Search for common ground

On Monday I wrote about my first Lao banquet. I gave you a word picnic complete with spicy fried fish, karaoke, dancing, and many Beerlao toasts to everyone’s good health and happy families.

What I did not give you was the full inside scoop.

It can be hard to know where to draw the line, you see. My parents have mentioned more than once their concern that I not share too much, too widely. My ultra-private grandmother recently gave me back something I had written saying she could not finish reading it, that it felt too invasive to her, too much like reading my private diaries.

I find this both puzzling and amusing. I find it amusing because my private diaries – my random dumping ground for current events and mood – lack any polish or censoring (and, often, coherence). They are mostly a litany of the prosaic. The boring prosaic.

I find it puzzling because I think I’ve generally demonstrated decent boundaries around what I put out there for public consumption. Yes, I share. But I do not share everything – not even close. I pay particular attention to anything I write about others. And while I often write about things that make me feel vulnerable, I rarely send it out into the world while I still feel acutely vulnerable. Whether it’s a day or a month later, by the time I put something out there I am ready for it to be known and discussed. Even, usually, to be teased about it. Writing about something often frees me from it. Well, from any shame about it, anyway.

Here in Laos I am not worried so much for myself – although I am wondering how I will end up navigating the immediacy blogging demands. But I am not the only one I must consider in relation to these stories. There is Mike, for starters. Then there are national staff he is working with whose names I will change. An organization he is working for that I will try to remember not to name. And a communist government – one I have not even begun to figure out how to avoid unnecessarily offending.

So as I wrote about the banquet I stopped short in some ways. I didn’t tell you in as many words that I took a deep breath as we arrived – battling a sudden and fierce wish to be spending my Friday night at a move theatre in LA. Or that I spent much of the night feeling like a lost puppy as I trailed after Mike, moving from group to group.

Mingling with the staff, I watched Mike as much as I watched them. He seemed so at ease; comfortable in ways I was not with the obvious truth that we were both on hopelessly foreign ground.

There is a lot of ground in this big wide world that is not foreign to me. I can do Nairobi, Jakarta, and London. I can do Australian citizen, American resident, and adult third culture kid. I can do psychologist, I can do author, and I can do a wine bar as easily as I do church – sometimes more easily, truth be told.

But I am out of my depth here.

Friday night, by the Khan River with a glass of beer in hand, I found most of my familiar avenues into small talk firmly closed to me.

It wasn’t just the language barrier, although that certainly didn’t help things. Despite the fact that most of the staff speak passable English, I can only catch 50% of what some of them say. I’m sure that some of what I say is even more incomprehensible to them.

“Perhaps don’t say ‘excited to be here’,” Mike suggested, when I ran a summary of my thank you speech past him on the sly right before Kampono handed me the microphone to address the group. “Use ‘happy’.”

But the communication challenges go far beyond mere words. I am used to seeking out common ground around international experiences, shared passions, people’s search for meaning and satisfaction in their work, and sometimes – in the Western World – on the topic of that peculiar fretful paralysis that can accompany having too many options open to us in career, in relationship, and in destination.

Here, I cannot presume common ground in any of these areas except, perhaps, a longing for meaning and satisfaction in work. And, even in the midst of my cross cultural floundering on Friday night, I did manage to remember that this would maybe not be the best topic to tackle after I had just been introduced as the bosses wife, by the boss.

So after Mike had repeated names for me again, after we’d established that I did indeed like Luang Prabang and was happy to be here, we were down to the basics.

Smiling. Drinking beer together. Looking at the river. And chatting in hesitant fits and starts about that most fundamental of topics: Family.

It was one of the older men, Keoki, who ventured the first real question asked of me by any of the staff. How long Mike and I had been married, he wanted to know?

“A year and a half,” I said. “But we spent much time apart. So, with this move, there are still many changes for us to get used to.”

“Yes,” Keoki said, totally at ease now on that universal topic of family. “And, soon, next change you have get used to be pregnant, yes? You have babies soon? You have babies in Laos?”

“Maybe,” I stammered, so far off script I took a gulp of beer before I remembered I don’t actually like the stuff.

“We will see,” I said, after I’d swallowed.

Everyone smiled. Then we looked at the river some more.

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6 responses to “Search for common ground

  1. Oh, the comments on your life plan! How I love the subtlety of SE Asian culture! Your stories are a poignant reminder of my own adjustment to Cambodia a few years ago, and an echo of how I sometimes still feel in new situations or with unfamiliar people. I could lie and say it gets easier, but I think it’s really just that it gets more comfortable in the uncertainty, or that it’s less frightening to navigate the uncharted cultural waters. Or, that you’ll get better at holding back the freak out (or hysterical laughter) until you get home. Thanks for sharing, and feel free to escape to PP if you need a break.

    • Thanks Kate. Gosh, it seems like an age ago to me we were having dinner in PP. Yeah… Mike said something similar upon reading this post – that he hadn’t really thought about it like that because he was just so used to doing it now.

      Hope it’s less hot down there for you guys now! I’ll let you know when we’re down your way, and let me know if you’re headed to LP again.

  2. Lis- Perhaps it’s just because I know you, but all the stuff in this post that you said you *didn’t* put into your earlier post, somehow I read into your earlier post anyway… It was [to me] blindingly apparent- perhaps through its ommission? None the less, I continue to admire the way you do share, and the boundaries you do maintain (even if, for some people, they’re boundaries that they might not venture into in public). Thanks for being willing to share.

  3. And Kate- yes- love that dichotomy of SE Asian culture- on the one hand so effusive and indirect about some things, and yet on the other, so direct and [to western ears] abrupt on some of our no-go areas- highly amused!

    I note you’re following me on Twitter- but I had no idea you knew Lisa as well- nice to see you on here 🙂

  4. That’s funny Lisa. Thanks for sharing.

    You know, that last bit (the uncomfortable baby discussion) has happened to Alida and I countless times in our almost eight years of marriage.

    All I can say is that each time it comes up it gets a little easier to swallow. And by “a little” I mean an almost-imperceptible amount! Ha!

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