Tranquility and progress – the perspective of a Chinese prospective PhD student

All Posts, Letters from China, Research, Savannakhet University (SKU)

MY to IM (10.12): I have unbolded the words but left the note about the names of those people that you could help me to add. As for the title, I think “Letters from China – [my first visit in Savannakhet]” is good! 

IM to MY (9.12.): Please check my last bold and unbold if OK by you. I added a few more links. I could also add a video of the dances if you like. We can leave the text as it is because you are not officially enrolled yet, but I would suggest you change the last sentene now on account of the aceptance!

I am Ms Miaoxing Ye, 25 years old, a teaching assistant at Hubei University of Education in China. I graduated from UCL in London with a Masters in Applied Linguistics (2017), and now I am applying for a PhD position supervised by Professor Isabel Martin. I was looking for the right project and professor for my PhD and found it and her through this blog.

I added some more links for you and saw more places where there should be one.

For the main title, I thought “Letters from China – [my first visit in Savannakhet]” or something similar (with a better subtitle) would be good because this implicates the wider context for readers who have read “Letters from Laos” or “Letters from England”, and it would also give me a “reason” for writing an editor’s note for your article to show how this programme grows globally.

The Laos project – love at first sight

The hot Lao sun was glazing down on me as I – Miaoxing Ye from Wuhan (China) – walked the streets of Savannakhet with a delicious ice coconut milkshake in my right hand and a warm curry in my stomach. I was overwhelmed by the plentitude of spices and sounds in the air, which were in stark contrast to the otherwise exceptionally peaceful composure of the kind, polite Laotians that I had met on my journey. I was content with the progress I had made in recent events; Laos was a good country.
But how did I get here? Let me rewind to the beginning of my journey to Savannakhet as a prospective PhD student in Professor Dr Martin’s research project.

My journey to Savannakhet University was decided just two weeks before my departure. I had been applying for PhD positions in Germany and luckily I found Professor Martin, whose research on bi-directional teaching and learning in international tandems was a perfect match for my interests. Then, her website took me to the Laos programmes. I was surprised at my meager knowledge about Laos, my neighbouring country. The more blog posts I read, the more I wanted to know about it all. I sent an email to Professor Martin on 28 August 2019 to express my interest about the programme and inquired about potential PhD positions. After several emails, she spontaneously offered to meet me in Laos in October. Then I decided to have an adventure!

From Wuhan to Savannakhet, I took a taxi, the subway, two planes, a night bus, and a tuk-tuk to finally get to my hotel at 6 a.m. on 1 October 2019. After a bowl of Laotian noodle soup and a cup of latte, I started my first adventurous day.
Professor Martin and I had our first discussion about the direction of my research already in the van that picked her up to go to university, and she more or less trashed my first idea there and then, only to present to me a more productive one that would actually connect my interests to her cooperation programme in Savannekhet in a more organic and meaningful way.

In the cooled van, I got a glimpse of the city Savannakhet – and it reminded me of scenes in my childhood in my hometown. I grew up in a small city named Hongan and there were not so many automobiles or tall buildings at that time, which was a bit like here. Everything was calm, and no one rushed on the road.

Laos – the perspective of a newcomer

Prof. Martin had arranged for me to go along to a Lao language class with Rebecca Dengler, the first Laos-PhD candidate coming to Laos, so I could get an impression of the Lao language system and see if first ideas would present themselves from this for carrying out my research. It is always interesting to start learning a new language and to get an idea of a new culture and local customs. The teacher Mr Chanthalakhone was ever so patient and encouraging and demonstrated every sound and corrected our mistakes. After two hours of studying, I had learned how to say “hello” and how to introduce myself including my name, job, hobbies, and family members in Lao.

More importantly, I learnt that Lao is also a tone language, with six tones. Mandarin Chinese, my first language, is also a tone language, but has only four tones. Maybe the comparison of these two tonal languages in relation to English – a stress-based language – could be a good research aim indeed, as Prof. Martin had already hinted at, in relation to the pronunciation difficulties ensuing from L1 interference: Our tones substituting English stress sometimes almost beyond comprehensibility to Western speakers of English.

After class, Rebecca and I went back to the office to meet Professor Martin to have lunch. Mr Napha Khothphouthone and Mr Thaithanawanh Keokaisone, two Lao teachers who went to Germany for half a year in the summer of 2019 with the support of Erasmus+ Mobility programme, and an officer of International Department also joined us. They took us to an eatery nearby and ordered five dishes and sticky rice for us since we could not read the menu. As we all teach English to university students, we had a lot of topics to share and we were all curious about each others’ teaching: Content, methods, problems, and so on.

