Better living in Brooklyn, Laotian style

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Even Buddha is more relaxed in Laos. Flickr photo via ultrapop.

Before I came to Brooklyn, I spent a few years in Laos, a small country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. Laos has the distinction of being both the least densely populated country in Southeast Asia and the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. Though its economy is growing, Laos isn’t wealthy; by one measure, it’s the world’s 139th richest country (The Sudan is 138), with a per capita income of around $2,700.

Most of my American friends took it as a matter of course that I was completely miserable whilst away from the mother land, and though I did have a period of adjustment and unsatisfied Taco Bell cravings (and I am a vegetarian), I eventually picked up some sanity savers that actually make Brooklyn life more survivable as well:
1) In Laos, you actually visit your friends
It took some getting used to, but in Laos, time with friends is not scheduled or regimented. In fact, it is kind of rude to “allow” someone a time slot of a couple hours in your life. The way to be a true friend is to randomly drop by, with no agenda, just to enjoy time together. While this is tricky in our busy lives, it reminded me that the philosophy of “time is money” has a serious flaw. You can theoretically always get more money, but you only have a finite amount of time. Which is more valuable?

2) We only think we’re all about DIY here
There’s nothing wrong with Brooklyn-style DIY, like making pickles from heirloom cukes grown hydroponically in bong water and pickled in local vinegar. But I have never seen a truer DIY spirit than among the people of Laos. From creating a Dr. Seuss-inspired conglomeration of plumbing lines to folding a home-made envelope out of a piece of scrap paper, Laos showed me that the best way to DIY is not to take a class, but to just get in there and get your hands dirty.  Maybe haphazard plumbing isn’t the best way to go in a Brooklyn walkup, but the Lao DIY way inspires me to think of creative solutions to problems before calling in an “expert.”

3) Anyone can be your relative
In Laos, the title for “relative” (penong) is applied quite liberally. In fact, sometimes I became confused as to whether a penong was really a cousin or just a bestie. At any rate, it seemed that there were penong for any and every need or occasion. Want to go to school in the city? Move in with your uncle for a few years! Just had a baby? Get your countryside penong to come visit and lend a hand. Trying to get a scholarship? Government worker penong can put in a good word! While in America we are raised to value individuality (beginning with sleeping in our own rooms from infancy), in Laos life is approached with more of a Band of Brothers mentality. I can see value in both philosophies, but I admire the You’ll Never Walk Alone solidarity.

4) It just doesn’t matter
When pressed to describe Laos, my one sentence pat answer is, “It’s like the Jamaica of Southeast Asia.”* Jamaica has “No Worries,” and Laos has Bo pen nyang, which means “it doesn’t matter.”
Bo pen nyang is used for any and every scenario under the sun. It can mean “don’t mention it,” “no big deal,” “there is nothing we can do about it anyway,” “never mind,” and on and on.
In Laos there is a strong belief in fate… if something is meant to happen, it will. If not? Bo pen nyang.  This means that the general populace is rather nonplussed when a restaurant runs out of their signature dish, or the one person who can repair the Internet is out of office for two weeks, or the university professor doesn’t show up for class, or the government decides that all students must volunteer as ushers at the Southeast Asian Games.

Contrast this laid back, Irie attitude to tightly wound Brooklynites raging about spotty free WiFi or soccer moms pulling knives on each other to score a Tickle Me Elmo… I know which philosophy makes me less likely to curl up in the fetal position.

Essentially, I did my growing up in Laos, and I surmise that learning how to balance the differences in culture between Laos and Brooklyn have helped me downshift my  anxiety level when things don’t happen as planned. Almost like I was artisanally crafted under fair wage and organic conditions.

*note: I describe Brooklyn as “a cleaner, less crime-filled Atlanta” to my Southern brethren.


  1. I want a bartender panong. and a cop panong.

    but truly: I have lived in my apartment for 2 years, keep a regular 9-5 lifestyle, and I see my neighbors less than once a month.

  2. I hate to be the fun-wrecker, but nonplussed actually means the opposite of what we all WANT it to mean. It actually is closer to “bewildered” than “meh.”

  3. This is GREAT! Having recently lived in Vietnam (same, same, very different) and visited Laos several times I know exactly what you mean. Thanks for the perspective.

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