Kathryn Kefauver Goldberg | Longreads | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,596 words)
When I moved to Laos in 1998, there was almost no violent crime. The landlocked country had five million people, 57 languages, and 90 million unexploded bombs in the ground. In the 10th-poorest nation in the world, Lao people focused on food, festivals, and family. Buddhism thrived. In my house in Vientiane, the salty scent of the Mekong River drifted through my screens. I was 25, and my first six months there, I rarely thought of the killings that had launched me overseas.
I lived between a temple and a beer shop, the two great traditions of solace: the monks and the drunks. My excessive sleep, a portable artifact of PTSD, blended well in Laos. All around the partially paved capital, people napped in hammocks strung on half-built buildings, on tables of stacked silk at the market, and in tuk-tuks parked in the shade of banyans. My Lao colleagues at our United Nations outpost snoozed right at their desks. I did, too.
So the morning my boss, Patrick, sauntered into my office, he found me cheek to notebook. The monsoon clattered beyond the window. I’d passed out pondering the prospect of turning 26 in two weeks’ time. Birthdays, like rain, stirred up the muck. I was alive. Others were not.
Patrick cleared his throat. I bolted upright.
“Kathryn. We are going to have an evaluation of your classes.” Affable and Belgian, sporting a thick, coiffed mustache, Patrick mysteriously kept his white pants and shirts immaculate in a flooded, muddy city.
“What kind of evaluation?” I said, suddenly awake.
“About whatever you do as an English teacher. Anonymous, of course.”
Two foreign teachers before me had been fired and then whisked to Wattay airport. The thought of “home” tickled my neck flesh and chilled my hands. I flashed to that last, muggy afternoon on my mother’s deck in Bethesda, Maryland, a day before my flight. To the backdrop of cut grass and cooing birds, we managed friendly chat about travel—why Laos, not Europe? Then we turned to her endless remodeling, though I didn’t want to go inside, didn’t want to see those walls. Behold, the kitchen is now a tasteful shade of bone! Ultimately, through the curious physics of family conflict, which dictates that topics best avoided always suck you in, we careened into a discussion of Alan. He was her ex-boyfriend of many years, who’d started as the fix-it guy.
“Mother, he killed six people,” I said, instantly regretting it.
“It was four,” she insisted. “They couldn’t link the gun to the other two.”
Four slayings or six—it was the wrong battle. We couldn’t stop. I was a wolf chewing off my own foot, only to find it wasn’t the one in shackles.
The final facts of the murders remained murky, though Alan had confessed. In addition to the four—or six—there had also been bank robberies and carjackings, some stalking, and a stabbing. Despite this busyness, he had seemed perpetually at our place, hauling tools and tarps, or sipping milk and watching TV. I had visceral memories of the years Alan stayed with us. My nerves, which seemed to extend anemone-like beyond my body, had hummed with fear—writhing to the wordless messages of menace. My mother’s insistence that all was well had only quickened the static crackle of danger, causing me to think I had an eccentric form of paranoia. Otherwise, my sense of terror could not be explained. It was like living in one movie with subtitles from another. My mother had been a Girl Scout leader, homemade-lasagna maker, and holder of season tickets to the symphony. I made straight As, snuck around, and drank heavily.
So my adolescence unfolded in a four-bedroom house on a suburban block full of golden retrievers, Volvos, and SAT prep—and in close quarters with a secret killer. Who can’t relate to that?
Everyone, I discovered.
In Laos, it didn’t matter. The wounds of the Lao were vast, collective, wrenching. They were unspeakable in the ways of war, and the people focused on moving forward. I admired this, along with the Lao aptitude for languid ease, which I interpreted, wrongly or rightly, as a collective rebellion against centuries of invasion. To laugh and relax, rather than raging and rioting, seemed a powerful rebuff. I longed to emulate this refusal to be harsh. I’d been through therapy. I’d learned self-defense. Those helped, but the more I had talked about my home, the more I’d felt defined, like words were a cage that trapped me in my past. At the same time, certain events eluded expression, compounding a sense of failure. I studied Lao voraciously. In a second language, all those things that could not be adequately spoken became, quite literally, beyond speech. In the country of buried bombs and believing Buddhists, I could simply be falang. That was the Lao word for “foreigner.” To me, it meant “free.” I would speak Lao and follow Lao customs, soaking up the peace. I would make myself of use.
