About two weeks ago my mom came here to visit me in Laos. A few weeks before that I spent most of my spare time researching things we could do. We both decided not to travel anywhere and just stay in town. I also decided to have a list of things to do, in no particular order. I wanted to just relax and do what we felt like doing when we felt like doing it.
Those few weeks at work were quiet. Andrea was gone from the office and most of the staff were doing the same, trying to fit in their vacation before everyone’s days were reset at the start of the new year. However, I did get to do some fun things. Many of the programs staff and other members in the office are part of an ethnicity in Laos called Hmong (pronounced with the h being silent). The construction team manager, Porxiong, invited Caroline and I to come with him and celebrate the new year with him and his wife. Before that, all the Hmong staff pitched in for a big dinner for everyone in the office to celebrate their new year all together. The dinner was really great. It was a time to celebrate the new year, Leslie (the country director before Lanoy) visiting Laos, and Lanoy just winning the basketball gold metal in the country wide, Olympics style, games for Laos.
The next weekend Caroline and I went to the Hmong new year celebration with Porxiong. He even got us some local clothing to wear. Both of these weeks were really special and I’m so happy to have such close friends at the office, who are probably better described as family as how much they make me feel apart of their organization and lives here in Laos. We did things from walking around and looking at people’s outfits, to playing a courting game with thrown tennis balls played as a Hmong tradition at these events. Caroline and I played a bit. I even played with some young Hmong woman and was quite worried she would be thinking I was trying to marry her. Instead she was actually quite distracted looking up at the stage and all around. I clearly wasn’t her type. One time I threw the ball, it hit her in the face and fell to the ground. I was clearly taking this too seriously. I would see her not looking and change the speeds of my throws. Hey, it was a serious situation, there were runners on first and second and I was worried about a hit and run. It’s lame I know, but I was off in my own head thinking about all kinds of things and trying to play different games to try and block out the fact that I was playing a marriage courting game (which is scary enough in itself), which someone who was not at all interested in playing with me.
The weekend before I went with Porxiong and got an early glimpse at this whole celebration and I was asking him all kinds of questions about his ethnicity and how they relate to each other and other ethnicities in Laos. We went to get papaya salad, a popular dish in Laos. We went to a few places and he scanned around before saying that we should move on. Finally, he found a place and almost instantly said we should eat there. Porxiong is very intelligent and detail oriented. He always asks me questions about my own culture and language that make me learn along with him. I found this the perfect opportunity to ask him why he chose this food place and not the others we passed. He told me because papaya salad is made better by Lao people then by Hmong people. Then, after a few more questions I found out he could look at people and tell what ethnicity they’re from in Laos. He also admitted even he gets Chinese people and Hmong people mixed up sometimes. That explains a lot, since they came from the southern part of China, not too many generations ago. He explained some general characteristics and I compared them to the people I work with. I started asking which ethnicity I thought some people were in the office and the only ones I got caught up on were actually a mix of different ones. Then, since it’s a Hmong festival, I tried to find people who weren’t Hmong and point them out to Porxiong. I’m actually pretty good at this. This is definitely a new game I’m going to play with Porxiong when ever we’re together.
For the rest of the Hmong New Year celebration we walked around and played a few carnival games before getting tired and getting ready to go home. The next week on Tuesday, my mom came and I took a half day vacation to help her settle in and get to know the town. I know she could do it on her own with a map, but I thought it would be more fun if both of us did it and she could just relax after the long trip. The whole time (almost two weeks) she was here was filled with so much good food, wonderful people, and fun activities. We did things from ride elephants, to taking a river boat to a place called the whisky village and 1000 Buddha cave. We even sat on a loom and weaved a placemat made of raw silk. All of this stuff was heavenly and way out of my price range of interest as not being a short term tourist. I’m so glad I did it all because it was relaxing and gave me a new perspective on Luang Phabang I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise (yes, in Lao it’s pronounced with there being no r’s at all, contrary to the prabang spelling seen in most places).
I’d have to say my favorite part of the trip was when I introduced my mom to the novice monk I met and became friends with. I told Som Chit, the Novice monk, that my mom was coming into town and he told me to bring her by because he would love to meet her and teach her about Buddhism and his temple in particular. On the Sunday she was here we went to his temple and he started with telling us stories about his temple in particular. Then, he talked about key characteristics of the temples and stories behind their meanings. We went inside the chanting and meditation room, with all of the Buddha statues and sat down together. We asked him questions like how to greet different people and how to pay respects to sacred places like the one we were in then. He told us that he has a present he wants to give my mom while she’s here. He walked up to the front alter and reached behind one of the statues to reveal a sticky rice basket. As he walked back to us, he told us that when he came to this temple, two years ago, he made this and every day for the past two years him and the other monks have been blessing/praying to what he made. He said he’s been saving them for someone special in his life, whom he knew would really appreciate the gift. He opened the sticky rice container and took out two pieces of yellow and white string, woven together in a beautiful and simple way. He tied the two pieces each around my mom’s and my wrists. My mom said she felt like she was going to cry. The moment was really heavy with appreciation and astonishment that someone in Laos would do something like this for us. I think he felt appreciation to have me in his life because he told me not many foreigners come to his temple and those that do probably don’t come back from weekend to weekend. I suppose I hadn’t really thought of that before. When he was talking about why the monks take alms food from the villagers every morning, two of the reasons were to teach people about teaching people by example how to live a good life and about generosity. For me that’s what this bracelet will remind me of, to be generous and to teach others through example, not through words. After all, that’s what I got from his generosity. He never told us to go out and give to other people, but instead he gave us something very special and showed us how it feels when someone is generous to us, leaving it up to us to be inspired to do the same for others.