A Lotta Bit of New and a Little Bit of Home: Latinos in Laos

Many people in the U.S. know nearly nothing about Laos, and I was one of them. I had heard of Laos once when I was in prep school at Northfield Mount Hermon and someone mentioned she was from Laos. Being in a new environment with so many wealthy well traveled young people I decided not to ask, and did the old smile and nod, like I knew what she was talking about.

So let me tell you a little bit about Laos. Laos is beautiful. It is a peaceful landlocked country bordered by China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. It is also one of five communist countries left in the world, along with Cuba, China, Vietnam, and North Korea. Similar to Cuba, you don’t see much begging or misery in Laos, which is something I always notice when I travel because there are few things more tragic to me than a street child. If you want to know something about a society, look at how it cares for its children.

But let me go back to where I was, I knew very little about Laos before getting on a plane here. At the end of my second semester at SIPA I had locked in an internship at UNDP at the Regional Hub for Latin America in Panama and a fully funded fellowship with UNFPA in Laos, through UNA-NY. Now it might sound like it was an easy choice considering the fellowship is prestigious and fully funded, but I was torn. In Panama I imagined speaking Spanish at work and through the night at bars and cafes. I imagined being among Latinos who look like me and having the advantage of blending in, and I imagined dancing a lot. Like a lot, a lot. In Laos, I just didn’t know what to expect. So... I googled, and then googled some more.

How are Black people treated in Laos? How many people travel to Laos per year? Is it safe? And I got mostly nothing besides pictures of the Patuxai monument pictured above. So I did the next best thing, I spoke to my parents about it. I said “I don’t know about Laos, it’s so far and I can’t find much information about it. I struggled so much in Ethiopia, I just don’t want to feel super stressed” and they responded, in tandem, “oh please, Jaynice, you were in Ethiopia for two years, this would be a vacation. It’s fully funded, go to Laos” (eye roll). That was all I needed to hear before I called Ann and told her I was in.

Deciding to come to Laos meant that I gave up the idea of the familiar, dancing the night away to Bachata with new Panamanian friends and speaking Spanish all day long. I figured that instead I would dive deep into my work at UNFPA and try to get to know as much of Lao culture and people as possible, and eventually, maybe even make some new Lao friends.

And then when I got here I met a Peruvian, another Peruvian, a Nicaraguan, a Honduran and a Chilean. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of foreigners who go to new countries just to have the same experience they have at home, but what are summers to a Dominican without dancing some Bachata?

Here in Laos I’m not only having an excellent work experience (and I mean excellent) but I have already made so many friends from different parts of the world, including U.S. Latinos who like me, love to dance. I regularly hang out with Ana Paula, who is Peruvian and also goes to SIPA, and we spent an entire weekend in Vang Vieng exploring and speaking mostly Spanish. I’m also good friends with Emily who is from Jamaica and consoled me when I lost my little kitten Lucky, who I tried so hard to save.

On Tuesday I spent the day laughing and making jokes with Hongkham who is Lao and who I’m helping develop the Sustainable Development Goals for Adolescents research website, for the South East Asia region, also known as SDG4A. You can check out the website here:  http://www.sdg4a.org

While I am sure Panama is great and that I would have loved it, there is something beautiful about being in an entirely new place, learning about and spending time with people from a different culture, while hearing Romeo Santos in the background. These moments are reminders that we are more interconnected than we think, and that you can find newness and a little bit of home, everywhere.


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