We haven’t had any explicit education on Lao culture outside of our language lessons. We haven’t been given any type of etiquette guide or materials on navigating interpersonal communication and breaking down barriers with local people. What we did get was a two and half hour self defense class led by an attractive Asian American instructor who was a former police officer/ex-military who works in security for the US government and the 3 marines he brought with him.
Being in a foreign country requires one to keep their wits about them. While violent crime against foreigners is practically nonexistent in Laos, crimes of opportunity certainly happen andin many minds white equals rich. While I’d like to say Lao language class has left me fluent, I have more of a kindergartner-sounding-out-words-letter-by-letter level of understanding. Sticking out like a sore thumb and not speaking the language could certainly up my chances of being robbed. This class prepared me prepared us for that scenario and much, much worse.
Want to make decisions faster than your enemy? Follow the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Coined by a fighter pilot trainer that our instructor likened to Top Gun, the trainer never lost a mock dog fight even when starting from a compromised position. Our instructor then asked if we knew Top Gun because he is “old.” Don’t worry buddy, I know about Maverick and Goose.
We went through the alertness color levels from White - which is completely unaware and reserved for sleeping and being totally engrossed in one’s phone, through Yellow - casual observation, Orange - a specific threat were you think “I might need to defend myself against HIM today, to Red - the threat has been identified you are actively fighting back. There is also a Black level of alertness which differs from white in that here you also inert but there is an active threat, you have blacked out and don’t know what to do.
Gems from the presentation include a run down on Bruce Lee’s one inch punch where he could channel all of his power and body weight into his fist from a very short distance and a impassioned defense of the police use of force in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. A room full of teachers in one of the world’s poorest countries working on access to education issues might not be the ideal place to voice that specific opinion. He followed it up by encouraging us not to be politically correct or worry about appearing racist when it comes to our safty complete with a story about a friend’s wife who was approached by two black men in a van in a WalMart parking lot.
At one point I asked about the legality of carrying weapons or mace in Laos after being shown how to defend and attack someone with a firearm and the difference between a bullet that damages the central nervous system and one that simply opens an artery. I was answered both in words and actions. As our instructor pulled a switch blade out of his pants and opened it, he verbally affirmed that carrying weapons in Laos is illegal, the Lao government doesn’t recognize the rights of its citizens or foreigners and suggested we carry a baseball bat or heavy flashlight that could be used as a weapon but not classified as such. He also demonstrated using a rolled up magazine or breaking off the tip of a pencil in an attacker’s pectoral muscles as improvised weapons a la Jason Bourne.
We were given the recommendation to fight back to the death if someone is forcing us into a vehicle because we would be much harder to find if we got into an attacker’s vehicle. We practiced shouting “Stop” and open palm punching, kicking with the toes out (to maximize the chance of “bending his knee the wrong way,” and jabbing with the elbows on big black pads held up by the marines.
“Every father taught his daughter that if she’s attacked to kick him in the nuts. And every father taught his son to protect his groin.” I raked my brain and for the life of me can not remember a single conversation where my father recommended violence as a solution to any problem. I’ll have to ask my brothers if there was any fatherly advice on protecting their precious cargo.
After being reminded that men are on average two thirds bigger and twice as strong as women, we learned techniques for making your opponent look like the aggressor in the eyes of witnesses. We also got some unsolicited advice should any of us have the misfortune of being sexually assaulted. “There are people who say if you’re getting raped that you should just lie there and take it. I think those people are very, very wrong. We were for a second time encouraged to fight to the death.
I am not a fighter. I haven never been in fist fight and I hope I never am. I see people as more alike than different. More as friends I haven’t met yet than potential enemies waiting to take advantage of my next misstep. Call me naive; tell me I live in a bubble. I know I can’t do my job as an educator if I look at my students and colleagues with suspicion, fear and hostility. Education is best obtained through mutual trust and a willingness to exchange ideas. The pen is mightier than the sword. But you know what, Mr. Instructor? I’ll meet you half way. I’ll keep my alertness set to yellow, stock up on extra sharp number 2s, and renew my Ms. Magazine subscription to use against my potential attackers. Just in case.