Communication in Laos

Whenever I go out in Laos, I talk to anyone who is willing to talk back (and some who aren’t, it’s true).  The bigger the population of falangs (white people), particularly those just passing through, the less people there are that seem willing to chat.

As an English teacher, students often ask how they can improve their spoken English – without a doubt, having the confidence to talk with a falang is a great start, and a great opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills.  But it takes a willing falang, an ultra confident Lao, and often a certain ability to get past the inevitable misunderstandings that occur.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but that of course involves too much shame, or too much effort for many people to even try.

Trying to get past misunderstandings is also the responsibility of both parties; it takes an effort, practice, and some interpersonal/cultural skills.  These are ones that come to my mind, as both a current English teacher and a Lao learner – but also keeping in mind that some contexts will change the dynamics, that hierarchies (age/status), respect and culture also play a part, and the purpose for the conversation is another potential form of misunderstanding – I just wanted to practice my (limited) English/Lao and here you are asking me questions???

  • Slow down!  Speak clearly!  Enunciate every word!  (Whether English OR Lao).
  • Use Gestures!  Sign language, point to objects, count on your fingers.
  • Be patient.  Be kind.  Smile a lot!
  • Ensure time to formulate answers.  Try counting slowly to five after asking a question – feels like a long time but often what is needed.
  • Remember that often Lao students only hear English from their Lao speaking teachers, including any mispronunciations.  As much as possible, speak English with a Lao accent!  Listen to the way they say the words themselves – that is what they will be more likely to understand.
  • Falangs also have accents!  Be conscious of your own accent!
  • Lao speakers often leave off the end of the words when speaking their own language as it is not always required for understanding.   However in English the ends of words are necessary for communication (plurals, tense, meaning).
  • Tone is another key area of difference – Lao is tonal, and the tones will change the meaning (quite dramatically) of the words spoken.  Whereas in English, our use of tones is more likely to change the meaning of the phrase or sentence – eg. whether we are asking a question, making a statement, being sarcastic or making a joke, etc.  And don’t think that the Lao speakers don’t also have their fun with tones and misunderstandings – just that often it is only one side of the conversation that ‘gets’ the joke.  My strategy is hey, just laugh along!
  • Many Lao learners of English will basically learn the same structured conversations that depend on both speakers giving the standard answer or asking the question in the same order and structure it was taught!
    • Greetings and Introductions  (Hello!  How are you?  I am fine thanks.  And you?)
    • Where are you from?
    • Occupations/workplaces
    • Family
    • Food/drinks/colours – like/don’t like …
    • Less experienced (ie most) students will know little else beyond these basics.
  • A Lao conversation is more likely to be along the lines of Sabaidee, are you good?  Where are you going?  Have you eaten? (in my limited understanding! – and I often get it wrong, or can’t understand anything after the 1st question…)

Most Useful words/phrases to learn in Lao:

Hello  –  Sabaidee

Thank you  –  Kawp jai

No worries!  –   Baw pen nyang

Remember too that there is no agreed upon phonetic spelling for English pronunciation for Lao words.  Primary complications are the tones that change the meaning of words, and sounds that have no exact English equivalent.  Phonetic spelling of sounds may well be pronounced differently depending on your first language/accent..

Most importantly, have a go!  Lao people are, on the whole, very very friendly and appreciate a ‘good heart’ that shows in your actions

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Declaration of human rights in Lao

Sample text

Transliteration
Manut thuk khôn kœ̄t māmīkẏat sâk sī, sitthi, sēlī phôp læ khwôm smœ̄ phôp thàw thẏam kân. Thuk thuk khôn mīhēt phôn læ khwômkhit khwôm hian swàn tôw khɔ̄̄ṅ phai khɔ̄ṅ mân, tǣ̀vồ manut thuk thuk khôn khwan paphʉt tàṁ kân khʉ̄ kân kâp pianốy nɔ̄́ṅ kân.