Let me explain here, too, that I taught at a place known locally as Kilometer Six—the old CIA compound that served postwar as Communist Party headquarters. The Lao government, after decades of isolation, wanted to rejoin the world. It needed English to do that. I had four classes: two groups of beginners, one of advanced students, and then the intermediates. The first three drifted along at a leisurely pace, but in that last class I’d had to ban whispering. We were stalled.
Now, with Patrick looming over me to ramble about an “evaluation,” I said nothing. Patchy heat bloomed on my cheeks. I needed this job in a way I could never translate, not even to myself. Alan had been given life behind bars. I’d been given life in Laos. The public solitude of teaching felt like refuge. I could not go back. I would make those intermediates speak.
“Write something up,” Patrick said, then spun around and left.
The next day at Kilometer Six, I faced the stone-statue silence of my 11 intermediate students—10 middle-aged men in uniform and one woman, Sipachan, who was immensely pregnant. I hewed to the textbook, launching Unit Six, about rooms and furniture. Beyond the window, the pale sun shone over coconut palms, silvering the post-rain mist. Chickens skittered across a courtyard toward a white building with a red banner. A cow mooed in the distance.
While I taught, a copper-haired man, also in uniform, hovered spiderlike in the back of my classroom. I thought of him as “the man in gray,” and I imagined what he must say to our Lao boss, Langsy. She doesn’t know a modal verb from her elbow. Once, she gave a pop quiz to kill the hour. Perhaps he had tripped this evaluation. I decided to jazz up the section on prepositions.
I threw the textbook on the floor. “This is below my foot!” I gabbled, and my students gasped. In Laos, feet were foul, books precious. Also, except while driving, no one moved fast—ever. I lifted it over my head. “Now it’s above!”
About. Above. Below. Beyond. Would we ever move beyond? To learn a language required the mechanics of the mouth and the motions of memorizing—yet these were wholly separate from endpoints of communication and connection. I desperately hoped the noise we made would eventually create meaning. Meanwhile my students stammered out role-plays, described pictures of crammed rooms, chuckled at the terms “grandfather clock” and “yard sale.” The conversations verged on absurd. A typical Lao home was largely empty by American standards. I felt most at ease in the open spaces of Phet’s house, on the far side of Vientiane; there, we ate papaya salad cross-legged on the floor.
In a second language, all those things that could not be adequately spoken became, quite literally, beyond speech.
“Do you have any questions?” I asked my students at the hour’s end, smiling wanly toward a trio of men named Khamfanh, Kamfan, and Khamphanh. Their names sounded different in tonal Lao. When one of them raised his hand, I gestured in his direction.
“Me?” he said.
He cleared his throat. “The girl with the blue motorbike, she is your friend?”
“Phet?” I said, brightening. “Yes.”
“You are everywhere together,” Kingsavan said, reminding me that conversation in Laos always veered toward the personal. No one had asked about America or the waging of our “secret” war. That had shocked me. Instead, people wanted to know: Was I married, and why not? Did I have a boyfriend? Did my family mind that I’d moved so far? It was as if the United States wasn’t the real superpower. No, what mattered most was love.
Since I liked myself better in Lao, I answered these interrogations in that language, despite my fear of messing up the subtle intonation on “I” and saying, “Buffalo is single” or, “Penis likes living abroad, and my mother doesn’t mind.” I didn’t want to be unmasked.
“Lao mu di,” I said now of Phet, throwing in some Lao. “She is my good friend.”
My students smiled. They see I am a good person, I thought; they see I have friends.
Either that or I messed up the tone and said, “She is my pig.”
