Thursday, July 5, 2012

Father's Day Time Travel

Time travel exists and I’ve done it.  It’s hell on children, and I’m not just talking their sense of time, their days and nights mixed up—I’m talking their fundamental orientation to the world, the laws of existence getting thoroughly frapped, so that when they come out the other side they realize how tenuous is their world, how arbitrary and flexible. 

Our last hours in Bangkok were difficult in that tourist sort of way.  We’d come out of the pedestrian Vientiane to the commuter Bangkok which was hard enough, but we’d also climbed classes to the degree that food rules were changed without anyone telling us: at the seafood restaurant our Bangkok hosts took us to, we ate po, almost pure seafood—mussels, and small clams in the raw, boiled tiger prawns in spicy tam yam, steamed tiger prawns, grilled tiger prawns, and only crab fried rice when we queried, “Is there rice coming?” Then, next day we placed ourselves in a compact car in traffic, doubly claustrophobic, in order to reach the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  We walked the ornate compound for hours under the duress of humidity and looming diarrhea as we waited for the pure seafood diet to run its course, filing in shoeless and cameraless to see the Emerald Buddha high up on the opulent wall.  “They took it from Laos long time ago,” my mother-in-law whispers.  “Why they not give it back?  That why Thailand have problem…”  Then, to eat, we put ourselves back in traffic to get to the MBK shopping center, where just finding a spot in the parking garage took an hour and heightened claustrophobia to nigh unbearable.   MBK is eight floors of madness, and on floor six is the ultimate food court, busy and tight and brightly lit like the aura of a migraine, with every sort of Asian food laid out in piles.

After this most modern of oriental bazaars, we showered and lounged at a private residence in preparation for our flight, trying to anticipate the portal that we would be entering, to lessen the disjointedness.  But driving out to Suvarnabhumi Airport under mammoth billboards whose sheer size was a kind of violence to the senses completely counteracted our attempts at domesticizing the experience.

We left Bangkok at 11:30 p.m., Saturday, June 16, and landed at Narita, Japan, at 7:25 local time, Sunday June 17, losing only two hours to actual time travel, several more to the red eye itself.  It had been up to me to figure out what to do with our time in Tokyo, and so I had plotted the train route and sites:  the Meiji Shrine and Harajuku district, where trendy locals dressed up in character dress on Sundays, whatever that meant.  As I lugged a sleepy child through the airport to the train station, one of them spotted an advertisement: this was Father’s Day.  Their gift to me, I told them, was dragging along with me on a quick excursion to Tokyo. 

We carried only four minor pieces of luggage:  a half-full wheeled carry on, a computer bag, a small duffel bag that mae Keo never parted with the whole trip, and her purse.  We felt we were traveling light and so didn’t even look into stowing a few more of these pieces at the airport but went directly to the train station to buy a ticket that would take us to Harajuku. 
Everyone slept on the train, the bitter kind of deprived sleep that has you drooling massively the one minute and determined to stay awake the next, suddenly nodding again, trying to lay your head comfortably on the hard window behind you, deeply desirous of abandoning yourself once and for all to sprawled-out sleep but unable entirely to do it.  In this way we sped past neatly planted rice paddies, small houses efficiently tucked together along clean lanes, and, increasingly as we approached Tokyo proper, gray concrete high rises with blocked balconies, all softened by fog that was tending toward rain.  We had no umbrellas among us.

We tumbled out of the Harajuku station in disarray, gathered our wits as we let the locals who knew where they were going mass up the sheltered stairs ahead of us, and then followed.  The Meiji shrine was behind the station, set back in a forested park, the asphalt path overhung by a tremendous canopy of trees that were especially verdant in the wet morning.  It would have been a nice walk, minus the jet lag, minus the few implements we lugged—the computer strap grinding its way into my neck, the wheeled carry on unresponsive to the asphalt path—minus the fact that the minimalism of the arch marking the entrance to the shrine seemed needlessly constrained considering the gaudy ornateness of the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
About halfway to our destination, mae Keo, not clear as to where we were going, and, at that point, not really interested, halted with the two carry-ons in semi-protest.

Still, the majority of our party made it to the shrine, a compound of huge timbers and clean lines and lifted corners, a seeming temple to a wood god grown up in the mist of the forest.  But we were spent, too, had little time for really exploring or reading or getting into the mood.  In one corner we saw supplicants give their offerings—heard them rather:  a small clap, tossed coins that plunked hard on the wood altar, a small bow, and two more small claps, all very neat and tidy, the Japanese doing it without regard for lookers-on, the tourists turning with a self-satisfied smugness.  We passed on. 

The banzai that resided along the wall of the compound drew our attention, partly because they were being declaimed in the King’s English by some version of a westerner.  He loudly expounded how the life and death elements wound around a two-hundred-and-fifty year-old tree in a way that any halfwit could have seen; still, for his authority and language, the tourist crowd loved him.  We’d finally relinquished control of the camera to our fifth grade daughter, and it was the banzai that most fascinated her, as if she were stealing an image of each of them, taking the smallest fraction of their extended lives for study later.

It was Sommer, too, whom we sent after pictures of what I assume was a traditional wedding procession, the silky kimono, the red crimped umbrella, the bride’s white hood labeling this as significant enough to be considered traditional, though I have no standards by which to measure. 

By the time we stumbled out of this Tokyo central park it was time for lunch, especially considering that breakfast had consisted of uneaten muffins harvested from the plane.  Back at Harajuku station we crossed the street and followed the wide avenue down toward a shopping district, sidewalks swelling from busy to tight with people.  We were looking for a sushi place but found only an Italian buffet, coffee shops, and basement restaurants with made-to-order menus.  Also, halfway down the hill with tired children and their grandmother, we decided we didn’t want to go much farther for what appeared to be an Eden Prairie-esque shopping experience.  We ended up settling for McDonalds, decided McDonalds-Tokyo was a cultural enough experience. 

And it was.  From efficiency—a bereted hostess guided us to the fastest ordering line and workers scrambled behind the counter to fill orders and impress their manager, whose striped shirt, visor, and headset established a clear hierarchy—to local culture offerings—okay, the teriyaki pork burger was not as impressive as beer in Germany, but it still was something—this was McDonalds redone in Japanese principles and therefore an interesting experience. 

Still, after being sated by hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, we decided we’d had enough of Tokyo and began the hour-and-a-half train ride back to the airport.  Looking out the train window, I saw down the streets into the heart of the Harajuku area, a strip of color pulsing with life.  We had missed our trendy character dressers by a block.

After choosing—poorly—an airport sushi restaurant to fill our sushi lust, we boarded our 6:30 flight for our second consecutive red-eye.  This is not the way to avoid the complications of time travel.

We landed at 4:30 p.m., Sunday, July 17, an hour and a half earlier than we had left.  This would be almost a thirty-six-hour Father’s Day.

The barfing was telling.  Coming out of the time warp in Chicago was like the throw-up scene in Stand By Me.  Sommer started it, hurling her airplane pizza on her second straight trans-Pacific flight, then Aidan joined her.  Sy at least made it to the bathroom in customs before also tossing her stomach contents. 
Perhaps Micah should have also barfed.

