Saturday, November 28, 2015

On Special Times and Personal Growth

I've had some really interesting moments in Lao so far.  I am finding that my experience in Northern Lao often reminds me of my experience in rural Uganda.  In Vientiane, I was a half hour away from the Thai border, within 10 minutes of supermarkets that sold a lot of international, useful stuff, and it was basically just really comfortable.  Now, in Luang Prabang, I am living in a dusty (or muddy) little village with chickens, guard dogs, little village shops, and a similar rhythm that I found in Arua, Uganda.  I am a terrifying distance from decent medical care, and many other conveniences that I had in Vientiane (or anywhere else).  Biking home is like going on a safari sometimes.

I haven't been able to hear out of my right ear for a month, so I finally decided it was time to go to the doctor.  A few days ago I went to a local clinic and was a spectacle due to the amazing amount of ear wax accumulated in my right ear.  The doctor called in a few bystanders (other patients) to watch as he wielded a sharp object and proceeded to attack my ear with it.  Now, I'd been reading up on how sensitive and fragile the ear drum is, so I was terrified.  Every time he paused, he'd show me the grotesque amount of ear wax, and finally, I was pronounced as hopeless because he told me to go to the hospital and didn't charge me anything.

The next day, I biked to the hospital after school, and spent the next 30 minutes wandering the halls, attempting to read the Lao signs, and completely confused.  Finally I found my way to the "head doctor" in a dark holiday deserted save for what seemed to be an unconscious man passed out on a bench- like a TV ad for head injuries.  A grave portent indeed.  When finally reception seemed to open again (head doctoring only occurs after a lengthy siesta/lunch break), I pointed at the unconscious man as the obvious next recipient of health care, and the doctor clucked her tongue dismissively, poked him, and muttered something about beer Lao.  The man woke up groggily, and begrudgingly walked away.  Well.  I went into a little room where there were no less than 6 doctors/nurses chilling hard.  They examined my ear, clucked, and then started to heat up water to wash out the wax, switching off tasks with one another.  A few other patients came in to watch at this point.  And with an audience of 6 medical professionals and several patients, my wax was triumphantly blasted out of my ear with warm water in a syringe.

With my hearing repaired, I was ready to function again.  Unfortunately, the downside of having my hearing back meant that I was able to hear what my coworkers were saying over lunch, and now lacking the excuse of deafness, I also had to sometimes respond to them.  Besides a few very happy exceptions, the foreign teachers at my school are a bizarre bunch and not in a good way.  I spend my days avoiding interacting with most of them; three cheers for my behaviors of introversion and avoidance!  At some point, I'm really excited to work at a school where the staff isn't such a cast of characters.  I love me some bizarre humans but here in Lao it's common to meet expats who are bizarre in all the wrong ways, if you see my meaning.

Anyway, function I did!  I taught classes!  I started volunteering at an org to teach writing classes to adults!  I made a meal without exploding my house (reference: my entire kitchen could be classified as a fire hazard), I did my yoga, I learned Lao, I made some friends, I played sports, I took my grad classes...and on and on!  The list is truly amazing!  I had finally entered the "function" phase of living in a new place; you know, after you are mostly past the drinking wine for dinner while sitting on a sidewalk phase (this phase never truly in the past) or telling a barista that you'd like to fondle his head instead of a soy latte.  It turns out though, that in Lao, functioning is always tempered by a healthy dose of getting drunk under the table by...basically anyone really.  By the grandma selling noodles on the corner, by high school students, by my boss....What they never tell you about Lao is that one of the most salient traditions is that thou shalt always drink beer when asked to drink beer and be jolly and drink way too much like everyone else.  And doing anything less is like spitting on Lao culture.  So, my high functioning behavior of doing all these great productive things and not eating half-melted kitkats for dinner was balanced by my brave attempt to assimilate more into Lao culture, and allow my boss to continue adding beer lao to my cup forever and ever amen.

There's this other really important tradition in Lao where, when drinking beer lao of course, at any point an instigator (aka someone sitting next to you) can clink glasses with you and say "mot"-- a highly dreaded Lao word which means "all".  When you are "mot"t-ed, you are then expected to finish all of your glass.  Once again, I am not one for spitting on cultural traditions.  Unfortunately, as a foreigner, my chances of getting "mot"t-ed are quite higher than they would normally be.

Anyway, I believe, after a few accidentally beer-soaked weekends in which I left my house with the intention of probably sketching the sunset and getting in touch with my spiritual side and ended up metaphorically defeated, that I am now functional again, as I've discovered several strategies that help me to avoid drinking beer with Lao people.  Well, actually it's really just one strategy that works.  The other that I tried for a while was saying that I have a headache (seems legit, right?) but then people will just laugh and say that I'll feel better after more beer.  Another one I tried is saying that I've had enough thank you, I don't want more.  The responses to this have been varied, but mostly consist of either laughter, pretending not to hear, and always end in pouring me more beer.  So, the one strategy that I've been trying out, is not leaving my house.  So far, this has been going really well, and I'm happy to report that this weekend I haven't been prey to any "mot"s!

