An exceptional encounter: When “muan” and the “Lao-German Cultural Night” join up
“Muan” is a Lao expression that can be translated as “joy”.
It was Friday, 9 November 2018. The sun had just disappeared and a light breeze blew through the bungalow of the three German volunteers Dilara, Nicole, and Patricia. The preparations for the upcoming evening had just been finalized: The sinhs, hairdo, and make-up were in place; Madame Engel, the AfC foundation driver, and two other German guests were waiting in the car. The “Lao-German Cultural Night” could come…
Since 2014, the German Embassy has hosted an annual “Lao-German Cultural Night”. Lao and German citizens, but also people from other countries are invited to this evening, which puts Lao culture center-stage – literally. Various artists are called on stage to present a colorful show in order to give an insight into what Lao culture in the 21st century can look like. But before going more into depth about the different show acts and the impressions they left on the audience, especially on this team of volunteers, let us throw light on the term culture itself.
Culture is a complex phenomenon with multiple dimensions and has been defined and redefined in many different ways. On doing a quick first search in dictionaries and encyclopedias on the Internet, results yield the words arts, literature, theatre and music. The English Oxford Living Online Dictionary (2019) sees culture as “[t]he arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively“. Nevertheless, there is more to this word. The Cambridge Online Dictionary (2019) suggests that culture “[…] is the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”.1
Individuals have their own perspectives on culture as well. Robert Cooper (2008), an English author and sociologist who emigrated to Laos decades ago and owns a bookstore in Vientiane, formulated his own definition of culture in his study The Lao, Laos… and you (2008). In his opinion, the term comprises norms and values of a society on the one hand, and on the other hand “[…] what people actually do, […] why, how, when and where they do it” (ibid., 68).
Besides, it is commonly agreed that “culture” has a dynamic character and is therefore constantly subject to change (cf. ibid.). Several expatriates2 from all over the world state in Martina Sylvia Khamphasith’s anthology Wahlheimat Laos – Expats erzählen (“Adopted homeland – expats’ stories”, 2013) that Laos is a country which has tremendously changed over the last decades. Hence, it can be assumed that Lao culture has also been considerably transformed. Still, Cooper (2008, 68) finds there is a certain omnipresent “Lao-ness” that has not vanished in the course of the development of the past decades. One major characteristic of this “Lao-ness” is the so-called concept of muan. It can best be translated as “joy”: A life in Laos and, consequently, Lao culture is usually expected to be joyful, enjoyable, pleasant (cf. ibid.).
With these definitions and the multi-dimensional nature of culture in mind, one single evening will of course not be able to show all the facets of Lao culture. Nevertheless, it can – and will – most certainly convey the idea of muan!
After having been checked by security personnel at the gate of the German Embassy, Dilara, Nicole, and I (Patricia) finally saw the Embassy building for the first time. It was actually much smaller than we had imagined. Still, it exuded a specific kind of stateliness that official architecture oftentimes emanates. The compound did not seem to be large at first sight, but when our group – the volunteers as well as Madame Engel and her visitors Katharina and Jacob – passed through a second gate, a huge garden opened up to us and revealed the actual size of the property.3 Probably more than a hundred guests had gathered there already.
The swimming-pool in the middle of the green was uncovered and filled with water. This surprised us: Was it not dangerous to remove the coverage? Many people were standing around the pool, because cold alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were served right next to it. What if someone fell in, possibly a child? We got ourselves refreshments and waited for an official beginning of the evening.
It started with random touches by strangers. I wondered who had just skimmed my arm. I turned around and saw a woman who was about to draw closer to one of the other persons standing next to her. That is when I realized not only the woman but also other people were moving dynamically through the crowd. Their movements resembled an uncontrolled dance. What was happening?
What we and all the other guests were seeing showed a modern form of dancing that does not follow a fixed choreography. It is called “in-situ” (Latin “on-site”) and combines dance with theatrical features: Something happens directly at the place one finds oneself at this very moment. Hence, an “in-situ”-dance is characterized by improvised elements which grow out of the conditions a specific spot can offer. Dancers virtually “soak in” their surroundings and try to convert it into artistic movements. This circumstance makes the whole performance highly unique (cf. IG Tanz Steiermark; cf. Sursaut – Dance Company).4
The in-situ dance served as opener for the Cultural Night and was presented by the “Fanglao Dance Company“. The eight professional Lao dancers left both a feeling of puzzlement on the volunteers – due to this contemporary form of dance that ended with a jump into the pool – and growing excitement. What would follow next?
