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Volunteer Culture Shock in Laos

Life in the very slow lane.

Something unusual happens when you cross over the border and enter Laos: time slows down.

It is not always immediately noticeable: it’s similar to the effect of a music cassette (remember them?) that has had the tape inside stretched. The sound becomes distorted, the singer’s voice gradually becomes deeper, slower, distended, and before you know it you have gone from listening to Lady Ga Ga to something that resembles Enya on Ketamine.

You can sense the slowing down in virtually all activities: grab a car or bike and hit the roads and you will find that very few people drive above 30 mph; walk into a shop and you will more likely than not discover the owner actively ignoring you and watching TV, reluctant to get up even at the sight of money; go to a restaurant and your food may take up to an hour to arrive, if it ever does (forgetfulness in waiters seems endemic here).

It’s not that the people here are lazy (although, to be honest, I sometimes have my suspicions about certain members of the male population – but that remains true regardless of geography), it is simply that people here have a different relationship to time. It is as if Einstein’s theory of relativity is writ large here, except its not proximity to mass that slows things down, but to the Mekong and the ubiquitous BeerLao.

As long as you are in no hurry, and especially if you have just arrived from the chaos that is Bangkok, this all adds to Laos’ charm. And if you stay here a while you find that you too slow down, and that any sense of urgency and productivity you had begins to fade in quite a pleasurable way.

A Different Work Ethic

Of course, as I discovered, when you’re working here, and actually trying to achieve something, Laos can come as a bit of a culture shock.

It isn’t that things here are just slower; there seems to be a lack of basic organization and structure to just about everything. When things happen, or rather if, it is due largely to luck more than judgment – people work to their own schedules, doing their own thing, and if it results in the successful completion of a project no one knows how or why.

In my previous life, I worked for a company that constantly pressured us to make things happen with impossible deadlines and insurmountable bureaucracy. My world was filled with corporate speak; my ideas were blue sky, I leveraged just about anything I could think of, and there were paradigm shifts, action plans and deliverables coming out of my ears.

That’s why, when, on a gloomy Monday morning, an email asking if I wanted to go live in Asia for a while and try something new piqued my curiosity. After years of paperwork, the prospect of an adventure, and a reliable source of vitamin D, sounded ideal.

But what I discovered when entering the working world of Laos, is that you really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. As much as I love to procrastinate and despise bureaucracy, I also love results, targets and achievable goals – notions that are apparently irrelevant here.

A steep learning curve

Jumping from one extreme to the other has brought me to a deeply disturbing realization: deep down I crave forms and guidelines, strategies and plans.

It has been an incredibly steep learning curve, but once you except that people here work to a different time scale, that tasks that should take days will take at least a month, and that before any business can be done you need to have a meal, some BeerLao, some lengthy small talk about family and friends, and potentially a religious ceremony, it becomes less frustrating.

Currently, I find myself, Buddha like, looking for a middle path between these two worlds. I am creating document templates, implementing measurement systems, and standardizing processes for my colleagues, all the while knowing deep down that it’s a futile task, and trying to enjoy a relaxing office experience.

And so it would seem that you can take the girl out of the organization, but you can’t take the organization out of the girl. I suppose the best I can hope for is that my new found passion for bureaucracy will actually make a difference to the charity I work for and to the people we try to help.

And failing that, at least there is plenty of BeerLao to drown my sorrows.

Charlotte Halligan