Many moons ago when I first worked in youth work I (and my colleagues) used to do an exercise with groups of young people to get them to introduce themselves. I would explain that many years ago (and sometimes still) families had a coat of arms that said something about who they are and about their values. After some chat about the sorts of things that might be represented on a coat of arms I gave them a sheet of paper and asked them to draw their own individual “coat of arms” or “badge” to introduce themselves to the group.
When I started doing workshops here I wanted to find some way to get young people to introduce themselves to me and to each other. I kept coming back to this exercise because I like its openness to interpretation and that it can be completed on different levels whilst encouraging people to think a little below the obvious to the things that really represent them. But the coat of arms is a broadly European image and I didn’t think that it would resonate with the Lao young people I am working with. I needed to think of an alternative.
Ever since I started learning Lao language I have been fascinated by the prevalence of the word “jai” (heart). Many many words (and in particular emotion words or words describing character) either start or end with “jai”. For example “understand” is “kow jai” which literally translates as “enter heart”. Linked to this, I’m fascinated when, at my Saturday afternoon meditation classes at the temple, the monk talks about mind and points to the place that I consider to be his heart. So I decided to play a bit with the concept of heart.
Right now I’m in the process of transcribing the workshops that I facilitated in November and December. I thought it might be interesting to describe this particular process that I went through with one group.
I started by talking about my observation that many Lao words contain the word “jai” and asked the group to brainstorm as many such words as they could and, amongst much giggling, we filled a big flipchart full of words. Then I asked what the word “jai” meant to them. It’s a hard question, right? Think about it for a moment: what does your heart mean to you?
One person talked about it being the thing that gave him life. Another said that her heart is where she has true feelings. Then others talked about how those feelings might be good or bad, about how feelings can make you happy or sad – and they talked about being broken-hearted and about hearts being connected to love.
Finally I gave each person a sheet of paper with a big heart drawn on it and I asked them to individually show me what is in their heart. I had done my own example but I didn’t really want to show it at that point because I thought that people might just copy my ideas. So I gave them some prompt to think about:Questions What are the things that are most important to you? What are the things that you cannot live without? What are the things that make you very happy? Examples If you play football every week and you love it – put that in your heart! If there are things or people that are very very important to you – put them in your heart! If you have a dream of something that you really want to do (even if you cannot right now) put that in your heart!
I said they could draw or write their thoughts, made it clear that they didn’t have to stick to the prompts and told them that there would be some time to share the things they wanted to share with each other – but that they didn’t have to share anything with the group that they didn’t want to. And then I left them to it for 20 minutes.
I’ve done this exercise with three very different groups now. I have to admit that the first time I did it I had no idea if it would work…I thought it might be too open, too abstract…but I wanted to give it a try. With every group it has been completely different. For example, the first group almost all chose to draw the contents of their hearts where as the other two groups predominantly used writing, and different groups appeared to pick up more on different prompts. However one thing in common between all groups has been a desire to share their hearts with each other. In each group we have spent time going around almost every person in the group (one or two in each group chose to opt out) with each person explaining their heart and answering questions from each other. The young people in each group mostly know each other well already and this sharing has always been done is a spirit of respect and good humour. I shared my own heart at this point – while others might not agree, I think that it is really important for me to be a part of the group and to share information about me and my life to the people who are so generous in sharing their own lives with me.
I will use these hearts and the ensuing discussion as data in their own right, but they have also been useful as prompts for further exploration in interviews and ongoing conversations. I haven’t done any formal analysis yet but my initial thoughts are that, across the groups, hearts were filled with people and with dreams. Another very initial observation is that a group of mostly relatively affluent and education young people with families in Vientiane tend to dream of doing things, while a group of young people who generally have far fewer material resources and less stable family networks tend to dream of having things. However, in both cases, a large number (maybe the majority?) of these dreams are related to having or doing things for other people, most often family.