Monday, January 25, 2010

Laos - Vientiane II

Laos is famous (at least domestically!) for silk; its dozens of ethnic groups each produce silk weavings in their own style, color, and pattern. In Vientiane there are dozens of silk shops and innumerable street vendors hawking traditional Lao silks from different provinces, though many are actually produced in Chinese factories in the Lao style. At one store, however - called Finer Things - we were pleasantly surprised to meet a Laotian woman (I have since forgotten her name, because the business card she gave us ended up in the wash) who held nothing back about the products she sold. Some of the tapestries she sold, she informed us, were produced in China, or with artificial dyes - these products were invariably cheaper. Most of the weavings in the store, however, were woven by hand on a traditional Lao loom, and dyed with natural inks that are increasingly difficult and time-consuming to make. Although more expensive, none of the items she sold would break the bank; an 8-meter embroidered tapestry, the largest in the store, rang in around $150.

Silk aside, the woman and her family were interesting enough to keep us occupied for several hours by themselves. She was from the Hmong ethnic group, born in the cave hospital in Vieng Xay during the CIA's bombing campaign in the Vietnam war. Much later she met and married an English teacher named TJ from Tennessee in a wedding attended by over 1,000 people. He arrived at the store after some time and entertained us for an hour with animated stories of his history in Laos, his family and the cultural differences they had to overcome. TJ had spent 12 years in Laos, first arriving in the mid-90's to study the Lao language at the national university in Vientiane, which he described as an open concrete box overgrown with weeds. He commented that he was probably one of about four international students who had ever taken the Lao language program.

Though he did seem to genuinely love Laos, TJ's home for the majority of the time (his family periodically returns to the US to live in Tennessee when their children's English starts to fade), he was not without guarded criticism. Though the communist government got a bad rap for their alleged mistreatment (some would say persecution and/or torture) of the Hmong ethnic people, TJ said that most of the internet presence was dominated by Hmong expatriates abroad who had fled the country immediately following the Vietnam War, and so the online point of view was largely one-sided. In the government's defense, TJ stated that though there was a lot of bad press, they never spoke out publicly. He has seen a lot of the good they have done over the years.

Our conversation eventually turned to TJ's father-in-law, a communist rebel fighter during the insurgency and CIA bombing campaign of the 60's and 70's.

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