Were it not for the number of Facebook posts and targeted email ads reminding me of the silliest holiday, I could have ignored the existence of Valentine’s Day altogether this year. Valentine’s Day is not really celebrated in Laos with the same commercial force it commands back home. It passed quietly, with a few students posting pictures but otherwise without mention. Nevertheless, the day (and the fact that I just finished reading Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance) got me thinking about dating culture in Laos and how different it is from back home. A quick disclaimer before I begin, these comments are based on what I’ve seen and experience and might not be a good representation of the country as a whole, so take this all with a grain of salt.
I teach at a university, so most of my students are within a few years of me. Relationships here, however, are reminiscent of middle school relationships. They’re mentioned in class with much giggling and it’s a grand declaration to walk around campus holding hands with your significant other. Dating is serious business and doesn’t really happen casually for the most part. My students are also titillated by everyone’s relationship status and were quick to ask me, “Married or single?” Apparently, those are the two options. At the same time, however, this levity is coupled with the existence of serious issues like rape and premarital pregnancies. But like most things that aren’t positive, these issues aren’t openly discussed in Lao society. There’s still great stigma associated with things like birth control and contraception, and youth that buy these items are labeled as “bad boys” or “bad girls.” I’ve talked to some of my students about these issues and they’re aware they exist, but there isn’t a whole lot happening to bring up that conversation on a national scale, so the stigmas persist.
For women especially, it’s common to get married in your mid-20s and the few “older” single women I know have mixed emotions about their relationship status. One of my friends is horrified to still be single and nearly 30, but a few other women I’ve meet flaunt their status because of the independence it gives them. As in the past and in more conservative parts of the US, marriage here represents an inhibition of female freedom as the needs of a woman’s family and husband take priority over any desires of her own. Marriages are viewed more as transactions rather than trying to find a “soulmate” or equal partner. Our fellow Fulbrighters in Vientiane have learned about an interesting byproduct of these transactions, known as “geeks.” A geek is, essentially, a sidepiece, someone you turn to if you don’t really like your significant other or if they’re too busy to spend time with you. It’s a strange concept to me but the students seemed very blasé about it. I’m happy to report that the existence of geeks isn’t gendered – both men and women can have them.
It’s extremely interesting to see how the LGBT community presents itself. This part of the world is notorious for ladyboys and, poor jokes aside, the number of students and people in general that are open about their sexuality and cross dressing in this way makes it feel like it’s a pretty accepted part of culture. In some smaller communities, ladyboys are revered, and Laos actually feels rather progressive in this aspect of society. I also know several Lao men and women that are openly gay and lesbian and it doesn’t seem to be a big deal – at least within people our age. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that people with opposing views (both Westerners and locals) aren’t vocal about their stances. I’ve heard some stories about religious Westerners shaming LGBT locals that makes me embarrassed to be representing the same part of the world.
Though Laos is ethnically diverse, foreigners are easily recognized and seeing how we/they fit into the dating scene is a source of endless conversation amongst us. There are countless white man-Asian woman couples (many with a big age gap) and it’s generally expressed that marrying a white man is “making it.” I understand this to some extent – as I mentioned, traditional marriages here expect the woman to give up her independence and be subservient. Marrying outside of this culture permits women greater autonomy and who am I to criticize that? In other respects, though, I don’t understand these relationships. How can you form a truly stable connection of trust and understanding with someone when you often can barely speak the same language? But again, I am as much of an outsider to these situations as I am to Lao marriages, so if it works for them, then why not. Being a foreign woman is not nearly as interesting of a position to be in. Barring the general sexism (more on that in a later post), it also means that dating doesn’t work the same way for us as it works for Western guys. Most Lao men expect a submissive woman and there’s no way that’s happening here. The language barrier is another huge issue, where I couldn’t even imagine a relationship where basic communication was that big of a hurdle. While I don’t have much desire to date while I’m here, the teachers in our office are pretty hellbent on finding Theresa a Lao husband, so keep an eye out for any future wedding announcements from her.