Translation

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/lao.htm

This life and that one.

This life and that one.

Two Months Left … Not ready to leave!

I left that one for a multitude of reasons:

  • Working as a sessional academic in a university for 15 or so years, and still be a lowly kicking ball is demoralising and ultimately soul-destroying.
  • Turning 50 was life-changing – time to live my dream.
  • Becoming a volunteer overseas for the second time in my life was that dream.
  • Living, working and learning in a new country/culture was also part of that dream.
  • My older son needed to find his own way in the world.
  • My younger daughter has a father who loves and looks after her, and a life in which she is happy, living, learning and thriving.

But overall, I didn’t feel wanted, needed or appreciated in that life, but in this one, I do.

I feel as if I’ve been on my way to turning 50 forever.  I went back to higher degree study in 1999 after finding out that my Graduate Diploma of TESOL did not entitle me to teach in Victoria.  I eventually completed my Masters and then my PhD whilst working as a sessional academic in 2011, aged 44.  At that time I had a 2 year old daughter and a 15 year old son.  My CV was pretty good; I have never stopped working, always being independent and thirsty for new knowledge and experiences.  I had been interviewed for a few academic jobs (tenured), but at that time the message was always … finish your PhD first.  I still remember how at that time I felt invigorated and energetic, hopeful and happy to become an ‘expert’ in whatever it was they considered necessary in order to give me an ongoing position.  And as anyone who has also been through the gratuitous process of applying and being knocked back, that energy and invigoration is likely to soon get sucked out of you.

I finished the PhD and found that my university faculty no longer had any work to offer me.  I seemed to have reached a dead end there – after 12 years or so of studying and working in the same faculty, I got to one of those low points between contracts and had to accept that I had been labelled something along the lines of ‘troublemaker’ and that I would just never be good enough.  Yes, I’m allowed to feel disappointed … (see below).

And the rules had clearly changed along the way, not just ‘finish your PhD’ but ‘finish your PhD and a mass of publications in highly ranked journals to show you are serious and publishable’, ensure your work ‘fits’ the current milieu, and that you are already ‘known’ as one who will succeed within that …

Where/when do you realise you have left your run too late?

I’m allowed to feel disappointed…

[…] I shared my experience with students, colleagues, and friends—anyone who asked me how I was doing got a real answer to that question. I made things very uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially my institution or anyone who couldn’t handle my public airing of feelings or the reality of academic labor practices.

(from:  https://theprecariatandtheprofessor.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/im-allowed-to-feel-disappointed/ 1Jul17)

Luckily, I was able to get sessional work at the university just a little lower on the ranking scale, and a little further from my house.  Some more insufferable job interviews for the work I was currently doing as a sessional, an underlying sense of humiliation and failure, and my 50th birthday looming closer.  Four years spent doing the work, walking the walk, talking the talk, improving my practice and knowledge and learning ways to ‘suck it up’ as required for a sessional who wants more work for the next semester.  My writing was often focused on my experiences working as a sessional and teaching/lecturing in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy, with a primarily critical sociological viewpoint.  At that time I wrote about the ‘problems’ of diversity and social justice, critical thinking/teaching/reflection, student evaluations, the precariousness of sessional work and mental health implications.  And lived it.

*     *     *

I began looking for overseas volunteer work that matched my credentials, preferably in South East Asia.  I found a job and had a phone interview in which I was able to draw from all of my experiences, the good the bad and the shocking, along with how I learnt and what I learnt from these, and how this experiential knowledge would be useful for working in a place where the challenges are not simply theoretical, but which impact on every aspect of your life, every day.

It was my first successful job interview in around 20 years.

And now I am in my last 2 months of my assignment.  Wanting to do more.  Wanting to come back and continue my work.  Applying for such positions and being told my years in academia, whilst useful for knowledge and theory, do not cut it against those who spent the last 20 years of their career working in ‘development’.  And at the age of 51, what do I do?  Where do I go next?  How do I find the equivalent to that appreciation and meaning I have in my life at this point?