That night, I crouched opposite Phet on a tiny red plastic stool in her kitchen-garage, which smelled like rice, gasoline, and damp cement. We sliced and diced onions and lettuce for feu, and she laughed at my clumsy cutting next to her staccato chops.
Phet had started as my Lao tutor. For months, she’d ridden up to my house, exchanging banter with the monks across the lane, while elaborately securing her motorbike with three separate locks.
“Why such security?” I’d asked. “The entire temple watches every moment here.”
When she’d explained to me in Lao that “thieves had come to my house and stolen my motorbike,” I’d heard only, “Come to my house!” I’d tried to set a time.
We’d laughed about this for months, after the misunderstanding tipped us into friendship. On that blue motorbike we went to festivals, markets, and temple; to the university, where her friends slept seven to a room; to the run-down hospital where a cousin was giving birth. Mostly, though, we talked, our bond a boat floating on a river of words, conjuring our futures.
Phet, who spoke seven languages and hoped to study someday in France, was nearly always immaculately dressed in a Lao skirt and hand-sewn blouse. In addition to tutoring, she modeled for the first music videos ever made in Laos, “Traditional Laos Songs,” which featured her strolling over a bridge, appearing wistful. Phet was beautiful and also had a thinker’s face. Now she wore just a slip and a camisole, as boiling pots steamed the room. Rain pounded on the roof.
“I’m going to be evaluated,” I announced for the third time. I couldn’t explain my fear, how it merged with that more constant dread that nothing could be stable, ever, that this existence I’d built was merely a flimsy set. It was a role-play, false and finite as my classroom exercises.
I ranted to Phet. “‘Evaluated’ sounds like ‘eviscerated’—what you just did to that papaya.”
“It is good for the student, yes? Otherwise, the class is like Lao government.” She dragged the back of her hand over her forehead, still holding the large, square knife. It reminded me of one Alan had used in an early attack, but I brushed that thought aside.
My friend was right. I was undemocratic, a dictatorship of one. “I know.”
Later that night, I settled onto the floor with Phet and Meh, her mother. I marveled at their proximity, the palpable affection between them as they doted over each other’s blankets. I often slept there, as they insisted I not bike after dark. Phet opened her French book on macroeconomics, then fiddled with an enormous tape player. Its speakers poured out the theme song from Titanic.
“This is my favorite movie,” Phet sighed.
I wrinkled my nose. “Audiences just want to see all those people drown.”
“It’s a love story!” she protested.
“Please. Even I could find love for one night on a sinking boat.”
Phet laughed. “You fight with life, Segetdao.” That was my nickname, meaning “a little piece of a star”—a silly formulation that I embraced.
When Meh’s breath grew ragged, I turned onto my back. As Celine Dion crooned about the spaces between us and far across the distance, I suddenly saw a way forward.
“Can I borrow this tape?” I whispered.
Mostly, though, we talked, our bond a boat floating on a river of words, conjuring our futures.
When Friday rolled in, gray and humid, I lugged a newly purchased portable stereo into my classroom.
The intermediate class meandered into the cramped space, circumnavigating a pile of soggy foam where, a day before, a rat had crashed through the wet ceiling. Students took their seats, and the room seemed extra quiet, everyone damp, wet-haired, flip-flops especially squishy. Kingsavan had his magnifying glass and his French-English dictionary, and Sipachan’s pregnancy seemed to have suddenly reached that beach-ball phase.
“Ready?” I asked, and hit play.
Celine Dion crackled through cheap speakers, and my students gazed at the typed lyrics I had passed around.
Everyone knew the words already. We discussed “near” and “far,” and how in Lao they sound almost identical. Then we turned to icebergs, cruise ships, and Leonardo DiCaprio. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of government reform, but neither was it silence. English words came from their mouths.
The following Friday, I brought in “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
As John Denver’s voice filled the room, I held the lyrics, suddenly embarrassed by their Americanness, like homemade apple pie or smirking serial killers. My students stared at the words, too, but I peeked up to find Kingsavan swaying and Phuvieng murmuring.
By the final stanzas, the whole class joined in.
