Jai Yen

i spent this weekend in Vientiane, helping organize the first Vientiane Half Marathon. The race was incredibly successful, with about 1600 participants spending Sunday morning running through past the most famous monuments in the city. It was worth getting only about 3 hours of sleep over the course of 3 days in order to see something we’d been planning for over 6 months come to fruition.

I got involved with the race through meeting Thouni early on in my tim here. Thouni, a Lao American expat who is seriously Superwoman, was starting an event management company and had a vision for a city-wide race to bring running culture to the forefront. She recruited me and some of the other Fulbrighters to help out with said company, and since then, I’ve been able to get involved with some of the graphic design and other aspects of the company and the events it’s hosted.

Through all of the chaos and sleeplessness of the weekend, one interaction I had really emphasized the significance of interacting with others empathetically and keeping your cool, even when faced with anger. During registration on Saturday, we were approached by a woman who was incensed by the fact that we only had Small shirts available, which were too large for her young daughter.

“What’s the point of registering 10 days before the race if you don’t even have things available!” she angrily yelled at us.

To make matters worse, we had run out of bibs, thanks to the huge number of walk-in registrations, and had to ask runners to come back and pick up the number right before the race. We kept our cool and repeatedly apologized and eventually the lady left in a huff, leaving us glancing amusedly at one another.

The next morning, I was handing out bibs to runners as they arrived. We ran out once more and lo and behold, the very next person to show up was the same lady and her daughter. Again we had no recourse but to apologize and tell her the bib wasn’t mandatory to run the race.

“It affects my child, psychologically!” she hissed, pulling her daughter away towards the start line.

A minute later, we found one last bib. I snatched it up and ran (for the only time that weekend) toward the start line to find our angry friend. The race had just begun and I found her after the daughter had already started running.

“It’s too late!” she said, but the gesture had greatly softened her tone. Walking back towards registration, we had a very different interaction. She was empathetic as I explained how we hadn’t expected so many registrants and more understanding of the effects this had on the process.

There is a phrase in Lao I learned early-on here, jai yen, which means “cool heart.” This attitude advocates staying cool-minded and not taking life so personally. It’s a very useful attitude in the chaos of Laos and going with the flow this way has made the lack of organization and communication I face on a day to day basis manageable. Jai yen was what came to mind in interacting with this unhappy lady – none of this was personal, and while it would be easy to give her back the same exasperated attitude, it was’t worth getting riled up about.

The daughter even ended up winning her age division for the race, and didn’t look too “psychologically affected,” standing up on the podium in her too-big shirt with her bib pinned to said shirt, accepting her prize.

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