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Thakhek – Not so fun Adventures…  Heed the warning signs!

On the road to Thakhek… Long Weekend, Sat 29 April – Mon 1 May.

As I’m buying my ticket (30,000 kip – $5 AUD), a man a grabs it and points me to a bus.  I ask if I have time for a cigarette – he ignores me and so I climb aboard, find a seat, and just as I was getting a smoke out of my bag, the bus takes off.  With two local people running after it and waving it down.  So it was a quick getaway.  As usual, bus stops to pick up people on the way – I used to be mystified by this but I now know there is a telephone number on the side of the bus and it is prearranged (for those who speak Lao).  One stop included a motorbike to be packed on the roof of the bus so while a couple of them heave it up, I get to have my smoke.

Now stopped at a bus station, around ten women board the bus as soon as it stops, hawking whole bbq chickens on a stick, various chicken innards on sticks, 5 eggs on a stick, luke warm soft drinks, water and green papaya.  Half hour later, still sitting here with engines and aircon rumbling along.

There’s a driver and 3 helpers – who tout potential customers along the way, and load luggage – bags of rice, fertiliser, live chickens, gardening equipment – anything you can think of.  One little tough nut looks about 10 years old – he collects the money and has no English so stands there with his receipt book demanding – well something, because I nor the other English speaker had any idea.  So I had to ‘explain’ – “Driver … ticket …” gesturing – finally seemed to get through and haven’t been bothered since.  (Unfortunately I later discovered I did have my ticket in my wallet – sometimes it’s just not worth trying to argue with a foreigner.)

A bit of a story of Laos that epitomizes my (self made) experiences here.

Got off bus in Thakhek at main bus station that I knew was only a few kilometres out of town.  For once, no harassing tuk tuk drivers so I could get my bearings and chill a little.  Walked over to where the tuk tuks were gathered – not a lot of action going on but saw a group of locals heading for a tuk tuk and thought I’d try my luck in joining them.  Well no, they waved me off and another driver pointed to a tuk tuk with 3 guys hanging around it, one lounging in a hammock hooked up in the back.  “Where you go?
“Town Centre”  Ok they say… Thou dai?  (how much – never get into a tuk tuk without setting your price first!)  He holds up a finger and says ‘one’.  I say, incredulously, one what?  One hundred thousand he said.  I couldn’t believe it – AUD $16!  I’d never heard such thing!  No Joke!  They came down to 50k, I said 10.  They said ‘kin keow’ – we can’t even get a meal for that!  I think my jaw hit the ground.  Ok, 50k …. 40k…. 30k ….Then the other guy who had waved me towards them said 20k and that was the clincher!  So they got nothing.

In the centre of Thakhek,  which is a lovely tree lined square leading to the river, I found my hotel, Inthira Hotel  Error no.1 –book at least your first night online – they’re better deals and you can see what else is available after you’ve settled in.  So I paid the asking price $35 (forgot I was thinking in AUD, it was USD).  And cut my losses with my visa card (+ the usual 3% fee).  Had read online that rooms were good but better to go ‘deluxe’ for the advantage of a balcony overlooking the centre of town – so right!  Ended up in a really delightful room, well decorated, lots of added clever touches, really comfortable bed, compact shower and wc, and perfect balcony.  What more could I want?

Checked the tour prices for a day at my intended destination – Kong Lor caves – around $ USD121- – that is not really in my league.  Decided later to rent a bike for 2 days – the Thakhek Loop (or Tha Khaek) is a more hefty 3-4 day trek – and stick to local sites.  Good deal, only 60,000 kip per day ($10AUD – WangWang‘s – just across the road from hotel/night market), booked in for the morning.  (It is not Mr Wang, it is named after his young son, WangWang.)  And took myself off for a walk with camera ready.

