Saturday, August 29, 2015


Fresh off the train in Laos, totally unprepared
There are so many things about living in a place that you never notice until you leave. I don’t mean being grateful for ____________ or appreciating ____________. I mean fundamental, daily aspects of the culture that you don’t notice because they are so intrinsic they simply are. You can't really see them until you are in another place, and you notice something missing.

First day in Laos- seeing things like a tourist

That one should feel this way about one’s home culture should go without saying, but the strange thing is that when you move to another country and adopt it as your home, the same thing happens. I took Laos wholesale; I had to accept it fully in order to thrive and live there. When I first moved to Vientiane I felt uncomfortable every day, assaulted by the grind of motors and vendors and construction.  I was overwhelmed with the way streets and stores and even my school were organized. Motorbikes were a terrifying, absolute no I will not ever answer to the question of owning or driving one, tuk tuks made me clench my fingers in anticipation of a wreck, and I diligently applied mosquito repellent and crawled under a net every night. I was afraid of the dogs and the traffic, I wanted a smoke alarm, and I often felt tired just from the ordeal of walking down a sidewalk and dodging open fires, potholes, or motorbikes laden with long sharp objects.

My neighborhood street, which was basically an angry dog gauntlet

Purely for decoration

Inevitably, because it was simply too much work and effort to worry about, those things fell off of my radar as things that bothered me into the category of things that just were.  It became normal, and so it became my home. It’s incredible how quickly humans can adapt to such wildly different situations. I found myself owning, and loving, a motorbike. I can’t remember the last time I was worried about a dog bite (getting a rabies vaccination definitely helped). I got lazy with mosquito repellent. Even after a fire broke out in my neighborhood and I found myself in the street with hundreds of others, deciding if it was safe to go back home and sleep, I never returned to anything anywhere near the initial anxiety I had about fires. I had medical mishaps and I still stayed. I got to the point where I didn’t even notice the noise, so much so that I could sleep through weddings and karaoke and various animals mating and fighting outside of my window. All of these things that had been so hard, and foreign, and uncomfortable were a part of my life.

There's no place like home 

I landed in Moscow after two years in Laos and the first thing I noticed was how empty being in public felt. Street life in Laos is chaotic and complex, up close and intimate; it’s puzzle pieces of activity, multi-leveled and layered and spilling out over the edges. The sidewalks don’t contain it, the streets hold some of it, traffic flows in between all of it. It’s the constant human hum of eating and laughing, talking and drinking, music blaring and children crying and dogs whining and cats yowling, the tuk tuks screeching a high wailing brakes failing refrain, motors pounding down an erratic drumming, the sizzle of electric wires and hot oil, the soft sounds of food being sliced and pounded, dropped and stirred, ice and steam and strong coffee smells, insane looking fruit heaped in candy colors next to rows of shiny fish smoking over a fire tended by a child, incessant cell phone conversations punctuating sales pitches and interrupting tuk tuk drivers calling out over and over, a never ending plea for you to let them take you somewhere. You’re weaving and stopping and starting and flowing through it all within a month or two, and it turns into a familiar neighborhood rhythm.

On top of all the sensory overload that Laos can be is how unpredictable things are, from big to small matters. I truly never knew what was going to happen in any random day- what to expect out of drivers on the way to work, or the police on the side of the road, or service at a frequented restaurant, or how much I would be charged for the same repair job at the same motorbike repair shop from week to week. Schedules, timelines, opening and closing hours: these things don’t mean much. Everything was subject to change, to the point where I stopped viewing it through the lens of change at all- it just was what it was that day, or that week, and then you didn’t worry about looking for reasons why.

Waiting outside the bank, 30 minutes after it was supposed to open. Patience is a virtue.

In Zurich, I find myself overwhelmed for different reasons. Things feel immovable, stable, set down in a very permanent way that is relaxing in its predictability but also so very quiet and simple compared to where I’ve been. I go for a walk and wait on the side of the street to cross and the cars stop, waiting for me. Public life, street life, feels full of holes where fruit stands and food trucks and various people and animals should be. I am alone in public, surrounded by people, and I never realized how different it feels until I compared it to Laos, and SE Asia in general. Everything is painfully clean, to a level that makes me feel out of place, like a bull in a china cabinet, as though I would break something or upset something or offend someone. I went for a walk on one of the first mornings, and as I followed an immaculate trail through a perfectly manicured field and looked out at a lake ringed by regulation built houses, all I could think was that it looked like a movie set.

Not a tuk tuk for miles

These things aren’t better or worse, good or bad, and I want to be clear that I’m not comparing Laos to Zurich or anywhere else for the sake of weighing, evaluating, and judging. I’m just trying to work out the strange sensation I get of feeling foreign in Western countries. I’m also painfully aware that this sounds trite, a white girl pondering her experiences in Asia. But at the end of the day, it’s true. I feel out of place, in some strange fundamental way that I can’t describe or explain. I miss Laos. I miss Laos for what would objectively be called the “good” things, and I also miss it for what some might feel are the bad things. Other than sophomore and junior year of college, I cannot think of another time  when I’ve had so much stability on every major life level- I had the same job, in the same country, in the same town, and I lived in the same apartment, for two years. I was deeply immersed in my school community, the social life of Vientiane, and I lived in a wonderful neighborhood. 

Sunsets on the Mekong never get old

I also hold a soft spot for Laos because I feel like that is where I fully became a teacher, completing the process I started in Colorado- I had two years of working with the same students in the same school, as I slogged through grad school, and I had time to really hone the fundamentals of my craft to better serve me in the future.

It's definitely not terrible to be expected to engage in an all day water fight holiday with your students every year

There is also a deeper, more fundamental aspect of missing Laos, and I recognize it from when I left Japan and Albania- I miss the person I was there. That’s not to say that I change who I am wherever I go. It’s just that different places, like different people, bring out different things in you. From simple things like being a person who rides a motorcycle and washes my clothes in a bucket, to big things like being the teacher of my wonderful students, there are daily rituals, habits, actions, interactions, responsibilities, and social communities that bring out things in me that were unique to my living in Laos. I built up an entirely new aspect of myself in response to the needs, challenges, opportunities, and requirements of living and working and thriving in a new place, just as I did in Japan and Albania. Most of those new parts of me are unnecessary outside of that context, so I say goodbye to them, too.  

Laos was not ever part of The Plans. Even after Laos became part of them, I fought it. But once I stopped fighting I gave Laos another year of my life and switched it from an incidental detour to a purposeful decision. I left in a whirlwind of packing and planning and medical misadventures, and I don’t feel like I really had the time or perspective to understand that I was leaving, for good, and saying goodbye to all of that. It was time for me to leave, and leaving was the best and right choice for me. There isn’t an ounce of regret or vacillating in any of this- I’m just in awe of how much Laos gave me, and now I have the distance to see more. I continue to discover new things about myself that I learned, or discarded, or refined, or improved thanks to my time there.

No comments:

Post a Comment