How to look good in Laos

I just stopped trying.

If you have ever had the courage to cry during an episode of  “What Not to Wear,” you have heard these words before. A tragic, tired mom, dressed in linen drawstring pants and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt comes undone in the safety of Clinton’s arms, while Stacy, looking so freaking cool with her grey streak of hair, places her hand gently upon our new friend as a proxy for us couch dwellers.

My immediate reaction to these women has always been pity. Oh, poor them, they became gross without even knowing it. I wonder if they’ll ever be happy again.

And then I was the one that stopped trying.

If you read my last blog, you may remember a certain segment where I briefly described my inability to match anymore. Every day I put on combinations I have never worn or seen, and every day I think, this is literally the ugliest outfit I’ve ever put on. And it doesn’t stop there.

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Typical work wear sans helmet hair and pink shoes. I can’t take myself seriously. I just can’t.

My hair… Maybe you’ve heard of helmet hair. It’s an epidemic that is rapidly spreading to those of us whose hair hasn’t built up strong immunities against the astronaut headpiece we wear to ensure safety from both moto crashes and any hope of romance in our future (like we needed to be reminded that the female to male ratio is a trillion to one here). Helmet hair is like bed head mixed with hat hair mixed with post workout head. Sweat + Bed head + Hat hair=Helmet hair.

My face… If Clinton and Stacy could see how I’ve given up on my face, well they wouldn’t even have time for crying. It would be straight to a scolding on how far I’ve let myself go. No tweezers for the eye brows, no powder for the uneven skin, no mascara, shadow, liner, gloss, or glitter. Boy would I pity myself if I were watching me on a TV.

I’ve never considered myself to be a particularly vain person. Of course I enjoy judging others based on my unattainable beauty indicator, but I would never hold myself accountable to the same standards. Thank goodness. But presently I am wearing hot pink shoes, a multi-patterned/multi-colored skirt, a striped holey shirt covered in dog hair, and of course helmet hair. And when I have the misfortune of looking in the mirror, I realize that I just stopped trying. Lucky for me, I don’t have you around to project your own unattainable standards of beauty onto me, or to think poor Emily, she became gross without even knowing it. Well, spoiler alert: I know it. I feel it when I wipe my face with the underside of my shirt and it is immediately stained with dirt and sweat (aka mud).

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Doggie photo bomb.

But there’s something to be said for relinquishing your beauty (if you ever had any according to my indicator) and trading it in for “practical shoes,” which is what mall walkers call Chacos. And that something is that (cliché ahead) beauty actually does come from within.

How did I come to this most monumental of conclusions? I stopped trying. At first, I was cautious. I prepared for an emotional breakdown every time I looked sideways in a mirror through gritted teeth and slit eyes. And the breakdowns did come. But then they went. What also came were new standards for normal, new practical shoes, new jokes to remind us that we have no where to go but up, and new peace that I am, in fact, beautiful. Well that was haughty wasn’t it? Nope.

Beauty is not genetic superiority or cosmetic application, but a soul who has been loved and made by the source of all beauty, the giver of life, and the one who has made all things beautiful in time.

So here I sit, in the aforementioned outfit, my hair more recently thrown into one of my classic messy buns with an extra drizzle of sweat running down my curly q’s, and I’m daring myself to go look in the mirror to see if I really believe what I’m writing is true. Because I don’t feel beautiful. I feel a lot of things, but beautiful? That’s down there with feeling clean, cool, and comfortable. But what I believe is that every day, while my body inevitably wastes away, my spirit breathes new life. Today I became more beautiful because I became more like my creator. It is my hope that I will become more beautiful tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and the next, and that in so doing the world may know true beauty as well. So skin, hair, and eyes be darned, I’ve given up on you, and truth be told, you didn’t put up much of a fight. But true beauty? The cliché kind that takes the polished and manicured, unkempt and sweaty? Toward that end I will never stop trying.

