Published in The Alaska Quarterly Review – Fall and Winter 2008
The world is an easier place with fewer words. I concluded this in the months before I moved to Laos, in 1998, as I studied the Lao language from a taped-together textbook with tiny type on the cover that read, “CIA Handbook.” Its pages listed paired opposites like good/bad, happy/sad, easy/hard, and also phrases I wouldn’t need in order to teach English, like, “I am running out the door! The police are here!” or “Have you delivered the package?” To define myself in basic terms was a relief. I am twenty-six, from the village of Bethesda, in the region of Maryland. Everything was simple. Lao lacked the tenses of regret, time-layered woulds and shoulds. To indicate completion, the language tacked onto any verb a syllable that essentially meant “before.” I liked myself in Lao, stripped of a complex past.
Jamlong, one of my two Lao teachers, had photocopied the CIA book from his other job at the Defense Language Institute, two blocks up the road from my private school—The Monterey Language Academy—which served businessmen and journalists moving overseas. That summer, four days a week, four hours a day, I spoke Lao with my teachers, brothers Jamlong and Govit Busadee. They described themselves as kon op pay op, refugees, though they’d lived in California for twenty years. In my car, with tapes Jamlong made at home, I practiced the four tones of the language: high, low, falling and rising, as I drove down Highway One, the ocean and the dunes to my right.
Jamlong looked like Don Quixote to his brother’s Sancho Panza, wiry in the way of people who ate standing up, by a microwave. Dressed always in pressed khakis, a black leather jacket and a bright white turtleneck, Jamlong tutored me after his full day teaching Thai to young soldiers at the Defense Language Institute. His oversized, square glasses framed alert, glittery eyes. Like me, Jamlong stepped into our beige classroom ten minutes early. When his digital watch beeped five o’clock, he opened the CIA textbook, which used Pali-based Lao script, transliterated into the Roman alphabet, via translation from the Russian tongue by a Russian linguist. In short, it was nearly useless for speaking, and the sight of it gave me a chill of shame at the history and aftermath of the American War in Laos.
Laos had five million people, fifty-seven languages, and ninety million unexploded bombs in the ground. Despite this, they had the lowest rate of violent crime in the world. The Lao Royal Army had been described as “the worst on earth” because they preferred to shoot over the heads of their enemies before turning to run. Pilots missed their bombing targets almost 100% of the time. They threw “tricky pebbles” on enemy encampments, scattered rocks and a polite note to request that the others, ‘Please move.’ American historians marveled at this reluctance to kill.
The Economist had said that because of the buried ordnance, Laos had no economy, and no future. The people excelled in festivals. I had resolved to go, and I planned to stay. I hoped my job with the United Nations Development Program would evolve into a career. I had lived in a dozen places, maybe more—Ann Arbor, Perth, Beijing. I had stopped counting. My current project’s mission was to help the Lao government reform. Laos wanted to rejoin the world after decades of isolation, and they needed English to do that. I didn’t believe in reform, that anyone could change anyone. I did believe that a shared language was inherently good.
Jamlong paced at the blackboard, clacked a pointer to drill Lao syllables. Dutifully, I parroted phrases, “Kuoy seu Kathryn, caw seu nyang?” I am called Kathryn, you are called what?
He taught formal versions of “you,” casual versions of “I,” and proper ways to deflect praise. Occasionally, when I made a sound that broke the rhythm of a drill, he would freeze, pointer in the air. He would remove his glasses to rub his eyes.
More often, he praised my progress, especially in contrast to his young American soldiers. “They are not so fast,” he said. The soldiers refused to accept that English grammar was not a universal concept. For example, that Lao and Thai do not add ‘s’ to make plural nouns, but say instead dog, two animals; soldier, four people; or orange, many round objects. “Even those who grasp this say ‘my girlfriend, two animals’ or ‘banana, a bunch of people,’” he said, “and I tell them, you are not as quick as my Lao student.”
“I only speak a little.” I cast my eyes down to conceal my competitive glee. I loved this compliment, though I doubted I was quick, since I studied six or seven hours a day. With mini note cards I quizzed myself in line at the grocery store, at the post office, at the burrito shop. At home I pasted them on the slanted ceiling of my subletted attic, turning my cramped room into a 360-degree mess.
When Jamlong’s watch beeped again after two hours, Govit sauntered in for a changing of the guard. The younger Busadee brother wore faded black jeans and a magenta short-sleeved shirt with a badge that read, “Govit, Pizza Hut Manager.” He fussed with a massive cowlick, and a faint aroma of hot mozzarella trailed him through the room. Govit taught the final two hours, sipping at a two-liter plastic cup of cola. He was slightly shorter than I, and had a smooth parabola of padding around his midriff, which he tapped affectionately while praising his wife’s talents in the kitchen.
“She is Chinese and Lao,” he explained, “and she can cook…” He stopped himself, searching the ceiling, as if it might be crude to really say how good it was.
Govit had formerly taught at the Defense Language Institute with Jamlong, though he had been ‘let go’ for reasons I never learned. “I worry,” Jamlong had said of his brother, shaking his head.
For a few minutes each day, Jamlong and Govit overlapped. They conferred briskly in Lao before Jamlong left. Then Govit would flop into a chair across from mine and stare at the pages of the CIA textbook with total blankness.
