reflections on civility
I am back in Albuquerque now, jet-lagged and tired, but happy to be home -- happy also to have missed so much of the pre-Christmas hoopla and the virulent displays of the worst in commercial advertising. I’ve every intention of finishing up the posts on the blog to include stops subsequent to Luang Prabang, but it is a good time to pause and reflect on recent adventures.
First off, Laos captured my heart. I realize that a tourist without a lot of knowledge of a place is apt to romanticize or overlook the hardships and daily challenges of life elsewhere, and to arrive at skewed notions of a newly experienced culture. The weird and off-putting conclusions of many anthropologists ought to warn us that, despite all good intentions, and even with what passes in the social sciences for objective criteria, we have at least an even chance of being flat out wrong. So I do not advance what follows as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, a standard, in any event, of which we always fall short, perhaps especially in courts of law, though a standard to be striven for.
That said, the Lao people seem to me genuinely friendly, and they are certainly more ready to smile than anyone else I know. Perhaps it is no more than traditional good manners that will disappear with more frequent contact with visitors (and the aggravations and challenges they must pose), but if so, then the very least one can say is that the Lao are generally very well mannered. All I can offer are personal impressions, but I can safely sing to the old tune that “I left my heart some place in Laos”. There is something endearing about the place and the people with which it is all too easy to fall in love.
The Thai I met were unfailingly courteous and hospitable, friendly too, but with a palpable formal restraint that can be quite lovely and, indeed, reassuring, in which etiquette plays an obvious though not oppressive part. Dealings with the Thai people I met were uniformly pleasurable, with special kudos to two young men who work for the Novotel hotel in Bangkok, who went beyond the call of duty to help retrieve the camera bag and its contents that Charlie had left on the courtesy shuttle to Suvarnabhumi the morning of our departure to Sukhothai.
Unlike at Los Angeles LAX, the people who work at Suvarnabhumi were ready to go beyond the bare minimum of walking through their job description and to actually make an effort to help. To anyone used to the gruff self-centeredness of most personnel at American airports, it was a gratifying display of what being aware of living in a world of other people -- all with their bundles of needs and fears and unexpected mid-journey crises -- can achieve. American’s rough individualism far too often turns into a breathtaking, sociopathic narcissism, making disinterested social interactions among strangers difficult. Without good manners and real mutual concern, the law of the jungle overtakes us, or we manage to maintain a semblance of civilized life by letting policing agents decide the least common denominator of mutual civility. It’s not enough. On the other hand, it is not too much to suggest that democracy itself is threatened when simple courtesy is seen as a bourgeois luxury.