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an indirect answer to a commonly asked question

I get asked this question all the time: “What’s life in Laos like?” It’s a legitimate question, and I think it’s the kind of question people ask because they think it opens the door to “how I really feel,” but instead it sometimes reminds me of a sports reporter asking, “So what were you thinking when you took that shot with .06 seconds left on the clock, LeBron?” And LeBron usually replies with, “I was thinking, please go in.” Which is similar to my go-to response: “Life in Laos is life.”

Is that statement true? Yes. Is it how I feel about living here? Yes. Is it a crappy answer? Yes. Is there more to be discovered about my life in Laos? I’m glad you asked.

The reason that LeBron and I have so much trouble answering questions like that are because buzzer beaters and my equally exciting life in Laos are things that are happening to us. If I had watched my life instead of living it, I could tell you a million details about what it is like. But to me, my life here is still my life. So how on earth do I accurately portray what in tarnation my life here is like? I thought I’d make a list. This list is a way that my daily routines have changed since living here. These are the things that when I do them, I think “When did this become normal?” I have chosen to make this list now because more and more I find myself asking if I always shook my clothes out for mosquitoes, or did that just start here? And I don’t want to forget how my life has changed. For the better, and for the infinitely more interesting albeit annoying (at times).

Amendments to my every day routine that may give a more accurate representation of what life in Laos is really like:

1. I clean the sink after I wash my hands. This is something I do because my hands are so dirty every single time I wash them that I splatter brown splotches all over the bathroom.

IMG_26792. I have no alarm clock. My alarm is either little Jack Shephard impolitely asking to be fed or his neighbor puppy best friends, Steve and Little Steve, doing a dramatic doggy monologue on life at a puppy mill, a life they will never know because I’m certain they were born in a rice field or under a motorbike or blossomed from a magical tree that accounts for the inexplicable number of dogs in Laos.

3. I wear “shower shoes.” I never really understood this until I lived in a country where the shower is smack dab in the middle of the bathroom. No curtain, no door, just right next to the toilet so that every time you rinse off, wash your hair, shave, what have you, the floor is sopping wet. Then you have wet feet which turn into muddy feet because everywhere and everything is dirt. everything.

4. My eye for fashion has changed. This is a dangerous one. I refuse to be the girl that comes back to America in a denim jumper and turtleneck. However, in Laos we are required to wear a traditional Lao skirt called a sinh that has intricately woven patterns and are actually pretty fun. The problem is that I have begun dismissing all colors and patterns that might potentially match because, that’s what you do in Laos! I must try to remember that there was a time when I wore matching outfits and not clothes whose color schemes would rival that of a 3-year-old’s choice crayons to fill in a coloring book about zoo animals.392979_4229036211563_377607903_n

5. My nightly routine has gotten longer. My nightly routine used to be: brush teeth, blow nose, get in bed. Now my nightly routine is: shower (an absolute must), brush teeth, blow nose, clean bathroom floor, sweep bedroom, wash feet, dry feet (we have a foot towel that gets more use than the hand towel), and lastly, it is of the utmost importance that my bed has every speck of dirt wiped from its surface. And every night when this happens I zealously yell at Lauren like she is the one responsible for placing individual dirt particles on my blanket, “If I could change one thing about Laos, it would be that this stupid bed would have no dirt on it ever! Do you hear me?! Do you even care?? ” And then I continue wiping my bed with the same focus and bizzareness as a dog circling its bed 50 times before laying down for the night.

6. I drink more. Water that is. After every class, I find myself needing to guzzle the good stuff because I talk so slowly and loudly that my voice actually is more exhausted than if I were saying triple the amount of words. However, I also get the joy of being greeted every class period by my students standing up and saying “GOOD MORNING TEACHER!” and watching them laugh and sweetly (at least I like to think it is) shake their heads as I realize I forgot my marker for the millionth time. Then I sneak back to the office to grab said marker and one last swig of my water.

7. I eat breakfast food a lot. I don’t like Asian food (you and every person who has ever met me just said “Then why did you move to Asia?”)  so I find little ways to avoid it at all costs. And as eggs are easier to get my hands on than a Western Bacon Cheeseburger, I go with breakfast. Sure I’ll eat fried rice happily, or munch on some spring rolls, but when it comes to authentic Lao food, I get weirdly full. I do enjoy sitting with people while we eat it though because I mean, it’s part of the culture. They probably just talk about the giant white girl who is trying to lose weight by not eating as I politely nod and comment on how good the water is.

