Guest writer Fleur, Managing Partner at Love Life, will be writing a series of stories about her adventures & misadventures as a foreign entrepreneur in Laos. If you relate, good for you. If you don’t, even better. Either way, do enjoy.
The Curious & the Mysterious
Surviving Lao Culture as a Small Entrepreneur – 01
Money Matters (Money Pen Yang, Nor?)
Since I moved to Laos three years ago, I have been suffering from chronic culture shock. My jaw drops a least once a day. One such shock came when I first started house-hunting: in Laos, landlords asking for rent to paid in yearly instalments is standard. It can even be paid for longer terms. I long thought this was a special treatment reserved to foreigners. But I recently found out that my Lao neighbours, who are by no means well-off, have to pay the rent on their barber shop yearly as well. Please, correct me if I’m wrong, but I have never heard of this anywhere else. Either way, it just seems crazy in a country where the minimum wage is just shy of $80 a month.
In Vientiane, the discrepancies in income are such, that most Lao people think all foreigners can spend pretty much any amount at the drop of a hat. Last month only, I was offered to go and see a plot of land behind That Luang. As I tried to fend of the enthusiastic seller, no amount of explaining that most of my money is currently tied up in Love Life, and that – small business being small business – I sometimes have to spend some of my teacher’s salary to keep it afloat, seemed to help. “Come and see it, maybe you’ll like it. Just come and have a look. We want to sell it quick, and really, it’s not expensive.” Curiosity getting the better of me, I enquired to check how much “not expensive” was. Well, it turns out, “not expensive” was $250,000. Apparently, my friend Khong Duan thinks I carry in excess of that amount in my back pocket at all times. I do most days, of course, but that day I only had $200,000 on me. Plus, I had to buy some peanuts. Thus, to avoid wasting his time and mine, I declined the offer again, still politely but this time more firmly. Sadly, Khong Duan now thinks I don’t like him – for why else would I refuse to buy his land? In Lao culture, saying anything that might hurt people’s feelings is highly inappropriate. As such, there was no way I could tell him that I didn’t want to buy his land for personal reasons. That would just have been the epitome of rudeness. And that’s why I made up a story about not having money instead. And to my Lao friend, that’s just a silly story: I am Falang after all.
Fun and frolics of dealing with locals confused about the value of money notwithstanding, walking around with large sums of cash is current occurrence. For instance, aforementioned yearly rent instalments are usually to be paid in cash. In my case, I pay rent for the ice cream shop every year at the end of June. When I met my landlady’s family to pay our rent at the end of the first year, they asked for an extra two months’ rent as a “bond” in case I damaged the shop. The shop was looking nice indeed: I’d spent 6 months and a fair amount of money making sure it did. Amongst other things, I’d built a kitchen, put a glass door in and upgraded the whole electric installation to handle our ice cream machine, oven, and many freezers. And I was now being asked for a bond. I’m afraid I lost my cool. Instead of paying the yearly rent, I proceeded to explain, in Lao as they speak no English, that all that was in the shop was mine. Most of us know that a drink or two help no end when speaking Lao – well, anger did wonders for my Lao too. The audience was stunned. Not by my sudden fluency, I don’t think. Rather they were stunned that I was refusing to pay what was demanded. And that I was getting angry. Was I not dying of shame losing face so? Well, no. I’m falang. I don’t even know what losing face feels like. I then got up and, images of smashing the whole place down racing through my mind, proceeded to storm away. Except that I didn’t quite “storm”. Well, I couldn’t: I had to stop by the door and put my high heel sandals back on. And as I was wearing a sinh and there was no chair by the door – doing the buckles up was a rather longer affair than I’d wished. No wonder storming off is so un-Lao: it’s virtually impossible. I’ve been wearing flip flops every since.
This article has been provided by Love Life: in the business of supplying home made ice‐cream, shakes and cookies to the people of the world! (Well the people of the world either living in Laos or passing through…)
Love Life, eat ice cream!