Not certain if my memory of Phongsaly is real or fake.
Because the ends and starts of the conversations I observed in Moutern seemed similar enough that I think I might be misremembering the whole thing.
In my memory, discussions followed a schematic: a greeting and introduction (delivered in a particular fashion and with particular physical posturing), then the conversation proper (when the back-forth of the speakers’ exchange falls into a repetitive pattern where one person speaks while the other listens and performs reactive acknowledgement), and finally the winding down of the speaking (when sentences are short and staccato until one party chooses silence).
The beginnings and ends, with their apparently more defined behavioral rules, seemed to resemble each other because of those rules — likely because I couldn’t understand a single word being spoken.
Which might be why my retelling of a few days in Moutern Village reveals only about as much as a rough conversational framework — only outline and no specific. My (re-)imagining of the thing obscures all the subtleties in peoples’ words and intonation and humor that existed in the moment but were misheard by me.
And when you multiply my lack of understanding by the weight of each Mouternian storyteller’s opinions and experiences, it’s easy to see how much spirit is lost in my reinterpretation of their tales.
But because “everything changes once it’s spoken aloud,” the alteration/corruption of a story’s meaning during story-listening comes with the territory. It’s unavoidable and alright.
So the fact that spoken words will always be slightly misread means that decent conversationalists are those that have the wherewithal to let others be whole, multi-faceted, lumpy-clay humans regardless of how they understand others’ words. It means that, if those words don’t please them, they leave things as is and come back later with compassion rather than a will to immediately conquer.
In Moutern, like everywhere else, each dialogue of each conversation plays out every day. Some dialogues involve more back-and-forth than others. Others less so — mostly just one person asking questions and the rest speaking the whole time.
After a while, I started to create stories for what I thought people were saying, and the gestures and comportment they presented somehow seemed to fit what I was already imagining.
A friend once described tales as woven magic with words, and I agree that the specific words we use when telling stories often interlink and patchwork together. However, that’s not to say that the mannerisms that deliver that woven magic aren’t the things that draw us into a story in the first place. The delivery of a story might even be what truly binds the listener to the teller and their history.
The only conclusion then is that the storytellers in Moutern bound me to their stories rather than the other way around.
So it follows that my wordy descriptions to Moutern are potentially less telling than the method that my cloud eyes and bone shoulders and ink fingertips employ to transmit those words.
Nevertheless, the words used to describe Phialor and Phongsaly are all individual components in a broader important conversation about those places.
At the risk of overinflating my own stories and storytelling, my being in Moutern speaks to something more general and less singular than my one specific instance.
Bluntly, I think it speaks to how much our societies are still colonized and not discussing their colonial structures with each other — especially not with the people who live in the Phialor Cluster of villages in Phongsaly Province, Lao PDR.
It speaks to the way that money, status, power, and prejudice allow some people to unfairly have more access to the trappings of our Twenty-First Century than others, to be sure.
This blog is an example of that.
When I make my descriptions to Moutern, it’s because I was given enough room to be able to create those descriptions.
There was no formal invitation or agreement to be inspired by Phialor and then broadcast the lexical manifestations of that inspiration; I’m doing it on self-defined terms. There’s no conversation occurring — not like those with the somehow agreed-upon rules.
Meaning that I am at least partially a presumer, a sympathizer of the system, closing my fog eyes while perfunctorily opening both lips.
And while we all agree that there are certain scenarios when it’s alright to perceive external information and then report it to some other space, that doesn’t mean we’re allowed to ignore parsing out scenarios that shouldn’t be perceived and reported.
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Naturally, some of the tale-tellers of Phialor stick out. In my experience, the two most important tale-tellers speak Rshi and Lao as well as some Thai and English.
These two deserve a novel.
If I were the one writing it, I’d open with an anecdote about how she would playfully slap his upper arm and how he was always smiling and mumbling something just loud enough for the others to hear. He was a jokester and she was a prodigy.
The jokester came back one day with his face all stung up from collecting bees for our dinner. He laughed at himself as he retold how he managed to fend off a swarm of angry bees fighting to defend their hive from the human interloper. His wife, a woman who could likely bench-press more than him and dissolve Phialor Mai’s eternal morning mist with her smile alone, stirfried them in light sauce and poked fun at his beat-up visage.
The prodigy was confident in most any situation and didn’t need humor to prove it. At one point, she was communicating in three languages and leading conversations with villagers twice her age. Her maturity and acuity were immediate. She was planning to go to university in the city and then brought those plans to fruition, which surprised no one.
Her bosses were several notches below her level.
One of them was a Kiwi in her late 30s, tawny brown hair as flyaway as her demeanor. She considered others’ perspectives and gave them credit for their views. She didn’t assume that challenges were also barriers. She picked up the phone.
The other was Canadian, early 40s, with glasses that frame his gaze in a way that emphasizes his ability to look you in the eye. He listened with head and heart to display a type of well-meaningfulness. He had faith.
Our host, a man of few decades, seemed to select both words and actions with deliberation. In the evening, he put down three thick mats with a blanket each and hung up mosquito nets for us. He offered us rice whiskey at every meal (including breakfast), raising his brow as he extended the small shot glass to his guests one-by-one.
He spoke a bit of Lao and asked the prodigy I had accompanied how good my Lao was. She chuckled and told him an answer.
His mother returned and spotted me, the speaker-of-only-one-phrase-in-Rshi, sitting in her house. Squatted down on the bamboo mat and gave me a direct look and then, without shifting her gaze an inch, asked the prodigy how old I was. When it came out that I was the same age as her son, she laughed hoarsely. She had thought I looked more like the age of my soul (approximately twice my physical age).
At that point, I think both our host and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between our two very different lives. He took down a framed picture of him and his wife at their wedding in Vientiane and showed us. I remember him telling something and smiling small.
