Much of my international travel is in support of humanitarian work, so, as a result, I see difficult places and hear gut-wrenching stories. I meet with people who are exhausted, yet full of joy. I dine with people who have given up everything, but have gained more than they could ever ask or imagine.
In my early morning hours, with a cup of coffee in hand, I stopped to think about what I have learned about leadership. What I have learned is not necessarily what I do. Rather, it is what I have seen to be true, and what I aspire to do. So, here then, is what I have learned:
Gathering together for a meal has a deeper meaning than satisfying your hunger. In China, having a meal builds relationships or establishes new friendships. Curious what our favorite Chinese dishes are? We asked one of our long-term teachers what her favorite Chinese dishes are. Here is her response:
- Grilled bananas are yummy! As is true in many Asian countries, roadside food vendors are plentiful in Laos. One of our favorite stalls was one that sold roasted sweet potatoes, corn, and bananas. A small, short variety of banana is peeled and roasted over coals until the outside is brown and chewy and the inside is warm and soft.
- “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend it, and the Lao listen to it grow.” This observation, which is attributed to the French who colonized the area known as French Indochina, pretty well sums up the attitude and lifestyle of the Lao people. One young woman in an English class that we had the opportunity to teach unashamedly revealed that she had been studying English in this language center for six years, but had only advanced to the second level! This laid back approach to life pervades all of Lao culture.
- The world is huge! After more than 20 years of living and traveling overseas, it’s easy to start feeling fairly smug about one’s understanding of the “outside” world and its various cultures. Then you go to Laos! We were once again stunned by the beauty in both nature and culture.
- Ice is civilization. The Lao people have an intense love affair with ice! That’s not too surprising in a climate where the yearly average high temperature is 88F/31C and it seldom dips below 60F/16C. Ice delivery trucks are a common sight, and iced drinks, especially coffee and tea, are the norm. Chests filled with ice are a fixture in most restaurants, and Lao patrons will even pour their locally produced Beerlao beer over ice!
- A smile goes much farther than a snarl. Upon our arrival in Laos we were given an orientation to the country and its culture. One thing we were told is that Lao people don’t like discord and conflict—who does? So the best way to get a lower price when bargaining is to laugh and smile and keep a light atmosphere. We may not have gotten the greatest deals, but we sure did learn to laugh and smile while we were getting taken!