A couple of months after I arrived in Vientiane in 2010 I was invited to a Teacher’s Day celebration at a school where I’d been doing a little bit of volunteer work. As part of the festivities all the teachers (myself included although I didn’t think of myself as a teacher) were given beautifully wrapped and ribbonned gifts. Although highly curious, as instructed I didn’t open the gift until I returned to my guesthouse room, where I discovered…… a box of baby milk formula.
I was bemused. But I berated my own ingratitude, reminding myself that baby milk formula would be valuable to many people in the world. I wondered if this gift had been chosen especially for me. It even occurred to me (yes, I am paranoid) that it was a heavily veiled hint from Lao friends keen to see me married with babies. In embarrassment, and feeling unable to ask the questions that I wanted to ask lest they cause offence, I stashed the baby milk formula under my bed and vowed to find somebody who could make good use of it.
Of course I forgot all about the formula until it was time for me to return to the UK a couple of months later. When I was packing up my room I wondered what to do with the unwanted gift. Something (maybe the subconscious learning of a couple of extra months in Laos) made me open up the box and the awareness dawned on me that there was no baby milk formula inside. Padded with newspaper balls were two teacups and saucers.
I was reminded of this a little while ago when, whilst discussing a forthcoming event in Vientiane, a Lao friend made a comment about the danger of people focusing too much on the cup and not enough on the tea. In other words many people will focus on how the event will be presented to the world rather than on the content of the meeting; on how it will look rather than on what can be learned.
It is easy to agree – and to extrapolate this idea to other daily situations which I encounter here in Laos. In particular I’m fascinated by how people working in projects take photos of everything that they do and how that photographic record often seems to become more important than whatever it was that actually happened. Sometimes it feels to me like this verges on dishonesty – like the photos and the reality don’t tell the same story.
But it also depends, of course, on who reads the story and how they read the story. I perceived a dissonance between the different layers of packaging and the content of my Teacher’s Day gift because I am not familiar with the practice of wrapping gifts in recycled packaging. The beautiful care and attention paid to packing the gift added a value and care to it that a hurriedly wrapped gift would just not have. Underneath that care there was a random functional box. Any Lao person (or anyone who had lived here long enough to receive a gift from a Lao person) would have known not to assume that what was written on the box was in the box, and would have immediately looked inside. To me, a newly arrived foreigner, the obvious was not obvious and the content of the gift was almost lost.
I’m just playing with two different teacup stories. I’m not suggesting that a Teacher’s Day gift is the same as a big event. I do think I’ve learned three things. The care with which something is packaged is important but doesn’t tell the whole story. Familiarity makes unhelpful assumptions less likely – I look back now and wonder how I was such an idiot – but I’m sure there are still many similar assumptions that I make every single day. You need some sort of teacup to have a cup of tea.