What Laos has to say about Michael Brown

Even though I live on the other side of the world I still pay quite a bit of attention to what’s going on in America and honestly it’s not very encouraging right now. One event, in particular, seems to have risen to the forefront of everyone’s Facebook feeds and news articles: the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.  

I’m thankful to have gone through three very distinct chapters of life before moving to Laos and as a result I have friends across the whole spectrum. I often have opposite views being posted on whatever is the current issue of the day. I like this because I get to see what multiple sides are saying. The death of Michael Brown is one such issue that has galvanized all sides of my friends. I’ve seen a lot of anger from all sides and the more I’ve read the more I’ve realized Laos has something to say about this. 

Laos is completely different than America in almost every way. I had read tons of stuff about Laos before arriving but I stepped off that airplane having no real idea what was going through the mind of the average Lao person. Things happened I didn’t understand and no matter how much I tried I couldn’t make any sense of it. Two years later, I understand things better but it’s still not that much.  Understanding something different than you doesn’t take overnight but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. In two years, the thing I’ve discovered to be most helpful in this goal of understanding Lao people is to simply listen to them.  I can’t tell you how much of my time involves sitting down with Lao people, asking questions, and listening to their answers but that’s what it takes so I do it. I don’t always agree with what they say but as much as I like to think I know, I really don’t because my life experiences are so much different than the majority of Lao people. It’s a difficult process but I do it because I love Lao people and I want to understand them. 

So what does this have to do with what is going on in Ferguson? In all the articles, responses, and posts I’ve seen lots of passion and anger but there’s one thing people don’t seem to be doing. Listening.

Let’s be real for a second. I’m a white male who grew up with a very privileged life. It doesn’t matter how many black friends I claim to have there is no way I can relate to what kind of life the average black male lives. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that my life is as different from that kind of life as someone’s life here in Laos. For example, I don’t understand what it feels like to be stereotyped because of the color of my skin. I don’t know what it feels like to have everything I do, including how I talk and how I dress, questioned because of my skin. I don’t understand these things and no matter how hard I try on my own I won’t ever be able to understand them. I can, however, listen to those who do know what it feels like. That’s what Laos has taught me. Go to the people who have experienced the things you haven’t. Listen to them and do it with an open heart and just maybe you’ll be able to understand their actions a little better.  

Are we really doing that with the protestors in Ferguson?

A lot of people point to the violence that has come from the protestors but many of the protestors are saying they are angry because their voices haven’t been heard for far too long. Before you blame them for violent protest just think about how much blame lies with those who haven’t been listening. I don’t know what you believe about “life callings” but I know I have been called to love. I try to understand Lao people because I love them and I try to understand the people who are protesting about Michael Brown because I love them too.  I challenge those who read this blog to do the same. Many people are too afraid to listen because they think it means you give up your own voice but that’s not the case. Everyone has the right to a voice and a response but listening first will help you respond in a more knowledgeable way. 

I think we all want a more peaceful situation in Ferguson. There is a lot of anger and a lack of understanding. Laos has taught me that the best way to understand is to listen. 

Hello again, Cambodia

It’s done. I’ve said my final goodbyes and I no longer have my own house in the city of Pakse (although my Lao family has already told me their house will always be my house).  If my last onslaught of posts didn’t speak clear enough it was a pretty rough goodbye but that’s what you get when you love a place as much as I did.  It’s just part of it.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Even with so much emotion going on I couldn’t ignore the awesome things that will be coming up in the future.

Number 1 is the fact that I am currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  This place, by itself, is a pretty awesome place but it’s also where I was introduced to Southeast Asia.  If you’ve followed me from the beginning you remember I spent one month here before moving to Laos.  Even though I am slightly immensely partial to my Lao students my first students in Asia were actually Khmer.  Even though I only interacted with them for one week (I was taking classes the other weeks) I’ve always remembered how much fun I had in those classrooms.  Just like in Laos, the students here are in a perpetual state of smiling and I love it.  

I’m here to help new teachers as they train and if the teaching in the classroom is my favorite thing to do my second favorite would be to help others get into a classroom. Getting to see these awesome people begin to fall in love with Southeast Asia fills me up in ways I can’t even explain. I know I probably come across as slightly crazy and obsessed with the people in this part of the world but trust me, I’m not the only one. There’s just something about hanging out with people who have the same heart as you. 

It’s hard to believe but in just over a week I will be moving to my new home in Laos. Luang Prabang. It still hasn’t sunk in that I will be moving to one of the most beautiful places you could possibly live. But I am. And I get to teach more Lao students in the process.  How did this happen to my life? 

Stay tuned for more updates coming soon. In the meantime look at this picture I took from the Royal Palace here in Phnom Penh. 

If the picture looks crooked it’s just you. It’s straight. Trust me.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - 2014 
They call Cambodia the “Kingdom of Wonder”. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly centered around the fact that they have Angkor Wat but it also appears the Cambodian sky is making sure it’s not ignored. 

