The American Center at That Dam
The American Center is in the complex that used to house the U.S. Embassy in the center of Vientiane, a stone’s throw from the presidential palace next to a stupa in the center of the roundabout. The stupa is called That Dam meaning Black Stupa and the structure is allegedly inhabited by the seven-headed naga, or serpent who protected the local people from Siamese invaders in the 19th century.
Local guards patrol the road in front of the center and watch visitors’ bicycles and motorbikes while carrying billie clubs. Once inside, I have to take out my phone and iPad if I brought it (computers are not allowed) to be dusted for explosives and send my bag through the x-ray machine. I sign in by writing my name, the date and time in a large ledger book on hand-written sign-in sheets. I am buzzed in through the courtyard surrounded by high white walls topped with barbed wire, then into the center. There is one large classroom with a projector, stage, lectern and tables; one small classroom with a large monitor screen, a conference table and chairs; and a library where students can read, play games, use the desktops, lap tops or iPads or just scroll through their phones on the plentiful wifi.
Click on the pictures to see more photos in the slide show.
Other features of the center include Air Conditioning, two water coolers, 5 bathrooms and two full time staff members Mimi and Ped who help with programming, scholarship applications and study abroad opportunities. The center’s mission is to offer free English lessons and cultural programing to teach Lao students more about the United States. The center is open 6 days a week and hundreds of students vie for few coveted slots in listening, reading, writing, pronunciation, conversation and special topics classes such as history or computer literacy.
I’ll be teaching academic writing to a group of incredibly dedicated students who volunteer to assist the native English speaking teachers in class. The TA’s are in high school or attend university and have all studied English outside of school either in private academies, at the American Center or through YouTube, and American film. Many have traveled internationally, some as far as Japan or Australia and one is headed to a leadership program at the University of Massachusetts in August. I met them yesterday when they presented on the school system and culture in Laos. They are incredibly proficient and incredibly sweet.
The English Language Fellow who is returning to LA after two years in Vientiane helped start the TA program and build their leadership capacity. In knowing her just over a week she’s already been instrumental to my own experience in Laos. I live in an apartment in her building that she showed us. She’s been a consistent voice of confidence, a true cheerleader and validator of the work I’m about to embark on. I will miss her and am glad our paths crossed. For the TAs who have known her and grown under her leadership for the past two years, her departure will certainly be felt as a great loss.
The TAs threw her a going away party yesterday at the American Center complete with pizza, snacks, Coca-Cola and Karaoke, a favorite pastime here. I ate and sang with them and then they took me and my roommate to the night market where I bought a pre-made sinh with chickens embroidered on it and Corey purchased elephant fabric to be tailored into the traditional Lao skirt to fit her tall frame. They took us to Walking Street, famed for it’s street food and explained Lao culture while asking about our experience in the states. Our TAs are warm, funny, educated young people who have had the privilege and the drive to learn English well. I’m so excited to work with them at the American Center in the coming months.