After lunch, I went to observe a lesson which was called the “Development of Economics”, and the class size was about 40 students, which was similar to my classes at my own university, Hubei University of Education. The students were all engaged and positive in class, and I could barely see anyone playing on their phone. The students were all active and answered the questions raised by the teacher – since they could get some points for this course. This surprised me, because although I use the same method in my class in China, it does not work that well there. It is possible, of course, that the students were particularly motivated by the inspection of the unknown guest.
Another thing that I noticed was the respect for teachers. Every student folded their hands and bowed their heads to greet teachers wherever they met them while giving way to them at the same time.

Subsequently, I went back to the office and rested for a while. When Professor Martin finished her work, we continued our discussion about possibilities for my research and she made several more suggestions. Among them, the L1 influence on EFL Asian learners’ difficulties with English word stress and sentence stress particularly attracted my attention.

After a long day in a totally new place, I was really hungry and wanted to taste some local food. Our hotels were right by the night food market, and there were so many stalls and choices! I ordered a bottle of Thai tea, and crispy noodles with vegetables and beef in a rich broth.


Savannakhet – getting to university the Lao way

On the second day, I asked the receptionist to help me get a tuk-tuk to the university at 8:30. After having Wonton for breakfast (a small piece of food wrapped in dough and served in hot soup), I met the driver and showed him the destination on my google map. He seemed quite unsure and he drove for three minutes to a restaurant where there were about 15 tuk-tuk drivers. There he asked them about the way to Savannakhet University. Then he gave me an “OK” gesture and started driving. It was nice to see the scenery of the city and feel the wind on an open tuk-tuk. Again, it reminded me of my childhood when cars were a luxury and my dad drove me to school by motorbike every day.
However, after 10 minutes, when I checked the map on my phone, I found he was going in the wrong direction, and I had to stop him and said he was taking the wrong way and then showed him my map. Since we did not speak the same language, I was not sure how much he understood, but he said “OK” again and then turned his tuk-tuk around. I thought we were going to the university now, but to my surprise, he went back to the same restaurant. There he talked to the same drivers again and showed my map to them this time. Then we started again, and after 20 minutes, we finally got there!

Since in China most drivers depend heavily on their digital navigation applications, I took it for granted that all drivers must know ways to everywhere all the time. In addition, during the (what I thought was an exhausting) searching process, he did not show any exhaustion or even impatience whatsoever. Instead, he smiled and apologised to me all the time. I was moved by his calm, his perseverance, responsibility, and good temper. In the future, I will write down the name of my destination in Lao script on paper and check my map all the time.

Ms Phetsavanh Somsivilay from the International Office kindly offered that I could observe her class. Her 35 economics students were all in their first year of university and the topic of this lesson was telephoning in business. She arranged the lesson into five parts: Warming up, grammar focus, example sentences, practice, and vocabulary activities. During her class, most of the time was allotted to students’ practice. Everyone was so engaged and active in class that they would be disappointed when they were not nominated to speak!

Since I taught a similar topic to Business English majors last term, I compared similarities and differences between the two classes. Firstly, we both had a thought-out structure for the lesson, which is actually a requirement in Chinese universities, but it is my understanding that Ms Phetsavanh made a special effort to incorporate this. Secondly, as teachers, we both tried our best to motivate our students to speak as much as possible, so I felt immediately connected to her. Thirdly, the class size of two classes and the layout of classrooms were similar.

However, I could also find several differences. My students are more reluctant to speak out and those “good” students will always answer my questions – while the rest remains silent in class. In Ms Phetsavanh’s class, I could not identify the “good” and “bad” students as they were all eager to perform in front of all students. In addition, in my class, I am the lecturer and the students are passive recipients of knowledge, while in this class, she was the organiser of activities in which students could actually use the target language. In the future, I hope to learn from other teachers in Laos who have learnt from the Lao-German project or other experiences or stays elsewhere to set more activities for my students and to better motivate them by introducing more constructive aspects to my own teaching method.

For the evening, Mr Napha Khothphouthone invited Professor Martin, Rebecca and me to his home for dinner. I was really looking forward to the taste of local homemade cuisine and a glimpse of the Lao lifestyle.

When we got out of Mr Napha’s car, we firstly noticed that there were people building a house next to his. Mr Napha told us he had hired people to build a place for his future business. He wanted to open a store, selling everyday items that people need in daily life, such as toothbrushes, sugar, shampoo, education equipments like books and pens, as well as fertilizer and coffins.

He also showed us the office, in which his wife has an invitation cards business. Also, we were invited to visit his huge garden. First, we saw some piglets, dozens of chickens, and also crickets!

Then he introduced a plenitude of plants to us, such as pineapple, mango, lemon, banana, and jackfruit trees. It must take so much time to look after all that livestock, those animals, insects, and plants!

