Vientiane Yen

May 30, 2011

(from 50% Falang: 50 Stories from a Half-Breed Abroad in Southeast Asia)

It didn’t register at the time, but stepping onto that airplane in Dallas was like a kind of death. But not like some linear Christian death to be followed up with gnashing of teeth, eternal harp-strumming, or Purgatory, but more like a cyclic Buddhist death that redirected me straight back to the womb. Only instead of the womb, I gestated within the fuselage of a Boeing 777. And after three connection-delimited trimesters, I emerged onto a jet bridge leading to Wattay Airport in Vientiane and was born again in the baggage claim. An immigration officer certified my birth with a passport stamp and life started over.

The next hour blurred with new experiences: meeting my Uncle Wa outside the airport, the hordes of motorbikes puttering through the streets, the candy cane-style paint job on the curbs, the controlled chaos of the traffic, the dust and the noise and the heat, the truck bed loaded with young factory workers that I mistook for a joyless school bus, the bumpy dirt alley road that led into Uncle Wa’s urban neighborhood, the decommissioned Citroën sedan aging in his driveway, the tour of my new home, meeting everyone who lived in the house. Finally, Uncle Wa delivered me to a silent room and left me there to rest from the flight. Once I was alone, the world slowed down again. I tried to rewind and absorb everything that had happened so quickly.

The household. I now shared a home with Wa, his mother, his sister, his nephew, his niece, and his two housemaids. I’d never met this family before, but through my father’s second marriage, I was living with my step-aunt, step-uncle, step-grandmother, and step-cousins. Five step-dogs patrolled the gates.

The house. The house was like no place I’d lived be-fore. The bathroom was an oversized shower that contained the toilet and sink. The lawn boasted a gazebo and a small fish pond. The living room window presided over neighboring rice paddies. There was no central heat or air conditioning. The entire house was elevated on cement stilts. Were we on the shores of the Mekong, I would have assumed the stilts were employed solely to avoid flooding. I later gathered that this traditional aspect of Lao homes was also incorporated to avoid insect infestations, catch breezes, and create a storage space for grain and animals. The shade created by this house helped preserve the Citroën parked underneath. The car maintained a lingering aesthetic appeal, but functionally, it was as abandoned as the French colonial ideals to which it alluded.

The city. An hour before, my mental image of Vien-tiane was little more than a starred word on a map. Now Vientiane had become a real place with dimension and texture. The Lao capital (pronounced in Lao as “Vieng-chan”) was the first city I’d ever visited for which a motorist truly benefited from having an SUV. The unpaved road we traversed was more a dirt bike course than an urban alley. Beyond the visual smorgasbord of Lao, Vietnamese, English, and French signage, there was something else giving Vientiane a distinct feel. It was the first post-socialist, pre-industrial city I’d ever seen. It juxtaposed the heat and dust of an Arizona ghost town with cosmopolitan civic bustle.

Graham Greene reflected on landing in Saigon in his fifties-era Indochina War novel, The Quiet American. He wrote, “They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived. They say whatever it was you were looking for, you will find here.“ My first few minutes in Laos passed by and my second life as a Lao began. I had a new home to settle into, a new family to bond with, a new city to navigate, and even a new moniker. I promoted my middle name and became Saysana, “victory” in Lao.

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