Laos is a country familiar with ghosts. From my conversations with friends and students over the past year, I’ve gotten the impression that nearly everyone, at least a tiny bit, believes in pii–in ghosts or spirits. Naturally, some of those beliefs are more serious than others, but the concept of spirits existing all around us, both bad and good, is quite prevalent. This is visible just walking down the street and taking in the wide array of “spirit houses” outside nearly every business or home: miniature buildings to appease the spirits of the place, with small offerings, from liquor, sticky rice, and bananas, to Pepsi and cookies. Some are flashy, covered in mirrors, and neon paint, others modest and minimalistic. But they’re always there. For some, this is a tradition, perhaps less a literal belief than to promote general good luck, but still entrenched in the culture.
A sampling of spirit houses, from right to left: Bangkok, Vientiane, Bali.
And from the urban legends I’ve heard, the pii are all around me here. On Halloween night, a Lao friend started recounting tales of all of the spirits in the surrounding area, from the “scariest ghost in Laos,” according to him–a little girl who eats live chickens (and sometimes children)–to which places in town have particularly high concentrations of spirits (for example, one area on a main road, where all of the ghosts of people who have died in traffic accidents congregate). He spoke half as though he were recounting simple facts, and half as though he was just trying to freak us out. “Do you really believe this?” I asked, after a story about a ghost over the bridge in Thailand. He just shrugged and said, “Maybe. Why not?”
So perhaps it makes sense that the Western tradition of Halloween is becoming quite popular. In talking with Australian coworkers, I recently realized how American many of the traditions I associate with Halloween are. Many asked, “Do you actually carve pumpkins every year? And go trick or treating?” A such, these traditions were an essential part of my first Halloween celebration with the new American Embassy scholarship program. Two of my good friends are teaching and developing this brand-new two-year program, that teaches both English language and American cultural customs to underprivileged local high schoolers. As the first of the American culture celebrations, the roof at Vientiane College was decked out in orange and black, the American ambassador was in attendance and 60 high school students carved greenish Lao pumpkins with scarily large knives. A few of the other American teachers and I joined after class to help out (and mostly to feel nostalgic for childhood). After jack-o-lanterns were aglow (with minimal loss of blood), we hid in various classrooms to jump out and scare “trick-or-treating” students before handing out candy.
Saturday night was the main show, costume-wise. Kongkhao, a favorite hangout among expats, was hosting a “dead celebrity”-themed Halloween party, so naturally, we had to go all out (the day my life ceases to involve sporadic necessity of costumes will be a sad one). I was Audrey Hepburn, and was joined by a posse that included the likes of Albert Einstein, Amy Winehouse, Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, and a very dead rockstar.
Pumpkins? Check. Costumes? Check. Halloween should be over, right? Because I can never let a celebration pass by without drawing it out as long as possible, this was not the case. Halloween Monday was a party all over again.
I conveniently had both of my Young Learner’s classes on this day, which was a great excuse to let lesson plans slide and allow both my and my student’s excitement to join forces for some just-barely-under-control fun classes. With my smallest children we made Halloween masks and then played a version of “Red Light, Green Light” that involved walking around like zombies (and turned out to be a surprisingly good listening exercise). My older class sat around and told scary stories, most of which involved–that’s right–more pii sightings around their houses (and even Vientiane College!).
After the last gluesticks and scraps of colored paper were finally cleaned up (along with the vomit of an over-excited 8 year-old), I headed out with a few coworkers to some final Halloween festivities. Though it was a Monday, bars, restaurants, and clubs across town had huge Halloween parties on. After all, if you’re going to celebrate a foreign holiday, why celebrate it on the wrong day? After visiting a few of fake-cobweb strewn venues in the city we ended this year’s holiday watching an elaborate costume fashion show with some of our awesome TAs at one of the city’s fancy clubs. Now the costumes are back in the closet for the time being, but the seemingly endless stream of holidays that mark the fall term marches onward. Next up: birthday, That Luang Festival, and (eventually) the rest of my stories from Australia.