Coming to Laos, I was overcome with several impressions during the first weeks. There were a lot of new scents while riding down the street to the schools where I would be teaching for the next seven weeks. There were also a lot of new tastes from the delicious Lao cuisine. There were especially a lot of new faces. During my first week in the project, one of the new people I met in the office of Ban Phang Heng primary school was Mr Thavixay Salichanh, who everyone knows as Mr Sai. He is a the 50-year-old sports teacher of Ban Phang Heng primary school and Ban Sikeud primary school, where he teaches eleven hours altogether every week. Additionally, he teaches the karate “Activity Time” and sports at Ban Phang Heng secondary school for seven hours a week. Therefore, he is responsible for the training and karate education of the pupils at these schools, or, as I like to call them- the karate kids.1 (The 1984 American martial arts drama film “The Karate Kid” deals with the topic of a good karate mentor who is really inspiring to his student, so the movie reminds me of Mr Sai. You will see why I make this connection.)
On top, at the weekends, he teaches karate classes at the Lao-German Technical College as well as mentoring karate classes at the National Sports Training Centre in Sikeud, which is linked to the Phonsavanh Highschool. I noticed immediately that he was really open and eager to talk to me – so I felt very welcomed at my new school.
Despite some language issues – Mr Sai did not learn English at school – we were able to talk about karate, the sport he is very passionate about. Since I practiced karate in my childhood, I wanted to know more about Mr Sai’s life and passion, so I conducted an interview with him to talk about sports.
Special thanks go to the wonderful Ms Bounpheng, who was kind enough to act as an interpreter during our interview.
Mr Sai’s job as a sports teacher
Mr Sai’s motivation as a sports teacher is for the children to be strong, and for this he also believes that they need to learn the rules for sports. When his pupils go home, Mr Sai believes they spend a lot of time with their family and therefore sit a lot. There are no organized free time activities for children in the village like in Germany. So, additionally, before holidays, he tells his pupils that they should exercise at least 15 minutes per day. Mr Sai wants to prevent his pupils from gaining weight and getting back pains.
Another way to motivate the students, he tells me, are sports competitions with other schools. This happen about two or three times a year. These matches take place at different schools in Naxaithong District like at the Phonsavanh school, Ban Phang Heng school, or Sikeud primary school.
During our interview, I quickly found out that Mr Sai has a lot of responsibilities that come with his teaching at many different schools: He is “an old man who does sports for five or six hours a day”, he joked. At the primary schools, he teaches basic exercises for class 1 and 2. Mr Sai’s hope is that good pupils will pick up karate for the future.
I was lucky enough to be invited to one of his karate lessons at Ban Sikeud primary school. There, I noticed that a sense of competition is always present in his lessons. This can be observed at the end of the karate lesson: Mr Sai picks two pupils to do the same karate routine. He checks the movements and posture of the pupils. The “winner” can leave for their classroom. The other pupil stays in the room and helps to clean up the place. I noticed that the 16 children in this class are of different ages, so I asked how he chose them. He told me that at the beginning of the year, all the pupils can come. Then he picks the best ones for training.
However, despite the competition, the atmosphere in the lesson is appreciative and positive – you can sense the good relationship Mr Sai has with his pupils.
At Phang Heng secondary school he also personally chooses his pupils.
After pupils graduate from the Ban Phang Heng lower secondary school, Mr Sai chooses the ones who are invited to go to Phonsavanh Highschool to learn more karate. He always gives his students advice and functions as a mentor. He even wrote a book about karate for the Phonsavanh school in 2015. Mr Sai proudly showed me the messenger group of his karate teams at Phonsavan Highschool and a group photo of him and his students.
He went on to tell me that after graduating from Phonsavanh school, even more opportunities are waiting for talented and ambitious students: When the students are good at karate, they can continue their karate training in Vietnam or Korea. I was very impressed that there seem to be so many opportunities for children that do well in martial arts. This must be a highly motivating factor for students to be ambitious and work hard on their skills and techniques. However, it is also really inspring to have a mentor like Mr Sai, who believes so much in his pupils and that they can reach their goals.
Mr Sai’s career
This is where I got even more curious. When did Mr Sai start to learn the martial art karate? When he was young, karate was not offered at Mr Sai’s school, but he learned karate with a Chinese teacher in his village when he was 16. He continued with karate, and when he was 30 years old he went to Vietnam, where he was able to get his dan (rank to indicate level of karate ability) – because one cannot get them in Laos. By now, Mr Sai is the proud owner of the highest dan – the black belt.
In 2008, Mr Sai went to China to get his license as a referee for karate. Since then he has been part of three different Lao teams as a referee, which means he is based in Laos. Here he also meets people from other countries, because sometimes Japanese and French people come to Laos to learn more karate.
Mr Sai’s opinion
I wonder whether, in Mr Sai’s opinion, Lao people are interested in sports. “Yes”, he told me, but mainly in football and boxing, not so much generally, e.g. in other sports like swimming. In Laos, swimming is not wide-spread, and people learn to navigate the long-boats for fishing and commerce rather than to swim for leisure. There, a lot of improvement need to be done in Mr Sai’s opinion.
Older men in Laos seem to be very fit and enjoy exercise, and they are rarely overweight, but Mr Sai mentioned that “a lot of young men are lazy and drink beer a lot”. According to Mr Sai, watching sports seem to be a highly popular part-time activity, with the most popular sports by far being football and Thai boxing.
Mr Sai’s wishes for the future
Mr Sai’s real passion, however, reveals itself when he tells me what he wishes for the future. He wants his students to be successful internationally. Additionally, he wants to see more variety of martial arts in Laos such as judo, taekwondo, karate, and Thai boxing. Since it is hard to learn these sports by oneself, there should be more money from the government to support teachers. Ultimately, he wants to see more Lao athletes represented in the Olympic games.2
Pukee – a success story
Mr Sai was very enthusiastic when he told me one specific story. It is about a girl named Pukee (/pu’ki:/). Pukee was a pupil of Mr Sai’s, starting at Ban Sikeud primary school. There, Mr Sai taught her karate since she was little. He could tell from a very young age that Pukee was talented in sports and had a special interest in karate. Therefore, he was eager to support the girl’s talent. Now, Pukee is a young woman of 19 who studies at the National University of Laos to become a sports teacher. Mr Sai says that he is very happy to help the students with their careers. Some students want to have a job as a doctor, in law, or as a mechanic. Mr Sai can help the students when they choose a career in sports.
After what I heard in my interview, I am certain Mr Sai is not only passionate about his own career in karate, but he is also a great teacher and mentor for the pupils he teaches. He wishes for all the children he teaches to be able to be successful and happy in what they are doing. Therefore, high standards are an important part of his teaching, but a good relationship to the students and good team work are crucial as well.
In the end, I had one important question left for him. I asked him if he also enjoys supporting sport teams. First and foremost, he cheers on his own team, of course. However, he also likes Thai Boxing and watching the Lao football team. “What about the German football team?” – I needed to know! Yes, he admitted with a smile, the German football team is good. That was the moment when I knew Mr Sai also appreciates what is good in sports outside the world of karate.
Text by S. Walschburger
Photos & videos by S. Walschburger, I. Martin & B. Singhalath
1 “Kid” in English means “baby goat”, but is also a colloquial expression for “children”.
2 Laos was part of seven Summer Olympic Games. The country has not yet appeared at the Winter Olympic Games and they have not won any Olympic medal yet. The National Olympic Committee of Laos was formed in 1975 and officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 1979.