Catching Up With ... Lisa AnderbergJuly 20, 2012
SEATTLE – She was more than a quarter of the world away from home – and farther than that from her comfort zone.
Yet, just six weeks into a nearly year-long stay in the southeast Asia country of Laos, Lisa Anderberg was getting the feel of things.
She had gone from zero to conversational in the Lao language. She was adjusting to her host family and her nine younger “siblings” – ranging in age from infant to 16.
But with the 2010 calendar moving steadily toward October, Anderberg, just three months graduated from Seattle Pacific after an accomplished four years on the track and cross country trails as well as in class, was in front of her ultimate challenge.
She was face to face with nearly four dozen teenagers who didn't know a word of English, but were there to learn it …
… from her.
“I had never taught English. I had never taught anything before,” said Anderberg, who compiled a near-perfect 3.92 grade-point average at SPU not in education, but rather as a global development studies major. “I had a classroom full of 45 Lao seventh-graders. None of the students had books – the teacher had one copy of the book. There was no real set curriculum to go off of.
“We just had a blackboard, and we would go from there. … It was like, 'How do I get them to start to speak more and be more thoughtful in their learning?'”
The kids learned as they went. So did Anderberg.
Now, a chapter of her life that was supposed to end a year ago is about to pass the two-year mark. After a six-month return home to Edmonds (about 45 minutes north of Seattle) for the last half of 2011, Anderberg was back in Laos this past January and recently extended her current stay to November.
This time, she's in a different part of the country, serving as a project coordinator at the Sai Nyai Eco-School. While it's still the same 7,100 air miles and 14-hour time difference (when it's the 5 p.m. commute in Seattle, it's 7 a.m. the next day in Laos), the distance somehow doesn't feel as far to Anderberg now.
“I feel really blessed to be working with and being part of something like this,” she said.
LAOS … THAT'S WHERE, EXACTLY?
Nepal. … Indonesia. … Zambia.
Since she had never been outside of the United States before, any of those exotic-sounding locales held a certain appeal for Anderberg.
So as she filled out an application for a spot in the Serving and Learning Together program with the Mennonite Central Committee, she put those on her list as places to where she wouldn't mind being sent.
“I had this really huge interest in learning about other cultures and other parts of the world, and just a big interest in global inequalities and social justice,” Anderberg said. “I had never gone to another country, so that was the first thing on my list – but I didn't know where.”
Nepal didn't work out. Nor did Indonesia. Nor did Zambia.
Instead, Anderberg wound up in Laos – a place that not only wasn't on her radar, but was barely on her map.
“They called me up and said, 'What about Laos?' I said, 'Laos – that's in Asia, right?'” Anderberg recalled with a laugh. “I didn't know anything about it. But I decided, 'OK, if that's where you want to have me go, that's where I'll go.”
She went, settling in with her host family about 20 minutes outside the capital city of Vientiane, which itself is located on the Mekong River across from Thailand, one of the five countries that border Laos. (The others are China, Burma, Vietnam, and Cambodia.)
Then, after an intense six week of language study and integrating herself into the culture, there was Anderberg in front of that private village school classroom of “rambunctious seventh-graders,” as she laughingly referred to them.
MORE THAN AN ENGLISH TEACHER NOW
During that initial 11-month stay, Anderberg taught a total of 10 English classes to kids ranging in age from the equivalent of seventh to 11th
“Learning English is a big challenge for a lot of people, especially for the Lao language – I feel like Lao is a lot easier,” Anderberg said. “Everything (in Lao) is phonetic.”
When she returned in January after six months back home, it was to a different town (Geng Gia), different school, different job.
Well, mostly a different job.
“I still do teach English and computers – the students all know me as the English teacher,” Anderberg said.
But her primary focus is as project coordinator for a rural sustainability program, with students ranging in age from 15 to 25. The school essentially is set up as a demonstration farm. And the classroom subjects? Pig raising, fish raising, frog raising, growing mushroom houses, and learning about different types of organic fertilizer for gardens.
“It ends up being sort of a trade school,” Anderberg said. “It's a rare opportunity for students who otherwise wouldn't get to study past secondary school to gain some higher education on subjects that hopefully are going to be relevant to their rural livelihood.”
Everything is crammed into a five-month program, after which the teachers follow up with past students on new projects or businesses they've started, based on what they learned in the sustainability program.
“Maybe their family was raising chickens before,” Anderberg said, “and now, maybe they'll raise pigs.”
TIME FOR FUN – AND RUNNING, TOO
It's not all work and no play for Anderberg. When not teaching or relaxing in the 13-by-13 one-room, straw-roofed, wooden house that is elevated about five feet on wooden stilts and is part of the female staff dormitory – “just traditional Lao architecture,” she said – Anderberg enjoys going out to some of the many waterfalls in that part of the country.
“That's the common thing is to gather some friends, drive out to the waterfall (on the small Vespa-style motorbikes that serve as the primary source of transportation) and go swimming,” she said.
There's also running. While at SPU, Anderberg was on the 2010 indoor distance medley relay that won the NCAA Division II championship, was part of three straight NCAA trophy-winning cross country teams, and capped her Falcons career with her second All-American eighth-place finish in the NCAA outdoor 800 meters.
“I'm running in the best running place of my life – it's amazing,” she said. “There's only one paved road. Everything else is dirt roads that go off through the most gorgeous scenery. I can go on an hour run easily, never seeing any buildings or pavement. Just me and the banana orchards, coffee plantations, rice fields, peanut fields, and green, green forests.”
She even got to train for a few months with the national track team, and became good friends with Sirivanh Ketavong, a marathoner and one of the first women to run for Laos in the Olympics.
“I call her the Lao Doris,” Anderberg said in a respectful nod to Seattle Pacific distance running legendDoris Heritage
. “She was really pioneering for running, or for athletics in general for women in Laos. She was running when there was no one doing any sort of distance running – maybe a couple of men, but definitely no women. She has been a big inspiration to me, and a good friend.”
Anderberg will come home in November to spend the holidays with her family, then turn her focus to beginning work on her master's degree in international development and social change. She is on deferred admission at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and has an NCAA postgraduate scholarship in hand.
Worcester is 3,000 air miles and a three-hour time difference – certainly a shorter distance than it is from Seattle to Laos.
But no matter where she is, Lisa Anderberg, in her mind and heart, will feel very close to where she is right now.
“Maybe not this job,” she said, “but I can honestly see myself coming back to Laos.”
It'll still be more than a quarter of the world away from home …
… but not nearly as far from her comfort zone.