In other news, the temple next door to my house has really been stepping up their game recently, with the purchase of a loudspeaker and sound system, so now instead of gentle, lulling chants and drum beats, I get to hear what seems to be a 24/7 Buddhist rave session.  These guys must meditate a lot because their breath capacity is truly astounding.  I'm hoping that there's a specific celebration or reason for the loudspeaker and constant warbling, maybe it'll be finished in a few days, but otherwise, a whole new sound element has just been added to my life.  I'm desperately trying to figure out how to re-accumulate epic amounts of wax into both ears.

On the work front, I've been doing some truly impressive work at my school.  My students at this point in the year have somehow discovered that I am a smooshy pile of love and softness which they can sometimes take advantage of in various ways.  Most of the time this leads to math lessons ending early so that we can play truth or dare (which I am usually too happy to give in to), but last week it ended in a really special scene.  It was one of my student's birthdays, which automatically means your last lesson of the day will be a 'party'- a very loose term that consists of your classroom being turned into a cake-smeared carnival filled with 10 year olds pumped full of pepsi and sugar.

 So, something different about classrooms in Lao is that there are almost always dangerous activities afoot that would get me instantly fired and viral on the internet within 10 minutes.  Now, usually it's manageable amounts of danger; a stray box cutter or two being wielded by prepubescents to cut something for art class, a child precariously balanced on chairs stacked up on top of each other to reach the corner of my eyes I'll catch glimpses of such imminent scenes of horror almost every class period and often pretend not to see.

Anyway, at this point in the year, I think my students have also noticed how special I am at doing certain things, like using box cutters for example, so it's really safer this way.   On this particular day, a few extra elements of imminent death were added to my classroom, and at one point a few children were near open flames (lighting birthday candles with a mysteriously-obtained lighter), the usual pair of box cutters was on the loose (I think someone was hastily creating a birthday crown out of cardboard), AND a large butcher knife joined the happy party suddenly as my student Sok burst into the room wielding it with an insane smile on his face.  Keep in mind, that my success rate with large knives is good only because I have made the conscious choice not to ever handle them, so seeing my 10 year old student brandishing a knife as big as his forearm made me almost pass out into the cake he was about to expertly cut into pieces.  Happily, the danger passed, once the knife was put down and the candles were blown out, but then my students decided it would be a good time to start throwing smashing cake into each others' faces.  My students are very high-spirited.  Anyway, around this time I started to notice that my classroom had turned into a garish carnival scene, with children running around squealing with their faces filled with cake, and so I demanded a return to sanity.  Unfortunately, this call to order resulted in a sudden sugar-fueled stampede of efficiency, DO ALL THE THINGS AT ONCE! and the my students exploded out of my classroom with the sudden desire to clean their faces and return things to their places, and at this very moment, with children sprinting out of my classroom with cake-faces and Sok running with a butcher knife to return it to the kitchen, the head of the school walked past.

Anyway, I'm glad I work in Lao.

Personal growth has been incredible these past few months.  I've noticed that I've gone from being you know, moderately alarmed, by the nightly phenomenon where all the creatures of the Mekong crawl out of the river and come into my house- to quite laid back about it.  I consider it a good night when the waste basket monster's thrashing doesn't wake me up more than once, and when I don't accidentally get too close to the bathroom mirror when I'm washing my face and scare the komodo dragon who lives behind it.  I think now I know where most of my friends hang out at night, so I give them wide berth, and if they are being too rowdy, I'll yell at them to shut up and then fall back asleep.  The spiders are the easiest since they live everywhere, so I can always just assume that I'm hanging out next to someone's web. I have found that as long as I'm polite, the spiders don't need to be put in their place.

Sometimes so many steps forward in evolution are also accompanied by small hops backwards.  Mine so far have included my mysterious 'forgetting' of any bike mechanics whatsoever, which I'm fairly sure I invested some time into learning when I lived back in Minnesota.  This may or may not correspond to my discovery that my local bike shop mechanic is a babe.  The real test will hinge upon whether I mysteriously rediscover my knowledge of how to do basic bike maintenance upon return to the states.  I've been noticing all sorts of suspicious ailments with my bike recently that can only be addressed by visiting the bike repair shop.  When you come to visit, I'll make sure to dramatically find something wrong with my bike so that we can go to the bike repair shop together!

Happy thanksgiving to all!  I'm thankful for all of you.

Love and leaps ahead,