Laos

I highly recommend visiting Laos.

When I was in Laos, I felt like I would’ve loved it there if it weren’t for the fact that I was born and raised in a developed country in the West. Having seen luxury cars, brand-name items in person, having been surrounded by ambitious, career-driven people my entire life, I’ve grown to want more, yet I’ve always wished that I grew up in a simpler place where people were satisfied enough with having a good family, living in a calm and collected community, where the man in the pinstriped business suit was a rarity, where everyone wore simple shirts, shorts, skirts, and sandals. If I started off in a simple place like the entire country of Laos, then maybe I wouldn’t be as stressed as I am now.

Vientiane is the largest ‘city’ in Laos. Vientiane was a place with a lot of makeshift markets, and outdoor restaurants with plastic chairs and dirty, old tablecloths with flies flying around constantly. There were hardly any traffic lights at all, no intersections, a lot of people selling produce on the streets. Vientiane could be discovered on foot in probably just an hour, unless one feels like taking a long walk around the part of the city where there were a lot of makeshift shops and restaurants, or, really, where people gathered to talk, or lie down and not do anything. Restaurants serving Turkish, Indian, American and French food could be found and air-conditioned convenience stores could also be found. Through the eyes of a Westerner, Laotian people would be perceived as ‘idle’ or a people that ‘lacked’ goals. The Laotian people were laid-back and quite content with the lives that they led. They were a very peaceful people, who loved each other and there wasn’t a person whom I encountered who wanted very much in the sense of anything physical and temporary. The locals didn’t find it any big deal to earn a lot of money, they didn’t even find it a huge deal if their children couldn’t get to school every single day, or pass exams with perfect grades. It seemed like being a good person was enough.

Because I already travelled to a good number of places by that point and I also grew up in a place where everyone was pressured to be either number one in terms of beauty, or money, or education, there wasn’t any way for me to just let this type of upbringing that so affected the kind of person that I was go. To be honest, I was never ambitious. I never wished to be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessperson or a professor, or politician. I did want to be a model or an actress just because I liked the way that the people in TV and movies looked. I make a horrible actress in reality and I haven’t wanted to be a model in a long time because I have bad skin. My skin is actually prone to breakouts and I also wouldn’t want to look worn out at a young age after years of putting on make-up. The other thing that I truly wanted to do was write. I’ve always wanted to write and I wrote short stories and poetry since I was a little girl. I used to even perfect my handwriting too. I used to draw, but I was more of a serious writer. Nothing that made much money, not the amount that my family would like for me to earn. I think all the time about why people in in Boston were into money and possessions, or other people pretty much in the developed world and even in many developing countries too. Since I was a child, I knew that I didn’t want to work so hard mentally. I would rather work physically hard (but indoors) than mentally hard. I also never felt that I was intellectually gifted enough, that I’ve never felt educated enough to even do that kind of work. Even when I was a child, I knew it because I was often behind my classmates in math and science, and even in vocabulary due to my lack of contact with other people growing up. None of the careers that I mentioned were anything that I ever felt a faint interest in. All I did was read. A lot of people definitely wrote better than I did, probably, but the thing was that I could write a lot. Especially creatively. I wrote more than any of my classmates did and I was the only one who never complained about having to do a writing assignment. Personally, I sometimes wanted my teacher to assign a larger number of pages to write.

I read for hours and hours, even when there were some books that I didn’t understand (because I was young and I lacked a lot of world knowledge). I spent summers writing, drawing, and dreaming. I didn’t go to good schools, so I didn’t gain any discipline in any way to advance my math, computer, science and other skills. If it weren’t for my mother calling me stupid and my wanting to prove her wrong and to keep her from attacking me, I wouldn’t have bothered getting excellent grades. When I was a senior in high school, I didn’t even feel like applying for colleges and at the beginning of the year, I actually told myself that I just wanted to travel the world. Just travel around the world like a nomad. I even wrote about having the spirit of a nomad inside of me when I was a sophomore in high school. I felt inspired by those people that I read about who wandered around the world, meeting random people as they went by and then moving on to a different place and yet another different place. Since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to leave home. I used to look at photos of children from around the world in their countries’ traditional dress and I read about the different foods that they ate and the rituals that they did. I looked out my living room window often and only wanted out.

Unfortunately, I was surrounded by modern technology (far too much of it), mass media, and people who didn’t look natural sometimes. People bought way too much stuff. A lot of that as rubbed off on me and has become an integral part of me. I, too, want to look nice, but I am not ambitious enough to get a great job and earn a lot of money to buy all the shoes and clothes that I want. I’ve tried to let go of some of this mentality, but living in a society where people place emphasis on physical appearance and social status, it has been difficult and my mind can’t release any of that pressure. The desire to want nice things is very alive.

