Explaining Foreigners to Lao People (Part 1)

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A girl sells marigolds outside a Lao temple
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As you know foreigners not only look different, we act different too. We try to fit in, but our awkward behaviour is so different from the “Lao-style” it’s like we’re from another planet.

Well, there are reasons that foreigners (or falang as you prefer to call us) act in weird ways. I will now explain to you the reasons for the strange things falang do in Laos. The next time you see a falang doing something weird, you’ll know why (you probably won’t point it out though because, you know, losing face and all that).

Without further ado, here are 5 things falang don’t “get” about Laos.

Typical Lao food at a typical Lao restaurant on a typical Beer Lao tablecloth
  1. Falang order one dish per person at a restaurant

Falang don’t share food. Here’s the situation: at a restaurant Nok asks for fried cow lips and Touk asks for papaya salad. The falang in the group assumes that Nok will eat ALL the fried cow lips and Touk will eat ALL the papaya salad.

Without sharing.

The falang orders another dish – say, fried rice – and when it arrives, proceeds to eat the entire thing.

You see, sharing food at a restaurant is NOT something falang usually do. This is why falang often get confused at a Lao restaurant.

In falang homeland, each person at a restaurant orders his or her meal and doesn’t share (appetizers are an exception).

Shocking, I know.

Falang are trained from an early age to selfishly eat only what they themselves order at a restaurant.

Give your falang friend some time to adapt to sharing food, Lao-style. After a few awkward restaurant visits, they’ll catch on.

Eating Lao sticky rice with hands at a restaurant

2. Falang don’t eat with their hands

It’s knife, fork, and spoon all the way for falang. And sometimes chopsticks. Falang are hesitant to dig their hands into a pile of sticky rice.

If you’re in a situation where falang refuse to reach out and grab the food, try to be understanding. Get a clean spoon for serving the food (and I don’t mean wiping off the nearest one on your shirt, get a new one from a server). This will make your falang feel much more comfortable as they adapt to eating in Laos.

Bottle of Beer Lao beside it's matching yellow bucket of ice

3. Falang don’t put ice in their beer

Drinking beer is arguably the most popular hobby in Laos, and beer in Laos always comes with ice. ALWAYS.

Falang are afraid of watering down their beer, and will never think to add ice. They may also try to drink – gasp! – from the bottle.

Yes, this will be shocking an appalling. No, the falang won’t realize any of that.

Most falang are happy to try the ice in the beer if you suggest it, and when they do they’ll probably like it.

Falang men will also like the fact that attractive women are on hand to pour beer for them.

That’s right, foreigners usually pour their own beer. Some may be a bit uncomfortable letting someone else pour it for them constantly. Don’t worry, they’ll get used to it soon enough. Which leads me to my next point…

Laundry hanging. Looks like the maeban has been hard at work!

4. Falang don’t understand what a maeban is

She’s the lady who mops your apartment, does your dishes, washes your windows, does your laundry, and cleans your bathroom.

Despite the spectrum of maeban services (some change your bedding every two days, and some barely swept half the floor once a week), having a maeban come with an apartment is pretty standard in Laos.

Not where falang come from, though.

For falang, having someone clean up their place is like a dream come true. For falang it’s a privilege, a treat, or a crazy-indulgent service they’d never get for themselves in their homeland.

Having a maeban is a source of excitement for falang. Don’t spoil their party. Just smile and nod and give it a month. After that, they’ll probably start complaining about their maeban like everyone else.

An org chart for a Lao organization, complete with headshots

5. Falang don’t get why there are so many org charts

If there is a public building in Laos, there is an org chart displayed, usually in the front entrance.

This is weird for falang.

Knowing where everyone is on an org chart isn’t important to them. And having not just names, but photos on the chart is even weirder.

This is because in falang homeland, an org chart is something that everybody knows about, but doesn’t display.

It’s enough to know who your direct boss is. That’s really all falang want to know. They don’t need the big picture.

Imagine having a permanent sign indicating which people in your building sell cellphone minutes. You don’t need that, right? You can find that out for yourself by asking around.

This is what the org chart is like for falang – something that doesn’t need to be on a sign, something you can ask about if you need to.

 

And there you have it, 5 reasons falang just don’t “get” Laos. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Foreigners aren’t totally mysterious and unreasonable, they’re just not used to Laos.

It’s up to you to be understanding and help show them what to do when things get awkward. Believe it or not, most foreigners want to fit in. They’ll appreciate any help you can give them.

For more about how to understand falang in Laos, tune in for Explaining Foreigners to Lao People (Part 2)

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