Love Began in Laos — by Penelope Khounta, 2017

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.

 

 

Hustle the East – Love It or Leave It (Excerpt)

Here’s an excerpt from the new novel Hustle the East, from Black Rose Writing 

1 – Love It or Leave It

My time in Laos taught me that even I was not the person I thought I was. An ordinarily apathetic American, the son of CPAs, I never imagined I would be tossed in jail for killing a prostitute. Back then I wasn’t a murderer. Murder, with premeditation, came much later.

As the newest teacher in the Buddhist kingdom, I resolved I would do everything by the book. I would rely on my good intentions to pave the road ahead. As good intentions often do, mine led me to a place I hadn’t planned to go. It took me a while to figure out that in Laos, the good guys were the bad guys. Who knew that the American saviors of Asian democracy, who bragged they’d never lost a war, would abandon their lofty undertaking and ditch loyal allies without warning?

Jack Gaines was one of the Americans who came to save the Kingdom from Communism, and stayed around to watch it fall. Like Asia itself, Gaines was a charmer and a seducer. I disliked him from the get-go. Based on what I heard about his caddish behavior, I summarily condemned him for his lack of couth and civility. Decades later, I can still see him smile and hear him say, How much civility do you expect in a civil war?

In February 1973, Laos was squooshed between Thailand, which was fighting to remain free, and Vietnam, which was freefalling into Communism. The civil war in Laos was a sideshow in the Vietnam War. “Laos was only the wart on the hog,” a U.S. diplomat once observed undiplomatically. But, as Gaines would say, Oh, what a wart it was!

To this day, when I think of Laos I wonder if it’s possible for love to grow true in a place poisoned by lies and deception.

. . . . .

An open-air motorboat ferried me across the milewide Mekong River from Thailand. Upon landing on a muddy bank, I scrambled up ahead of the other passengers to reach Royal Lao Immigration and Customs. Royal though it was, the Immigration office was a shack no bigger than a telephone booth back home. I presented my passport to a ruddy-faced officer in a green uniform and high-peaked hat.

“Patpawt no good more three days,” he said. He admitted me to the Kingdom anyway.

A decade earlier, my parents had made us passports for a trip to Hawaii. As a consequence of my old man’s colossal incompetence, I was condemned to spend precious hours of my first day in Laos renewing my passport.

Arriving in Vientiane, more bad luck. I checked out the Sanook Hotel but couldn’t check in. The no-stars Sanook had been highly recommended by a hippie I’d met in Bangkok, who’d just come down from Laos still high.

“Up in Vieng, you can buy dope by the kilo,” the hippie told me. “Old grannies sell it at the Morning Market. They make soup with it, Man. I shit you not.”

“What about the war?” I asked.

“It’s far from the capital. You’ll never even know it’s there.”

“I heard a rumor about a ceasefire.”

“Yeah, that rumor’s been around for years.”

After waiting for what seemed to be years, a reedy Lao man of indeterminate age appeared before me like an apparition. I handed my passport to the anemic desk clerk.

“I’m Benny Bendit,” I said.

“Say here Paur,” said the clerk.

“Paul Bendit is my real name. Benny is a nickname.”

“You name Nick?”

“No, Paul. But you can call me Benny. I need a room.”

“No loom. Maybe rater.”

“How much later?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the clerk.

It was not yet eight a.m. Roomless, restless and afflicted by the hotel’s ailing air-conditioning, I ordered coffee.

“Nohm, or no nohm?” asked the clerk who was also the barista. The coffee cup of my brain was brimming with incomprehension.

“Nohm it mean lady’s boob and also mean milk,” the gaunt man explained.

“Kafe nohm it mean kafe wit’ milk.”

Ten minutes later, I got my kafe nohm. Lao coffee was a mountain-grown Arabica blessed with a unique flavor and blended with chicory to stretch the meager crop. Kafe nohm was served in a three-inch high glass with a half-sized spoon atop a saucer. Wallowing in the bottom of the glass was an inch-thick dollop of sweetened condensed milk. In a quaint custom that defied a coffee-lover’s logic, Lao coffee was always served with a glass of weak Chinese tea. Coffee comes with tea. Welcome to Laos.

At quarter to nine, the kafe nohm was a sweet memory. The weak tea had miraculously washed away the sticky-milk residue of the coffee. I removed my passport and Traveler’s Cheques from my Samsonite and made sure to lock it.

“Is it safe to leave my suitcase until a room becomes available?” I asked the druggy-eyed clerk.

“You come back too soon,” he said.

“Is it O.K. to leave it here for half an hour?”

“Yes.”

“How about one hour?”

“Yes.”

I looked into the young old man’s dilated eyes.

“You don’t understand English, do you?”

“Yes.”

Passport in hand, I set off for the U.S. Embassy. I was confident I could conclude my embassy business, check into the hotel, and collect a teaching certificate before the end of the day, maybe even before noon. My unfettered

enthusiasm belied my unbound naïvete. As a newbie, I had no inkling this would be a red-letter day in the Kingdom’s six-hundred-year history, a date that would live in anti-Communist infamy.

On the streets of Vientiane the first thing that hits you is the capital’s signature fragrance, an eau d’égout that emanates from open sewage trenches. The next is the feeling that a soggy blanket of moist air is smothering you. Sweating bullets, I trod a treacherous pedestrian terrain over tilted and cracked sidewalks.

