Saturday, February 21, 2009

Land of Smiles

I stick out in Asia. I have absolutely no hope of ever being able to completely blend in. I might as well be carrying around a large flag that reads "foreigner". This fact means I draw attention most places I go. There is rarely a moment in public that I'm not being watched. Yesterday at the grocery store two old ladies actually stopped and started to physically rummage through my grocery cart to see what types of food I was buying--and proceeded to ask me questions about some of the items. Hopefully, if you've been reading this blog long enough, you have no doubt of my love for the Chinese people. They are truly the most hospitable people I've had the privilege of interacting with. However, walking along streets in smaller cities in China can be quite unnerving. The constant attention and expressions of onlookers could easily be labeled from an American standpoint as angry stares. In China, it's not common to smile at other people, especially outside of your circle of relationships. When you meet strangers on the street, you don't smile and ask, "How are you?" Upon forming relationships and once you enter someone's home, this situation drastically changes. Yet when I'm out and about around the city, I've learned to in some ways ignore the stares around me.

I stood out in Laos as well. Consequently, I was also a subject of interest. Yet in Laos, those who looked at me did so with warm and friendly smiles on their faces. They had some of the most beautiful smiles I've ever seen, and their warm demeanor made it seem more like they were being friendly than like they were staring. I absolutely loved getting to meet and interact with the people. The slogan for Thailand is "the Land of Smiles", but whoever came up with that must not have visited Laos. The other characteristic of the Laos people that struck me, especially in comparison with China, was the laid back nature of the culture. Time just wasn't all that important. As the class bell rang, very few students were around and the teachers were still lounging in the office. About fifteen minutes later, the teachers leisurely made their ways to the classrooms. The classrooms were empty about twenty minutes before the last period of the evening technically ended. There seemed to be a great freedom from the compulsion to fill the day with as much activity as possible.

The scenery in Laos is almost as beautiful as the people. I was in southern Laos, in the city of Pakse, for about a week. The city is at the convergence of the Mekong and Sedong rivers. The elevation climbs up steadily outside of the city, leading to an area full of gorgeous waterfalls. Hiking out to one deserted falls was one of my favorite activities in Laos. There are few things more therapeutic to me than waterfalls surrounded by dense vegetation. All those hikes my parents dragged my sister and I on as children paid off.

While I thoroughly enjoyed getting a taste of Laos, I must confess the great comfort I had upon arriving back in Beijing. I had the same driver who had taken Kasey and Kurt around picking me up, and his smiling face waiting for me at 1:30 am made the realization "I'm home" wash over me. It was fun to get to chat with him in Chinese on the way to our headquarters in Beijing. My Chinese was a little rusty, but thankfully he's a very patient man! The feeling of home only increased as I got closer to my city.

I had a former teammate visiting this week, and now that she's gone vacation is officially over. I'm trying to get as much grad work done as possible before the craziness resumes. In addition, I'll be working on a listening curriculum for the semester this week. Back to the grindstone!

No comments: