Tag Archives: beerlao

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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The circle of your passion

It’s been a week. For me, it’s been a week of finishing the draft, enjoying a brief high, then falling (temporarily, let’s hope) into a big black woeful hole of not feeling like doing anything at all, and wondering how we can possibly have been in Laos three months already, and whether the rumours are true that we’re staying here for the next couple of years. On that front, it appears so, unless the powers that be mandate otherwise. I’ve had ample time to mull all of this over during a string of nights when sleep eludes me until late – midnight or 1am – and sometimes only arrives after the sort of help that comes in little bottles with child-proof caps on them.

For Mike, it’s been a week of waking up early – in the 3’s or the 4’s, occasionally the 2’s – with his mind jumping ahead to the day. The biggest meetings of the year took place yesterday, and coincided with a week-long delegation of all sorts of people that be all sorts of powerful, and not all of whom arrived on the scene happy. We think they be leaving happier, we think. There was a lot of smiling and nodding at the big partnership dinner last night – then again there was also lots of beerlao, which tends to help with the smiling (but not with the sleep, no, not with that).

A couple of weeks ago Mike and I had dinner with a friend, Gabrielle, who Mike first met in the Vanuatu almost three years ago. In January we had dinner with her in Melbourne. Since then she’s moved to Hanoi. Two weeks ago she swung by our new town.

So we met at Utopia and drank Saffron Robes and cheap Chilean wine and gazed upon the Khan River and talked. We talked of things that humanitarianers often seem to talk about when they cross paths for an evening and drink and look at rivers.

  1. How and why did you decide to make this last move/take this last job?
  2. How are you finding this massive uprooting and replanting of your life?
  3. What about the job itself – where are the rewards and the pressure points?
  4. Is it worth it – this move, this job, this whole field …

There is a lot wrapped up in that last question. I could write a whole series of posts just on the different variables that come into play when trying to calculate the opportunity-cost of this work and of this lifestyle. There are issues of meaning and purpose to be considered. And efficacy, community, motivation, finances, and safety. And, of course, passion.

Gabrielle calls this sort of conversation tumbleweeding, which I think is a delightful word. It brings to mind a tangled ball of wiry stalks all intertwined – dense enough to hang together in a round yet light enough to be moved by the wind. A tumbleweed bounces and spins at the same time as it skips along. A tumbleweed goes places. (Sometimes it just goes in circles, but that too is appropriate.)

I wonder what usually happens to tumbleweeds in the end. Do they pick up so many leaves and twigs on their journey that they eventually stop moving and settle into being just a pile of sticks? Do they get snagged on bushes, never to work themselves free? Or do they break apart – thin pieces of brush skittering and sliding in every which direction?

So, passion. That was our primary focal point that night.

“Are you passionate about writing?” Gabrielle asked me.

“Sometimes I get a great day, or hour,” I said. “Those moments are incandescent. I lose track of time. Afterwards I’m tingling with that happy sort of electricity that comes when you don’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. I’m totally buzzed.”

“But,” I continued. “At least as often, probably more often, I sit there and it’s hard, and I struggle, and I want to be almost anywhere else, and I hate it. Except I feel compelled to do it anyway.”

“That’s passion,” Mike said.

“Huh,” I said.

Why do I primarily associate vocational passion with the electric, positive, purposeful, buzz? Wishful thinking, maybe, or is it possible to have those joyous mountaintop moments without trudging through some valleys? Are mountaintop moments over-rated, anyway? Should we really be aiming for a nice picnic blanket halfway up a pretty green slope?

And, if what we were talking about really is passion, how can you live inside the circle of your passion without it consuming you?

That’s what we talked about for most of the evening, sipping our wine, staring at the river, tumbleweeding around. We didn’t come up with the right answer, because there isn’t one. But Mike and I wandered home through the dark streets feeling refreshed and ready to face the windstorms of tomorrow.

After the week we’ve just weathered, maybe that’s what we need this weekend – some tumbleweeding. Or maybe a river. Or friends. Or some wine? Looks like we have options.

What about you: Do you feel like you’re living inside the circle of your passion? How do you keep from being consumed?

P.S. I could practically see the parental eye rolling in Australia when I mentioned wine (again!!). So, my beloved mother, this picture’s for you. It’s Mike, weeks ago now, disposing of the last wine we had at home because it was simply wretched stuff. The bamboo, much to my surprise, has suffered no ill effects.

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Pepsi and pig fat

I was mentally prepared for some of the food in the villages in Viengkham to be challenging for me. I hadn’t, however, expected similar food hurdles this last weekend at the house of one of Mike’s colleagues.