We came home to a warm welcome.  In addition to a friend picking us up, my mom and dad and sister and brother-in-law were there to surprise us at the airport.  At home, we were greeted by sidewalk chalk, tag board poster, and paper drawings.  Still, by the time we went to bed at 1:30 a.m., the clock finally running out on a long Father’s day, our house seemed cavernous and isolated.  We put our boys to bed in their room, which, from our room, is down the stairs, through the family room, and back down the hall, basically directly under our room but seemingly miles away.  Five minutes after we put them to bed, they both showed up in our room.
“I don’t feel right,” Micah said.  I knew what he meant.  Their roomed seemed a trek, eons away, unnecessarily far.  We have a king bed; I didn’t think twice about having them sleep with us.  It was the right thing to do. 

Of all of our kids, Micah is the most independent.  Micah was the easiest to potty train, the quickest to take to a toddler bed in an admittedly dark basement bedroom.  Micah likes his privacy.  He sleeps in a bunk bed with his brother and would prefer to sleep alone in his own room, to have his own space.  On our trip, though, we often found ourselves in hotel rooms with two single beds.  After shipping Sommer off to Grandma or Auntie’s room, we’d pack the two boys in one single bed.  The only time Micah didn’t complain about sleeping with someone was the night his mother slept with him, when his body was feverish and his mind uneasy. 
Perhaps the fear of death that we instilled in him that night also had something to do with his adjustment.

On the second night, with his brother Aidan in the midst of a sleep that started at 6:00 p.m. and would last until 2:00 a.m. when he would awaken to find himself alone and so seek out his brother, Micah also “ feel right” and asked to sleep with us.  When Aidan did join us and the boys promptly began whispering, I banished them to the floor upstairs, on a sleeping bag, to insure that their mother could get enough sleep for work the next morning.  Micah laid awake for hours, agonizing, feeling frightened and panicky, dying to come to our bedroom door to get comfort, to crawl in beside us.
Agonizing.  The next morning when I found this out, I felt terrible.  I want nothing more, I decided, than to be able to comfort my children in the night. 

Being in Laos worked a revolution in my understanding of family.  It should not necessarily have taken this.  An iron law in our household is that children sleep in their own beds.  We set this law long ago and have abided by it tremendously well over the years.  Just before our trip, Sommer had a nightmare and came to our room, laid by us for a few minutes before getting uncomfortable and returning to her room.  This was perhaps one of a handful of times that this has happened in her entire life, something I now regret: at 11, the times my daughter will want to cuddle with her parents at night are limited; this also signals to me that I’m old enough to regret things I’ve missed in their childhoods.
As I said, it should not necessarily have taken a trip to Laos because I had my mother-in-law and her crazy way of parenting as a different model.  “Why you not let them sleep with you?” Keo had asked Sy when each of the kids were babies, indignant that we were so cold as to place them in a crib in a room down the hall.  We would look at each other knowingly, not exactly rolling our eyes about overly protective Lao parenting practices, but thinking that Keo as a single Lao mother could afford her children luxuries that we couldn’t as an American couple, an analogy, that, in hindsight makes absolutely no sense.

Even in American culture, there is a different model.  Friends of ours just had their first baby.  At 37, we didn’t know if this was ever coming, if there wasn’t some internal barrier preventing them from taking the leap into parenthood.  In January, though, a beautiful baby girl joined their family.  And by joined I mean joined—they mean joined: they are practicing attachment parenting, which means they don’t let their daughter “cry it out.”  Rather, they trust that when she cries, it means something, that there’s some need that she has of them—to be fed, to be cleaned, to feel their presence—and they accept that that’s what they’re there for.  Radical. 
A certain “logic,” of course, tells me of the downsides of this practice: the kid’s bound to call the shots, the kid will end up being needlessly attached in some way, the kid will be, in short, a brat.  I recognize this logic; it’s a certain pragmatism that comes right out of my grandparents’ parenting style which also believed that children were primarily for labor and use value.  It’s the logic that led my dad to a deep and abiding hatred of his own father.  Given, I’m parenting my kids in a very different way than this logic, yet it’s back there still, strong and full of promises regarding what its hard-nosed pragmatism can do.

But after Laos, I have a whole other culture as exemplar, a whole other way of living in family and a brief experience of living that way.  The close proximity we lived in—all laid out on mats in the same room, four people in two single beds, five people in a king and a single—brought all our orbits into that much closer proximity.  The tight family structure of the Meksavanh family, with several planetary systems all intersecting around mae Sang’s sun made for an impressive constellation; the family we saw seated around a circular table at night, everyone from three generations with a place, was wonderfully symbolic.
Which is to say, upon returning home to our big American house, it did feel like I was banishing two young sons to a basement dungeon to teach them some silly lesson about self-reliance, about the value of detached isolationism, about the importance of their own individual sphere and their own individual stuff.  That’s what the American house sets up best of all:  ownership and consumerism.

Still, we moved Micah back to the status quo, back to the way things were little by little.  Night three the boys slept on the floor upstairs.  Again in almost shaking anxiety, he asked me to lie with him and I did, until he was asleep, then again when he scared out of sleep an hour later and came to our room shaky and in tears.  This continued for three nights before we moved them to their bedroom where it continued in the single bunks for several nights, me prepared by the single-bed sleeping in Laos for just such an arrangement.  Now they sleep with the door open and hall light on, going to sleep while we watch TV. 
So we are almost back to the status quo—a status quo I now realize doesn’t exist, a status quo that now seems predicated on some terribly questionable principles, a status quo that is built into my large American house which is at least too large by half. 

I’m almost sure that Micah, our most sensitive child, intuited something of this status quo somewhere along the way of our trip.  Maybe it was when we all got wrapped up in the fear of the darkness in a foreign place, when the adults in his life blinked back tears as he lay wracked with fever and he determined to be brave for us—maybe death became a reality for him then in a way that changed everything.  Maybe it was the closer proximity of the trip—the reality that a different model, a tighter, closer model could work and could feel so much more secure, so much more whole rather than fragmented, the unnecessary bitterness of independence so much more unpleasant than the sweetness of family.  Maybe it was the time travel, the skipping across cultures that took place over the last day of the trip that made every culture seem made up and playing by its own rules, made everything including the silly vanity of an American house seem like an unnecessary barrier to the immediacy of family.
Whatever the case, the pH balance of our family is changed because of Laos, because of time travel. While I’m certainly in a position during the summer to admire such a change without considering the rigors of keeping a schedule, and while my own position in life at age 36 with my children moving out of being little kids also affects things, our experience of “time travel” has made some cultural constructions appear to be exactly that—constructions.  This sense of things, then, drives me back to wondering if there’s something else that’s “essential,” to wondering if family is what’s essential, something the very changes my children go through daily also throws into question.  So now I’m back at religious injunctions about family, the command regarding family which doesn’t seem on the surface of it to be about attachment theory:  “Honor your father and mother.” 