Bought a delightful passionfruit drink with ice (served in a plastic bag with a straw for less than $1AUD). And walked towards the river.  Saw a seat.  Sat down.  Woman approaches, ‘madam?’  I say I just want to sit (not buy anything) she says no.  So I walked on and didn’t dare sit on any of the other plastic seats by the riverside.  Found myself a convenient (but dirty) kerb in shade, sat down there, and thought shit, I don’t like this place.

This is where the self-made stuff comes in.  Annabelle, get over it, go for a walk and who knows what’s around the corner!  Shift the attitude cos that one’s gonna get you nowhere…

Walked further along the river, passed by a group of people having a happy drink and food at little stall.  One of them, Khamone, invited me to join them.  Hey, why not!  Glass of beer with ice placed before me, women seeming to be talking very aggressively, chastising the men, all in Lao, child crying at the sight of me, I wondered if I should just go on my way.  An hour or two later, numerous beers, I’d made myself a number of great new friends, been in the middle of a whole lot of suggestive banter, and been very happy that I still wear my mother’s wedding ring on my ring finger.  And that I know enough Lao to say b’dai – cannot, boh – no, leo – enough, luk saow, luk sai – son and daughter, and la gon – I’m going now!

The women were clearly unsure about me, and the men were being rather close and suggestive.  Khamone who invited me to join him, managed to communicate to me that he was a teacher, that he lived at the nearby hospital alone, and could I come with him tonight?  Well we ended up all being friends (including the women who did warm to me) and me going on my way – alone.  To the sounds of the women telling the men to pull their heads in.  That’s it in a nutshell, I couldn’t have these experiences in a bad frame of mind worrying about the consequences or feeling insecure about where I was and what I was doing (alone).  I still love Laos!

Ended up meeting a fascinating young German in the hotel, and spending the rest of the evening drinking beer with him on my balcony.  If you’re feeling open to meeting people, it will happen!

Sunday Errors in Thakhek

So many errors today.  Rented bike from Wang Wangs and set off to explore around Thakhek.  Spent the first few kms in first gear – thought I had an automatic and gears weren’t kicking in.  Semi auto, 4 gears.  Along route 12, looking for signs to turn off to explore caves, swimming holes, various sights I’d read about.  First stop was about 5 kms out of town  I’d been told, Buddha Cave, but realised that the speedometer/odometer did not actually work.

Found a turnoff that looked promising, ended up riding towards the spectacular mountains and stopping at a little shop to buy water, park my bide and take a walk.  Decided to tackle View Point sala (according to the sign) and started the climb – after some difficulty (the gate was locked) and the kind shopkeeper (an elderly woman chatting away in Lao, saying something about her top and my top and … ???) who showed me how to climb in under the gate.  OK.  So I climb.  And I climb.  And I sweat.  I rest, I climb some more.  And then some more.  It felt like hours.  I was exhausted.  I was climbing up rickety ladders, steps, piles of stones.  I stopped and looked up – no sign of any end to it, in fact it just looked like it was getting harder … and steeper.  One good call for the day, took a photo of the view and decided to go back down again. By this time my legs were so weak and shaking I could hardly stand, let alone climb.  Managed to get back down and headed up the road to Tham Xang – Elephant cave.  Nice place, good rest, no one around to collect entrance fees.  Good view from inside the cave and some interesting figures inside.

Headed off to Buddha Cave – fascinating back story, only recently discovered and become a tourist destination.  This was weird.  No photos inside, around ten locals sitting around with their various offerings for sale.  Kind man asked me to sit by his fan – yes I was still sweating bucket-loads.  A group of kids had been following me – we all sat together, had a laugh, practised some English, and sang nursery rhymes.  Great meal there too.

Back on the road, I decided I really wanted that swim.  Stopped at a place where locals and their kids were swimming and having lots of fun, but decided no, I’ll go on to the swimming hole which in my imagination was deliriously cool, clear water, beer lao, cool off at the end of the day.

