Reflections on Before and After
I’ve been here forever. I can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t in Laos. My feet have always hurt from walking miles upon miles in flip-flops. I’ve never been able to count money correctly, relying on the honesty of waitresses and store clerks to take the 1000 and not the 10,000 or the 100,000 note, to give the right change.
My whole life I’ve been up at the crack of dawn. Four sunrises, a thousand sun rises, is there a difference? Time is dilated here. Time doesn’t exist here. I’m in an alternate universe. I’m in worm hole where condensed milk has always been in my coffee and I’ve always drank light lager out of tiny glass cups.
I’ve turned down countless taxi rides from half interested tuk tuk drivers, roused from the hammocks they hang inside their motorcycle carts. Children have always pointed at me and shouted “Falang,” although I am not a French national, the colloquialism for “westerner” or “foreigner” rolls off their tongues and down my back.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t carry a rain jacket constantly. When I walked through puddles every afternoon. When I gingerly stepped over slick, wet tile, cracks be damned, trying not to break my own back.
I’ve always sweat through my clothes. In this lifetime I’ve never been cold. I’ve always been dewey, been damp under the arms, wiped sweat from my brow. I don’t remember a time before it was humid, before it was lush and green. Hasn’t it always been summer? Haven’t the lizards and spiders always lurked? Haven’t the mosquitoes always bitten?
I never speak quickly. I can barely recall a time before I deliberated over every syllable. I vaguely recall another life when I embellished language, spoke in complete sentences and used big words with grace.
I’ve never shown my knees at work. My shoulders either. While I can’t bring myself to wear tights and socks in the sun, I’ve never thought it unreasonable to wear long sleeves in oppressive heat. To hide from its rays. To think of leaving the house without sunscreen. Those days are long gone.
What’s a skyscraper? A subway? An interstate highway? I remember them from a dream. From a life before. Before the monks wandered the street in orange robes at dawn. Before the roosters roused the slumbering, even in the capital. Before anyone asked me to buy a bird from a bamboo cage, to release it, to earn merit for my soul.
I had a different life once, but it seems so far away, half a world perhaps. I used to know many people, now I know a dozen. I used to be invisible when I wanted, now I never blend in. I never used to be confused for the rich. I used to own many things. Now everything I own I can carry. I used to have a tight schedule; I used to worry. I used to know everything. Now I live in Laos.