Rue Samsenethai was a jumble of two-story shophouses that mingled the sights and smells of Siam, China and India with those of France, Corsica and the Hippie Trail. The main drag’s distinctive characteristic was a mélange of

motorcycle fumes mixed with the pungent aromas of curry, incense and the Vietnamese soup called ph. There were few cars. Three-wheeled bicycle taxis took up the prime parking at the Constellation Hotel. Samlor drivers parked willy-nilly near the curb, sitting on their bicycle seat, or lounging on the passenger seat under its canvas awning.

In Rue Chanthakhoummane, I discovered a dilapidated bell-shaped Buddhist monument. Tufts of grass and little trees reached out from its cracks. The sooty pile of broken bricks and century-old mortar looked like a twelve-layer cake topped by a stone party hat. Plopped down in the middle of the road, the resolute black hunk compelled traffic to circulate around it. What a stupid place to place an ancient monument! A quarter of the way round it, I caught sight of an American flag flapping high above a canopy of flame trees.

The U.S. Embassy compound stood on Rue Bartholoni, a short street named for a French aristocrat who drowned when a mail boat went down in the Mekong River. Behind equally high walls, the Consulate stood on one side of the shady little street, the Chancery on the other.

Within the ramparts, the whitewashed buildings were chockablock with puffy-faced, paunchy Americans. The diplomats who were fighting a war within a war wore a hangdog expression that foretold the futility of their mission.

The first time I saw Jack Gaines he was standing ahead of me in the queue for the Embassy cashier. It was impossible to ignore a big lug with bushy blond hair in a loud Hawaiian shirt. Even from the back, his posture was an affront. He continually shifted his leggy weight from one buffalo-hide sandal to another.

Sensing my stare, Gaines turned around and flashed a toothy grin. Jeez, I thought. This guy’s got gleaming teeth, a tan like he just got off a beach, and a physique like he spends all day in the gym. But landlocked Laos had no beach and at the time there weren’t enough health-conscious foreigners to support a fitness club. Not only did he lack a gym, he lacked good manners. He was so American. Here was a prime example of the kind of American in Asia I intended to avoid.

As the idiot in the Hawaiian shirt advanced to the window, I caught a glimpse of the graceful Lao woman behind the narrow brass bars of the cashier’s cage. Craning my neck, I could see the cashier wore an immaculate white blouse. Atop her smiling face, her shiny black hair was piled high in a chignon adorned with gold ornaments. Admiration for the cashier melted away when the lout in the loud shirt waved a check in her face as if there were no bars between them.

“Look, Dollface,” said the toothy check-waver. “You really have to cash this. It’s got my name on it: Jack Gaines. You know me: Jack Gaines, The All-American Boy.” I was irritated by the way Jack Gaines The All-American Boy was treating the angelic cashier. Despite the rude treatment she was getting from Gaines, the cashier delivered her refusal to cash his check with a certain sweetness.

“Sorry, I no can do, Mister Jack,” she said. It was customary in Laos to use the honorific Mister with a person’s first name.

Mister Jack kept up the verbal barrage.

“Look here, this is a perfectly good check in perfectly good U.S. dollars. If I paid any taxes, I’d be paying your salary.”

“You choking me, Mister Jack.”

To Lao speakers of English, “joking” and “choking” were homonyms. However, the pretty cashier’s meaning was clear when she added, “You too funny.”

“O.K.,” said the badgerer. “If you won’t cash my check, you can come to my house and swallow my one-eyed snake.”

That did it. I’d had enough of The All-American Boy.

“Excuse me,” I said to Gaines. “But I’m in a hurry.”

“Take it easy, Buddy Boy,” said Gaines. “This is Laos. There’s no such thing as a hurry here.”

He turned to leave, slowly. Like he said, no hurry. Making a mental note to ignore Gaines if I ever saw him again, I stepped up to the lovely doe-eyed woman in the cashier’s cage. I felt the need to apologize on behalf of the American people.

“Miss, I’m really sorry about that guy,” I said.

The pretty cashier accepted my payment without looking up. As I stammered on about Gaines’s rudeness, she completed the transaction.

“Hav’a ni’ day,” she said.

To read more: https://www.amazon.com/Hustle-East-Mark-Tawen/dp/1684331455

 

Interview with Mark Tawen, author of Hustle the East

What was the inspiration for Hustle the East?

I was living in Laos in 1975 when I discovered the book Voices from the Plain of Jars; Life under An Air War. The stories and drawings from adults and children collected on the Plain of Jars brought home to me that the United States was engaged in a horrific air war against villagers not very far from where I was. My idea was to reveal details of the illegal and immoral U.S. bombing campaign in a novel that would shock Americans. By the time I got around to finishing it 43 years later, the Secret War was no secret.

Why did you use three first-person narrators?

My first draft was written entirely in the third person. Then I decided that Benny Bendit, the American college grad, should tell his story from his own perspective. But Benny never set foot on the Plain of Jars, so I let the orphaned Lao monk Sangkhom tell that part of the story. Then it occurred to me that both narrators were male, and that a younger, female point-of-view would add another dimension, so Chansamone gets to explain for herself why she made the life-changing decisions she made.

Why is the last part of the book in the present tense?

I borrowed that device from Anthony Duerr, the master of present-tense narration. In this way, events of the 1970s move into the new Millennium.

Are you a veteran of the armed services? Have you ever killed anyone?

Like Benny Bendit, I was in a draft lottery and the ping-pong ball with my birthday came up toward the end, meaning I escaped the draft. Unlike Benny, who is fictional, I never killed anyone.

How does it feel to be a pen name?

If I said it posed a problem, I’d be lying. As my namesake Mark Twain once said: “A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”