation: “Maybe you should join us for dinner” or “Would you like to join us for dinner?”They’d feel hurt and frustrated when the answer was, “Oh, that’s ok I already ate.”

Rather than talking it out with the host child, they would come to us exasperated or worried. We would talk to the host child, who would have no idea that the invitation to dinner had been of great importance.

What are some other miscommunication examples?

In western cultures we’re very sensitive about comments having to do with people’s bodies, while Lao people seem to have a lot less insecurity around body image. Then there are words which are roughly equivalent to “skinny” and “chubby” but without the negative connotations. They don’t carry the same kind of judgment and meanness.

Once the westerners, particularly Americans and Europeans, understand that a Lao word means “fat,” they may notice that the very people they feel close to are always calling them fat. It’s brought a number of volunteers to tears. It’s truly not meant to be hurtful. It’s kind of meant to communicate closeness with somebody by saying, “Oh, you put on weight since I last saw you.” It’s a way of indicating familiarity, caring and attention to the other person.

Yeah, you find the same thing in the Philippines, only Filipinos might say you’ve gotten sexier.

People don’t usually even mean it. it’s kind of like asking, “Have you eaten yet?”

Which is how the Chinese say hello.

In our organization, we had to be understanding of both sides. Sometimes we weren’t totally successful, but we did get Lao people to stop making those comments. Also, sometimes the host child wasn’t willing to speak up about it. We did talk about this issue every year in orientation. We warned people, and that helped a bit.

Among the expats I knew in China, the word was “Love the people, hate the system.” So many people were wonderful. But in shops downtown you might draw a crowd of people who want to see what a foreigner is buying. Sometimes they might be jealous because they think you came from a richer place, and they might look you over and make derogatory comments. Did you find anything like that?

No. I found the opposite to be true. I found generosity, kindness and trust—often undeserved—toward westerners especially. If anything I think Lao people are under-critical of westerners coming to their country.

What crimes of manners did westerners commit?

There are too many to name. I think one of the reasons inappropriate behavior is so blatant is that it’s not confronted. My personal opinion is that the non-confrontational aspect of Lao behavior comes from a deep level of Buddhist practice. There are certain things people hold very sacred, like how to dress when going to a temple or how to respect and interact with people on the street. Foreigners, particularly travelers, consistently violate the spoken and unspoken rules—dressing inappropriately on the street, walking down the street barefoot, not having good hygiene, being loud.

Being tourists.

Yes, being tourists. In Laos the code of conduct is to be quiet and respectful and aware of your surroundings. I never saw Lao people speaking up, speaking disparagingly of a foreigner or correcting behavior. There even are very few signs about what to wear in a temple, for example, as I’ve seen in other places.

What about personal questions asked by one side or the other?

Lao people may ask questions which make foreigners uncomfortable—how old are you, are you married, how much money do you make, what’s your monthly salary. Eventually I got used to it.

You get those in China, Korea, sometimes in the Philippines. In Korea asking questions is viewed as showing an interest in the person, at least in some situations.

Particularly when I was on my second job, I was under a lot of pressure. We had deadlines to meet, and there was serious money on the line. I would get frustrated, especially while we were doing field work. I might raise my voice slightly and say something which by American standards was mild, like “we just need to get this done now. I asked for it yesterday, and that’s when it should have been done.” But that was enough to sound like hostility to my colleagues.

When doing business In Korea and the Philippines, if you offer criticism to your subordinates, you have to be very careful about how you do it. In Asia there’s always the danger of loss of face, which can lead to resentment. In the Philippines that subordinate might just disappear.

Yeah, that can happen in Laos too.

OK, what was the other job that you had?

After working for the development organization for three years, I took a job with a consulting firm in Laos. Their primary task was writing evaluations before, during and after development projects. I learned so much about development and evaluation, and then I could apply what I’d learned to different types of projects. After acquiring some more skills in monitoring evaluation, I found a position with a very small consulting firm. I worked there for two years

What kind of clients did you have?

They were mostly international non-government organizations (INGOs) and international donor organizations which needed a follow-up. Sometimes an organization would have a separate donor who wanted an evaluation done by an external consultant. We evaluated projects having to do with education, economic empowerment, women’s rights or environmental impacts of different industries.

Occasionally we did private-sector work on how a particular product might do on the Laos market. Sometimes we did baseline studies as well, collecting the data and making recommendations of how the project might be constructed before it was even designed. That was my favorite.

Unfortunately, the spicy and juicy details are also stuff I probably shouldn’t say. But in general, my take-away from quite a few projects was that it’s a mistake to assume that something that worked in one place will also work in another. There are all sorts of cultural considerations which can’t be ignored.

That problem seems to be near universal. Years ago I interviewed the head of the Korean branch of a German company. He said a strategy needs to be based on the country it’s located in, not the head office of the company. The fact that something has worked in Pakistan doesn’t mean it will work in Korea. Even Japan and Korea aren’t that closed.

Yep, absolutely.

I think I’ll have a post coming up soon about a consulting firm in Laos.

Video documentaries about Laos:

Laos: From the First to the Last King

Laos – Lan Chang – Documentary

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Katherine G O'Brien
Katherine G O'Brien
2 years ago

Thank you for taking the time to interview me and share my story, Carol!