2017 SAIL Report – by Devin Lee
So about my trip to Laos? Well its difficult to put into words because there is so much to talk about but words would not do it the justice it deserves. I remember arriving a day behind schedule, being over stressed because I was alone, stuck in China without being able to contact the outside world. When I had finally arrived at Wattay International Airport, I had finally felt relieved reaching my destination, but all that had changed within an instant. I awaited in front of the airport for a taxi, unable to concentrate with the hot-humid air, seven mosquito bites I recieved almost immediately, and the loud sounds of construction coming from the airport expansion project. Tension and frustration began to build up within me, feeling like I went from the frying pan, and into the stove. In that moment I was left with the impression that Laos was going to suck, and not to expect much to prevent myself from being let down.
However that changed very quickly within the day. I had actually settled in comfortably before I had even reached the hotel. I didn’t experience any culture shock or failed to adapt to the new environment and culture. While it does differ extremely from the common lifestyle in America, it honesty wasn’t that bad, and I just reminded myself I been through worse and have done it before. I had actually felt more nervous and had anxiety when I stayed in Japan and China. In Laos, everything had kind just fell into place, and my mindset was to just roll with it and get the best experience as possible. What had also really helped me was having other people there I could relate to or share the same background with. The other SAILers had a large role in my experience in Laos and helping me ease into life there. We had a small group of students all around the same age, with different backgrounds and experiences we could use collaboratively. While we did have a few differences over interests in the program, I think we had good group dynamics because no one ever hated one another and we got along fairly well. They were great people, funny, cool, and understanding. I felt like I could genuinely be myself not only because of the people they were, but because we were living the same experience, strengthening our bonds and building a family of misfits over 5 weeks. I honestly don’t think I would of enjoyed Laos half as much if they weren’t there.
Of course as the program continued and time passed, I became more familiar there and I felt immersered with the natural Lao lifestyle forgetting I was a tourist and student. I realized this feeling after we returned to our hotel after our Luang Prabang trip. We entered the lobby while a large group of toursists were there eating dinner. While we did look like them, rechecking in with armfuls of lugage, we all knew those people were just faces that come and go, while we were returning to our home away from home.
During our stay in Laos we got to see some stunning sights, both in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, that defined the unique culture and history of the country. Pa Thou Xay was very beautiful and well kept, I would have considered it the main attraction of the city. Buddha park was fantastic, the garden of the Buddha statues was well preserved and then being able to sit inside our own personal hut overlooking a large field prefixing the Mekong. Going to the night market in Vientiane was one of the best ways of seeing how the locals spent their recreational time, catching a warm cheap dinner from one of the street vendors, doing some extra shopping, joining one of the Zumba classes, or just meeting up with friends to hangout along the Mekong. The night market was the place to be in the evenings, besides Hard Rock Café. In Luang Prabang, it felt completely different from the lifestyle in the city. While I do think they catered more to tourism there, it was a great opportunity to visit important historical sights and see their preserved heritage. The air was clean, roads were less crowded, and the architecture was beautiful
Although Laos is home to very gorgeous views and locations, it was still very polluted and had a lot of environmental issues. There was always garbage and debris insight, around the corner, along the sidewalks , massive piles in empty lots, and even half built buildings that have become abandoned which is unappealing when it is common around town. However I had noticed that the city had employed workers to clean certain streets, ones with tourists destinations, with dust pans and brooms every so often during the day. The hot humid air had felt amplified with the carbon pollution from the trucks, tuk tuks, and motor bikes that plagued the streets, emittung smoke and pushing dirt into the air. Some days it felt difficult to breathe when we had to walk to schools on cloudy days, or having to sit in the back of a tuk tuk, absorbing all the fuems from the vehicles ahead of us and inhaling it. Towards the end of the trip it felt like I had a fungal infection growing inside of my chest.
Beyond just the looks of the country and the problems it faces, I felt that even though being there felt completely alien to me, I had a sense of an intimate connection with Laos because my family had lived there. My grandparents and parents never really spoke much about the reason why they left Laos or why they came to the U.S, but just about the hardships they faced inside the refugee camps. I never really was able to understand it as a child but as I grew up able I was able to piece more of it together through my own research because of personal curiosity. It wasn’t until here where I really understood the vast spectrum of the secret war and the high stakes my family had faced. The history classes offered so much more knowledge and insight, giving a greater meaning to the journey my family took. Even just being there, I could almost put myself in their shoes and see everything they had to leave behind. I now have a greater appreciation and take pride in my heritage and tradition, being an ethnic minority.
My ethnicity itself actually contributed in giving me a strangely unique experience, not just having a personal bond to the traces of Yao-Mien heritage but my asian appearance. Many people would mistaken me for either Lao or Chinese so I drew less attention compared to white or black foreigners. My roommate who is white captured a lot of eyes on him when we were in public. However because he could speak the language already, he shocked all of locals and they would praise him for how good his Lao was and appreciated him for taking interest in the country and culture. I didn’t received nearly as much appraisal because of my skin, being understandable because the country is homogenous. There were a few funny instances when everyone would speak to me in Lao and I would tell them I could’t speak Lao, in Lao, but my roommate could speak to them perfectly, and they gave me a very special look like I was handicapped. The people did appreciate me too whenever I explained that I wasn’t a native but an american college student wanting to learn about Laos. It seemed as if they did take a lot of pride in their country and seeing outsiders take an interest in it and not many other tourists attempted to learn the language. I felt some irritation when I would see other American tourists speak unnecessary and overwhelming amounts of english to the people. For example I noticed they would give long explanations about why they can’t buy something from one of the vendors in the market, making things much more complicated, instead of just saying no or “baw pen nyang” and walking off.
Sharing a mutual language with the people was a significant part of communicating thoroughly and also getting a good experience. The 5 week language course we had helped me in picking up the basics of speaking Lao and how to survive. Learning it itself was not too hard and the instructor, though hard to understand sometimes, did a good job at teaching us the fundamentals of speaking, reading, and listening. I’m still pretty bad at writing though. It was really confusing sometimes because I would mix up all the languages I knew, mixing Chinese and Lao together, thinking in Japanese, and switching up Lao and Mien vocabulary. I felt that the best way of learning was to force myself to take what I learned in the classroom and use practical application of it whenever I got the chance. By the end I felt confident enough to speak Lao by default, and wanting to go out just to practice more.
Laos has definitely changed me as a person and the way I view the world. I cant speak on behalf of every person who has come to Laos because experiences do differ and it truly depends on the mindset you enter the country with and what you chose to take out of what Laos has to offer. No matter where I go or how I continue my life, this experience and the country will be part of my heart. I’ve learned so much more, not only about the little land locked country in the middle of South East Asia, but I have gotten a taste of how big this world we live in is. I have gotten to live amongst a new society and culture, learning about the history and people. I now have a much greater appreciation for my life in the US, now having visually and physically experiencing the life my grandparents and parents once lived, understanding the background they came from and seeing how much they had sacrificed to get to where they are at. I have met some amazing people who I wish to continue to have around in my life. Most importantly, I’ve realized much more about myself. The value of my life and the potential good I have to offer. Self worth was something I had never acknowledged about myself because I was afraid of letting myself down or even trying. But now, I appreciate my own capabilities and skills, and all the adversity in my life that has brought me here. There is still much more I have to do to become a better person for myself, and now I have gotten a small taste of it, eager to see the next chapter of my life and the path I take.