“Suua caw maan,” your shirt is, I would venture, eager to evade a drill. I would grope for a word as I pointed at the electric fuchsia garment stretched over his torso, “jai-hong.” Brave, or strong hearted—a word I’d found paired with ‘afraid’ on the list of opposites––crucial vocabulary for the CIA, apparently.
It wasn’t hard to distract Govit. “Not suua, sua.” An index finger rose with the tone. “You said, ‘your tiger is brave.’ Sua,” he corrected, with an infinitesimally different emphasis, “is shirt.”
Govit pointed to his chest. “My shirt is purple, your shirt is red. Si deng maan sok di.” Red is lucky.
I tried the word again, exaggerating the tone.
“No, that sua means ‘bad’ or ‘very bad.’ You said, ‘My evil is lucky.’”
One time we left the whiteboard and textbook and wandered to an impressionist print of a riverboat party in the hallway. The school, which had about seven classrooms, had emptied by eight o’clock.
In the absence of a lesson plan, I invented my own. I rambled about the scene of the waterfront picnic, inventing lives for the painted people. “This person is a shaman. This person is a rice farmer.”
As I droned my lines, Govit wiggled one leg at the knee.
“That one is running out the door. The police are here, and he has a package,” I said.
A giggle rose through my throat. Cola made a choking sound in Govit’s upper nose and he tore his lips from the straw to cough. He gasped in a long guffaw, head forward, pounding his thigh. Then my laugh came undammed, too, my face loosening after hours of stiff effort. I held myself around the middle. That kind of laughter felt outside of time, and both of us wiped the edges of our eyes.
Growing up I had looked at things around me without having language for what I saw, and now, this same inability, this awareness of the gap between vision and words, felt suddenly pure. It exposed the shortcomings of our labor with language, and something much stronger between us that we even tried.
Govit and I asked and answered questions: Where are your parents? Do you have sisters and brothers? But never too personal, never about the war and how he arrived here, or my upbringing up with a veteran of that same war, and what drove me overseas in the first place. Some things were best left buried.
Jamlong made sure I knew the difference between diamonds, ducks and spiciness, which to the English ear all sounded like “pet,” with slight variations of the length of breath on the “p”. With Govit I learned four Lao words for onion and five words for cooking a fish. He also taught me slang, like the Lao way to say, “You are such a sweet talker you have ants on your chin.” When I repeated this line for Jamlong, he pursed his lips. Eyes narrowed, he said only, “Govit.”
In the final weeks, Jamlong and Govit taught with a frenzied intensity, scowling when the sessions finished. We focused almost exclusively on food, leaving all other lists behind. Jamlong’s favorite was gung tep, jumping shrimp, which squirmed their last throes in one’s mouth. Govit loved mok pah, river fish wrapped in banana leaves and steamed on a fire. Food brought us to nuance.
One night toward the end, after Jamlong taught the full four hours, his watch beeped but he kept going.
“It’s getting late,” I said finally, in English, since there wasn’t a word for “late” in Lao.
“The vegetables,” he croaked, voice hoarse. He pointed at a typed list he’d made up himself. He didn’t want to send me off unclear about “round yellow onion” versus “spring onion.”
By the last week of classes, when the two brothers met for the evening handoff, they couldn’t speak Lao in front of me without an avid eavesdropper. As my departure date approached, Govit and Jamlong discussed a sendoff feast to celebrate my journey, and wondered aloud whether I’d like to meet their Lao cousins, friends and neighbors.
“I’d like that very much,” I blurted out in Lao.
They gazed at their creation briefly, then switched to Thai.
The brothers invited their Lao cousins and friends, and I scoured Macy’s for a dress, modest but elegant. I stayed up the entire night before and poured through notes, notecards, tapes, the CIA textbook. I had never studied for a party before, much less crammed. Outside Jamlong’s house, I stared at the open book on my shotgun seat, murmuring phrases to myself. I wanted my teachers to be proud.
About twelve people filled the living room. Jamlong stood at a stove, in casual clothes, four pots in front of him, sniffing something from a wooden
spoon. Govit sat back on a sofa, open beer in hand. His wife, Noi, a petite curly-haired woman dressed head to toe in a pink sweat suit, rushed up and hugged me as if I were a long lost cousin. She led me inside, speaking in rapid Lao I understood more by context than content. This is everyone. We are so happy you are here. For the next three hours, everyone showered me with practice and praise.
At some point, I snuck into the bathroom to cry. The kindness had overwhelmed me. The unspoken things had piled up, alongside the weakness of words like “thank you.” I splashed my face with cold water, blotted it dry with towels.
Noi wasn’t fooled. “What’s wrong?” She said when I emerged.
I bubbled up all over. “It’s just the leaving,” I said.
She put her arm around me. The night I’d stood with Jamlong before the riverboat party print, I’d tasted the gap in what I wanted to say and my ability to do so. Now, I wasn’t sure I could even say what I wanted in English, about random and fleeting connections, not knowing people well and knowing them at the same time. There needed to be a new grammar for the doubleness of the present tense. Noi seemed to understand, and for the first time that night, she chose simple words. “People will see you. Don’t worry, don’t worry.”
I decided this could be true. Not everything needed a name. I drove home, for the first time without the tapes, silent in the empty space, with the smell of saltwater, and the crashing of waves, the place I would leave behind.