It’s not just the rains that force me to stay inside my Vientiane apartment. Every time I step out the door I’m reminded that I am The Other. I look different, I have strange habits, and I don’t speak Lao. The people around me are used to foreigners, though, and speak enough English to make me believe they’ve understood, but in reality it’s complicated. “Where you going?” the security guard asks me kindly. “Working?” “Yes, working,” I reply. I can’t explain that I don’t have a regular schedule yet and my unpredictability is throwing him off. In reality, I’m heading to the local coffee shop. I’ve learned enough about this collectivist culture to know that people are wondering why I’m always alone. These days I’ve been asking myself the same question.
Except for two years in the Peace Corps, I have never lived alone. I left home at age 18 and went from roommate to roommate until I got married and had children. It’s hard to believe. I began a teaching career and spent years thinking that snatches of adult conversation between classes was the norm. As my own children grew up, we stopped having family dinner together. I took on extra work, coached a high school rowing team, joined a writing group, and stayed out later and later. By the time my husband got home I was usually too tired to exchange much more than perfunctory greetings before we’d retreat into our separate corners of the house, exhausted. “Don’t ask me to make a single decision!” I remember saying on more than one occasion. I was too busy to work at improving relationships. I spent decades surrounded by people, living the illusion of togetherness when in reality I’ve been alone all this time and never embraced it.
The physical hardships of being in a faraway place are the easy ones to get used to. The heat and humidity hit like a thick velvet curtain every morning, causing my hair to frizz and my clothes to go limp on my body. I sweat through two outfits a day and show up anywhere looking like a marathon runner in sore need of a towel. I’ve gotten used to biking home in the dark, past the dusty market, where breathing in exhaust fumes from motorcycle tailpipes is a hazard. Maybe I’ll get one of those ubiquitous face masks that Asians seem to wear everywhere. I’ve accepted that hauling groceries in a backpack from the minimart is better than taking an expensive taxi. It makes me look ridiculous, but it’s a humility I can live with. Since I can’t drink the tap water, I’ve figured out how to get the five-gallon jugs delivered to my apartment. I’m doing pretty well.
Then there’s the rain. It was supposed to have stopped already. But it keeps on raining. Twice in the last week, torrential downpours have forced me to stay inside my apartment for most of the day. I looked into renting a car, contacted several places and got price quotes. But since I don’t have to be anywhere in particular most days, why bother? I started reading a good book, looked through some teaching material sent by the B. Council woman I might be working with, I reorganized the shelves in my bedroom, I made myself a sandwich, and I posted way too many comments on Facebook. I started thinking about my husband, my sons, my mother, my sisters and brothers, my friends, and my colleagues back in the States. There’s an 11-hour time difference, so I couldn’t really speak to anyone in real time. I started writing. When forced into solitude, I admit that I am lonely. It feels a lot different over here.
By far, the most difficult adjustment for me – an American used to individualism and agency – has been the wait. I’m waiting for the higher-ups to sign the necessary paperwork for me to begin my official job, the one I was brought over here to do. Bureaucracy is not for the faint hearted. I’m used to a well-defined role: Teacher, Coach, Teammate, Writer, Wife, Mother. It’s been a real stretch to find purpose and fulfillment in a work-around environment. But it has an up side: when someone reaches out in friendship, I jump at the opportunity to make a connection. Because I really need it. I have to remind myself that building relationships takes time. In the U.S. I took all those things for granted. Here in Laos, I am having to work harder at the softer skills than I ever expected.
A little solitude is good for everyone. Being alone again has allowed me to examine what it means to have meaningful work, what it means to have friendship, and how important it is to reach out to people and share thoughts and feelings, even the uncomfortable truth. I have never been very good at that. But I am good at reaching out to people and am rewarded when they respond. Aloneness doesn’t necessarily equal loneliness.
Pretty soon, I’ll look back on this experience and wonder where the time has gone. It’s going to get busy very soon. The rains are about to stop, and the cool season will begin. I can feel changes in the air already. What has happened during my forced solitude is that I’ve had to face the pain of disappointment, my own self-doubt, and the belief that I was totally in control. I am reminded that I chose to be here. Personal growth can only come when one examines and accepts the harsh realities. I accepted this Fellowship to challenge myself and get away from the predictable routines of my life.
Being alone has allowed me to explore new thoughts and feelings, and to connect with a deeper desire to gain a different cultural perspective. Maybe next time the guard asks where I am going, I will stop pretending I’m hurrying off to work, and take the opportunity to practice my emerging language skills with him. Maybe solitude is the true reason I accepted this Fellowship. I needed to learn to live alone again so that I could reach out to people authentically.
“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”
- Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company