On the second day in Vientiane, it was scorching hot, and the humidity did not help. We visited COPE, a non-profit organization that provides prosthetic limbs for Laotian citizens. The entire group was interviewing a young man who had lost both of his legs, arms and his eyesight from a UXO bomb, while I was instantly drawn to a boy who was sitting in his wheelchair looking at us with awe from a distance.
I slipped out of the group with our translator and approached him. At first, he was silent and I felt like he saw me as just another foreigner. Even when I high-fived him, he just looked down with wariness. All I wanted was to put a smile on this innocent boy’s face. I soon realized that it wasn’t me; it was the language barrier.
So I approached him in a different way: with origami. I showed him all of the colors that I had, and naturally, he pointed out which color appealed to him the most. All of a sudden, we were both absorbed with folding our origami papers into cranes.
By the time we were finished, he gave me the most heartfelt smile, and the deadly heat didn’t matter anymore. We had just become friends despite our vast differences. He invited me over to his dormitory where he and his family, along with other injured families, were living.
Led by the little boy who I could now call my friend, I walked through the halls while people popped their heads out of their rooms to see what the new attraction was. He introduced me to his family, and they welcomed me with big smiles and the Laotian phrase for ‘thank you’, “kopchai”.
Afterwards, he showed me to his neighbor who was injured by a UXO bomb and lost his hands, his eyesight, a quarter of his face, and consequently, his pride.
When I asked the man what his goals were for the future, he simply replied that he wanted to start working again, so he could supply his family with food. He didn’t just want his wife to magically get a donation. He wanted to be the one to put a plate of food on his family’s table.
The video cameras around us were focused on his already damaged face as he reluctantly said his wish. I showed them my collection of origami papers like I did to the boy, and the couple chose their favorites.
Because the man could not write with his hands, I asked his wife to write his goals for him on the origami paper. She began to write, but soon giggled and told my translator something in Laotian. I expected it to be something along the lines of “I don’t know what to write,” but it was, “I don’t know how to write.”
She had finished school in third grade and had not learned how to write or read past the elementary school level. I always knew I was lucky for being able to get such a great education and for my loving family, but this situation was something in which I had no expertise. When the wife saw the solemn expression on my face, she began to laugh, not at me, but for me. By nature, I shyly giggled back, and everything felt normal again.
All the cameras focused on us became a blur.
We became people — not interviewers and interviewees or Americans and Laotians — and oddly, I felt at home with these people. I think I would add them on Facebook if I could.