Warning signs.

  1. It’s called Pha Falang – what could I expect?
  2. Was told earlier not to take bike in because of thieves – local or foreigners I asked? That led to a conversation about the gangs and the drugs amongst young people in Thakhek at this time.
  3. Saw the sign hanging upside down as I was passing – this is not a good indication!
  4. Went down the dirt road  across from the sign, big mud puddles on the track. Felt wary, went back to ask if it was ok.
  5. Stopped at shop and asked where Pha Falang is – he said oh, you pay, you pay pay pay … But yes, it’s that way if you want to swim.
  6. Stopped at a big muddied puddle that filled the whole road. Barbed wire on the side, fence on the other, no dry trek through- ANNABELLE YOU SHOULD HAVE STOPPED THERE AND THEN!
  7. There was a truck parked on the other side of the mud and a guy came and offered to ride my bike through. OK (No, no, you should never have done that!)  So he rode it through and I followed on foot.  Slippery mud – I fell, I slipped, slid, fell again.  Both shoes came off because of the suction of the mud.  What a mess.  They were all laughing at me and my kind host came and gave me a hand.
  8. On the other side was an open gate and another guy came over and said come, come, come in here. I looked at the others in the truck and said, can I swim here?  Yes yes you come here said the guy (with a strong whiff of alcohol about him).  No, no said the others, no swim here, you go that way.  Huh?  (instincts – get out of there now, go back the way you came!)
  9. Follow the track on, see some water, go on further – more puddles, more mud, sun starting to go down. Turned around – not an easy feat – to head back.  Stopped by some water to wash the mud off my feet.  Not looking good – I knew I had to cross back over that hogwash on the road back.
  10. Met a group of people walking on to swimming hole – they’d (sensibly) left their bikes on the other side and walked the rest of the way. Got back to puddle, parked bike, and sat on the side of the road to contemplate my options.  Watched a guy ride through, skidding and sliding, but persistent, got through.  Saw another couple of girls coming through then they got stuck but managed eventually – one had socks and thongs on her feet – oooh, muddy.  And they weren’t going to help me.  A truck came past with about 9 drunken guys in the back.  Nope, no help there.
  11. Realised shit, I’ve just got to do it, slowly slowly. Fell off 3 times. Smashed the bike mirror.  Got ‘helped’ (harassed?) by a mysterious local guy who appeared, stinking of beer (maybe the one from earlier, by that time I was beyond noticing).  He helped me get the bike out of the mud but he couldn’t start the bike.  I got it started and then, he climbs on behind me!  No no!  Managed to get him off and head towards the road, getting darker by the minute, no time to clean off the mud that I was caked with.
  12. Realised I’d completely lost my bearings. Which way back to Thakhek, which way to Vietnam?  Three tries later, I got directions from a disinterested shopkeeper and headed off, slowly.  It was dark.  Route 12 has many trucks going between Laos and Vietnam – big trucks, complete darkness, middle of nowhere.  I was nervous, putting along slowly, freaking out about trucks running me down so I stuck to the side of the road.  A bit too far.

Shit.  Bang, went off the edge of the road, tipped to my left and head hit the road (thank god for that helmet), skidded down an embankment.  Glass smashing, glasses come off. Lying down a ditch on the side of the road, in the dark, on my own.  Can’t work out what is mud, what is blood.  Switch off the bike.  I’m ok.  I am ok.  Sat there.  What to do?  Am I ok?  I feel blood in my mouth and various scrapes, but hard to determine in the dark, and through the caked-on mud.  Found my phone, and a torch in my bag.  Called the motorbike rental company (Wang Wangs, thank you so much!).  The woman who answered the phone got the message and said she’d try to find some help.  However, being down a ditch by the side of a road, in the dark, with a constant procession of trucks and other vehicles passing by, I knew no-one could see me and I had to get up and walk – at least to the side of the road.  Easier said than done.