IMG_27518. I drive around on a motorbike. Everyone in America who I tell this too thinks I’m awesome. Everyone in Laos who sees me doing this thinks I’m a joke. And I pretty much am, looking like I did when I was three and determined to fit in one of those mini Barbie Jeeps made for normal sized kids.

There are ways my life hasn’t changed. I still lose everything. I never answer my phone. I never ever skip brushing my teeth. I apply deodorant liberally and religiously. I never sleep through the night. I am happy, content, and would choose to be nowhere else if given the option. And so has my life in Laos changed? Yes. It changed the moment I got off the plane and understood that, once again, I am the weirdo. And so I have adapted. I have learned to fill the washing machine with water from our soup pot and to remove my shoes before I go inside shops and houses. And I have learned that not a single Laosy quirk or habit has made me miserable (for long). It has made me love it all the more. And so there. Maybe  the best answer to “What’s life like in Laos?” is “It’s freaking weird and hot and dirty and the absolute best Laosy life I could have asked for.” Except for that darn dirt in my bed!

Ain’t no party like a Laosy party!

This weekend, one of my friends threw a party. I had originally believed the party was scheduled for Friday evening, but due to what I assumed was a communication error (because it pretty much always is), I received no further information on the time or place of the event. Thus, my weekend was kicked off not by kicking off my Sunday shoes but with a melatonin and an extra hour of A/C (Laos has really brought out my wild side). Then Saturday evening I got an invite to attend the party on Sunday morning.

Me: “Wait, I thought the party was Friday night?”

Joy: (Lao music drowning her out) “Yes! Big party!”

Me: “So wait…is this the same party?”

Joy:”Yes! Big party!”

Me: “So tomorrow…it’s still the same party?”

Joy: “Yes! Big party!”

On Sunday morning, I arrived expecting to find the remnants of what had been a fun but tired two-day celebration. I instead opened the car door to hear music so loud that the gravel was dancing off the ground just like in The Lion King before the wildebeest come stampeding down the canyon to destroy Simba’s life. Happily (and unlike Mufasa), I was not a casualty of the earth shattering beats, nor a lone straggler joining too late in what had been a never-ending-rager, but another body to fill a chair, glass to be toasted, and voice to blend in with the terrible music that turned out to be Lao karaoke. And so I did. I told my best stories in Lao (which are, at best, terrible stories), raised my glass of Pepsi, and avoided the shame of being the white girl who tried to sing an Asian love ballad as the wives crowded around the microphone, sloshing their BeerLao onto each other while attempting to consume their beverages and sing simultaneously.

As the de facto wallflower foreigner, I watched the party that never ended continued to live up to its name. Parents looked like my sister-in-law at a Bon Jovi concert, people who were at work this morning looked like UK fans at a tailgate, and I looked like the kid who’s never played cornhole who just periodically toasts her Pepsi to the participants. And I loved it (because I suck at cornhole anyway).

No blog could contain the awesomeness that was the party that never ended, but it would be incomplete if I did not insert this detail. At some point during the day, a man emerged from the back of the house carrying a black garbage bag. I assumed its contents to be garbage. Wrong. Upon seeing him, everyone stopped. A woman shrieked. The men jumped out of their chairs. Children emerged from bushes like mythical creatures from Narnia being summoned by Aslan.

I HAD to know what was in this bag. I went with the crowd and stood up to get a better look, unsure of whether to trust this man or to be scared of him. Then at last, my Lao Santa Claus reached into his bag and started to disperse what was inside.

If you’ve ever been to a crappy professional athletic event, then you know what the highlight of the game is: the t-shirt cannon! You wait all game long to see if mascots in training will launch an oversized white wrinkled t-shirt your way, and when they come, the stadium rings louder than it has all night. And you WILL catch a t-shirt and you WILL wear it to sleep in for years before cutting it into pieces for use as a rag.

