Unfortunately like most high schools in America, my school did not offer Lao as a language we could start to learn in the ninth grade. There were the usual options such as Spanish, Italian, French and even some languages I thought were exotic at the time like Russian and Chinese. Lao simply didn’t make the cut, and it’s probably no surprise to you as you probably have never even heard of Laos, much less pictured yourself on holiday there.
I bring this up because today when I was at the day market trying to buy some textiles I got to negotiating the price with this Laotian woman, the typical South Eastern Asian way. She said a price, I haggled, and she responded in Lao. I looked at her amid all the chaos of dogs and roosters running across the road, puzzled. She repeated whatever she had said once again in Lao. Still to avail, did I in that last moment learn fluent Lao. Once again I responded by looking increasingly puzzled. She then replies to me in english this time, “you don’t speak Lao?” I felt like saying I’m a five foot eleven white boy from New York City, do you think I speak Lao? But instead I laughed and told her I did not indeed, speak Lao.
I thought in that moment that if I learned the language of every country I have visited in the last two years alone, I would know more then thirty different languages. And while some languages are extremely useful to know fluently wherever you go in the world, some are sadly not. Not everyone in the world is going to speak Lao, Khmer, Vietnamese, or Thai, but pretty much anywhere you go in the world English is somewhat spoken and/or partially understood. It is the de facto default language that everyone can switch over too, when perhaps their native tongue is not understood. It is a language of ease and comfort for many, and for many more the language that promises the dream of a better job in their country, a sign of wealth, or a better future for themselves, or their families.
And it is as Americans (or Brits, or Aussies or whatever country whom also speaks english as their primary language) that we wake up everyday and take knowing English for granted, without even thinking about it. It’s the language that we have been taught in school all of our lives, and just growing up knowing it has already made us so much more advanced, in ways most of us don’t even think about. It’s become somewhat expected that when we travel, other countries will default to speak in English and our lives will be made that much easier. It becomes expected, and is often times slightly ignorant on our part.
People always say the French are rude, because even though many of them speak perfect English, many of them will refuse to speak to you or help you. However one has to look at it from the opposite perspective; would you want to lose the culture and enthrall that surrounds such a beautiful language by always choosing to speak English instead? And with languages getting lost over time, how can we be sure that any one language is impermeable to extinction? And how can we decipher when we are just using our English skills to help one another, rather then an official means of language.
But enough about wondering and hypotheticals, that moment where this Laotian woman genuinely wondered if I spoke Lao or not, really stood out to me. It reminded me of something that perhaps every traveler needs to be reminded of, that the whole world does not speak English, and even if they do, nor do they speak it as their native language. As travelers, as backpackers, we traipse around the world with no boundary or barrier, often all too consumed in our own travel plans to absorb, take in, or understand the beauty of other languages. We want English, because to many of us English is simple. English is comfortable.
And as I endlessly roam the streets of downtown Luang Prabang, I reflect on my first day in Laos. Laos can be hard to understand at first, quite a bit different then the Western world. Much like my experiences in Myanmar (Burma), there are no modern conveniences that we are use to like ATM machines, grocery stores, 7/11s, or fast food places. Just this morning I was roaming the streets looking for an ATM so that I can get some of the local currency (Kip), to buy breakfast. Once again to no avail, I decided that I was hungry and needed something to eat soon and would figure out the currency situation later. As I passed by a restaurant (I use that term loosely as this place had no walls or doors) on the street, I told the woman working that I had only 20,000 Kip but I also had $1, and some Thai Baht to pay for breakfast if that would be alright with her. Luckily the woman agreed to take my United Nations of a wallets currency, and thankfully so. I ended up finding an ATM later on this morning but it was about a mile down the road from where I originally was. However if that situation happened back home in New York City and I only had Euros and Pounds in my wallet, you better bet I would have went hungry that day.
And it’s in the multitude of moments I have every time I come to Southeast Asia that I realize to some, life is so much easier. Life is not always technology and innovation as we know it, while sometimes it is about simplicity of life and creating moments around it. Just this morning I watched a little boy ask his father to buy him a ballon so he too, could participate in the Luang Prabang festival. The boys reaction when his father told him yes that he could have a balloon, was absolutely priceless. I can not remember the last time I have seen such joy on the face of some one, especially from just a balloon.
But I guess the point I am trying to make here is that the world is so different. The world is not one big giant cookie cutter, and thankfully so. If we don’t get out there and experience it, then we will never know what we are all missing. So take the risk and stop thinking about whether or should you not. After all I did and no, I don’t speak Lao.
Until next time, XoXo.