Still, I’m glad to be at some bedrock, something that someone on another plane has said throughout time about family, something that can’t be so easily shifted as the hour of the day, the build of a house, the illusions of a culture.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


We planned to train to “camp,” or, more precisely, to train to the city of Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, known more simply as Ubon, site of a Lao refugee camp in the 1970s and 80s.  The train tracks end at Ubon anyway, we figured, and that would give us a night to check out “camp” before we moved on to Mukdahan, the first receiving community in Thailand on this side Mekong.  We would, in effect, trace the path of escape backward into Laos.  At the end of the tracks of Ubon, we would take a taxi to camp, driving once again into the landscape of memory.

For Sy, memory grows more strongly impressionistic at camp.  These are childhood memories, that no man’s land at the dawn of consciousness when things come back to you almost completely in images without interpretation.  Sy’s memories from camp are strong enough that they have become foundational in her story, have moved their way into our family story, become a baseline for our sense of what’s appropriate in the world, and, at times, a way to threaten our children with the darker implications of their actions.  As “eat-your-food-there-are-starving-people-in-Africa” is to other families, so camp memories are to our family.
They are not, I don’t think, your average memories.

One of the memories has to do with toileting.  Or rather toileting without a toilet.  It seems that when you had to do your business in the Ubon camp, you walked out to an unoccupied section of the camp, found a place near a tree or behind a bush and squatted down.  But the part that’s made it into Nonginthirath family legend is what you did next:  “You find a stick or some leaves to wipe your butt with.” 

Ah, yes, and how those sticks have made their way into the family narrative:  as comic relief—“Oh, well, it’s a step up from wiping your butt with sticks”; as inspiration in difficult times—“If I could wipe my but with sticks, I can sure as heck do this”; and, my personal favorite, as a measure of luxury over against need—“Do you think I cared about X when I was wiping my butt with sticks?”
Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that the sticks show up in conversation very often and never in public.  But if you’re around long enough, they do loom in the background—in somewhat the same way as the outhouse and Sears catalog loom in the stories of an older generation: as a reminder of blessing in the present.

A second memory is even more pertinent because more serious, less comic-sounding.  It has to do with sustenance itself, with the marginal existence of marginal people.  Camp was, of course, a place of rations.  Keo got a “job” dispensing powdered milk rations with relief workers Dave and Janet.  Sy remember standing in line daily “for those stupid powdered milk rations”; there were also, it seems, rations on rice and meat.  As is always the case in dire times, there was more of the staple than there was of the protein.  Meat was most in demand.  Because of its scarcity, it was the most valued, the most stretched, the most savored.
“You would get this little bit of meat,” Sy remembers, “and you would make that meat last, you’d eat just a little bit with your rice because that was all you got.  You’d stretch it and stretch it.”  

It’s this memory that stands at the back of the lesson about eating po—eating too large a ratio of meat to rice in a way that’s wasteful, over-indulgent, profligate.  With the rise of the food movement reminding us that meat is luxury, with the rise of health consciousness reminding us that portion control is key to our health, this camp lesson isn’t going away any time soon, nor should it.
There are other memories, darker and more ethereal, that also remain from camp.  Playing on some dirt mounds at the edge of camp, Sy thought she heard a cat meow; “When I looked I saw the shadow of person but there was nobody there,” she tells me.  “It was phi,” ghosts, entities prevalent in the Lao world.  Sprinting to get away, she fell and gouged her knee; the scar remains.

So camp for Sy is really a no-man’s land of memory, a stripped down landscape where physical and spiritual realities remain; where the questions, “How shall we survive?” and “Who is influencing our destiny for good or ill?” are featured as the foundational questions we all have to face as human beings on planet earth. 
The real Ubon camp is quite literally a no-man’s land.  As I said, we hoped to visit the site of the camp, and so in preparation for our trip, I Googled it, assuming it would be as easy as that—that Google would dial up pictures, directions, a tourist information center. 

However, little remains of the Ubon camp.  After digging around for a while, I did get directions to where the former camp would have been located, posted on a website about travel in Thailand.  Behind the high school and amongst new buildings such as a cancer hospital and trade schools, one can apparently still find the old concrete roads of the place that locals still refer to as soon Lao—Lao center.
Of course, it’s a blessing that the camp no longer exists.  I’ve heard another Lao refugee from Worthington express consternation that the same camp she had been in was being used a generation later for Indochina’s latest hemorrhaging people group: the Karen of Myanmar.  Still, it was a bit disappointing, I think, for Sy to hear that so little remained of a place that has so fundamentally shaped her orientation in the world.

We didn’t end up stopping at what’s left of the camp.  Other realities constrained us, like traveling with children.  That’s probably for the better.  The needs of the immediate present and imminent future shift our agendas from looking back to looking ahead, but the camp at Ubon served its purpose and continues to cast its shadow into our lives.  In the way it teaches us about the forces that conspire for and against life itself.  In the way in inhabits our story. 

Driving Into the Landscape of Memory

It’s kind of odd, driving into the landscape of memory with another person.  Not the Freudian, nightmarish world of the subconscious, but an actual landscape that their subconscious remembers, slides back into the skin of. 
It went like this.  We had driven past the Savannakhet hospital, site of my parental paranoia just a few days earlier, so that I could snap a picture or two.  Then we kept going that direction, driving into the south part of the city, on a road we hadn't really been on before, full of the shop front houses that fill the rest of the city—all of which are similar yet unique from all the others.  No chains here, no repeats—except for the ubiquitous Beerlao signs, the country's one monopoly.   (Ironically, though, it's a sure sign of authentic Lao food; there are no Beerlao signs above the European cafes on tourist row in Vientiane).
We hung a left after a while, thinking it had to take us back to the part of the city we knew, but it put us on a road we didn't know and we came to a sign for another town, a sort of suburb really, or rather a small town immediately butted up to the big small town that is Savannakhet.  It was on this road that we saw a sign for the airport. 
"The airport," said Pong, a far off look in his eyes—just the way it would be in the movies were he an amnesiac waking up.  "We used to live next to the airport.  I remember playing there."  Not seeing anything else familiar, we turned around to explore the only landscape we knew, the landscape of Pong's memory.

The airport is small.  One long reception building, no extended “Gate X” wings, only a couple of runways.  No doubt one deplanes by “jet bridge,” roll out steps that are less classy and more tropical than gate exits.  Still, the road has been cleared to have a somewhat stately approach, the shops and houses pushed back far enough to feel as if this is the approach to an important place, the gateway to something.  Oh, and the “Savan Vegas” billboard, the most modern one I’ve seen in Laos, stands out obviously in bright purples and pinks just as you reach the wide turn around near the airport proper.  Maybe this is Freudian after all.

“I remember seeing a plane for the first time.  I thought it disappeared when it took off because I couldn’t see it anymore,” he says.
But there are no houses here, and it seems the memory wavers before fading.  “But there are no houses here,” Pong almost queries.
“Maybe it was on a different side,” I offer.
Later, Pong will ask his mom, “Did we live close to the airport?  I remember playing by the airport.”
And she will say, “Not too close,” ensuring that the memory will stay in that country of memories, without the concrete footings of place. 


A custard apple is perhaps the most e le (pronounced "ay lay") of fruits.  E le means soft, wilted, shlup—that mushy texture that means something has lost its form, usually because it’s been overcooked.  A custard apple, on the other hand, is e le by its very nature.  When you bite into it, the various chambers around its soft heart, give up the very watermelon-like seed that they each hold, as well as a sweet, nectary sort of sauce, not at all un-custard-like. 

