Within my first week here I was given a Lao name: Champee. It means flower in Lao. A few of my co-workers came to the decision while we were out for Megan’s (one of the Mangers) going away party. After hours of transit, days of jet-lag, and still zero bearings of the local streets, it felt so nice to be welcomed by the people I would be spending the next six months working with.
And I have felt nothing but welcomed and accepted my entire time here. Luang Prabang is a beautiful city that combines Lao tradition with backpackers’ youth and energy. The tourist, or “falang,” area of town is a mix of Buddhist temples and European influenced architecture. This area, located on a peninsula, is surrounded by 2 different rivers that the city makes great use of. Restaurants, hotels and homes are all found along the water and provide for a very relaxing meal or visit. The first few nights here we ate out quite a bit. I got to enjoy Lao cuisine – sticky rice, fresh fish, chicken – while admiring the beautiful Mekong river and green mountains in the distance.
This “falang” area is where the guest houses, hotels, cafes and (some) temples are concentrated. My home and office are not in the falang area. Sometimes, when I’m walking or running around my home, a tuk tuk driver will slow down to ask me if I need a ride back to the center. This is an identity that I almost certainly won’t be able to shake. My neighbors know me and always say hello (sabaidee) when I pass by, but unfortunately that is basically all we can say. They know little English and I know zero Lao. I am going to begin lessons soon, but even then, I’m not sure how conversational I’ll be in 6 months time.
The language barrier was never so obvious as this week when I went 3 hours north to a village where Pencils of Promise builds schools. We were giving out scholarships and I went to photograph the process. If I did not have the task of photography, I would have been completely useless. I could not understand the whole ceremony and my only way of interacting with the kids was taking their picture and showing it to them. They were apprehensive to approach me, anyways. Usually the interaction would begin with us staring at each other, then I would smile and then they would smile bashfully. To the students that were more receptive to the smile I went and gestured that I would take their picture. When I showed them the image, a huge, genuine smile stretched across their face and I was accepted. But this acceptance meant that we simply smiled at each other occasionally during the rest of the ceremony. When meeting parents or school officials, I was introduced by my co-workers as Champee. 90% of the time that is the name I respond to in the office so it has become natural to turn when Champee is said. But nonetheless, I am, and forever will be, Champee the falang.