Now and then I wonder how they’ve been going.
Doing their thing every day, I wouldn’t mind visiting and bringing a small gift from my Californian home and hearing them tell their stories of what’s happened in the two-year meantime.
No doubt I’d fail to understand the words, but such is storytelling’s mutable nature: the hearer can hear something different than what the storyer thinks they’re storying. But personally, I’m not quite sure if it even matters: the sheer number of people telling tales at any given time enthusiastically confirms storytelling’s legitimacy regardless of if the audience comprehends the insides of those tales.
So it’d be nice to be back in their audience someday if they’re alright with that and once again misinterpret what they’re saying.
On a couple rainy days in the Phialor Cluster, I spent a large amount of time staring into a blue laptop screen and using far too much electricity. I was coding survey data from sets of stapled papers filled out with ballpoint pens, construing people into numbers in a spreadsheet.
Their refractory lenses — binocular visual organs that flipped visible light into invisible mental image — had been converted into the illuminated liquid crystals of the flat display in front of my face.
They had broken like glass when my ink fingers started tapping them into pieced existence using this keyboard. Their ends and corners had briefly still mirrored fragments of surroundings: serpentine smoke slipping through cracks in the wall like the mist this morning, drops divorcing themselves on the way down, forest hills marrying into the agate distance.
But once they were in number form, no longer.
Those shaped lines usually had only two ends — the beginning one and the end one — and no more. The conversion process had left them exactly so: codified and linear, ordered by row, and still sitting in preserved form, the electronics having imbued them with unnaturally long life.
The stories of the humans of Moutern re-imagined in alternate shape.
I blame my fingers — they stain. It doesn’t help, though, that my peering eyes rest atop my ivory-trade shoulders. So really there’s no control mechanism there except for random chance turning my orientation to the exact right position to behold how others view the sky diamonds and jaded leaves of their surroundings too.
Although (and this is no defensible excuse, please criticize me for it) it’s pretty damn pretentious and a bit misguided and straight-up false to think that my actions were so indelible and profound anyway.
All of which I’m ashamed, embarrassed, and truly sorry about.
Fittingly, I showed up in Oudomxay still about half-soaked having left Vientiane in the middle of a rainstorm.
Fast-forward a few hours and turn down the daylights: I’m wading through some very viscous ocher soil (mud) toward the other line of waiting cars. For the most part, this occasionally paved road had been just winding and steadily rising into the hills toward Muang Mai. Here on the outskirts of town, though, the rain had caused a mudslide that blocked all vehicle traffic.
My boss was somewhere among the crowd of waiting cars and arrayed headlights and people checking out the damage for themselves. She had driven the ten or so minutes outside of town on her motorbike to meet me, the speaker-of-only-marginally-passable-Lao, and discuss tomorrow’s schedule over dinner.
By then, the main stretch in M. Mai was turning into a moonlit block party with the streetside couple restaurants, the one hairdresser, and the handful of general shops turning on their incandescents and letting the resulting light become a pock-marked gold radius on the dark dirt road.
Dinner was, of course, Chinese food: eggplant in sweet sauce, bitter melon with oil, and winter melon in a savory broth. The laoban was a bit of a character and had given me a well-deserved roasting when I approached him, hungry and sweating and speaking rusty Mandarin, without knowing what I wanted to eat (come on, Erik, you know better than to bring that indecision to the dinner table).
Afterward, my boss helped me to get my hair cut at the place across the way, and when it was shorter and styled the way I had haltingly asked for in Lao, the hairdresser proudly claimed that my hair looked beautiful, which was the damn truth.
The next day I took my new haircut to the office and met the jokester and prodigy and basically followed their lead for the next ten days, listening and thinking and watching them ask plenty of questions and listen to others.
And now here I am, writing about it all two years later, piece-meal and half-remembered and rambling but always with earnest (if not slightly imperfect) reflection.
I hope that the spiders of M. Mai — the silent spooks, the seers floating on their alabaster vapors, patient hunters of flies on the wall — remain just as vigilant as they are now. Some of us could learn a thing or two.
There’s a bit of irony in describing the flora above and below our feet as “reaching upwards” as if they’re pleading with a greater force.
When the rice stalks grow toward the sky, it’s only partly because humans found that the plant produced edible seeds that could be used to alleviate hunger.
They decided at some point that it would be better if those plants grew nearer by. They started collecting seeds and planting them. Sowing and harvesting, the crop was good.
The crop was good in that it addressed our fundamental need to put all our needs in the air. The crop is good in that it’s still around putting all our needs in the air.
One of the most striking personal examples is the Coast Live Oak with these spiny oval leaves and gnarled bark. The past few times I’ve come across these trees, they’ve soothed in a way that only shade in the middle of chaparral can.
For others, lemon-goldenrod mustard flowers blooming on the side of the highway or a silvered beech forest before dusk have the same effect.
It’s enough to feel even a tiny bit giddy and briefly put everything up in the air.
The feeling doesn’t last forever, and it’s not necessarily awe (although I’m not certain). Experiencing that feeling regularly or when overwhelmed is like a tonic.
There are certainly a number of other ways to put things in the air. From my outlook, the need for air-putting is a derivative of desire, and some choose to feed those desires by affecting their bodies. For me, this bandages the symptom rather than the sickness.
Not that any one way is better than any other way, but I do think that some methods of air-putting lead to long-term healing better than others.
That is to say: some are more capable at making a person feel like a whole human with manifold bodies and forms and comfortable with that and accepting of that in others.
So when the words “I know you don’t know and it’s OK” suddenly slip out from behind closed lips, just continue on. Quietly like a spider at first, but tomorrow’s growing green things will make things more alright as if purple were transforming into pink Navel oranges.
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