The second round, I suddenly pictured the Blue Ridge Mountains: purple tipped, snow dusted. My shame fell away. I felt as if West Virginia were my home, too, though I’d never actually been. I half swooned, and a skittery feeling hit my chest. For the first time in years, I felt love for the place that had made me: the rivers, the trees, my friends. My mother, our house. The song’s final chorus left me dizzy. It tugged a cord I thought I’d cut, and the words blurred into something speechless.
I thought I’d come this far to escape, but maybe I’d come to connect. We would never clear the ground with words; but the impulse to speak, to build anew, remained.
Then silence. I gawped at the stereo, paralyzed. Sipachan raised her hand.
“Yes?” I croaked.
“What is ‘stranger’?” she asked.
“A stranger is a person you don’t know,” I said, feeling I might fit that bill.
“What does ‘belong’ mean?” Khamfan with the cracked glasses spoke next.
“Belong is ‘to have.’ In this song, it’s ‘to fit in.’”
“A very good song,” said the other Khamphanh, the one with the smoker’s cough.
In the long pause that followed, I cleared my throat.
Then Sipachan said, “Again!”
“Sing along this time,” I commanded.
For the third round, everyone belted it out—except the spy, who’d turned toward the window, perhaps overcome.
“Did you learn anything?” I asked at the end of class.
Phuvieng said, “We learned the word ‘moonshine.’”
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That evening, I penned an evaluation, as Langsy had requested, crafting three categories: good, great, and fine, all subtly distinguished. After a pot of coffee, I redrafted, generously adding a vague fourth category that implied possible improvements. So much could be evaded with language!
In the morning I handed it to Patrick, who demurred from behind his desk. “Langsy doesn’t want a paper evaluation now. He has something else in mind. A meeting of some sort.”
I let myself exhale. I was still paranoid; not everything came to chaos.
The following Friday, I borrowed a bootleg tape from a novice monk in the wat next door—he’d often asked me to write out lyrics.
The intermediates passed the plastic case around, huddled over it, whispering. “We’ve never seen a black person before,” Sipachan said, sounding shy.
I’d brought Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Kingsavan, who used a magnifying glass to scan the lyrics, and who often became the group spokesman, said, “What’s New York?”
“It’s a large city in the eastern part of the United States,” I said, startled.
I hit play. Khamfan, Kamfan, and Khamphanh sang along with Stevie Wonder, and Sipachan chimed in, adding a high note of harmony. Everyone else jumped in, quietly at first, then with increasing gusto. A few people closed their eyes, as if in unconscious tribute.
“Shall I play it again?” I said.
We sang. The man in gray left early, and I imagined him telling Langsy that if we could only set government reform to music, this United Nations project might succeed.
A few days later, Langsy appeared at the door. Troublingly, a sea of people mobbed behind him, all in gray. “We are here to do an evaluation,” he announced, his hair in its elaborate, Elvis-style comb-back and his face wearing its usual unmoving smile. The lyrics to “I Just Called to Say I Love You” were still on the board.
“One minute, please,” I said to the class.
I stepped into the hall. “Now?”
Langsy marched past with an armful of folders and clipboards. Several others trailed in: Thaveyphet, Siban, Nisith, Kingsavan, Ping, and Viengsaat, the spy—students from each of my three classes. They exuded an air of official business.
“Wasn’t this going to be a separate meeting?” I said.
“You can be here, no problem,” Langsy said.
I knew I should leave. Whatever was about to happen, it didn’t fit my teaching-as-sanctuary model. Whatever words were coming were not for my ears. Yet I found I couldn’t move. Curiosity trumped common sense. I was a stranger to myself. Who was I to them?
About 25 students and a few unknowns surrounded the room behind the horseshoe configuration of tables. Another group stood by the window until eventually they blocked the glass. Though everyone was subdued, I felt terror. I removed my glasses to blur the room.
Langsy speechified in Lao. “Learning English is important. If we don’t, when we travel to other countries, we must speak with our hands.” This brought chuckles.