This is what was inside the garbage bag. However, instead of oversized and wrinkled, they were miniature and collared. But, having been the recipient of more than one cannon borne t-shirt, I yelled and cheered until I made eye contact with the garbage man who took pity on the foreigner and made sure to throw her the largest size he had. After all the shirts had been divvied, the karaoke returned, but not before every woman ran to try on and model their party favors. Afraid of coming out of the bathroom with my stomach completely exposed (because a size “L” in Laos is a size xxxs in America), I left the shirt to be unveiled to Lauren, who then coerced/blackmailed me into wearing it out. Yes, it was too small.

As I left the party, it continued on, having suffered no blow from my departure. I have wondered at different times today how those people’s Monday’s went. Many probably woke up at 6 to give alms to the monks. Many got their children ready for school before piling the whole family on a motor bike with no time to spare. Others went to jobs as surgeons, government officials, businessman, and teachers (whoop whoop!). And while these are parts of their lives that may be inseparable from their overall identity, I will never see them as overworked and under rested 9 to 5ers. To me they will always be the guy that kept refilling my glass so I didn’t feel left out for not drinking BeerLao or the lady who sang so loudly into the mic that the sound system nearly blew. They will be the ecstatic crowd squealing over t-shirts that were immediately donned so they could be matching in group photos. They will be the life of the party that never ended, and I’ll drink (Pepsi) to that!

Why Laos??

Dialogs that precede this question:

Me: “So yeah, then I moved to Laos.”

Me: “No, no, not Taos. That’s New Mexico.”

Me: “Yes, that’s right, a Master’s Degree.”

Me: “Was that a snake or a giant worm?”

I get this question all the time. And depending on any number of variables–(organized by importance in descending order) temperature, what I’ve eaten that day, my state of cleanliness, the number of times I’ve said the words bow kao jai (I don’t understand), and how often I’ve forgotten to bring toilet paper to the squatty potty–my answer will change in tone only; which is to say it will change a lot.

If you yourself have asked me this question, I am confident that the answer I gave you was honest and true. I will save us time by not repeating it here, because if my answer was as heartfelt as I believe it to have been, you won’t have forgotten it. Not because it was so profound that you tattooed a direct quote from Emily Buikema to your bicep, but because people like you have cared enough to ask me the question that I all at once dread and jump at. And people who care to ask “Why Laos?” can store away my embarrassing insights to be called upon at a time when it’s appropriate to just simply remember Laos.

It’s people like me that are the forgetful ones. When a solitary ant on my toothbrush leads to a huff which leads to a tear which leads to a meltdown and some extreme morning breath, I am the one asking myself “Why Laos?” And I hear the sarcasm in my voice that really isn’t sarcasm at all, and so with as much dignity and sincerity as I can muster (which isn’t a lot), I give myself the same honest and true answer that I gave so many of you. And I sound as sarcastic as I would if I were telling my students I feel short in here, but the root of all sarcasm is truth (except when telling your students you feel short in Laos). And slowly, through eye rolls and swishes of mouth wash because that breath has got to go, I remember why. I remember that it wasn’t because of the ants or the sweat or the food or the dirt or the routine emotional breakdowns whose unexxaggerated example I have just described (also, that is not sarcasm).

I came to Laos because I love answering that question of “why?”. Because I love remembering what I have forgotten. Sometimes I forget toilet paper. Sometimes I forget to close the screen door before our house becomes a hub for every West Nile, Dengue, and Malaria carrying mosquito on the planet. Sometimes I forget why I came to Laos. But it only takes one question. “Why Laos?” And again I remember. Better luck next time with the toilet paper, though.

