So, there I was, on the idyllic Don Khon, enjoying the cool breeze along the Mekong and gazing over at Don Det on the opposite bank… We just arrived in Si Phan Don, located in the southern region of Laos (right across the border from Cambodia). Stomachs growling, we ducked in a rustic-looking restaurant overlooking the murky brown Mekong River.
That was when a Laotian boy, around ten years of age, armed with an impressive command of English, came up and served us our menus.
Seizing the opportunity to practice a bit of English, he asked, “Where are you from? China?”
I shook my head politely, but in my head I was once again slightly affronted. With all due respect, I may look Chinese but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m from China.
“Hmm, so where are you from?” He asked inquisitively, bouncing along with me as he showed me the way to the ‘bathroom’, a toilet bowl fixed upon a tiny attap outdoor cubicle, haphazardly built in between a chicken coop and a tool shack. Tiny green crabs were skittering across muddy tufts of grass while a yellow-furred dog stretched lazily in the afternoon sun.
“I’m from Singapore.” I wasn’t sure if he knows where that is, yet at the same time, I sort of hoped he did too. After all, Laos and Singapore aren’t that far apart. Let’s see if this kid stayed awake during his classes.
“Oh!” His saucer-like brown eyes lit up with recognition, two rows of shiny white teeth baring as he grinned.
He paused as if to ponder over that knowledge.
“Singapore? It’s a small country.” He actually sniffed and waved his hand in dismissal.
Every time I traveled to a less developed country, I try to play down on the fact that I came from a more well-off place. I did not want to let any preconceived notions or differences come between my making new connections with people I meet on my travels.
Yet, this was the first time I was faced with such an unexpected role reversal. I felt the need to defend where I came from. But more than that I battled with conflicting emotions: I didn’t know whether to feel glad at least we were “on the map” enough for a village boy to recognize us, or aghast that we are so small and unimpressive that a boy who has probably never traveled out of his village actually scoffed at us with distaste.
Later, it occurred to me that the boy probably learnt his English from the hordes of tourists that flocked to the islands all year round. It was also equally possible that he garnered his knowledge about the world from the Lonely Planet guides that travellers left behind… In any case, he is young and the world is his oyster. And hopefully, by being around tourists all the time will inspire him to reach out and see all the foreign places he has heard about.
One revelation that I came away with? That more often than not, surprises hit you when you least expect it, and in this case from a young boy barely half my age. ♥