Custard Apple: Before
It was custard apple season on our trip.  We were sitting on the cement outside at mae Sang’s house but underneath the overhang—the car park.  Someone, it might have been her mom, had given her a custard apple, and she had bit into and received that caramelly sweet nectar, and immediately paused: the taste needed to give birth to words.
“I remember this,” she said.  “I remember eating this.”
Custard Apple: During
 Custard apples, by their very natures, don’t ship.  They’re too soft; too bruisable; too transient.  They wouldn’t last in shipping, they’d come out the other side as runny mucus, no matter how quickly you cooled them, boxed them, shipped them.  Laos is the only place Sy had ever eaten a custard apple.

Custard Apple: After
“I seriously remember this taste,” she said.
No doubt the brain centers itself around certain foci, certain scars and seams, the trauma of violence, the familiarity of sweetness.  A veteran’s flinch at any bomb-like sound is the scar; the rush of endorphins on the back side of fresh fruit, of something purely sweet like a custard apple is the seam, the path to familiarity.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

At Work in the Field of Bombs

Just as we’re leaving Laos, my wife is getting more confident with her broken Lao. I can tell because she’s starting to tell her story in brief to Lao people that we meet—that she left thirty-four years ago, has lived in America all this time, and now has returned with her family for a visit. Part of the change may be being in Vientiane, a more cosmopolitan place. More people speak bits of English; many tourists from all over frequent the restaurants along the river; our tuk tuk driver today had a sister in Texas. In Savannakhet, people often asked her, “Why don’t you speak Lao?” a question that implied a certain betrayal of culture, of identity. How do you answer, “Why don’t you speak Lao?” when you don’t speak Lao well enough to explain?

Tonight, she was thrilled to have a shop owner tell her she had a Savannakhet accent.

“I have an English accent,” she insisted.

“But still, you also have a Savannakhet accent too—I’m from Savan also,” he insisted.

She told me this later; it was significant.

But even as she tells her story and is more comfortable telling her story, the story identifies her as needing to explain, as American. “I left thirty-four years ago,” she tells a cook along the street from whom we bought grilled snails two nights earlier. The woman herself is probably early forties; odds are she’s never left Vientiane in order to return to it. Odds are she never will.

“How old is your daughter?” she asks.

Sip it bi,” my wife answers, eleven years.

“Oh, I have a daughter who’s eleven, too,” she says.

We’re staying in a hotel that’s on a terribly busy road and quite distant from the city center. This after we stayed one night in one of the cheaper western hotels downtown. At fifty bucks a night, that hotel didn’t cut it for my mother-in-law—too spendy—and she set out to find us another one. This one is nice if more basic: bad location, no breakfast, shaky TV, but $18.75 a night. The significance of this comes in passing from Monique, a relative who’s a college student and one of our wonderfully willing chauffeurs on this leg of the trip. When the cost of the earlier hotel came up, Monique mentioned, “Fifty dollars a night! You know, some people make fifty dollars in a month.”

And we wonder: who? Do her parents, who live simply though her father is a teacher and her mother a nurse? Do the shop owners of a beauty parlor and paint-your-own-piggybank shop, who tell my wife she has a Savan accent? Does the cook along the street, who tells us she stays open until 11:00 or 12:00 at night?

With the reality of these lives in the background, it becomes hard to travel in the developing world, hard not to tip at every turn, hard not give to beggars—to every beggar—and to every relative and college student. Monique’s tuition for a semester of school to become a computer programmer? $500.

And then, today, we went to COPE. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and it’s basically the national rehabilitation center of Laos. It’s an organization that searches out people with disabilities in the near and far corners of Laos and gives them rehab, fits them for prosthetics, or equips them with culture-appropriate wheelchairs. As an organization, however, COPE took its life breath from UXO: unexploded ordnance, bombs that were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war—especially the seeds of death called cluster bombs that are about the size and shape of a baseball, the perfect size to want to reach out and grab—that didn’t go off. Thousands of people have been injured and continue to be injured by finding these bombs unintentionally or on purpose.

COPE’s story is best told by the people whom it has affected, by the victims of UXO. Among assorted documentaries, we watched the COPE film itself, which introduces its work through a young man, perhaps 22, with the largest, softest brown eyes you’d ever want to see and a five-hair beard sprouting from under his chin.

This young man was out planting rice, he tells us. He stuck a spade in the ground and woke up being carried by his friend; he looked down at his legs and saw all blood; he passed out again. When he woke up once more, his leg was gone. During his recovery, his father heard about COPE who later fitted him with a prosthesis. The young man, with a soft smile beaming from those brown eyes, says, “Now I can flirt with girls again,” and we don’t doubt it. (You can watch the film here:

On the wall, another story is posted. Some kids playing along a riverbank. One of them finds a piece of metal, picks it up and says, “What’s this?” Others gather around; when one says it’s a bomb, they start to run; it drops and goes off; three kids die, ages 14 and 15, others are injured. The year was 2008. Too close, too recent.

But there are other stories here, too, stories of creativity and adaptation. One exhibit is made up of homemade prosthesis.  Another wall is full of pictures of how people have used old bombs. From setting them up as house ornaments to converting them to cooking pots or even boats, there’s no end of creativity when it comes to beating “swords into ploughshares” and “spears into pruning hooks.”

But people also find these bombs—or “bombies,” as the clusters are called—on purpose. For rural villagers especially, the scrap metal trade provides a bit of cash—approximately 4,000 LAK or $0.50 a kilo, if memory serves me correctly. Using cheap metal detectors, people go out looking for scrap metal in the form of old UXO—old bombs, and there’s plenty of them.

There’s just so many bombs. Someone has gotten a hold of the US map of bombing raids carried out in Laos, and they’ve colored it appropriately in red and white. The southeastern edge of the country is bleeding, it seems, the result of bombing raids that, according to someone’s calculation, were the equivalent of a planeload of bombs being dropped every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years (

So, especially in rural areas where income is scarce, people go looking for UXO to sell. The results, of course, are horrific. At COPE you can watch a video of parents who lost their son Hamm; they tell you his story. Hamm and some friends followed some older men, real, hardened scrap metal hunters. The older men set what they found aside; the boys came along and found two “bombies” as they call them; one boy tapped them together and they exploded, shredding the son’s torso.

But Hamm didn’t die instantly, the parents tell us. They took him to one hospital—no oxygen or blood for transfusions. They took him to another hospital—no oxygen or blood for transfusions. They decided not to try a third but to have him die at home. Which he did. He was nine years old. It was the first time he had looked for scrap. The interviewers assure the parents they did the right thing, to have Hamm die at home.

The mother ends the video in tears.