Each student, he continued, could comment on the English program. Improvements could be made with the Lao style of consensus. Everyone spoke Lao, which, for the most part, I understood.
“She is a good person, a good teacher. She understands the Lao way,” one Khamfan began, in Lao.
Kingsavan spoke next. “We want a longer class. Or maybe an extra day.”
I pretended to take notes and carved gibberish onto a page, listing out names.
Then it was Phuvieng’s turn. “Sometimes the teacher talks too fast and we cannot understand.”
I wrote his name in all capitals. I vowed to never, ever help, call on, or even look at him again. I concentrated on my doodling and heard only snippets of the other comments. Classes are too short, more homework, I am happy. Our books are not nice to look at. The covers are beaten. We want to take trips outside the classroom. It wasn’t what they said, but their yearning for English that crushed me. They needed something more than I, a traumatized 20-something, could provide.
Why couldn’t I faint on command? To be scrutinized in this way felt shattering. My mother liked to say, as if it were a cheery aphorism, “You worry about the house burning down, but all the while there’s a man in the closet, hiding with a gun.” It made me laugh, and I’d say, “You should crochet that on a pillow!” She meant it in the most literal terms, but maybe she was right: existing involves unavoidable vulnerability.
“She respects the Lao way,” Khamfanh with the glasses said.
“She is a good person,” Siban said.
Kingsavan delivered the conclusion. “You know, her Lao is really good. She probably can understand everything we say.”
At home, I slid into my bamboo-frame bed fully dressed. Ragged sobs rattled my body as my mind looped in a protest. You can’t, I kept thinking, break into someone’s class and evaluate them. They had insisted I was a good person. I wasn’t—more like a failure and a fraud. The flood kept coming, as if the pipe had burst too far down, until finally the mercy of black sleep snatched me to its depths.
In the evening, Phet let herself in, screen door slamming behind her. “Segetdao?”
As she wheeled her motorbike into my living room and kicked off her flats, I burrowed more deeply into bed. She appeared on the other side of my mosquito net.
“Segetdao, are you sick?”
I recounted the day’s events.
“But they said good things, yes?”
“A public evaluation is itself an insult.”
“My mother says they are frogs that like to puff themselves up on the table and look down on others,” Phet said, peering into my face.
“That’s not the problem,” I said. I came from a country that had dropped 90 million bombs on this one, from a home with a man who dealt in death. Yet there I was. What did it mean to be a good person? I had no idea. “I’m the frog.”
“Remember what the fortune teller said? You worry too much.” Phet could see my fear. She’d whisked me once to a mau-du, a witch doctor, who’d told me to let go.
Eventually I crawled out of bed, from behind the gauzy veil. Perhaps I had fallen short in my work, but this—this friendship—was real. We rambled to the kitchen, where I made my one home-cooked dish, which I called International Pasta Surprise.
“What’s the surprise?” Phet asked. “How fat all that cheese will make me?”
“The surprise is that I’m cooking at all,” I told her, and laughed, because in the end all those things that can’t be explained, the feelings that buoy the conversation but don’t make it to speech, those gaps—maybe that’s the space that’s filled by love.
The phone rang in the small hours of the morning, and I braced myself for tragic news. It was my mother calling from Bethesda to wish me happy birthday.
“It’s five a.m.” I squinted through my mosquito net. “It’s not even light yet.”
“I wanted to be sure to reach you,” she said. “What are you doing to celebrate?”
“They don’t do birthdays in Laos,” I said. “I’m going to call in sick.” I didn’t tell her I’d all but cried in front of about 20 communist cadres, that in a culture built on “saving face,” mine had mostly come right off.
“Great idea!” My mother had always advocated mental health days, and I’d seized them, refuge at home, in the years before Alan.
I held the phone up to the fading window. The rooster on the trash heap in the lane had begun to crow. “Can you hear that?”
“No,” she said.
I stepped onto the porch, in my pajamas, and lifted the phone again. Streaks of blue light lined the sky to the east, away from the Mekong. My eyes felt puffy, but I felt clean inside. I knew something I hadn’t before: that hiding beneath the mask of foreignness didn’t make me free, only safe, lulled as if by sleep.