Right after this first show act, the guests made their way to the actual stage where the German Ambassador His Excellency Mr Jens Lütkenherm as well as his personal assistant Ms Antje Maggie Mutz warmly welcomed them and shortly gave them an overview of the show acts that would follow. Whereas the “in-situ” performance had already included theatre elements, the upcoming group’s focus would be completely be on drama. Again, an exceptional performance awaited us: The Khao Niew “puppet theatre show“. When I first read the title on the program handed out at the gate, I imagined tiny colorful hand puppets like the ones my teacher used at primary school. Imagine my surprise when five actors, all dressed in black, stepped on stage, each of them holding a wooden cask. No puppets could be seen. Everyone in the audience looked confused and was on pins and needles: Where could they be? Dilara, Nicole and I had a hunch: The puppets were most certainly hidden in the casks which were about a third of the size of a human being. We were not mistaken.
The opening scene: Softly played traditional Lao music in the background, five performers interacting with their casks in the foreground. Each of them not making a single sound while gradually “unpacking” their vessels: The inner surface of the lids turns out to be the puppets’ faces. Their arms and legs appear to be bamboo canes.
Step by step, the puppeteers created their puppets. Although the audience was able to observe each and every step of this building process, once finished, it seemed the puppets were finally brought to life. They were not bits and pieces anymore. Instead, they became vivid “creatures” everybody stared at while forgetting about their actual driving power – the puppeteers. The original five actors of the play slowly took a backseat. They handed over the leading roles to their puppets who did not make a sound either. The whole performance resembled a silent movie which – although it did not have a “plot” – captivated everyone present for the next fifteen minutes – the perfect realization of muan.5
Blown away by this postmodern performance, the audience could hardly wait for the next two show acts. They threw new light again on the world of dance – a world that could not be more diverse and exciting, especially for Dilara and me (we share a passion for dance).
Thus, on this evening, we did not only get to know the “in-situ” dance, but would now also see professional Lao break-dancers performing a Hip Hop and Breakdance choreography. Our feet were already moving before the music had even started. Everybody was waiting for the “LDR Dance Crew” as indicated on the program. But instead of several dancers, only one was guided to the stage. Although this young dancer could neither see nor hear his surroundings because he was blind and deaf, he evidently felt the vibrations of the bass that had started in the meantime. Without any warning, he surprised each and everyone present with an unforgettably special break-dance show before his fellow dance crew members took over. Besides the parts in which they all danced synchronously, each artist showed his skills individually, too, one after the other. The audience was stunned as one could see in their faces and then hear as well: A hurricane of applause ripped through the crowd and marked not only the end of the dance performance but also of the artistic part of the fourth Lao-German Cultural Night. Now, the culinary part was to begin.
Most impressed by the performances, the volunteers left the stage area and headed towards a buffet with different kinds of Lao food. We felt a little hungry and filled our plates with fried rice, spring rolls, and other Lao delicacies. Our minds still dancing “in-situ” and breakdance elements, we were thankful for this experience and enjoyed the rest of the evening in the midst of a more than just “pleasant” Lao-German environment: A combination of chatting, laughing and eating in a serenely joyful surrounding made this evening unforgettable. One could say: Muan at its best.
Text & photos by P. Hopp, with notes by I. Martin
1 An introduction to the theory of culture and its many newer manifestations – multi-culturality, interculturality, cross-culturality, transculturality, hyperculturality – will be given in the the new series on this blog “Language education and global citizenship“.
2 From Latin “ex-patria” (out of one’s homeland).
3 The size can be explained by the fact that it used to be the East-German Embassy. Lao-German diplomatic relations go back 60 years.
4 The art form itself has a long tradition, cf. site-specific theatre.
5 This act thematizes “art” and therefore foregrounds the processes behind the creation of “art”. This theme is at the core of postmodern art, which emerged in Western culture after The Second World War, i.e. in literature, painting, music, architecture, etc. The five characteristics of “Postmodernist” art are self-referentiality, multiple perspectives, a high degree of playfulness, irony, or parody, and non-linearity and fragmentation.
Cooper, Robert (2008). The Lao, Laos… and you. Vientiane: Lao Insight Books.
Khamphasith, Martina Sylvia (2013). Wahlheimat Laos – Expats erzählen. Interviews. Edition Mayoulie.
Cambridge Dictionary. “Culture”. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/de/worterbuch/englisch/culture (accessed Dec 18, 2018)
English Oxford Living Dictionaries. “Culture”. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/culture (accessed Dec 18, 2018)
IG Tanz Steiermark. “IN SITU – Innenwelten (Eva Brunner)”. http://igtanz.at/preview/in-situ-innenwelten/ (accessed Dec 18, 2018)
Sursaut – Dance Company. “IN SITU: A DANCE HAPPENING”. http://sursaut.ca/en/spectacle/happening-danse-situ-2/ (accessed Dec 18, 2018)
Cross Dancers. “Fanglao Dance Company”. https://crossdancers.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/fanglao-dance-company/ (accessed Dec 18, 2018)