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.


One Man NGO

May 4, 2010

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

On my most recent recruiting trip to the university with Mesa, I was waiting outside near the campus border when a middle-aged man stepped off of the road and began to speak English to me.

By his dress, accent, and features, I knew he had to be a traveler from Korea or Japan. This was quite unusual to me, as we were in Dong Dok, about eight miles from Vientiane’s tourist center. And he was the first foreigner to actually talk to me. All the others hardly managed a nod or a response to my smile when passing me in the streets.

He was in search of the nearest restaurant and I was able to lead him to the cafeteria. In transit, I had to offer an apology, as I had just eaten at the cafeteria and it was an awful meal. Honestly, they served the worst bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup that I have ever had. Unless I just don’t know what pho is supposed to taste like. Or hell, maybe it wasn’t even Vietnamese noodle soup.
But my mysterious new friend was not in a discrimi-nating mood, it seemed. Once he had ordered his meal, I began to hear his story. His voice was so raspy and his intonation so oriental, I felt like I was having a conversa-tion with Master Splinter, himself.

“I am one-man NGO,” he declared with a smile. NGO stands for non-governmental organization and the term is associated with poverty aid programs, environmental programs, and the like.

He explained that he was a retired Korean professional who received a government pension of $180 each month.

“$80 I spend on myself. The rest I give to the poor people.”

On that day, he had visited a nearby elementary school, where as I understood, he made balloon animals for the children. After that, he met a street vendor and offered to cut the man’s hair. His offer was accepted and he gave the man a haircut right there on the sidewalk, using the kit he carried with him in his bag. He also mentioned occasionally distributing medicine.

“This is my duty,” he affirmed.

I looked at his bag. I imagined the balloon assortment, the haircutting kit, the unlabeled pill bottles. What else was in there?
He had come from as far as Sri Lanka, passed through India and who knows where else in between. He told me briefly about the tsunami-hit areas he visited: “No houses, just flat.” He extended his hand and cut a line through the air.

Despite the ambitiousness of his travels, I was under the distinct impression that he spoke no languages other than his native Korean and his endearingly choppy English. He confirmed this, and I quietly wondered how he got around a country like Laos. But he did, and did it blowing balloons and cutting hair all the way, it appeared.

But with much regret, I only spent those five minutes speaking with him. I had to return to my duties assisting the private school salesman. So there I left him to finish his meal and continue on his way. We hadn’t even had time for a proper introduction.

I wanted to go with him. To join him. I wanted to leave my little cage in Vientiane and watch him wander, to hear more stories. My mind played a video montage of my future adventures as his sidekick: trekking into a remote village and being greeted by a rapturous mob of barefoot children, blowing up balloons and handing them off to him for transformation into elephants and giraffes, listening to him introduce us with, “We are two-man NGO,” translating his halting English sentences into my halting Lao sentences. Perhaps once I would get ill after eating an exotic dish and then watch him dig deep into his bag for a magical Korean elixir. Oh, the times we would have!

After all, this roaming philanthropist was exactly the kind of person I had looked forward to meeting in Laos. Not offish, unshaven backpackers. Not my wannabe MBA boss running some crackerjack academy. Not the vendors and taxi drivers who saw me as a dollar bill with arms and legs.

But I didn’t go with him. It probably wasn’t a good idea. I wasn’t wearing comfortable shoes. My shirt was too formal. I wasn’t carrying much money. I wouldn’t have made it very far before eventually returning to my room.

So here I am.

Meanwhile, somewhere, some delighted and confused Lao is holding a balloon and receiving a free haircut from the Korean One-Man NGO.