When the professional meets the social in Laos

Two weekends ago Mike was invited to a wedding. This is not an uncommon occurrence – it’s Lao custom to invite everyone and their cousin to your wedding. Then, it seems, everyone you’ve invited is allowed to ask you to invite other people as well, and you can’t refuse their requests. This is why weddings here can easily run to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of guests, and why Mike and I regularly get invited to attend the weddings of people we’ve never met.

Until this weekend we’d managed to wiggle out of all of these invitations by putting an appropriate amount of money into the invitation envelope and returning it to the people who invited us so that they could present it to the happy couple. This weekend, however, there was no wriggle room. The person getting married was the son of the translator of the provincial governor so, you see, we had to attend.

Did you follow that?

Nope? Don’t worry, I didn’t either the first time Mike presented it to me.

Here’s how it goes. The provincial governor is one of the key powers that be. The translator to the provincial governor is a key person of influence and therefore also one of the powers that be, albeit indirectly powerful. He had invited us. Therefore we needed to honor him by going despite the fact that we had never met this son, or his bride.

We were the only westerners in a crowd of about a thousand. There was a certain novelty to that, and to having relatively little idea as to what was going on ceremonially. Then the novelty wore off and we were simply sitting a table in a large courtyard, drinking beer, eating cold rice very slowly (lest someone see that our plate was empty and decide to help by filling up with choice pieces of fat or offal), and watching the bride and groom offer whisky shots in tiny silver goblets to all the nobility seated at the high tables.

So that was two weekends ago. Last weekend we also had a late-breaking professional-social (aka professocial) obligation.

The responsibility for the governmental oversight of Mike’s organization has recently changed hands. On Wednesday last week the team had their first meeting with this power that be. At the close of the meeting Mike’s deputy, Kampono, suggested that this government official might like to join him on his farm on Saturday. The official agreed, and this meant that our course for Saturday was set as well.

“This is how business is done here,” Mike reminded me as he was informing me of our professocial obligations for Saturday. “Everyone gets together and spends hours drinking and eating and talking, and then we have a relationship, and we can count on them to help us out. Or at least pay attention to us.”

I sighed. But he’s right, and I don’t even need the briefing now on why my presence at some of these events is important (because Mike is important, and family is important, and I am Mike’s family and therefore I’m important, and it honours the host and the guests if I come). So I went.

The party was in full swing by the time we arrived at 10:30am. Despite the fact that the 40 staff attending had all had their Saturdays hijacked (not to mention their wallets – these sorts of events are totally staff-funded) to entertain a handful of important government officials, everyone seemed to be having a blast. A cow had already been killed, the duck slaughter was in progress, and groups of people were dotted all around Kampono’s property working on preparing different dishes. Some were cleaning out the cow’s stomach and intestines, others were putting together giant pots of beef stew, still others were making kebabs, or salads, or rice. The amount of food a group that size can produce over small campfires when everyone pitches in and helps out is remarkable.

So we ate, and we drank the never-empty glasses of beer lao, and people laughed, and then some of the men played Petanque – a sort of modified version of lawn bowls that involves throwing heavy silver balls along a strip of sand. Petanque is the perfect game for this culture. It’s a team sport, so no one succeeds or fails alone. Rank beginners like Mike can play it without embarrassing themselves too much. Everyone gets at least one moment of glory during the hour-long match when they land a particularly good shot. And the government people (who seem to spend inordinate amounts of time honing their skills at this game on work time) can excel and walk away feeling good about themselves.

When we first arrived in Laos, I couldn’t understand how the national staff of our NGO could not resent having their evenings and weekends frequently impinged upon with these professocial obligations. How could Kampono (not to mention his wife, who had to oversee many of the preparations with some of the women from the office) not resent having to spend their whole Saturday hosting a work event for 50 on three days notice? How could the staff not resent having to spend their own hard-earned money wining and dining the powers that be, simply so they can do their jobs in this top-heavy society?

But if they do resent it, I can’t see it. Kampono seemed thrilled with the success of Saturday – when we left after four hours he was relaxed and laughing over a beer. The powers that be genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves, and so did all the staff who worked to prepare the banquet and served us food and beer on the day.

Me, I continue to feel a potpourri of emotions at times like these. It’s a privilege and a constant learning experience to be a guest in a culture so different from my own, but I do sometimes battle resentment when we need to spend weekend time this way. I’m both humbled by and uncomfortable with the way that Mike and I are honored and catered to here. And I can flip back and forth between being fascinated by what’s going on and being completely bored with astonishing rapidity.

Kampono’s farm

Preparing food

Plenty of beer

The table

Paytong in Laos

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