Loss Without Less: Lost limbs and new gestures in the Lao PDR

by Leah Zani   (one of the two most popular posts – worth sending again for new and old readers)  [If you have a story to share, send it - susan(at)   susanschaller.com]

I am an anthropologist just beginning a research project on disability in the Lao PDR, a country in Southeast Asia that has experienced some of the most intense bombings in history. I am at the early part of my research project–everything I experience is new and fascinating. I am full of wonder for Lao.

In Lao, most people speak a combination of Lao, French, English, and local dialects. Working in a country where I do not speak the dominant language, I experience a very mundane kind of being langaugeless. I am unable to communicate through words, and must instead speak with people through gestures, smiles, and exchanges of gifts and money. Sometimes I use a translator, and notice, in fascination, how shared meanings emerge out of the collaboration between the speaker and the translator. Working in Lao has also inspired me to new kinds of language: for the first time in my career, I found myself writing my fieldnotes as poems. It may be that my experiences of being temporarily without language are making me engage with the world differently–and out of that engagement comes poetry. Here’s an example of one of my fieldpoems on being languageless:

Marking out cash on the counter
of an almost drug store
I have lost my language.
The shopkeeper and I communicate
through a currency that I cannot speak.
Somewhere on one corner of each bill
is a number I know how to say.
I cannot find it.
My tongue is caught in the turn
of the paper, the way my thumb and palm
occlude half the
edges as I press them into her hands.

The poem describes the multiple kinds of language that people use, and how even when we loose some kinds of language, we continue to use and develop others. I don’t speak Lao, but I still communicate with people through gestures, smiles, and gifts. Money, too, is a kind of language, a currency we speak through exchange.

Taking this idea of loss in language a step further, it might be appropriate to use this to understand disability in Lao, particularly how some survivors of UXO accidents talk differently after a bomb explosion. UXO stands for unexploded ordnance, the legacy of America’s Secret War in Lao in the 60′s and 70′s. Lao is the most bombed country in the world, per capita. America dropped a plane load of bombs every eight minutes for nine years. In total, this Secret bombing is equivalent to one hundred times the power of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Since one-third of these bombs failed to explode during the war, meaning that Lao remains heavily contaminated with bombs today–nearly fifty years after the first bombs fell. More than half of the world’s UXO accidents occur here. Because of this context, disability in Lao is characterized by the successes and struggles of UXO survivors, people who have lost parts of their bodies rather than people born with different bodies. Generally, people are involved in UXO accidents with small cluster munitions, called bombis in the Lao language. These small bombs look like metal balls, spheres of fruit or nuts. Consequently, people involved in UXO accidents in Lao loose their upper limbs and upper senses: fingers, hands, arms, taste, eyesight, hearing, voice, lung functions, and feeling in their upper body.

What happens to language after an explosion, when your body has been radically changed by the blast? The key thing, in Lao, is that UXO survivors experience an immediate loss of language ability, rather than a born difference or a gradual change in their bodies. Focusing simply on gesture, my experience is that people continue to gesture in the ways they did before the explosion, except now they use invisible hands. And, often, people’s bodies are so evocative that I think I see their missing hands, too. In addition to having invisible hands, people acquire other kinds of hands as well: The delicate ends of people’s stumps become pointers and holders and gestures. Their new and different bodies acquire multiple ways of speaking after loss; some are previous habits and some are learned after the explosion. People learn to engage with the world differently. My hunch is that there are always multiple kinds of language layering a conversation: regional grammars and dialects, slang words, ways of talking, gestures, body positions… Loss might just reveal the complexity of these layers of languages while also prompting the addition of new layers.

Leah Zani is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Irvine. This summer, she will continue fieldwork in Lao to learn more about victim assistance programs for UXO survivors. Any questions or feedback may be directed to her at lzani@uci.edu.

Thank you, Fort Worth

On Tuesday, A Man Without a Words, the documentary (write me if you would like the DVD), was presented to about 80 students and 5 professors at Tarrant County College. People participated with insightful, personal, inspiring and community-building comments and ideas. I felt like I had a roomful of friends, after only a few minutes of discussion. I’ve never been to Fort Worth before, and I’m not sure I had any impression or idea of what Ft. Worth was. Now, I have an image of, at least, one large group of vibrant, caring and active connectors.

Thank you for inspiring and encouraging me, worthy Ft. Worthians!

And, a special thank you to Sammie, a generous and energetic host, who managed to miraculously organize a great event with very little notice.

