Samson Syharath 2017 Leslie O. Fulton Fellowship Report

Sometimes, fate doesn’t always play out as you plan. During my trip, I had intended to learn about traditional Laotian art and embrace a culture that I had not been exposed to. I soon discovered that there are many things that I did not know about Laos, or even about my family or the United States’ involvement with Laos. As I learned about the beauty and culture of the country where my parents were born, I was also educated about the ugly truth about what drove my parents to escape. While I learned why my parents are the way they are, more questions arose about why they decided to move to America.

My journey began with some difficulty. I had arrived at the airport an hour and a half early, but realized I had left my passport in my copier at home because I had read that it is safer to have photocopies both at home and in the location you are visiting. I did however make my flight on time. It was a short flight to San Francisco but a much longer flight to South Korea. The minute we landed in Asia, I felt a comfort I had never felt before. The moment I was greeted with “Sabaidee” which is the welcome in Laotian, it brought tears to my eyes. I felt like I was home in a place I never experienced.

Mike Boddington, who hosted me through AirBnB, was CEO of COPE, the Advisor to Laos Disabled People’s Association, and the country representative for British Executive Services Overseas. He is married to Dr Xoukiet Panyanouvong, National Project Coordinator at The United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking Project. Every evening was spent eating home-made Laotian food and drinks on the deck with educational and intriguing conversations. It was such a great coincidence to have met them when they have also hosted my friends Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan, other Asian-American theatre artists based in California.

Mike was involved in starting the COPE Center where landmine amputees are given rehabilitation and prosthetics. COPE’s mission is to help people with mobility-related disabilities move on by supporting access to physical rehabilitation services in the Lao PDR. Many of these amputees are victims of unexploded bombs that happened during the Secret war in Laos. He introduced me to other artists that delve into the Secret War, such as Fred Branfman who edited stories, essays, and drawings by Laotian villagers to create the book Voices from the Plain of Jars.

Anolinh Luanglath is no longer teaching traditional Laotian dance. I also learned that she only teaches the female dance that is performed at special events and weddings. I was able to meet with Saveng Songaphay who teaches at the National School of Performing Arts. We scheduled private lessons my last week in Laos. Saveng has performed the Phralak Phralam for over 20 years. He has toured to Europe and Asia. He has taught many performers of the epic as well as creates masks for them. He has also agreed to create two masks for me: the monkey king and the ogre.

I rode a bus to Luang Prabang which is a bigger cultural and tourist attraction. At the Royal Palace, I watched two episodes of the Phralak Phralam. I was also able to experience the night market. I also volunteered at the Big Brother Mouse program practicing English with Laotian youth. The purpose of this program is to have youth have conversations with native English speakers to gain practice and experience in real life situations. I met a boy named Chee Lee who told me about his family and his dream for his future. He wanted to learn english to support his parents and siblings.

I had a great time learning about the Hmong two stringed instrument, the bamboo flute, and the Hmong Kaen. I met two great instrument makers and teachers that taught me how to create the instruments as well as play a little bit. They told me about how as young men, they would use the instrument to find their wifes. I was able to bring home the flute and two stringed instrument, but was not able to find a Kaen.

I learned a lot of traditional music and dance. The most influential part of my trip was when I realized that my family in Arkansas chose that location because the climate is so similar to that of Laos. Also, we could walk in our neighborhood to each member of our family. My grandpa would always walk from yard to yard, just as the elders do in Laos. While I learn more about Laos, I think I also need to communicate with my family to learn more specifics about my family here in America.