The bird cawed as if on cue.
“Yes, yes!” my mother said.
“A rooster,” I confirmed. At this distance, we were suddenly close. I thought I’d come this far to escape, but maybe I’d come to connect. We would never clear the ground with words; but the impulse to speak, to build anew, remained. It was mother-daughter role-play, and through it, we might rehearse a refusal to be harsh. Kindness is a language too.
. . . all those things that can’t be explained, the feelings that buoy the conversation but don’t make it to speech, those gaps—maybe that’s the space that’s filled by love.
After we hung up, I dressed in a Lao skirt and set out to walk. The white wall of the wat had crumbled completely in one place, and I thrummed my hands on the remaining bricks.
Ahead of me, the monks filed out with their cylindrical baskets, gathering alms, their daily ritual. On the dirt levee, barefoot novices in orange filed past, as they had for over a thousand years. Women and men knelt on mats, raised rice in silver bowls over their heads. Each monk took a handful from each person—his food for the day. To feed and be fed was communal. The villagers showed up every morning. If they didn’t, the monks would go hungry. The entire system would unravel. Where was I in this system? What did I offer? I was an interloper in a long history of interlopers. There was no solo role.
I stepped off the path so as not to interrupt their ritual, heading down a narrower dirt trail that led right to the river’s edge. I must have wandered along by the water for half an hour. When I came back, there were still people kneeling on mats with rice bowls—waiting.
I would not call in sick, I decided. I would show up, too.
At Kilometer Six, I found the classroom empty.
The man in gray stuck his head inside. “The class is canceled today.”
“But we have a grammar quiz,” I said.
“Your students are having a political meeting.”
“Langsy wants to meet with you. Over there.” He pointed to the white building with the red banner and took a seat in the empty room.
I clutched my books. “Aren’t you coming?”
He shook his head.
Without his shadowing presence, I felt exposed crossing the empty courtyard. I wondered briefly what I would do next. If I were fired on my birthday, I would rehash it every year. If they drove me right to the airport, I’d have to find a way to reach Phet.
The air smelled like rain, and a few crushed petals splattered the stone. The red banner rippled faintly in the breeze as I crossed the threshold of the other building. A Lao woman behind a desk pointed to a door and a room, dark and empty.
I spun to leave, and the door creaked open.
The room erupted in a many-voiced “Surprise!”
Little candles on a big white cake lit the faces from all three of my classes. People crowded around two long teak tables. Twenty-six candles blazed on a three-tiered sugar-white cake.
About 30 of my students sang the strangest version of “Happy Birthday” I’d ever heard. They clapped slowly, swayed, and intoned like a solemn dirge, or shamanic calling, English words to a Lao tune. People huddled in groups of three or four, sharing papers with the scribbled lyrics.
On a long table, “Happy Birthday Kathryn” was iced across the cake in sugary yellow script.
The man in gray stood just beyond the door. Langsy, in full uniform, grinned. He said in English, “This is the first birthday party ever at Kilometer Six.”
The candles flickered on the cake, and the fire seemed linked to all fire in Laos, the evening fires by the Mekong, the monks’ fire in the morning mist, the orange sun as it set in the west. When tears came, I let them teeter over. In that crowded room, I felt a dent in the solitude I’d long sought, and a sudden belonging. Ultimately, not right away, it would take me home. Apparently, this was what it took: being serenaded by a foreign government.
“We ask you to stay another year,” Langsy said at the end.
Kingsavan slid my passport back on my desk. Later, I’d find it stamped for a fresh year.
As the lit candles on my cake trembled, I wanted to preserve the hopeful faces of my students forever.
“Thank you,” I said, and blew out the flames.
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Kathryn Kefauver Goldberg’s essays have appeared in the New York Times “Modern Love” column, the Sun magazine, the Gettysburg Review and the Alaska Quarterly Review, as well as other literary journals and anthologies. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, and currently teaches writing in San Francisco.
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Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands