In Between The Lines, by Zall, 14
Here’s the situation: I’m staring into a smiling man’s eyes. He has horrible teeth and crooked glasses. In his shaking hand, he offers me a glass of Lao-Lao (traditional rice whisky). My brain freezes. Can I? Should I? Would my parents be mad? Would I insult my host? I take in the smile on his face, the cautious look on my dad’s face, the hungry look on my mom’s face, and the oblivious look on my brother’s face. I decide to take the shot of rice whisky. Do I sip it? Do I go bottoms up? What would be appropriate? My thoughts are whirling around in my head. The look on my host’s face is encouraging. What do I do?
In this situation I normally make some strange noise between a yes and a no and look at my parents for advice. I’m 14, I’m underage; not supposed to drink until I’m 21. My parents look distracted and they may have had one too many Lao-Lao: mom’s cheeks are getting rosy and dad’s stupid grin is trying to refuse another drink… they won’t be too much help. If I drink will I test my families’ boundaries? If I don’t, will I insult my host?
I’m in a strange place in my life. I am both a child and an adult. Both international and American. Both traveler and student. What seem like simple questions can, in reality, be confusing and controversial cultural conundrums. When do I sit down or stand? Do I eat or wait for my host?
Sukkavit is a good friend in the village of Xam Tai, Laos who we go to see every time we travel. When we meet, it may be for the first time in almost a year. This year, she looks so short. So do I offer the formal way of saying hello by cupping each other’s hand or bowing? Or are we good enough friends to hug or put our arms around each other? In truth, we normally end up in some awkward position of one of us extending our hands while the other attempts a hug. Luckily, Lao is a fairly relaxed country as far as customs go.
These questions arrive multiple times a day in the travel-world, and truthfully, the guidebooks can only tell you so much. When you’re facing a cultural or social issue, your mind stops working. In the end, you wind up staring into your host’s eyes with a blank look until he puts the glass in your hand and begins a toast.