Mike came home on Friday bearing the news that we had lunch plans the next day. Apparently a representative of the powers that be who has some influence over the issuance of visas for the international staff of NGOs in Laos was in town. Mike’s deputy thought it was a good idea for Mike to sit down with this guy over a beer so that this man (as Mike put it) “could smell him.” To facilitate the smelling the local staff had organized a big Saturday lunch to which they would bring the PTB ambassador. Late on Friday afternoon they got around to inviting Mike and I as well.

“Informal,” Kapono told Mike. “Informal only. Drink beer, make friends.”

Kapono may have meant, “If we all drink beer together, they will pretty much have to issue you a visa.” Or, maybe, “If we all drink beer together, then they’ll at least start to consider issuing you a visa.” Or, maybe, just, “Let’s get together and drink lots of beer, because it’s really fun.” It’s sort of hard to tell.

[Sidenote: A tendency to be ambiguous and last-minutish does seems to be emerging as a recognizable pattern here in Laos. Mike came home one evening recently and made me laugh with tales of a staff member who had came into his office at 4:30 and asked him if he would “perhaps like to perhaps have a meeting now?” when what this staff member really meant to communicate was:

(1) Three weeks ago we scheduled a very important meeting with six members of an international assessment team for 4pm today;

(2) We forgot to put it on your schedule;

(3) You are supposed to be chairing this meeting; and

(4) These six foreigners are waiting downstairs for this meeting to begin and have been now for half an hour.]

On Saturday, lunch started at 10am. At least, that’s what we were told. So that’s what time we showed up. That was also, therefore, the time we were handed our first full glass of beerlao.

No, I haven’t yet learned to like it. And especially not at ten in the morning.

Things got off to a somewhat slow start. It was 10:30 before anyone else got there. 10:42 before the ambassador of the powers that be showed up. 10:50 before there seemed to be any sort of critical mass, and 10:51 before someone made the first beer toast and the drinking started in earnest.

Ah, the drinking. Every time we go to one of these events I learn more about the drinking culture here.

It’s not as if the beer is terribly potent. Beerlao is not a tremendously strong brew to start with, and they put ice in it, which waters it down even more. The problem really lies in the fact that people here drink it as if it’s going out of style. As if they have just finished a twenty-mile hike in the Sahara desert. As if they are eighteen-year-old Australian mining engineering students.

The drinking is also communal – you are not left in peace to nurse your glass of beer at your own pace. At regular and frequent intervals someone will propose a toast and everyone will enthusiastically clink glasses. What is being toasted varies, but it’s usually some variant on, “here’s to good health”, or “strength”, or “good work”. On Saturday, after Kapono told us that one of his buffalos had been stolen, we all drank to the fertility of the remaining two buffalos.

So after you’ve acknowledged everyone else’s glass and paid appropriate homage to health, strength, work, and the sex life of Kapono’s buffalos, you then take a large gulp out of your own glass. Or two gulps. Or three.

It depends where you’re aiming to drain your glass to.

You see, the country of Laos is long and thinish. So is a glass of beer. And if you’re drinking beer in Laos and someone calls out the name of a city in the south of the country, the rules of engagement seem to state that you are to drain your glass all the way down to the level of that city. If you’re not sure where that might be, never fear, your neighbor will helpfully point to the spot on your glass. After the group scull there is much laughing and commenting on the speed (or lack thereof) at which everyone present can drink.

And a couple of minutes later, as soon as everyone’s glasses are refilled, it all happens again.

I made it through most of one glass of beer before I handed it off to Mike and switched to Pepsi.

This turned out to be a mistake. I was trying to hang onto some semblance of politeness – if I wasn’t going to drink beer like everyone else, I thought that at least I could honor the hospitality by drinking a glass of something higher status than mere water. But I hadn’t banked on not being allowed to stop at one glass. Indeed, the women I was sitting next to – women who spoke not a word of English – didn’t give me the option of stopping at all. Every time my glass even reached the halfway point they smiled beatifically, reached for the Pepsi, and refilled it. By the time I’d been participating in the drinking rituals with Pepsi for three hours, I’d drunk almost two litres.

This wasn’t the worst of it, however. These women – these lovely women – were doing their best to take care of me. This meant that they also kept reaching over and putting food onto my plate. Particularly the prized pieces of pig fat – big, quivering, white, chunks of pig fat. And they were very keen indeed for me to have some of the pig blood soup.

If I sound at all churlish I really don’t mean to. It was remarkably and strategically hospitable of Kapono and a dozen other staff members to organize (and pay for) this get together. It was lovely of these women to try and watch out for me, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. It was fun to laugh with them, even if I couldn’t understand much of what was being said.

At least, it was fun for the first hour or two.

