Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
My husband and I are currently learning the Lao language and we spend 2-3 hours everyday having conversations with our teacher (who is from Laos) speaking only in Lao, five days a week. Well after five months straight of talking to the same person about everything from your personal background, to Lao culture and history, to world events, you tend to run out of things to say to one another. This sometimes takes us back to long forgotten memories as we dig deep within the recesses of our minds for new topics to discuss.
The other day the topic of dowries came up, particularly how different cultures have different requirements. In some cultures, the bride’s family must pay the dowry (pronounced ‘kaa-dong’ in Lao) and in others, the groom’s family must pay. This got me to telling our teacher about the time when my husband and I worked in South Darfur, Sudan. We worked in a town called Kass which was way out in the sticks only reachable by a United Nations helicopter because the road to Kass from the main city of Nyala was declared a ‘no-go road’ due to insecurity (we drove it anyway once, but that’s another story altogether). In Kass we opened up a new office and set up transitional development programs to help the Internally Displaced People (IDP’s), who had been forced out of their villages by the Darfur conflict, to rebuild their lives. We tried to help them do this with programs that went beyond handouts of relief supplies and more towards achieving self-reliance, alternate livelihoods, food security and personal safety.
We hired local Sudanese staff to implement the programs, one of whom was a man named Mohammad from the Dinka ethnic group of southern Sudan. They are particularly noted for their superior height. And Mohammad was really tall. Now my husband is tall for an American (6’3″), but Mohammad was even taller. One day he says to my husband, “Sir, I had to pay more than 20 heads of cattle in order to marry my wife because she is considered tall by our standards, more expensive than the average-height bride would require. Now you, Sir, (add ‘with all due respect’ asserted by a slight bow of his head) you must have married M’am here for free! She is so short!” Lucky for him, I have a good sense of humor and proud to be from the strong rice-picking stock of rural Thailand.
Our Lao teacher roared with laughter never having heard such a tale throughout her 30+ years of teaching Lao and meeting students who have been around the world many times over. I was amused by the intertwining thread of telling a foreign tale to a foreigner about a foreign land and a foreign culture using a foreign language. The common thread that tied us all together in that moment between a Lao, a Thai, an American, and a Sudanese was the universal roar of laughter that sounded the same back then in South Darfur, as it did just the other day here in our classroom.
When have you had a good cross-cultural laugh?