When I arrived in Southeast Asia six months ago, I stepped off the plane with a “this is not my first rodeo” attitude. I was insistent upon not being lumped in with the backpacker crowd, with their elephant pants and unwashed hair. I considered myself a seasoned traveler, prepared for everything the next six months would bring. This bubble was promptly popped en route to my hostel in Bangkok from the airport when a taxi driver scammed me. This may not have been my first rodeo, but I was certainly no cowgirl.
Two days later, I arrived in Laos, my home for the coming months. A far cry from the bustling streets of Bangkok, Vientiane is a friendly, laid-back city, always filled with the smell of grilled meats and freshly brewed coffee, where you rarely hear the honk of a motorbike and you get a smile and a sabaidee (“hello” in Lao) from everyone you meet.
The first month was a blur of motorbike lessons, butchering Lao vocabulary and feeling constantly out of place. I was overwhelmed and constantly questioned if I had made the right decision in leaving my friends and family to move 8,000 miles away to a country I had never been to, with a language I did not speak and people I didn’t know. It would have been much easier to stay at home, but when I think about all I would have missed if I stayed where I was comfortable, there is no doubt in my mind that moving 8,000 miles across the world was exactly the right choice.
I expected my time in Laos to be similar to many of my other travel experiences: to learn a bit of a new language, try some new food and return home with souvenirs and the ability to ride a motorbike—but what I’ve gotten out of the past six months has been so much more than just a few new skills and a much higher spice tolerance.
What I didn’t expect was the amazing people I would meet and befriend over the course of six months—friends that have made me strongly question if I was ready to leave a country with not a single restaurant serving tacos (believe me, I have searched far and wide) and where it is routinely 110° Fahrenheit. I have made Lao friends, who have invited me to weddings and baci ceremonies, shown me how to cook tom yam soup and sticky rice, and taught me what Lao hospitality is all about. I’ve also made friends from Ghana, France, the Philippines, Réunion, Australia, and from cities I’d never heard of, that spoke languages I didn’t even know existed.
I thought that by living in Laos I would learn about Lao culture, and I have. I’ve learned that it's considered extremely unlucky for a gecko to fall on your head, driving on the sidewalk is permissible if you’re really in a rush and helping a stranger in need is what Laos is all about. But I’ve also learned that there’s a German word for missing a place you’ve never been to, Fernweh, a French word for feeling like a fish out of water when first arriving in a new country, depaysement, and a Hmong tradition called pov pob, in which a boy and girl toss a ball back and forth while chatting and getting to know each other. I've learned that some Buddhist monks are talented soccer players, and that monsoon season really isn’t all that bad.
When I left for Laos I thought that cross-cultural understanding meant understanding a culture different from my own, but even after six months, I can’t say I fully understand all the ins and outs of Lao culture; it would take years to develop that kind of knowledge and understanding. What I have come to learn, though, are the commonalities that link all cultures—how you can go out to lunch with people from four different continents and still laugh over the same jokes. This is the real basis of cross-cultural understanding: relating to each other based on what you have in common and developing an interest in what makes you different.
I am immensely thankful to the InterExchange Foundation for providing me with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and supporting me over the past six months with a Christianson Grant. I will hold on to what I’ve learned in Laos for many years to come and hope to share my experiences with others and build off of these skills as I enter into the next stages of my career. Sok dee (goodbye) and kop chai deu (thank you) to the InterExchange Foundation, Abundant Water and all of the amazing people I encountered who made Vientiane so difficult to say goodbye to!