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - 2014 

They call Cambodia the “Kingdom of Wonder”. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly centered around the fact that they have Angkor Wat but it also appears the Cambodian sky is making sure it’s not ignored. 

Wat Phu, Champasak - Laos - 2014 

Wat Phu, Champasak - Laos - 2014 

Dear Pakse,

I’ve been meaning to write to you for a while now but I’ve kept putting it off. I didn’t really want to say what needs to be said in this letter.  But I can’t wait any longer because tomorrow I’m leaving and there’s some things I need to tell you. 

For the past two years I’ve called you my home away from home.  You were the front door to Laos and you couldn’t have opened up any wider. Your beautiful mountains and meandering river greeted me as I took my first steps in Laos and it was love at first sight.  It was you that taught me my first lessons of speaking Lao. You even let me wander around your streets muttering what few phrases I knew just so I could get over feeling terrified.  You also taught me how important and wonderful the smile is and showed me how beautiful the Lao people do it. You introduced me to sticky rice, papaya salad, and Mekong grilled fish…the entire thing still all in one piece. You taught me how to drive a motorbike and how there are really four lanes of traffic when the road only has two.  It was you who showed me that Lao people love karaoke parties, even if it’s 2 in the morning and that no one is too bad to sing into a microphone. You also took me to swim in some of the most beautiful waterfalls and allowed this history nerd to explore untouched, ancient ruins in the jungle.  There simply was no better way for you to have introduced me to this wonderful country. 

But most of all you introduced me to my students: the people who have captured my heart in ways I never expected. It was here in your city that I realized teaching is what I’m supposed to do with my life and that the Lao people were the ones I was supposed to teach. They encourage me to continue, no matter how hard the days are, and to see them grow into who they will be is something I will hold on to forever.  How could I ever thank you for showing me something so great? 

The capital and Luang Prabang, where I’m moving to, are the “crown jewels” of Laos but never doubt that you are an amazing place to me. Your laid back, loving people and beautiful nature should make you feel proud. I fell in love with Laos because of you and no other place can say that. Always remember you hold a special place in my heart. I’ll see you again, I promise you that. 

Love, 

Noah

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It’s time to say goodbye and it hurts.

In the past two weeks I’ve had to say goodbye to two groups of people I call family.  The first one was the one I was born into. They had no choice but to love me and I guess I’m kind of forced to love them back.  Good thing they are awesome and easy to love. They are a huge reason I’m doing what I’m doing here in Laos but saying goodbye to them is never easy. Especially the one that happened two weeks ago. 

Then, I had to say goodbye to the second group today. I like to call them the Lao side of the family because that’s what they are. Family….from Laos.  If it isn’t obvious, I’m not related by blood to these guys but that doesn’t matter at all to either side of this relationship.  

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Trying to describe in words how much these guys mean to me is pointless. I can’t do it.  I’ve heard it said your family are the people you should be most comfortable being yourself and this is true with them. I live in a foreign country where people speak a different language and have a culture that is nearly the exact opposite of everything I consider normal.  This means I rarely feel “comfortable” in the sense of being completely myself.   Not around these guys. Trust me, being comfortable is overrated but even with it’s positives it can be a little tiresome over long periods of time and so finding places and people where I can feel comfortable are very rare and precious to me. I can walk into their home, sit down for dinner and not even think about whether or not I’m eating the “American way” or the “Lao way” because this family doesn’t mind which Noah shows up. They just want me to eat with them regardless of how I do it. They’ve completely accepted this tall, lanky, and sometimes most of the time awkward foreigner into their family and have allowed me to see their culture in the most important and treasured of settings for the Lao people: the family. I can’t thank them enough for that. 

And now I have to say goodbye to them.  This isn’t the first goodbye I’ve said to them but it’s the hardest. I’ve had to say goodbye every time I’ve returned to America but this one is different. Returning to Laos always means I’m returning to them but that changes this year because I’m moving to Luang Prabang, which is, at best, nearly a two day bus ride from their village.  I can’t make anymore weekend trips to their house. I won’t receive any surprise visits at my house. Of course I will see them again but it won’t be like it has been the past two years. And being completely honest with you guys, it hurts. Really bad.  

I’m going to miss them but when I look back I can’t help but realize how full my heart is because of them. It hurts only because I’ve loved and have been loved even more. I’m ok with that kind of pain.  Not many people get the chance to even have one family that makes you feel that way but I’ve gotten the chance to have more than that.  I don’t deserve it but it’s a gift I will treasure. 

This isn’t the last you guys will hear of this family. They will continue to be a part of my story in Laos because once you become family you never stop. That’s why I keep going. That’s why I do what I do. And that’s why I love Laos. 

