Leaving the familiar behind in America and diving into Lao culture has thus far translated to increasing my capacity for spicy food & hot humid days, soaking up the beauty, and ‘cooling’ down my temperament to be sabai.
The national credo of ‘sabaidee’ means not only hello and goodbye, but it also takes on a greater meaning reflecting the simplicity of daily life and Laos’ high value on even-temperedness. Taxi late? Boh penh nyanh (no problem). A/C doesn’t work when it’s still 92 degrees at night? Boh penh nyanh. Presentation gone awry? Boh penh nyanh. What might easily set off a bad day in the U.S. is easily set aside as a meaningless happening here; daily life flows as languidly as the Mekong and so too must any mishaps. Problems are meant to be accepted, not to be solved.
I heard a saying on my second day here that is still echoing in my head: “The Vietnamese grow the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.” Listening is a key mission of mine during this trip so that I can deepen my knowledge of cultural similarities and differences, strengthen international relationships, and thereby, discover new aspects of myself. I think I might even make sabai sabai my personal mantra.
So far, listening has become manifest in many meetings and conversations. I’m still stumbling over my basic Lao phrases, and I think I’ve nearly mastered my wai (the joining of hands in an upside-down Y close to chest-level + a bow used for greeting), but these fervent efforts to separate myself from tourists have been warmly accepted by in my interactions with Lao people. In just two days, I have met with incredibly senior people in Laos including the national director of WWF-Laos, a professor and Vice Dean at the National University, and deputy officers at the U.S. Embassy. Their knowledge and expertise have been just as enlightening as their ability to keep cool.
With many work and adventures ahead, I’m keeping one main thing in mind: I am here to listen to the Lao listen to the rice grow.