I was covered in slimy mud, had to try to find my shoes first.  Inching my way on my bum through the gravel (I couldn’t stand up at that point) I finally managed to get my slimy mud covered shoes on and find a way to the roadside.  Bare feet or slimy feet?  Fell back down a few more times, but finally managed to get to the road.  I started trudging back towards the last roadside store I’d stopped at.  Stopped at a mileage stone – 10km from Thakhet and Wang Wang’s called me again.  Waited there and my life savers appeared!  Noy and his assistant managed to get the bike out, start it up, and she rode it back while I went in the car.  He dropped me at the hospital, and well, that’s another story!

Cleaned up now, back home.  Scratched, sore and sorry for myself.  And wiser for all of the foolish mistakes that I made along the way.

Lessons learned:

  • If there’s a big muddy puddle and no way around it, change your plans.
  • If things seem not to be going right – trust your instincts and avoid trouble.
  • Don’t ride at night!
  • You can fit a lot into a day – get somewhere safe when it’s getting dark.
  • Trust your instincts.

But most importantly, when I went back to WangWang’s today and saw a group of young tourists renting bikes, clearly with little to no experience, and wearing thongs, shorts, skimpy tops and no helmets I realise that at least I followed the basics – helmet and good footwear… plus the previous advice to self (next time, I promise you kids…)

The truth is, I was pretty much in shock at this stage.  I was alone, I was scared, in a foreign country with severely inadequate medical care.  But I had to keep going, be strong, tough, all of that stuff.  Nobody was going to come and help me unless I asked for it.  I knew I’d made some dumb decisions that day, and as I limped back to the hotel from the hospital, in the dark, later that night, I knew I had to just get through it.  On the way back to Savannakhet the next day in the bus, I called a friend and asked if he could please come and pick me up.  It was only at that moment that I felt overwhelmed by what had happened, and how much more serious it could have been.  You have to stay tough, but you can only keep doing that to a point… So I’ll start again in the morning.

New Year Reflections…

Midnight (or so…) 1st January 2017, Bangkok, Thailand

The Big ‘ol time clock has just clicked over to 2017.  And what a year it has been!

So many deaths – celebrities, innocent civilians around the world, refugees seeking asylum, so many needless deaths of those who happened to be born, or to be, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  I   am sorry for so much loss, for so many.  Somehow, I am still here and so grateful for all that I am, all that I have.

At the beginning of 2016, I worked as a casual academic in a Melbourne University.  I desperately tried –for more than 10 years, to apply for the ‘holy grail’ – to be a tenured – ongoing academic, doing what I loved to do, improving what I was doing, and to just have someone say – give her a go … she deserves it.  But it was never meant to be.  In my 40s I was energetic and passionate, I would have done anything to be what ‘they’ wanted me to be.  OK, I never did establish my ‘expertise’ in any particular genre or discipline, I just wanted to work at something I felt passionate about – I could have become whatever ‘they’ wanted me to be.

In March of 2016 I turned 50 years old and actually felt very happy to be where I was.  I was never sad about what I hadn’t done, I was proud of what I had achieved, and particularly proud to have two incredible children, to have achieved my PhD, to have a house to live in and food in my fridge.  I paid my bills, I had savings in the bank, I lived near the beach and I had opportunities to follow another of my dreams, to volunteer again – this time in South East Asia.

I finished my work at the end of 1st semester, and prepared to pursue my next dream – my escape?  My saving grace?  An adventure that I so missed?  A real challenge?  An opportunity to take a chance and to draw on my experience, my passion, my abilities, my desires, my spirit?  I had finally managed to succeed in a job application to work as a volunteer in Laos.  With thanks and eternal gratitude to Pol, my daughter’s father and guardian, and Rani, my son who would now have to look after himself (and my house), I was able to pack my life away in the shed and embark on a dream.

