“Ultimately, human beings are all the same, equally important and loved, but different in such areas as what we define as home, what language we communicate in, what we eat for food each day, or where we find/buy clothes. In the end, we live differently, but at the core are all the same.”
-- From Nicole Betteridge’s blog post, September 2, 2012, before embarking on a 14-month stay in Laos.
When 2008 Decorah High School graduate Nicole Betteridge first decided, in 2012, to go to Laos as a mission intern and teacher, she experienced mixed emotions.
According to her blog, started before the trip: “The opportunity to live, serve, and learn from the people of Laos gets me pretty excited. However, it would be an understatement to say that I am not equally nervous or scared. I will be moving to a country whose people live very differently than how I have been raised … I have learned, however, experiences that are new, uncomfortable or challenging or the ones I learn and grow from the most.”
A journey begins
Betteridge, the daughter of Margaret and Brian Betteridge, of Decorah, says she had envisioned working overseas for a long time.
“I wanted an opportunity to learn more about myself and the world in a new way, not in a classroom setting, before I went on to study more or find a more permanent job,” she says.
During her senior year at Wartburg College (from which she graduated, in 2012, with a double-major in religion and social work), she looked into various opportunities for working abroad with Christian non-profit organizations.
“I knew about Global Ministries from growing up in the UCC church, (United Church of Christ), as well as the Iowa Conference of the UCC church, with youth and children at the state camp,” she says. “After much exploration, Global Ministries was the organization I felt most inspired to become a part of. Global Ministries was the best fit, and would allow me to continue learning about social work and religion, two areas I had studied, as well as continue to grow as a person in a different setting than ever before.”
She chose to work in Southeast Asia because it was somewhere she had never been before and knew nothing about.
“I have had many experiences in my local church such as mission trips around the Midwest that made me realize I wanted to spend my life working with people and help to make a difference in their lives,” she says. “I wanted to not just see pictures and stories of people struggling for clean water or enough money to go to school, but to actually make these stories real, and build relationships with individuals on the other side of the world.”
Living in Laos
Laos, a largely rural, mountainous country with a population of about six million, is bordered by Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, Cambodia to the south and Myanmar and China to the north.
“People are very calm, kind, hardworking and family oriented,” Betteridge says. “Many do not have much money or resources but they live very happy and complete lives. Most people practice Buddhism but I mostly worked with Christians who make up only about two percent of the population, because Christianity is relatively new in Laos. Lao people are somewhat shy but very eager to learn English to expand their opportunities.”
She was in Laos for 14 months, from October of 2012 until December of 2013, working as a mission intern with the Lao Evangelical Church. She taught English in a primary school in the capital city of Vientiane, and also was connected with Church World Service, where she volunteered teaching English at another primary school.
For most of the time she lived in Laos, Betteridge stayed with the head pastor of the Lao Evangelical Church and his family, which included his wife, children and grandchildren -- about 12 family members in all -- in Vientiane. For her last couple of months she stayed with cousins of the head pastor. Her second family was smaller, consisting of six people, plus another North American volunteer.
In addition to teaching, she assisted with social work projects -- specifically at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center and the National Rehabilitation Center of Laos, organizations which assist individuals who come to seek treatment or learn vocational skills, often after being harmed by unexploded bombs.
“Throughout the Vietnam War thousands of bombs were dropped on Laos,” Betteridge explains. “Many of these bombs are still active and dangerous today; and many people get very hurt from them.”
After having lived and worked abroad for more than a year, Betteridge has learned a lot.
“This type of work changes who you are in ways you might not expect,” she says. “It can be challenging and uncomfortable; but also very inspiring, surprising and fulfilling.”
She says anyone interested in working oversees needs to be open to new ideas, beliefs and ways of life.
“It’s helpful to like working with people, to be flexible and to be able to accept cultural differences,” she says. “And it’s important to understand your own beliefs in order to live among people who act and think differently. If you have had time and other experiences to find your identity and know what you believe, it’s easier to feel confident and accepting of others.”
“Some of my happiest memories happened over time as I learned about Lao culture, routines, values and as I learned more Lao language,” Betteridge says. “As a result, I was able to communicate and build stronger relationships with Lao people -- many of whom do not know any English.”
In particular, she enjoyed experiencing Lao New Year -- a week-long celebration in April, during which people often travel to visit family living in other parts of the country.
“April is the hottest time of the year in Laos,” she notes. “Due partly to the heat, Lao New Year has become a water festival. Buddhist people go to temple to pour water on the Buddha -- a sign of newness and cleansing. Christians worship and celebrate at church. People line the streets throwing water at everyone that passes by for several days straight. Baby powder is rubbed on peoples’ faces, shirts and arms. It is a fun time of the year; it’s nice to see Lao people (who are often shy or reserved) share so much laughter and silliness together.”
Betteridge made some good friends during her stay.
“I think over time my connections with people will fade a little, but there are a couple people I was close to that I will always stay in touch with,” she says.
Next step in her journey
This week, Betteridge’s journey continues – as she embarks on an extended stay in Thailand, where she plans to work for at least eight months, if not longer.
She’ll be working at the Saha Christian School located in Huey Malai in Kanchanaburi Province west of Bangkok, near the border with Myanmar, and living with another North American volunteer.
“It is one of the poorest schools because it is in a very rural area and because the school takes in so many hill tribe and refugee children,” she says. “The predominant group is Karen, an ethnic group of Southeast Asia, who have fled from Myanmar (Burma).”
(Note: “Since Burma was granted independence from Britain in 1948, the Karen people have sought political recognition and autonomy from a centralized, Burman-dominated government … For over 60 years, the Karen people have faced brutal political restrictions, economic exploitation and cultural suppression at the hands of Burma’s military regimes.” Source: karenwomen.org).
As for the future, Betteridge knows she wants to continue working with children. She plans to one day pursue a graduate degree in religion or social work, or both. And she says she’ll carry her experience in Laos with her, wherever she goes.
“Southeast Asia will always be part of me.”
This article originally appeared in the Decorah Newspapers.