By the time we were well into hour three it was not quite so much fun, and by the time we’d been there for almost five hours I was done.

I was over-caffeinated, and definitely over pig fat. In addition to pieces of barbecue pork, sticky rice, and some unidentifiable but peppery vegetables, I’d eaten a couple of pieces of the fat and several spoonfuls of soup (carefully bypassing the pieces of intestine). I’d spent the last hour slowly eating raw beans one after another so that no one could accuse me of not partaking.

Definitely done, and very determined on one point, at least.

Regardless of the circumstances, I will not be eating any more pig fat for the rest of the week.

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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Sabaidee – The Banquet

By any standard, learning the Lao language is no piece of cake. The Lao script is based on an old Thai script. There are no spaces between written words in Lao. As the Lonely Planet Lao phrasebook bluntly informed me, “The rendering of Laos words into Roman script is a major problem as many Lao sounds, especially certain vowels, do not occur in English. There is no official system of transliterating Lao, and [even the] Lao government is incredibly inconsistent in this respect.”

Lao is also tonal. But not just two or three tones – there are six of them. As Mike learned the hard way, the same sentence can mean: “I go to the office”, “buffalo go to the office”, or “male organ go to the office” depending on your tone. Seeing as how we seem to be incapable of even hearing the difference between some of these tones, I can foresee some challenges.

I have, however, picked up my first Lao word, sabaidee.

Sabaidee means hello – a friendly hello. You can also use it as goodbye. This is one word you hear everywhere in greeting and farewell, and on Friday night all the local staff Mike works with decided to formally say a friendly hello by inviting us to a banquet, that night, in our honour.

Kapono, his deputy, informed Mike of this plan at 3pm Friday afternoon.

The chosen restaurant was a five minute drive out of town, through a stand of coconut trees and out to the banks of the Khan river. When we arrived most of the office staff were already there, about forty of them, standing around on the tile patio overlooking the river, talking, laughing, and drinking Beerlao.

A word about beer… I don’t like it. I never have. I know that this is unusual for an Australian – it’s practically cultural heresy. But what I hadn’t known before I got here was that, in Laos, beer is similarly venerated. Beerlao, with its charming slogan, “beer of the wholehearted people”, is officially the national nectar. And, while refusing a drink in Australia won’t earn you much more than mockery, here it’s just not on. As Kapono said as he handed me a full glass of beer as soon as we arrived, “In Laos, drink together very important. Make like family.”

I looked from the beer, to Mike.

Mike smiled.

“Put some ice in it,” he said to me, sotto voce. “It’s better cold.”

So I loaded it up with ice, and I drank – again, and again, and again. For every two or three minutes someone would wander up to clink glasses with us and make an incomprehensible toast to health or life or work or happiness. And, as Mike informed me gently, if you toast, you must drink. And if someone wants to toast, you must toast.

And so I stumbled through the evening, a cultural neophyte, but learning fast. I learned for example, to be more careful in the future about what I put in my mouth when it’s battered and fried and I don’t know quite what might be inside. I learned to take Kapono seriously when he leans over the table, wiggles a cautionary finger at the fish, and says; “I think many many chili for you.” I learned that at Lao banquets, after everyone has finished eating the many many chilis, there will be very loud karaoke. And I learned that when there is karaoke, there is usually dancing.

Oh yes, dancing. Not swing dancing, mind you, or ballroom, or even disco – all of which I can make a decent go of. But something of a slow, stylized, Thai-esque, line dance.

As the guests of honour, I also learned that Mike and I were expected to open the dance floor. Mike smiled at me again as we got up to follow Kapono and his partner Aelan to the dance floor – a sort of coded apology for failing to forewarn me of this special privilege – and I smiled back. For what else can you do in front of forty watchful pairs of dark and merry eyes?

And so we danced. Or, more accurately, we shuffled after Kapono and Aelan, trying to imitate their tiny steps and fluid, twisting, hands. Above us a disco ball was generating a neon meteor shower – a hail of purple and green stars flashing across Mike’s face.

I tried. Aelan tried too.

“Look,” she said, slowing down her graceful fluttering and breaking down the moves for me. But in the five long minutes that we tripped in a circle to Nampang’s heartfelt wails, it was no good. One of my hands was supposed to twist in while the other faced out, and then they should have reversed. Here my thumb was supposed to be angled down – lightly kissing my first finger. There my fingers were to spread like a fan. I could master each of the poses in isolation, but I simply could not make my hands move simultaneously as they were supposed to – fluid and independent, in opposite directions.

I looked at Aelan again. She smiled.

“It is easy,” she said to me.

She meant to be encouraging.

I think.

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