I wasn’t innocent enough to want to settle in Laos. My heart wasn’t pure enough for me to be able to stay, to feel content in staying. Because I did so much before coming to Laos, I felt bored with how simple the people where. I admired the people who sat on the stoops of their open, tiny shops talking to fellow store owners, watching the days go by, and the tourists going rambunctious from drink and drugs. Such people earn little money from the items in their shops and they didn’t seem to mind. Everyone in Laos seemed to love each other. They seemed to help each other, and no one looked down on anyone. No one cared that anyone’s shoes were made of straw, or that they wore shirts and pants without tags in them. The whole country was like one big community. They were nice to each other. I thought that the Laotian people were beautiful because they were so free of anything that I grew up with in the industrial world. When those people had space to play, water to drink, food to eat, and a safe place to study, and a roof over them as they sleep at night, then what else did they need? What else did they want? When they had enough money to live on day by day, then what was the worry? They had neighbors; their own entire people who were accepting of one another regardless of anything. The country was one big family looking out for each other. They seemed young, child-like, but what did that matter?

I’m also reminded of an Indonesian family whom I stayed with for two weeks in their small town in East Java. They lived in a concrete home, without a flush toilet and shower, but they had two bathrooms with spigots and buckets that were used for washing. There were three children -two girls and a boy-, a grandfather, a man and wife, and her sister. They were devout Muslims. They were friendly with their entire community, who, in turn, were friendly to them in return. When the older daughter was sick, her parents didn’t pressure her to go to school or make her do any homework. Actually, she wasn’t in school for a while because she was sick (I don’t know what she had, but I also thought that she wasn’t just sick but tired a lot). The father said that education was an important thing to have, but it wasn’t the most important thing. He often talked about how trying to be good to yourself and good to others mattered more. He also said that it seemed like people in the Western world worried too much about things that he didn’t think were worth worrying over. Like in Laos, in his community, and in other communities in Indonesia, there was hardly any stress at all. Like in Laos, people didn’t have much financial worry, actually, people often helped each other, or they often understood each other’s situations, or the rules were actually bent a lot because in those cultures, rules weren’t meant to be strictly followed because every individual was different. Everybody had to follow the rules but people could only follow them in the way that they could. Basically, all the rules didn’t fit all, unlike in the West where rules were meant to fit all. When I was growing up, my parents told me that nothing but an A was acceptable and a B was only okay if the rest of the grades were As and I also had to go to school every day, even when I had the chicken pox (which my teacher explained to my parents that chicken pox was contagious and that I had to stay home) and when I had pain from my periods when I was a preteen, my mother had no sympathy at all and told me that I had to study as hard as I did as when I didn’t have my period (my mother never had any pain or nausea when she had her periods and she was extremely confused as to why I felt sick during my periods, hence the lack of sympathy; she was like a child who didn’t start her period yet whenever she saw me doubled over in pain when I was nine, ten, eleven years old). In that town in Indonesia, people were also happy enough to earn enough money to live day by day like in Laos. People smiled a lot like in Laos. The man in that Indonesian family told me that life was about enjoying each day that went. He said what was the point in harming each other or pressuring his children to be somebody or having a whole lot of money? He wondered why it seemed that in the Western world people didn’t care about each other. His wife also asked me if it was true that Westerners didn’t care about each other, that they were often suspicious of each other and didn’t believe that people had good intentions. They wondered how the West got like that. The man told me that Indonesians treated each other like family. It was a waste of time to dislike anyone. There wasn’t any feeling that anyone looked down on me at all. What mattered in those societies was that people did good for others, or if they couldn’t help someone at a given moment, then they had to hope for good things to happen to the people they couldn’t help. That man told me that his daughter knew a lot and she could learn at home in her own pace, why force her to finish assignments? Why force her to study when she was a good girl? He said that his wish was for his children to treat other people humanely. His wish wasn’t for his children to try to be better than other people, to be smarter than others, to outperform them in anything, but, instead, to not see life as constant comparison and competition but to treat everyone well because everyone mattered. A person was just a person. When people worked in Southeast Asia, the atmosphere was so relaxed, like in schools and hospitals. People often ate and chatted. Work wasn’t the priority, but community was still a priority at work. How different it is in developed countries or in countries that are in the process of developing themselves.

I’ve forgotten about those people in my days of anger and frustration after I left Southeast Asia. Long forgotten. I feel that the Western world is awesome in many ways but I feel that the Western world has ruined me at the same time. I can’t just say that I wish that I grew up somewhere else. In Southeast Asia, I longed for something more. In the West, I long for the same community feeling that I felt in Southeast Asia. I wish that the West wasn’t such an ambitious, materialistic, cold, heartless place.

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Deborah Kristina

Author of ‘A Girl All Alone Somewhere in the World’, ‘Confessions and Thoughts of a Girl in Turkey’, ‘From Just a Girl Grown Up in America’. (Amazon.com)