Mom. This woman is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. She gives even when it means she will have nothing and does it with a heart that only thinks of others.  The hugs you give because you know it’s what my family does in America means more than I could ever explain to you even if I knew Lao fluently. 

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Brother. The guy where it all started. Without him I would’ve never met this family. His selflessness for his family is humbling and his drive to better himself and his family encourages me to work harder each day.  I will miss seeing him every day at school, playing kataw, being his living English dictionary, and living everyday life with this guy.  

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I love you all.  

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In the village - Champasak Province, 2014

In the village - Champasak Province, 2014

Back….home?

They say home is where the heart is. If that’s true then it explains why my emotions are a mess right now.  

I’m back in Laos now and I couldn’t be happier. This country has my heart which is why I can call it my “home”.  But then I think back to America and the family and friends that still call that place home and I realize that my heart is also there. This was my third time saying goodbye to America and whoever said saying “goodbyes” gets easier was flat out lying.  It doesn’t.  So America is also my home.  Then, to top it all off, I have to say goodbye to Pakse which has served as my “home” here in Laos because I’m moving to a new city in just a couple of days.  Nothing is certain but chances are I’m going to fall in love with my new home just like I did Pakse. Because this is Laos. It’s impossible not to love it.  

There’s a reason I haven’t been posting as much. Part of it is because I’ve been in America the past two months but the other is because I just don’t know what to write. Whenever I sit down and write about what’s going on with my life in Laos  it just turns into the same thing. I’m extremely excited about moving to Luang Prabang. I’m extremely sad to be leaving Pakse. It’s just a lot of extremes.  So just hang in there. I promise things will get back to normal on here but it’s just going to take a little more processing. 

I plan on spending the next few days with my Lao family which will probably help with all that processing. There’s just something relaxing about spending time with them.  It’s going to be a good few days. 

I do appreciate you guys. So many of you have helped me get here and I am unbelievably grateful for that. Others of you have left messages or questions about Laos and just that little bit of interest means a lot. You guys want to know about this wonderful country and you come here to find out my perspective on it. That keeps this blog going. So thank to you as well. 

Here’s to year three in Laos. 

Sometimes when you live in an undiscovered place like Laos you walk through the jungle and see ancient ruins that probably haven’t been touched since they were built. This is my life. This is Laos. 
Also, I’m back. 

Sometimes when you live in an undiscovered place like Laos you walk through the jungle and see ancient ruins that probably haven’t been touched since they were built. This is my life. This is Laos. 

Also, I’m back. 

Why I still love America

You don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out that I love Laos. It’s pretty obvious and I’m not ashamed of it at all.  As a matter of fact, I’m probably a little obnoxious about it but I can’t help it. The thing is is that I’m not Lao. I’m American. And I’m ok with that because I love America too. 

There seems to be a trend of bitterness towards America for people who move or travel outside of America for long periods of time. There are plenty of reasons for this but I think the biggest is that we often see the faults and mistakes of things the more disconnected we get from them. You get away from America and you start seeing all it’s problems magnified.  You may have sensed them in America but all of a sudden every time you look back home you see faults and weakness.

Americans, believe it or not, are not perfect. We’re generally materialistic, selfish, and are more preoccupied with that corner office with the high-paying salary than wether or not the person sitting across the dining room table has had a good day.  And, yet, I can still sit here and tell you I love my country. How? First, because I realize no place is perfect. Guess what, Laos and every other country out there has problems too. America isn’t alone. Second, because hating a place just because you’ve found something wrong with it doesn’t make sense to me.  

I can find nothing useful from hating my own country. If I decided to choose hatred and bitterness for every problem I face then none of those problems would ever be resolved. Eventually I would back myself into a corner where I could no longer turn away and then I’m just stuck with a lot of disappointment and bitterness. You can’t escape the failures of this world. You can only stand and face them hoping to be enough of a change to make a difference. Unrealistic optimism? Maybe but it’s better than doing nothing. 

That leads me to the second reason why I still love America. I choose to see the positive things about my country. I don’t ignore the shortcomings but I don’t let them dominate my view of America. Yes, I’m an optimistic person. There’s no hiding it but that doesn’t mean I ignore the bad things. I just don’t let them control how I view things.

Just like no country is perfect I also believe every place has something good to offer. We often ignore these things because we are either stuck wallowing in our own bitterness or because we don’t want to see anything good. Sometimes it feels good to hate and we want to keep it that way. Hating just happens to get you nowhere and so I choose to find the things about American that I love.  Among many things, I’m grateful to be in a place that values equality and, in theory, strives for a society that respects you no matter who you are or where you come from.  I’m also thankful to have a family and community here that is loving and caring.  Without the generosity of the people here I would never be able to live in Laos. So, whenever I look back and see the problems of America I also see the things that make me love it. 

No place is perfect so running into problems shouldn’t be a surprise. What you do with those problem or what you let those problems do to you is the key. Really, it’s up to you. I decided to love my country.  

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