Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

A Wedding in Luang Namtha

The wedding party was a small one. Only about 500 people in total. This, after all, was only the party they were throwing out of tradition. The bride and groom are from Vientiane, the capital city 22 hours driving south from here in Luang Namtha. But this is where her family is from. And so, out of tradition, this is where a wedding party must be.

The guests at the wedding were mostly local guests. Those that had traveled far to join were very close friends and family. The inner circle. The bride and groom themselves.

I had passed the setup on my way into work at 10am. A series of long dark tents set up on the street, blocking traffic heading in one direction. Under the tents sat round tables covered with red plastic sheeting. Around them, plastic chairs. This continued unabated save for an open space in the middle for an MC, a couple speaker stacks, and a dance floor centered around a fake tree. This middle area was under yellow sheeting, allowing more light to flow in. At one end of the line of tents and tables was a vaguely heart-shaped arch of flowers through which one could enter.

When I was brought back at 1pm by my boss to celebrate his wife’s cousin’s wedding, the tables were full and the seats decently so. On the tables sat platters of salad, plates of steak, of beef laab, of chicken, bowls of soup, banana leaves folded around individual servings of sticky rice. Any free space on the table was taken up by used plates and half-consumed cups of beer.

We entered through the heart-shaped gate and said our ‘sabaidees’ to the women sitting at the table by the entrance. There were a couple large boxes that looked like I should be filling out a card and dropping it in to win a new laptop. Perhaps they collected money for the couple. Perhaps they were for decoration only. I didn’t observe anything going in as we entered.

We sat at a table with two other men. The tables to either side were women only. The table behind me, men only. I was happy to have been brought by Thong and be able to remain cluelessly by his side, as opposed to the times that I have entered a new situation with a woman as my guide only to be segregated and isolated among others who don’t speak my language. A man at the table reached into the crate of beers underneath and produced a bottle and two clean cups with ice for us. It was significantly easier and quicker than having to go to the bar to get a beer. And in this country, that expedience is critical.

After about 10 minutes of eating and drinking I was invited to the dance floor. Two of the women who work at the restaurant here are related to the bride. One of their friends was there as well. Though we don’t speak the same language and have not been successful at communicating on account of my non-comprehension of the local language, we have sat around after work with a beer a few times. They know me, and they smile at me. (Though a good portion of the time I believe it more laughing at me rather than smiling with me.) I was paired with one of them for the dance.

Dancing at a wedding here is one of the most sedate and reserved styles of dance I have ever observed. It has all the energy and seduction of a slow dance at a historical aristocracy ball, but none of the complications, regimented steps, or precision. It is, in a fashion, less complex than dancing around the maypole, because that involves active passing to the inside and to the outside.

Couples get up to the dance floor and align themselves standing next to each other, next to the tree, forming a circle of couples facing the same direction, men to the inside, women out. To the beat of the music, everyone steps forward, counterclockwise, in small, incremental steps. Each step maybe moves the foot forward 15cm at best. During this, the arms are bent at a right angle, with the upper arms hanging down the body and the forearms sticking forward. The hands can move in vague circles, fingers outstretched and slightly separated. They move slowly, as if a doctor had asked you to demonstrate your wrist’s range of motion and you wanted to be sure you got it right. This move seemed more pronounced for the women than the men, who vaguely moved their hands at the ends of their arms if only to show that they were aware that they could be trying and didn’t care to. Some people also shrugged their shoulders to the beat in time with their steps, but this appeared optional.

After a count of about 8, or maybe 12, forward progress halted and the couples turned in to face each other. The hands still gesticulated, the shoulders still shrugged, the feet still raised and lowered, but this time without forward motion. After a count of 4 or 8, everyone turned back to their previous orientation to begin moving forward again.

I smiled at my partner, and each time she made eye contact with me and saw me smiling, she would smile back. But her resting face was bemusement at best. Which was still a higher resting level of excitement than the remainder of the circle, whose faces exuded something that would at best be labeled boredom and at worst contempt.

The music was prerecorded and repetitive, played by pressing a button on an electronic keyboard rather than actually playing it. This explained why so many of the local songs sound the same and I’m often not sure if I have heard a song before. They all come from the same stock. This background music (which would seem to reduce the need for a keyboardist, yet his presence said it hasn’t) was accompanied by a live singer. Though some live singers I’ve heard here have been good, this one was not. It wasn’t that she was out of key so much as that she was aggressively half-speaking the lyrics rather than singing them. She was also off key, but that was the smaller issue. Singers here don’t seem to have a strong need to be on key, or have previous experience. Singing here is about the feeling, and maybe the words, and maybe the energy of it all. Certainly, all of these and likely other things before the “technical skill” of the singing, which, by western standards, doesn’t seem to factor in much.

Every so often, when the singing would stop and the musical interlude would come in, the circle stopped moving and the couples would take a 4 count to switch places, still with shoulders bobbing. Facing each other, the view was different, but the moves the same. Nothing much had changed. And then before the lyrics kicked back in, we would switch back and continue from our original places.

After the dance I said my thank yous and headed back to the table to sit, look around curiously, and eat more food. The guests around the room all seemed so familiar to me. There were the tables of people the age of the parents of the bride and groom. They were sitting back comfortably, chatting and laughing a bit, sharing stories. There were a few social butterflies wandering around from table to table. There were the tables of families with children who were horsing around. The parents seemed to do a mixture of talking and turning to their children to monitor and ask what they were doing. There was a largely empty dance floor. There was a totally underwhelming DJ. There were a few people who had clearly just come from work and would be going back after we were fed. And at my table were a couple local guys sitting there scanning the crowd, looking for a thing to do or a person to talk to, and then turning to their beer yet again. Their raising of glasses was frequent, though the drinks they were consuming were more melted ice than beer thanks to the heat of the tents.

The women were wearing traditional dress – a sarong and a shiny, thick synthetic top. The colors were solid and bright on the tops, and generally dark on the sarongs. Despite wearing long sleeves of thicker synthetic material, most of the women didn’t sweat. The majority of the men wore pants and button up shirts, close toed shoes, and also no sweat. Everyone’s insistence on looking comfortable in these clothes in the heat of the tents was commendable. So as not be appropriating too much, my body opted to take a different approach. I attributed my sweating to my growing up in a cooler climate. My boss was sweating as well though and opted for us to leave within an hour.

When we left, we did so full, sated, and without me having the chance to say congratulations to the lucky couple. Hopefully they received it from enough other people they didn’t notice my departure.

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This entry was posted on November 18, 2016 by in Laos, Luang Namtha.

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