As an undergrad, I read Scott Sanders “At Play in the Paradise of Bombs,” an essay that reconstructs one of the landscapes of Sanders’ youth, a fenced off military arsenal that became Sanders stomping grounds, where he found the most haunting sort of no-man’s land between nature and the military-industrial complex. The atmosphere there, in the mid-fifties, is pregnant with war. The mating of Cold War enemies gives birth to rumors, tests, and explosions that seem ready to break over Sanders’ life. It’s a parable for the Twentieth Century. Sanders even comments at one point that the bombs his dad’s company manufactures are being swallowed by Asia—he means Korea but in a couple of decades, that consumer—that forced consumer—will shift to Laos. Same story, second—hundredth—verse. The story that COPE tells, it seems to me, is the flipside of Sanders’ essay, what might be called “At Work in the Field of Bombs.”

The fields of Laos, of course, were sown “secretly,” since JFK and other leaders went on record declaring that they would respect the neutrality of Laos (Kennedy actually pronounces it “Lay-oss.” Apparently, if you can’t pronounce it, you don’t have to respect it).

Then again, the Vietnamese equally disrespected it. The Ho Chi Minh trail was a key supply route early on in the war, and it clearly ran through Laos. Apparently, like boys on the playground, when one broke the rules, the other “wasn’t gonna follow them too.”

From the internet, I have a sense that the westerners who come to COPE are of a certain type. Visiting COPE, I realize I’m also one of those types—westerners who come to touch a piece of the East, to feel guilt or righteous anger, to see the world in a different way. COPE will give you all of those sensations at once.

Looking at the bombing map, on our trip we’ve been far from the real “field of bombs.” It’s not that Laos is hiding this legacy. Among Savannakhet province tourist brochures, one directs tourists to the Ho Chi Minh trail, a supply route that was really a host of village paths and mountain passes known only to villagers and therefore nearly impregnable. Think the mountains of Afghanistan, forty years ago. It was this local knowledge highway that the US tried to bomb into oblivion from above, leaving fields of bombs up and down the eastern edge of Laos and especially in Savannakhet province, where, according to the brochures, “the spirit of the Ho Chi Minh trail” still exists in many places. I wonder who the visitors are—Vietnamese? Americans? Lao patriots?

But no, in reality both Vientiane and Savannakhet were far removed from the war. The closest we got to the “field of bombs” was Dong Hen, on the road to Vietnam, even though Dong Hen isn’t half way there. Dong Hen burned, according to the villagers, because of the bombs. Dong Hen is part of the red wounds on the bombing map.

But further east in Savannakhet province, perhaps two hours from where we were, is really “the field of bombs,” and there are children at play there, and young men—thinking of pretty girls—at work.

So as we tour Vientiane in the final days of our trip, as my wife tells her story, I have the sense that there’s solidarity there with the Lao who hear her story—and there’s not. Sometimes, when you leave a place, you can’t come back and belong. And my wife doesn’t pretend to, wouldn’t want to; that’s not how this works.

And sometimes, if you don’t leave a place, you can never leave. You’ve got to stay, and you’ve got to live with that place, play along those riverbanks, plow those fields. You reap what’s been sown, whether you planted it or not. And looking at Laos, that should give us pause.

But again, I’m missing a larger point, a point that being at COPE distorts for my western mind, turning my thoughts to western-induced carnage. COPE doesn’t have to be about the past; it can be about the future. Part of COPE’s mission is to prepare rehab therapists for work throughout Laos. The final images of the film include shots of therapists in training, mostly young women being equipped for work with all types of injuries—not just UXO casualties.

Personally, this visit to COPE also brings our visit to Laos full circle. My wife is a physical therapist. Sitting around Laos the past couple of weeks, it’s impossible not to play the game, “had you not come to the US, where would you be now?” It’s nice to console ourselves that, even though only a remote possibility, here too she could have been a young professional, a therapist helping others to strengthen body and mind for work in the world. This is the hope that COPE gives to its patients and to us.

Hope is also the larger story of the people of Laos. On the way past the roadside cook last night, her eleven-year-old daughter is with her at the stand. We pause briefly, and I point the girl out to Sommer, a solid girl, thicker if shorter than Sommer. We have the briefest of exchanges, nodding about each other’s daughters, then continue on our way, to our hotel on a busy street. Later that night, about 11:00 or 12:00, the mother will return to her house somewhere behind her stand.

This is the real story of Laos: the mystery and wonder of its people—millions of people who carve out lives along roadside food stands, who work as police, who farm rice, who search for scrap metal, who harvest from the field of bombs—who have children that carry on into a new century where the story of war is a story of the past that must be unearthed, who become therapists in the present, where the field of bombs becomes a more and more distant memory, and gives birth to something new, something hopeful. This is the heart of Laos, and it’s bigger than any story of war or peace.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Crossing the Mekong

How can one hope to say anything more or different about crossing a body of water? The metaphors are already legion: crossing the Red Sea, crossing the Jordan, crossing the river Styx, crossing the water, coming up out of the water. All of these are about departure and arrival, about transformation and transcendence, about moving through and beyond.

None of these, however, are quite right for what the Mekong means to Laos or what crossing it meant for hundreds of thousands of refugees.

To understand what the Mekong means to Laos is to understand how the very term for river is constructed in the Lao language. The term for river in general is mae nam, literally “mother water,” but there is little doubt that the term is referring to The River, to the one river that has given birth to Laos. This parentage becomes even clearer when you come to understand that the Mekong was not originally a border between the Lao and the non-Lao, but that ethnic Lao lived on both sides of the river. The Mekong only became a border when France decided to extend its colonial powers outwards from Vietnam and came up against British colonial power in what is today modern Thailand. In good European logic, they decided the Mekong would make an excellent frontier between them even though it arbitrarily divided a people speaking the same language and sharing the same history and culture, a common people who shared the Mekong as their mother.

In Savannakhet, the main streets parallel the Mekong, but the primary impulse is to turn right off these roads, to be drawn down to the water. And the Nonginthiraths are drawn to it, as children to their mother—to their estranged mother, their maligned and imprisoned mother.

It’s not a beautiful river: it’s muddy, a mid-level tan that matches the tan clays of the rice paddies we see turned by plows in this, the planting season. It’s also dirty: no doubt the cloudy water in the gutters under the cement sidewalks on both sides of the river drain into the Mekong. It’s also inaccessible, especially to us in this, the rainy season, when its roiling waters are high, sweeping branches and detritus seaward in slow if impressive fashion. Yet daily fishermen dot its waters in their long, thin, seemingly-flimsy if poetic-looking boats, and the ubiquitous fishes of the innumerable marketplaces no doubt come from its waters and its tributaries. Its surface is always calm but for the eddies of current, never windblown or frothed. In the evening, to borrow from Langston Hughes, it turns all golden in the sunset. A beautiful river.

But if the river marks the Nonginthiraths as Laotians, it also marks them as expatriates; ethnically, it’s their mother, but familially it was their greatest obstacle. We visit the Mekong to revisit the story, to see the symbol of exodus, of barrier, of triumph.

The first night we stumble upon a tent-restaurant on the banks of the Mekong, a Lao barbecue. We assemble low tables and they bring us two clay pots with burning charcoal and cooking dishes to set on them: one shallow, for fast frying, the other a clay soup pot. Then they bring us plates of meat—squid and shrimp and imitation crab (remember, Laos is landlocked) and pork and liver and tripe—and vegetables—lettuces and basils and herbs I wouldn’t dare name—and bags of noodles. It’s our job to cook these ingredients up as we want them, to add sukiyaki and sugar and soy and lime and pepper. We stumble through, querying and arguing and passing plates and coming out feeling like our mother has fed us something wonderful from her secret cache of good things. We bet on what the bill will be and all overshoot significantly, this being a gracious mother: it was $21 to feed 6 adults, 5 children.