I was really shocked that he could do so much work after his daily university work. In China, we call people with different jobs “slash people”, so I would describe Mr Napha as a great slash man: University teacher/ farmer/ animal doctor. To an outsider it did not appear that Mr Napha found this work on a daily basis tiring at all. Instead, he loves spending time in nature and to harvest after a long university day.

He said he was born and raised in a similar environment so he was used to that kind of lifestyle, but, at the same time, he would like to earn more money – university teachers’ salaries in Laos are modest – and provide a better life for his extended family and provide for his parents, as there are no pensions for Lao farmers. This is why he was motivated to work long and hard. However, he also built a meditation hut in his garden and also knows how to relax meditating in one of the hangmats hanging between the trees. When asked about his intense work efforts, he reminded me that he has a great wife, who supports him in everything.

His way of life is actually similar to my parents’ generation. They were trying their best to get out of poverty and into a better life for the family while they still kept their old habits, like saving money for security reasons, saving food and water, and growing vegetables wherever they could. Nowadays, young generations in China – which includes me – spend too much time in social networks, social media, new phone/ computer games instead of being with ourselves. I hope in the future I can spend more time with myself, doing meditation, gardening, and to live a simpler life.

After the little tour around his “garden” (which we first indiscriminately thought of as a “jungle”), more than ten dishes were already waiting for us on the dinner table. Many thanks went to Mr Napha’s wife Deuandavanh for cooking so much for us. We had roasted duck, fried fish, frog, green vegetables, sticky rice, of course, and cricket! Even though I am from China where some people eat insects, I did not dare to eat any yet. This time, I got up the courage and tried one. Actually, it did taste good, crispy, and fresh, and the Thai basil added fragrance to that deep-fried dish.

I really appreciated this opportunity to have a closer look at the lifestyle of Lao people, to taste their authentic local food, and to experience their pure and slow-paced  lifestyle.


Teachers’ Day: Students showing their gratitude and displaying celebration in style

I was lucky that there happened to be a big celebration for Laos’ “Teachers’ Day” on the 4th of October, which was previously described on this blog as the origin of National Teachers’ day in Laos and a Teachers’ Day celebration. The celebration was held in a big hall with a stage and hundreds of seats. In the morning at 9:30 a.m., all teachers, Professor Martin, Rebecca and I went to the hall. At the entrance, some students held beautiful handmade flower necklaces and decorations. They greeted all teachers and respectfully adorned them with those necklaces. We were shown to our seats and served small boxes of desserts. Then speeches were given to the audience. Since I was just there for three days, I did not know who the speakers were, but I suppose they were leaders and important figures. I could check my notes to add a note here to say who they were.

After those speeches, the teachers and students performed a variety of shows to us. The first two were dancing, in which a teacher and student dance group displayed different gestures and positions. Rebecca told me that those gestures expressed different meanings and wishes, but unfortunately, we did not know the meanings or wishes. Then came the singing part, including solos and choirs. Though I could not understand the Lao lyrics, I felt that they were expressing devotion, gratitude, and feelings from the bottoms of their hearts.
Since we had a seminar at 11:00, we had to leave early before the end of the celebration. However, for only one hour of watching, I thought that this celebration was truly amazing: Teachers watching their own students’ performances, receiving their gratitude as the greatest possible gift on Teachers’ Day.

In China, we also have Teachers’ Day, which is the 10th of September, and on that day, teachers usually receive flowers – especially carnations – from their students. I wish I could also watch performances given by my own students one day. I will add the names to the first photo if you don’t know them.

As you can see, my days in Savannakhet were filled with adventurous and brand-new moments – and I really wish for more opportunities to stay in Laos in the future!

Professor Martin made every effort to help me feel comfortable in the new environment. The staff at Savannakhet University and Rebecca also all showed their friendliness and offered help whenever they could and helped me get rid of my anxiety little by little and feel relieved after the shock of the new.

Though I stayed there only for a few short days, I got precious suggestions from Professor Martin, got a general idea of Savannakhet university, the Erasmus+ Mobility Programme, and I got to know lovely Lao people, some delicious Lao food, and participated in one Lao festival. I am very glad to share all those experiences with you now, and there will certainly be more “Letters from China” posts in the future.

I also reached my main goal: I have a dissertation topic. It is going to be “Lao and Mandarin Chinese L1 tone interference in EFL learners’ (mis)placement of word and sentence stress in English: similarities and differences”.  On 3 December, the new Faculty at KUE accepted my application and I can start my doctorate in Germany soon and also go to Laos again for data-collection in the spring of 2020.


Text by M. Ye

Photos by I. Martin, R. Dengler & M. Ye

Share this: