Lao-American Association brochure and students with teacher
The author of Love Began in Laos: The Story of An Extraordinary Life was my boss in Laos. For more than 40 years, I’ve been grateful to Penny Khounta for hiring me to teach English at the Lao-American Association. The director of the U.S.-supported school and cultural center, Mrs. Khounta was a very mature 34 when I was a soul-searching 25.
I’ve visited her splendid art-filled home in Vientiane, I’ve learned about her family from my friendship with her brother, and I’ve chatted with her while she was out jogging but I never imagined I’d delve into her extraordinary love story in her no-holds-barred memoir. And speaking of memoirs, I can’t imagine writing about my past with such elaborate and delicate detail. Of course I remember the highlights of my many life adventures but I really can’t recall details the way Penelope Khounta has spelled out the dates and details of hers.
Central to her life and book is her 25-year marriage to a patrician Lao man named Khounta. (He was named after Ban Khounta, a part of Vientiane on the way to town from Wattay Airport.) Before falling in love with Khounta, Penny fell in love with Laos. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, in 1962, she discovered that just across the Mekong River, Laos and Laotians were far more charming, far more cosmopolitan and far more accepting of farang (foreigners) than Thailand and Thais. That’s still the case.
Newly arrived in Vientiane, Penny met her future husband on a blind date. Khounta was 15 years her senior and very established as Inspector General of the Royal Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transportation. Think of a Lao version of Ezio Pinza, the Italian opera singer who played the French planter in “South Pacific.”
Penny’s quest to marry Khounta is a textbook case of culture clash and culture shock. She writes in her cover notes:
“With no one to answer my questions or sources to guide me, I jumped in. No American woman had ever married a Lao from a broken family educated in France. I didn’t know what to expect or what to do. I lived in a jungle of ignorance, misunderstanding and confusion to the end.”
In a sense the book is a painful, painstaking catalogue of miscommunication and cultural miscues that would have scuttled a love of lesser commitment. She spoke English but not much French or Lao. He spoke Lao and French fluently and not much English. He seldom translated anything for her so she shared nothing with the family and friends he held dear.
Khounta lived by a code of behavior infused by his high-born, half-Cambodian half-Lao family, and by Lao Buddhist and French Catholic morality. To the young American’s dismay, Khounta never revealed his rules of how he expected her to behave until she transgressed them.
In August 1968, Penny had just been hired by the U.S. Information Service to work as director of courses at LAA. Khounta took her for a ride in his Mercedes-Benz 190SL luxury roadster. He asked, Was she sure she wanted to marry him, given the differences in their background? She seemed nervous, he said. Under Khounta’s questioning, she became teary, something few people including her beau had ever seen. A man of few words, Khounta told her: “You think too much.” She realized it was true, she was behaving like an American.
“I think, I was, and am, a typical American, who likes to hear words of appreciation, compliments and reassurances of love, and affection. Khounta, on the other hand, as I came to learn, said something once, and saw no reason to repeat it.”
One of the most painful examples of their mismatched expectations and outcomes is the chapter on her longed-for wedding, two years after first laying eyes on the unpredictable Lao man.
Penny was visiting Khounta on his study tour in Paris. On a gray December morning he woke his fiancée and told her: “We get married today.” She was indignant and angry and did not want to get married with five minutes’ notice. Luckily she had brought along the ivory-colored mini-skirt dress she wanted to be married in. She relented and they sped off to the Lao Consulate to be wed. All the formalities were in Lao language.
“I understood nothing, I felt embarrassed. The Consul teasingly smiled at me and asked in English ‘Do you love Khounta?’ Yes, I said. No other questions. No vows. No kiss. Only infants and small children are shown affection in public in Lao culture.”
On the way back to the boarding house, Khounta bought a pot of white azaleas. It was his grand gesture in lieu of a wedding bouquet and a wedding party surrounded by her American and Lao friends.
Their wedding night was New Year’s Eve. Khounta spent the night playing Lao card games with his Lao buddies. The bride was ignored and isolated by her inability to speak their language. She was angry because the fact that it was her wedding night and the countdown to a new year meant nothing to the old married men playing cards.
At the ceremony that morning there had been no witnesses to sign the marriage certificate. In the style of high-level Lao officials who weren’t much concerned with official regulations, Khounta later found some Lao Army officers to sign the document and finish the marriage formalities.
After a lifetime of hardship and exile — their family split at times between Iran, France, America, and Laos — Penny writes that it was mutual love, respect and commitment that kept them together. It seems that to survive in a marriage with someone so culturally different, she had to learn to be a little less American.