But we can get closer to The River and on night two, we do. A trendier restaurant sits on the Mekong, not simply down on its banks but afloat its waters. But this brings up a question: the barbecue above is proletarian, good, wonderful, cheap food; the restaurant below is clearly pretentious, set on massive floats with a thatched roof, strings of lights, and cross-dressing hosts, and it’s bound to be more expensive. Eating and sleeping proletarian is everything in Laos, not simply because of communism but because with good food on literally every corner and in every kitchen, high prices are for tourists.

We head there for pictures, then stay.  This trip is not just any trip, we decide, this trip is to remember and to celebrate and to retell a story, the story of God’s leading a family out of one thing and into another; this trip is in some sense religious, and therefore we decide to break bread on the river itself, on the mother-water.

And the water is impressive. We sit as close to it as we can, close enough to reach out and touch it, with our backs to flimsy handrails that are the only barrier between us and it. In this, the middle of rainy season, the river is mildly angry, it seems from the way the current swirls around the corner of the platform where we sit, and so, as we wait for our food, the questions begin.

What time of year did they leave? Keo can’t remember; thirty years of seasons are enough to wash the details of one season away. Was the water high or low? Low, she and Pong both remember, not like this, Pong says, looking at the distance, perhaps three-quarters of a mile, between us and the lights of Mukdahan on the Thai side. So what season was that? Probably about November, she says.

The move, the great escape, crossing the mother-water, came in pieces. First, Pong and Grandma Mouth went during the day, under the auspices of fishing with an unnamed someone. Should they be stopped by patrols, they were just a grandmother and a child who, at nine, was clearly old enough to be a great help in the boat. In the middle of the river, they changed boats to one from the Thai side and continued across unabated where they lived with friends.

Younger children, girls ages four and two, could not be passed off as fishermen. Keo would have to find someone and pay them, Laotian coyotes if you will, who, like their modern day equivalents, were not always trustworthy. Keo had heard stories of these transporters taking the money of their passengers and dumping those same passengers out of the boat in the middle of the river.

“How much did you have to pay for the first trip again?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she replies, as we sip water and Pepsi and Beerlao. “I just had to find other people to go,” she says.

But the family she found had a baby, and the baby cried all night on the first attempt so that the coyote was unwilling to try crossing.

Sitting in our trendy restaurant, it takes some work to imagine it. Still, one can imagine them sitting there, sheltered somewhat by the foliage of the mother-water, though trees are not plentiful here on the banks of the Mekong. The baby cries and the nervous mother shushes and rocks him; he quiets enough that the father insists they try it, but as soon as the mother stands, the baby starts in again. The coyote shakes his head, grows sharper with the woman. In the dark Sy and Ly collapse in sleep, Keo nods off momentarily, only to scare awake and shoo mosquitoes off the young girls. It is a torturous night. At dawn, they return home, Keo disappointed and fatigued, wondering again if this is worth it, if she should try again.

The threat, too, is real. As the grown children get more of the story from their mother in Lao, Sy says in English, “So I didn’t just dream that. That did happen.”

“Yes!” Keo says in a sharp rising tone that means, “Of course—what did you think!?”

They’re talking, I know, about bodies floating in the water, dead bodies that Sy remembers and then wonders if she remembers, wonders if they’re not just some scene from some gruesome movie that was emblazoned on her child’s memory. But no. These are real memories, this was the real threat: death at the hands of the Mekong and of her gunboats that tried to stem the bleeding of refugees that fled the country by the thousands. This is why we’ve returned to the water itself—for feasting, for celebration.

The second attempt, nights later, went without a hitch and there are no details. The same people assembled, and this time the baby was better or perhaps the father had simply paid extra, and Keo and her two daughters made the night trek across the river to find refuge with friends in Mukdahan. The coyote did return later to demand ad hoc payment for the trip, money which Keo didn’t have but got from a kind friend or relative, and which begins to explain some of the trail of cash that we leave with people here.

In the restaurant on the Mekong, the food is more expensive but high quality and still not unreasonable by American standards. The kids eat a large platter of fried rice with seafood imbedded in it like Crackerjack prizes; the adults eat prawn soup, sour and salty with large, full-body prawns that we get to peel and eat, our own reward; we get spicy squid salad with cabbage and a vinegary sauce that’s lovely, fiery and acidic; we get a plate of laab gai that’s fairly average and barely makes it down to the end of our table, but we don’t care because we’ve also ordered two whole fish to pun: we fold noodles, pieces of young eggplant and yellow pepper, and forked-off-the-bones fish and into a cabbage leaf, then dip it all into a sweet-spicy peanut sauce that’s surprisingly thin-textured and light and delicious. It is as fresh and as good as I can imagine fish tasting, and it’s peaceful as the current slides by and the sun sets on the mother-water, the Mekong.

But pieces of the story keep turning up, like the debris that floats by from time to time in the current. A woman has been with us since our first visit to Phonesim, a woman who was the first to embrace Keo there, as they both shed tears. This is Keo’s first cousin and a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sy’s Grandma Mouth. Since that first day in Phonesim, she has not left Keo’s side, though we’ve gone on trips and changed cities, gone out to eat and switched hotels seemingly endlessly. She’s always there, just another person to drag along, I thought to myself first.

By the third night on the Mekong, back up the bank at the Lao barbecue, I’ve come to see this woman in a new light. She helps us cook, eats with us quietly, politely, then moves her chair back to give space to our family. “Jep tong”—stomach ache, she insists good-naturedly when Sy insists she eat more. All throughout the trip, including the morning when I woke in a frenzy because my child was sick, she’s been a calming presence, a watchful presence, a guardian angel who just happens to look like a young Grandma Mouth.

On the way back to the hotel, we comment on her calm demeanor, her loyalty and leavening effect on us all. It’s then that I learn something new about the story, something I’d never heard before. “Yeah, she said she was so hurt when my mom left,” Sy’s sister tells me in the back of a pickup. “She said ‘One night we went out together, the next night she was gone. I couldn’t believe it.’”

This story explains her constant presence, explains the ties that bind here in Laos. It also explains the level of secrecy that really did exist in crossing the mother-water—that you wouldn’t even tell your best friend and closest relative, you’d just up and leave one night, inexplicably.

We’re farther up the Mekong now, at the busier Vientiane. The distance to the other side is closer here, I’m convinced, the river narrower, perhaps deeper. We went down to the Mekong last night but the streets are busier here, more trendy, less welcoming.

But that’s okay. We’ve seen the river, been blessed by the mother-water with good things, with old memories and new details, and so we really took our leave of the Mekong at Savannakhet, of the mother-water, site of growth and departure, of fear and triumph, of birth, death, and exodus.

