It is not really possible to blend in here. You stand out, not just by the colour of your skin but also your actions. As I bumble, sweat and mispronounce my way through a typical day, I often hear the word ‘falung’. Children, that were previously happily playing on the kerb of a busy road, run away screaming it as I approach them. Staff in an otherwise empty store will say it in-between giggles and laughter as they and decide who gets to serve me. Other times, the word can remain unspoken, passing silently in a slightly surprised look such as when, at dinner, I mistakenly ordered enough rice to feed a family for a month.
Like most words, the meaning of falung has changed over time. In French colonial times, falung simply meant French. In those days, if you were white, you were almost certainly French and thus falung. As time passed the word stuck. So today, falung means pretty much any white person. Although, as in Thailand with the word farang, it can be used as a verb (What a falung thing to do!). Note that the Lao people are exceedingly lovely. It is almost never used as a derogatory term, more like the punchline to a funny joke which you should join in on. So, when it takes me 5 minutes to try and find a 5000 kip note in my wallet, I can nod to the patient staff member and just laugh saying ‘falung’. Some days, if I manage to mumble through a transaction using only Lao, or successfully eat at a group setting using sticky rice as a utensil, I can feel more Lao and less falung. Usually, I am very falung. One such period was the last week of the Australian Federal election campaign and our trip to the Laos capital, Vientiane!
Due to reasons, we had missed out on an important embassy briefing during our first week in Laos. Not only that, but soon an important election would be held and the only place in Laos we can vote is the Australian Embassy. Thus, the powers that be decided we should fly down to Vientiane, attend the embassy briefing and vote thus eating two birds in one pot. A free trip to Vientiane, embassy briefings, voting along with pizza and beer lao by the pool at the Australia Club. It all sounded very exciting and very falung.
We arrived just after lunch and the briefing was not till the next morning, so we had time to complete important errands. This required navigation around a strange city (hmm, we were tourists again – very falung!). Luckily, we are smart and can bypass language barriers with tact and a subtle sensitivity.
Our first stop was the bank, I needed to do a convoluted transfer of funds out of a US account into a KIP account and had only rudimentary Lao to explain it. Luckily, the young girl at the counter spoke excellent English. She also had the patience of an elephant, and as I was struggling at my third attempt to fill out a simple withdrawal form (in-between constantly dropping things on the floor and not finding cards in my wallet), she simply smiled, took the form and began to fill it out for me. Silly falung, can’t even fill out a form!
After the traumatic bank experience, we thought it was time for a break. That meant Swensons – the glorious Thailand ice-cream experience. It is possible we got confused by the menu and ordered too much. Feeling slightly unwell we decided to save our remaining strength for dinner and went back to the hotel. A successful day!
If anything, the next day was even busier with both voting and a briefing. Thankfully, after the stress of counting backwards from 12 on the senate ballot sheet we could visit the calm relaxing waters of the fabled Australia Club pool.
But all falung things must come to an end, and soon we climbed back aboard a trusty Lao Airlines steed for the 30 minute flight back to Luang Prabang. Next week would be different I told myself. Less sweating, better pronunciation of Lao words and no more bumbling. Then I got the text, “You are invited to our Party Fish Day for beer Lao and dancing”. Oh dear.
*Early on we were told that some parents tell their kids that falung like to eat children. Of course I laughed that off, who would tell their kids such things…..