We’re new to New Orleans; perhaps you could say we’re the tag end of the great post-Katrina infusion of “transplants” — and we’re still learning why we chose to land here after several years abroad.
A year ago we were living in Luang Prabang, a lovely, quiet town on the Mekong River in Northern Laos whose unusual blend of traditional Lao and French colonial architecture led to its designation in 1995 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our two years there were the last of seven altogether in Asia: three in India and two in China, before we got to Laos.
We had the option of remaining in Southeast Asia, but pressure from our families to be closer to home – and, to be honest, our own desire for conveniences like window screens, public libraries, and supermarkets – led to the decision to return to the States and set up a “home base” in a place we like.
San Antonio was a serious contender. We had lived and worked in Texas for many years before moving abroad when Donna took a job in India managing an international visitor center for Girl Scouts. From Texas, we made frequent forays to the city that finally claimed our loyalty: New Orleans.
We didn’t expect fully to embrace life in the U.S. again. In particular we were not in stride with the American tendency to place career at the center of personal identity. Add to that the hurry, the time spent in idling cars, the long days at work, the rushed vacations.
Among the most important idiomatic expressions in Laos is, baw bpen nyang, which conveys “you’re welcome” and “no problem” and “don’t worry about it.” It encapsulates the ethos of Laos: everything is probably going to be OK. After six months in the U.S., we try to remind ourselves every day to keep our baw bpen nyang on.
This is almost certainly easier in New Orleans than almost anywhere else in the country, and that’s among the reasons we’re here. As Dan Baum puts it in the introduction to his book “Nine Lives:” “In the context of the techno-driven, profit-crazy, hyper-efficient self-image of the United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience.”
We spent the years abroad looking both inward and outward. Having left behind a tenured faculty position teaching film studies, writing and American literature in Laredo (Sean) and a non-profit arts and cultural organization Donna had built over the course of more than a decade, we were at liberty to grow in new ways.
Like a lot of expatriates who work for non-governmental organizations, we embraced the new cultures around us while retaining habits and comforts that shaped our lives in the U.S. — vegetable shopping at street markets in the morning, browsing among imported Australian wines at the “Western” grocery in the afternoon. These days, we find it’s the other way around; we make regular visits to the Hong Kong Food Market in search of the smells and colors and textures that have come to form part of our shared sense of who we are.
Returning to the United States after several years away means facing the dissonance between our memories of the place and what it has become. Of course our memories are not entirely reliable. It’s a little like the childhood home that you remember bigger and neater than it actually was.
India, where parks are gated, charge a fee, and close at night — and where libraries are mostly private and dreary — left us romantic about the open public parks and robust municipal libraries we knew in the States. In India, speech – in the First Amendment sense – can also be a deeply complicated and contested issue, while in China, where Sean joined with other U.S. academics in an attempt to launch a Western-style university in Shanghai, people fear speaking up at all if the topic is political. (Political repression, however, does nothing to inhibit an American-style addiction to consumer goods.)
In moving from China to Laos we regained uncensored Internet access, but perhaps only because its population is too small to constitute a shaping force in world markets, let alone the marketplace for dangerous ideas. It comes down to education, as well. India and China have schools that are stronger, if not equitably available across social classes. By contrast, the elementary school across the street from our home in Luang Prabang featured long daily breaks, loud children, limited resources, and teachers who taught by rote. However, with its solid walls and floors and paid teaching staff, it was likely among the better public schools in Laos.
We mention these differences not to disparage the Asian countries we called home but to highlight what we value more than ever about the United States: free speech, public education, libraries, public spaces, civic discourse. Of course, as with the childhood home, we had probably scaled these things up a bit as we thought of them from across the sea.
And yet, when Americans we encountered abroad asked us what it was like to live in communist countries, such as China and Laos, they never seemed to be asking about libraries and civic discourse. They assumed life was rough, that we were watched carefully and restricted in our movements, that we endured propaganda on state-run television and scratchy toilet paper. But apart from the (surmountable) challenge of getting real news in China, our day-to-day life as expats in the Shanghai metropolis under communist rule was pretty much like our day-to-day life anywhere else.
With access to a VPN (virtual private network), we read the New York Times and The Guardian. We came and went freely, both inside and outside our countries of residence. In Laos, we cared for a dog, which we walked every afternoon along the Mekong, just as we walk a dog every afternoon here along the Mississippi. On summertime mornings, we even streamed live KDKA broadcasts of Pittsburgh Pirates games.
We gradually came to realize, however, that living in a communist country differed from our prior experience in one key way: it’s a one-party state. The party does what it wants to do, and resistance is either ignored or quickly repressed.
Among Lao people, this resulted in widespread political disengagement, whether due to cynicism or sheer apathy. Lao friends were quick to clarify that, when they had a family picnic on the National Day holiday, it was by no means a celebration of the government.
Outside the political realm, life in Luang Prabang continued as it has seemingly forever: slowly and deliberately. Every morning the region’s thousands of monks stream through the streets seeking alms — which usually take the form of small scoops of sticky rice placed into their bowls by villagers who line the streets. Afternoons and evenings are all about sharing Beer Lao with family and friends.
Baw bpen nyang is an expression of this disengagement, a refusal to name the system at all, much less to take it on overtly.
We returned to the U.S. just in time to see a single, ideologically simplistic party assume control of Congress and the executive branch of the federal government. And other assets we came to value most about America – especially public education and a free press – are looking pretty vulnerable just now, as well.
Politically, it feels as though things will get a lot worse before they get better, but New Orleans seems like the right place to ride out the storm. The Big Easy has a certain baw bpen nyang about it, a recognition that however vile or abusive the one-party state becomes in Washington – and however worked-up about it people get in Austin and New York and Portland, Oregon – life goes on. It isn’t apathy. The parades roll and the monks need to be fed.
And we’re really glad we’re here.
Sean Chadwell is program manager for the New Orleans Citizen Diplomacy Council, which arranges programs for around 500 international visitors each year, most of whom come to the city through the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. His first novel, “Quitclaim,” won the Faulkner Fest’s 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Award. Donna Lednicky is looking to apply her grant writing and non-profit management skills in the New Orleans nonprofit sector.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.