On this trip, then, we’ve missed Grandma Mouth—and we haven’t. Before she died, we asked her if she missed her country, if she didn’t want to go back. “My country is here, now, with my family,” she answered without even a moment’s pause. This, too, explains why three nights on the Mekong are enough, why we can leave without a backward glance. Our family, too, is in some sense, our country. Keo’s cousin, Grandma Mouth’s niece, travels with us to our next destination. We travel together to life’s next adventure, with a little bigger definition of family than we had before.

And yet we will soon travel home to Edgerton to an even larger sense of family. After crossing the mother-water and then crossing the Pacific Ocean, Keo and her family landed in Edgerton, Minnesota, where several families from Edgerton First CRC were waiting with warm clothes and open arms on a twenty-below February day. Later, that church family also welcomed Pong, Sy, and Ly with water, the water of baptism that marked another family membership, that marked them as “heirs of God and coheirs with Christ.”

Back in Edgerton, we will no doubt share with that family this story—of the calm woman carrying the marks of Grandma Mouth who blessed our family wonderfully and mysteriously on the banks of the swelled Mekong as it carried debris forcefully away, but as we remained, watching from the firm footings of its banks.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Development, for Better or Worse

Make no mistake, Vientiane is bigger than Savannakhet, despite what Savan folks might say.  Vientiane's got monuments; it's got museums; it's got traffic; it's got a mall.  That nobody goes to.  Our host here says her twenty-something daughter has never been there before.  But it's got one, it's air conditioned, and it can go in the development brochure.

I saw such a travel brochure today, one that creates a brave new world of possibilities for what Vientiane could be.  The brochure included a futuristic vision of highrises along the bend of the Mekong, with an idealistic business travel village built pseudo-traditional with all the amenities for metropolitan visitors from afar.  Basically, it was the skyline of Malaysia or Singapore superimposed onto the bend of the Mekong where Vientiane sits.  It was pretty.  In that abstract, taken from an airplane-sort of way that can't actually see any actual dwellings of where actual people actually live.  In the imagined picture, all those details get swept nicely into the alleyways of the background, slip easily into the cracks and chasms necessitated by the so-called growing pains of the city.  However, it did include a modern shopping center on the banks of the Mekong that included signs for Burger King, Heineken, and assorted other global brandnames.  (You can see their vision, already under construction here: It did not include shop front houses run by anyone and everyone selling their own spring rolls, grilled meats, and soups. 

Still, Vientiane and its leaders are dreaming about what it can be, about how it can join other leading cities in the region.  In short, it's got skyscraper envy.  However, a website notes that currently the Vientiane skyline ranks 386th of 811 Asian cities, nothing to write home about, and, realistically, that's not going to change any time soon. 

But this is about Savannakhet, because Savannakhet is making a bid to become the next Vientiane, and, from internet activity on the issue and the evidences we saw in Savan, it may be well on its way.

The evidences of growth are these: new construction everywhere;  new houses everywhere; large houses in place; higher scale restaurants on outlying streets accessible primarily by car or moped; a hotel-casino--called, I kid you not, Savan Vegas Casino--that daily pipes in Thai from Mukdahan to try their luck and spend their cash. 

All this building and spending, I believe, is rooted in hope for the Savan-Seno Special Economic Zone, a vast acreage of land just off the main drag into Savannakhet that looks like its been strip-mined.  It hasn't; just opened for development.  Significant development.  And, according to the SSEZ authority, companies are signing up left and right, though the development has been slowed by the global economic crisis.  Signed up already are a leading French glass manufacturer and an Indonesian instant noodle maker, a Swiss jewelry and watch manufacturer and a Holland Boeing plant. 

This will mean, we're led to believe, good jobs for the people of Savannakhet.  Schools have already been built to try to train some workers to be ready for those jobs, and the SSEZ advertises that the glass manufacturer is already training twenty-five Lao abroad who will return to train others; no doubt international schools will follow immigrants from other countries who come in managerial positions;  roads have improved and will no doubt be better maintained.

All this should catapult Savannakhet out of its hick-younger-brother of Vientiane status and into the twenty-first century.  It should alleviate poverty and the conditions of poverty. 

We'll see how well it works in actuality.

Savannakhet can certainly benefit from exposure to the outside world.  Power and wealth, it seems, is still concentrated in family and clan ties, creating clear class boundaries that are difficult to cross except by marrying in.  Both from our experience in crossing the border and from comments from Savan people, local officials can still be capricious and arbitrary.  The internet, let me say again, is almost non-existent.

Of course, there's another side to this insularity.  Walking home one evening, the family up the road from where we were staying were all gathered around a large circular table, every chair filled, parents, grandparents, teenage children.  Family still rules to an impressive degree in Savannakhet.  Even the relaxed traffic rules can be thought of as refreshing.  So what if a moped is driving down the wrong side of a road toward you?  As long as you all watch out for each other, everyone will survive.  And as the final boon, let me say again, the internet is almost non-existent.

The poverty around Savannakhet is primaily a rural poverty.  Some shop front homes struggle mightily, you can tell; not every store and cafe can make it; there are beggars who hang around the morning market and walk into it, tugging on your arm and assuming the submissive, hands-together prayer posture to ask for a little money.  Likewise, rural life, as my mother-in-law's cousin says, is "sabbai" (easy going, laid back)--except in rice planting season where the work is labor-intensive and back breaking, and I can't believe harvest is any different.  Also, a "sabbai" life is not food-secure when it's based on serving your own chickens to guests when they come, as happened on our visit there.  People in rural Savannakhet wear secondhand shirts from America; they in some cases have no shoes; they are more susceptible to disease.

Still, what will happen when these people move in large numbers to Savannakhet for jobs?  No doubt some will catch on, no doubt some will fill positions in an enlarged service industry, but some will not.  Perhaps Savannakhet will absorb these people much as it has its current poor and there will simply be more around the fringes.

But one thing that the rural poverty of Savannakhet doesn't have is really concentrated, open-wound poverty.  I have seen one tin-shack slum on our trip here, and it was in Thailand, a collection of squatters shacks on the outskirts of Bangkok.  I did not see this kind of poverty in Savannakhet; I suspect it exists in areas of Vientiane where parts of the city are insulated enough from the countryside or the culture has broken down enough that people are unable to procure almost anything for themselves.

Whatever the case, whether the SSEZ catapults Savannakhet into the Twenty-First Century or whether it collects the poor from the countryside into ugly, festering heaps and piles, the Savannakhet we left--a sleepy, "sabbai" community, closely connected to its countryside--will soon be no more, for better or worse.

A final image: a couple live in a "sabbai" village; they have one daughter as the father makes wooden doors with handtools, and they raise chickens and pineapple; the daughter goes off to Savannakhet for a job where she gets involved with a Thai boy who gets her pregnant and leaves; the couple takes care of their grandchild from the time she's three days old.  The daughter continues to work in Savannakhet.  At Savan Vegas. 

If this is the model of development, give me the family around a circular table, give me the marginal shop front houses, give me, even, the fugitive internet.

Of course, it's not up to me.  Thank heavens.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Being "Falang"

Nothing says falang (westerner) quite like french fries.  I admit, these little suckers tasted absolutely delicious, complete with ketchup and grease.  At some level, I missed them.  But I felt embarrassed eating them, almost dirty, especially as we sat in a second floor balcony in a French cafe and could see a native noodle "shop" under an unbrella down on the street beneath us, especially as we ordered a traditional Lao dish, laab gai, and it came looking like a traditional Lao dish--except it had absolutely no hot pepper in it.  None.  Basically, the heart had been ripped out of the dish so that the average westerner could stomach it.  Think ordering a hamburger and getting tofu. 

Couple this with the fact that we paid outrageous prices for our food--over $3 a dish, which of course, is completely reasonable but significantly higher than what we have been paying--and you have the complete reasons for my misgivings about being in the Lao capital, Vientiane: too many white people and higher prices.

But why do I feel so jealous/guilty about this experience?  Do I want to pretend that I can hoard this Lao experience all to my little self?  Am I to deny the fact that I could have eaten two pounds of those french fries, that it would have seemed an oasis in the midst of oceans of pho and mountains of dom mach hung? Yea, that my veritable arteries rejoiced at the artery-clogging delight?  What is it about seeing more westerners in one day than we've seen the whole rest of the trip that makes me distrust this place we're staying, that makes me distrust the authenticity of the experience so much? 

Sure, there may be some elitism to my feelings, a certain hoarding tendency, but there's also something almost inherently misshaping about western influence that, I would argue, is what really concerns me.  Flannery O'Connor's statement that humans misshape everything they touch--even God--in their own image could be easily applied to culture: when we come in contact with an "other" culture, our tendency is to misshape it to look like our own. 

Now, of course, I must acknowledge the fact that this is the very nature of culture: many things are shaped and misshaped into something different that then blossoms into a cutlture all its own; this is the wonderful elasticity and hybridity of culture.  Indeed, I've read that most peppers that are now so inherent to Southeast Asian cultures came originally from the western hemisphere.  So we're dealing with something--culture itself--that is by nature hard to--nay, wrong to--fence off, sequester, put in a bubble.  This is how cultures die.

And yet eating a dish that has been significantly misshapen in the heart of the Lao capital gives me pause, makes me wonder what kind of faux Lao culture I'm finding in the heart of Lao culture and why.

But this all begs the question, what does authenticity mean? Who gets to label something as "authentic"? And what is authenticity's value?  Is it really a crime of authenticity to deliver a dish more palatable to white folks that removed just one ingredient?

My feelings on this issue have everything to do with both our experience in Savannakhet as well as the obvious and growing gap between my mother-in-law's way of experiencing Lao culture and ours.

Compared to Vientiane, Savannakhet is significantly backwater, in both good and bad senses.  The internet is an endangered species in Savannakhet; malls are close-quartered markets with individual vendors, stifling heat and dizzying smells--and they sell raw fish.  There are two places that sell hamburgers in the whole town (we saw signs but didn't eat them).  We got used to Savannakhet; it felt like a small town; it could be had for the walking.  And yet, for the most part, it did not cater to our tastes; rather, we tasted of it.

But cultural differences became glaringly apparent in a trip across country yesterday.  Basically, we were divided between two pickups, one with 5 Lao people and luggage in the back; and the other with 10 Americans, including 5 children in the back.  When the Lao people stopped several times for snacks, the Americans got impatient; when the Americans stopped to pee, the Laotians raced ahead.  The longer time went, the crabbier the Americans got--the more backwards the poorly constructed roads became, the more annoying the slow tractors and lack of traffic laws got, the sorrier we felt for ourselves in the heat.  Meanwhile, the Lao truck decided to pull off and stop at a relative's house.  And the Americans went postal--almost.  All we wanted was a nice, air conditioned hotel and a shower--was that too much to ask? 

The answer, of course, became apparent when we finally made it to Vientiane and pulled into yet another relative's house.  Adjacent to the house was a tin shack and a woman wading in the pool that had developed underneath and around her house for what may have been an evening bath:  for most people in Laos, yes, air conditioning is too much to ask.

But that didn't make us want it any less. 

In essence, no matter how crusader I get, I am spoiled by American culture--spoiled meaning changed, transformed, ruined in some extent by the experience I've had of ease which makes me yearn for that ease, makes it my default browser.  And in the fact that when I don't have this ease, I think of myself first. 

The Lao people, including my mother-in-law, had a very different sense: take your time to stop for snacks; monitor water intake to minimize pee stops; stop at many relatives houses no matter how late; move across the land on the lily pads of people experiences.  Nothing could conflict more with our desire to be independent and just get to a hotel.

And yet the eviscerated Lao dish is a separate issue than this difference (even though the above difference may get more directly at fundamental differences in the personalities of Laotians and Americans).  It's an issue of power.  And money.  And blindness.  It's tourism at it's worst, it seems to me, which is tourism that buys its way to "the exotic," buys a misshapen version of "the exotic," but is not touched by the other, does not submit itself to the other in a way that lets the other shape it. 

Perhaps, the way I'm looking at this heroizes my own experience, but for a moment let me indulge my own experience of spicy food as way to illustrate what I'm talking about with this dish, laab gai.  Let's say that instead of getting a westernized version of this dish, people visiting this admittedly touristy section of Vientiane get a more authentic version.  This means it's spicy.  This means they get an uncomfortable burning on their lips and in the corners of their mouth that makes them suck in air around their tongues.  They drink water and it helps momentarily but then they stop and it seems worse so they drink more. They sweat. They may get red in the face, as far as out as their ears. They eat more rice, which is good, that's at least one of the points of flavorful foods--eating spicy allows them to eat less of the expensive meat and more of the staple, the rice.  Already they've taken on a cultural posture without even knowing it. If they're not used to spicy foods at all--as I wasn't when I first started eating Lao food--they've expanded their taste range by probably at least a fifth (counting sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy).  And, if they got really desperate and had to order Thai iced coffee (which is milk-based since the base that is milk will counteract that acid that is red pepper while water and beer, if you will, just fan the flames), they had the experience of that wonderful drink, but no matter what, by the time the sensation stopped up to an hour later, they've survived, and in surviving they have also probably come into contact with that other cultural posture that's so valuable in encountering the other: humility.

Now, no one makes laab gai this spicy, so the above symptoms will not be this exaggerated.  Still, by enabling a faux experience of laab gai, this restaurant that catered to white tastes enabled a certain blindness to what laab gai really means, ennabled buying "the other" without being touched by it.

The place we ended up staying in Vientiane must be tourist row: dozens of white people, ten upscale souvenir shops with antique buddhas and "Lao silk" cloth for sale, three European cafes, no food stands for a couple of blocks.  It's like we've landed on a falang island in the middle of Laos, but we've got our air, we've got our pretty garden courtyard, we've got the internet faster than we've ever had it in Laos. 

And we feel cursed. 

Tonight, we went out and found where the Lao are: cruising a packed two lane road--miles, I might add, from tourist row and the cultural sites of the city center--on mopeds and in Toyota pickups along food stands where you can buy khao biak for a dollar, grilled chicken for two and a quarter, steam buns three for a dollar and change, and a sweet soy milk-gelatin drink--in a plastic bag--for forty cents.

The funny thing is, there's a hotel right on this busy road that costs a fraction of what we're paying now. 

I've never felt like such a sell out.