Language snafus for the impure of heart

Errors in language are a dime a dozen here in Lao Lao land. Whether you’re a foreigner made more idiotic in your attempts to look like a local, or an ambitious native studying the 1st conditional (something I didn’t know was a “thing” until last week. FYI, it’s basically statements that start with “if”).  Nothing gives me more empathy for my students who call me “sir” than knowing I once told my Lao teacher she was “mine.” Or the time I said my parents were a little bit dead. Or the time I tried to tell Lauren “come here” and instead said “marry me.” 4 months of Lao classes and a shotgun wedding later, I am now the one who must remain stoic in front of my students as I read things like, “If I sleep, I am a panda,” and “Don’t try, I care that” (take my advice and don’t over analyze that one).

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My new stomping grounds.

Then there are the “R” rated slip ups. And these are more an indicator of where you rank on the grown-up scale than they are a test of your knowledge of the English language. I faced one such scenario only yesterday, and my ranking would have been pubescent boy. Before you continue, I suggest conducting a similar survey on yourself to find your own level of maturity. If you determine yourself to be above a 30-year-old, continuing to read may have you rolling your eyes or tsk tsking through the computer screen and into my soul, leading me to shame and tears.

Yesterday’s topic in class was “Love or Money?” Students were given the task of describing what they would do  if they were either rich or in love, and then asked to write their answers on the board. Quite happy with myself that they actually seemed to understand the task, I watched from the back as pupil after pupil walked up and wrote their answers. When at last they were nestled all snug in their chairs, I began to read aloud:

“If I had money, I would give it to my parents” (awww).

“If I had money, I would buy a plane.”

“If I had love, I would take care of my girlfriend” (the women swooned).

“If I had love, I would service her forever.”

Uhhhh what did I just say? I looked back at the board and sure enough, without processing it in my head I read to my students “If I had love, I would service her forever.” Now is the point where you really find out who you are. Do you carry on, correct the mistake, and give no hint at what your innocent wide-eyed (yeah right) student just wrote? Do you explain the meaning of what they actually said like some doctor explaining the symptoms of anal fissures? Or do you this:

“BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA you said service! HAHAHAHAHAHA.”  Tears. Followed by more uncontrollable laughter. Let me interject myself here and explain what I mean when I say uncontrollable. The volume of my cackle, the throwing back of my head, the gut heaving breaths, and my bladder. All uncontrollable. I am a serious laugher (is that even possible?). And while I found

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myself experiencing every aspect of uncontrollable laughter, through tear filled eyes I was able to see my students laughing with me. So I threw my head back, I cackled my witchiest, I tried to catch my breath in giant heaves, and I did my darndest to hold perfectly still to prevent myself from coming unhinged altogether.

When I came to, I wiped my eyes with one hand and replaced “ice” for “e” with the other. I avoided telling my students what had been said, but my solemn reaction probably gave it away. 20 minutes later, after a game in which my students gave themselves the team names of “Quart”, “Angel and Evil,” “Photocopy”, and “Monogamy” (in keeping with the days theme, “Team Monogamy” won convincingly), I wished my students a happy end to their week and left class to go to the bathroom at last. As I walked out, several of my students yelled “Teacher, I love (also pronounced lub) you!” Flattered though I was to be receiving such affection, I held off on reciprocating, because if there’s anything I know about English students, it’s that they only want one thing…

Bloggy Blog

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He’s like a bajillion on the cuteness scale.

August something, 2012: Created a new blog account.

August next day, 2012: Looked for cool blog layouts and then decided having a blog is too much work. No cool layouts.

September 2012: I should really activate that account.

November 2012: …

December 31, 2012: I resolve to blog next year.

January 1, 2013: Looked for more ideas. Came up empty. Resolutions are hard.

January 6, 2013: Trusty sidekick and social media wiz Lauren finds me a cool layout.

January 7-19, 2013: What do I write?

January 20, 2013 (12:20 AM): Write a blog about blogging. In this blog I will attempt to share all the things that slip through the cracks in my newsletters and updates. If you do not like things like Laos, cute German Shepherds named after Lost characters, red heads, and heart warming tales of love overcoming the chasms of space and time, well you are certainly not a dog-lover, Lao person, or red head, and may not have love in your life, and thus have no interest in my Laosy blog. To everyone else: welcome to the publication of my inevitable failure of a resolution! At this rate I will write one blog every 5 months. See you all in June!