So at the beginning of a New Year, I am so happy about the last, and hold so many hopes for the next.  I just ask for more of the same – joy, adventure, challenge, gratitude, and good (enough) health to get me through.  I give thanks to my family and friends – old and new – and want only the best for them too.

Thank you.

Food adventures in Laos… because they always are an adventure!

Getting a ‘good’ (in the taste of the consumer of course) coffee is quite an adventure.  Whilst in Vientiane I regularly went on missions to get myself a ‘café Lao’ – now you would think that whilst in Lao, do as the Laotians do – well every time I asked for one it seemed they would look at me in confusion, usually say no, and no, we don’t know where you can get one.  Even places that proudly had their “coffee” signs displayed.

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The most authentico!

I thought I’d hit a jackpot when I asked this man, and he nodded, and proceeded to offer me a seat and make me a coffee in the ‘traditional’ way.  I would ask for ‘café dam, bo namtarn’ – black coffee – no sugar.  *I also found later that ‘no sugar’ meant nothing, I need to say bo sai namtarn – no take sugar – for it to make sense*  Now what he made me was certainly drinkable, but I was starting to wonder if my stomach would ever settle, and had to wonder about the ‘quality’ of the coffee he was serving.  But I did enjoy the ‘tea chaser’ a refresher served with every cup of coffee.

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Cafe Lao

My also newly arrived friends were looking for ‘real coffee’, like back home so we had some enjoyable but rather pricy cups of decent coffee at a few of the better establishments.  Once we arrived in Savannakhet we had to renew the search.  After a while I wasn’t craving it any more anyway, so I often stop by a little place near my work for a morning café Lao, and even reverted to agreeing to a dollop of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom – I actually needed a bit of a sugar fix at the start of the day.  So that is now my regular and I get to meet all sorts of interesting people – usually blokes who are sitting around, usually drinking tea, but always agree to me sitting with them at the table.

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I think that might be me! 

 

Our little ‘Avalon Café’ close by also now knows how we like our coffee (hot!) and treat us well, if with a bit of bemusement after we had a few of our Lao language lessons in there.

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Not my house – under the table at Teacher’s Day!

Of course coffee is but a small part of our culinary experiences.  I’ve also fully briefed (and will continue to do so) any reader of my predilection for local beers, in this case ‘Beer Lao’.  Taken to buying it by the crate load now that I have my own house and fridge to keep them in (12 bottles for 95,000 kip – $AUD15.70 – compared to the ‘normal’ price of 10,000 kip – $1.65 – per bottle from just about any random store).  Very happy with my Beer Lao – as most local people are getting to know.

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Making do for breakfast!

In Vientiane our hotel was very close to a fruit stall that served freshly cut ripe fruit.

Once in Savannakhet, we discovered that it was actually hard to find ripe (souk) fruit, especially cut up and ready to eat.  But the market is great and there are many choices of fresh produce available.  I tend to avoid the meat section and have never bought any – the closest I get is a tin of tuna.  Any dsc_0753meat dishes I save for going out – or the occasional nibble at a party or event.  But I do
love my fresh produce – oh the biggest juiciest
avocados and limes are heavenly!  Tomatoes and cucumbers are a hit, and a variety of greens and different types of fruits and vegetables.shopping5

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Yummy mango-steins!

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Often, dsc_0766my Lao work colleagues share their lunch with me.  They find my tastes pretty amusing, and my horror at some of their dishes.  I will try anything, but I won’t pretend to like it!   The fish was a winner, the frog and bamboo (image – thanks BouaKham) was not!  Sticky rice (the Lao specialty) rolled up with fingers and a bit of whatever is going is the regular offering.dsc_00131

 

 

 

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Trying to reciprocate the sharing with my vegemite sandwiches – not a hit with locals or foreigners alike!

 

 

 

 

 

 

white-house

Had a meal out with Bob (I’ve had many meals out with Bob…) at the ‘White House’ – so named because it is, well, White!  And clean white is pretty rare around here – an upmarket establishment sure but we have to try them all out!  Felt like a great place to drink Gin and Tonics on the terrace but it was lunch time so we made do with delicious icy cold fruit smoothies (no sugar added!).  We had a delectable salad with salmon, bacon, egg and greens, and a fabulous pizza – the best part being the buffalo milk mozzarella – delicious!

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Post-war Laos: The Politics of Culture, History and Identity

Post-war Laos : The Politics of Culture, Hist9788776940058ory and Identity

By (author) Vatthana Pholsena More than a quarter of century after the end of the war in 1975, the Lao leadership is still in search for a compelling nationalist narration. Its politics of culture and representation appear to be caught between the rhetoric of preservation and the desire for modernity. Meanwhile, originating from the periphery where ethnic minorities had hitherto been symbolically, politically and administratively confined, the participation of some of their members in the Indochina Wars (1945-75) exposed these individuals to socialization and politicization processes. This rigorously researched and cogently argued book is a fine-grained analysis of substantial ethnographic material, showing the politics of identity, the geographies of memory and the power of narratives of some members of ethnic minority groups who fought during the Vietnam War in the Lao People’s Liberation Army and/or were educated within the revolutionary administration. No study has ever been conducted on the latter’s views on the national(ist) project of the late socialist era. Their own perceptions of their membership of the nation have been overlooked. “Post-war Laos” is a set to be a landmark study, and an original contribution that refines established theories of nationalism, such as Anderson’s “imagined community”, by addressing a common weakness: namely, their tendency to deny agency to individuals, who in fact interpret their relationship to, and place within, the nation in a variety of ways that may change according to time and circumstance.

Link to original text from BookDepository.com

My Thoughts

As with many books based on PhD research, it can be rather heavy going, depending on how much historical, contextual and methodological content you are interested in.  So after a quick skim through, I ended up really enjoying the final chapter entitled 7: From Inclusion to Re-marginalization – the crux of the original contribution of the author’s study and experiences in Laos.  The chapter explores the “idea of fluidity and plurality of identities within the context of ideological, cultural and economic change in today’s Lao society” (p180) after previously demonstrating the workings of political mechanisms used by Lao authorities to attempt to “forge an orderly and bounded representation of the country’s culturally and linguistically diverse population with the support of state-controlled ethnographic research and the census” (p181).

Focussing on ‘identities’ and drawing from ideas of some of my favourite theorists (Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall), notions of essentialisms and ‘dislocation or de-centring of the subject’ (Hall, 1994, p.275), conflations of ethnicity, national identity and citizenship, and conflicting senses of ‘belonging’, the author’s stories are thought-provoking and demonstrative of the complexities that have evolved through multiple changes brought on by migration, colonialism, boundary and border shifting, nationalisms, politics…

My reading interest however, is to get a broad understanding of some of this complex history, and what is meant by the ‘diversity’ within the Lao population and its ordained’ethnic minorities‘.  My own home of Melbourne, Australia, has long prided itself on its “multiculturally diverse population” but it is a version of multiculturalism that is generally left unquestioned.  I ask my students how they understand diversity in terms of culture and all too often it comes down to racial characteristics signifying ‘difference‘, a conflation between culture and ethnicity (and religious beliefs) and language (English) deficits of those designated ‘other’.   I recognise my own views come from just such a place – and that my own role in, and perspective on ‘diversity’ was only really informed when I went elsewhere and was designated ‘other’, and began to recognise the many ‘differences’ that exist between members of every designated ‘group’.

Truth is, I went to Laos and saw many Lao people.  I saw men/women, rich/poor, monks/laypeople, and some tourist outsiders.  I went from Cambodia, through Vietnam, Laos, Burma.  But ethnic or cultural diversity?  I have no idea!  Hence, a big learning curve for me.