If we can keep on keeping on with this “we” business, we will live life better and more fully.

Keep on keeping on.

susan for Signs of Literacy and Signs of Life and susanschaller et al. (that’s you)

Life Goes Ever Ever on, including Death

Greetings all visitors whether friends, future friends or fellow travelers on this planet.

My mother died less than a month ago, very soon after the last post.  Blog posts and updating my web site, as well as many other tasks, suddenly lost importance as Death stared at me, and even feelings from babyhood visited me.  Regardless of the specific relationship we have with our mothers, a mama dying triggers visceral reactions beyond our control.

Allow me a break from updating my web site – feel free to roam and check out some pages and old posts – and I will return, after I regain some balance in my internal life.

And, in honor of my mother, I will be even more frugal with any gifts you may offer to support my projects (donation button on the left column).

And, one more note honoring my mother – she was one of the many “Rosie the Riveters” in WW II.  She drove ambulances, was trusted as an assistant surgeon while being a student nurse, and performed many responsible tasks.  At the end of the war, she was delegated to being a “dumb nurse” under the thumb of all the male doctors that came back from the war.  Since that generation is now dead or dying, I wanted to share that with any of you young’ns.

I’m in Louisiana and soon off to Fort Worth to present the 20 minute documentary, A Man Without Words.  If you would like the gift of a copy, write me and send your address, or donate any amount to the left, and I will automatically receive your address (but you will need to write to tell me if you want a book or DVD or both).

L’chaim – Gracias a la Vida – to Life,


Who Do I Think I Am?

From Ossining, many places, people and adventures have continued to create new life and community.  Blog writing did not happen in July while I took up a new career in farming:Eduardo, garden and me

Along with the vegetables is my July co-harvester: Eduardo, who also helped my Spanish from being completely forgotten to being that of a two-year-old.  I have picked up a Spanish book and am working on becoming three, soon.

Whether with vegetables and Eduardo and our hosts, on a train, in a crowd or looking for a locally owned grocery store in a new city, traveling has been teaching me who I am.  The people in my life, given to me or chosen by me, have made me who I am.  I have an unrecognizable accent where the original Wyoming sounds can rarely be heard.  When I was quite unaware and unconscious of my ability to choose, I was easily influenced.  As I work at being alert and awake, I make better choices, looking for and spending time with people who practice the principles I want to practice.  Most of you reading this have some connection to me or my work which I hope inspires or supports the principles we want to become, and we have, hopefully, a good idea of why we are connected.

Ironically, recent experiences are teaching me that regardless of how influential or connected you or someone has been in my life, my life today changes, evolves and absorbs new influences.  I am constantly challenged to let go of old ideas, old images of my friends and family so I may incorporate the new me, the new you, the new we. Recently, in the western mountains of North Carolina, with Boone folk, I was, in a given activity or conversation, other than who I was when I met or ate or lived with you.  It is quite shocking, for example, that being a mother of twin babies/toddlers/children/ teenagers/ university students has so little to do with who I am now. Giving birth and raising twins was tied to my identity and life for such a long time and being “Mama” seemed to be what I was all about, but now you could and do meet, converse and live a day with me, and not even know that I was and am a mother.

This strange mixture of past “others” forming me and me continuing to grow out of who I was, changing everyday with new people, cannot be reconciled, if I hold tightly to anyone from the past, including a stagnant self image.  Everyday I must practice letting go of the past – who we used to be together.  Only then, can I accept who I am now, including all the influences from the past (the ironic bit), good and bad. Fatigue sets in when trying to wrap my mind around this task precisely because I am holding on to some self image or dependency on a friend or relationship that I perceive defines me.  This grip is never neutral.  Fear of loss, desire for intimacy, acceptance, love or deep beliefs on who I think I should be (to gain intimacy, acceptance and love) are the driving force fueling the attachment.

My former, languageless student, Filadelfo, a.k.a., Ildefonso. changed my life, and is part of who I am and what my life is about.  A Man Without Words, the book and the short documentary (available as a gift – just write me) are also a part of who I am and what I am about.  However, as I have changed, how I present them has changed.  Realizing how we all influence and change each other, I prefer book talks and film screenings to be in living rooms rather than on stages, so we can share our stories, connecting in ways that build community.  The more each of us move from “I” to “we,” the more we have a chance at facing and solving the challenges of violence, the insanity of nuclear weapons, poverty, global climate change, and economic systems built on greed.  We can begin building alternatives, starting with that change from our society’s “me-ism” to connecting with family and friends, cooking, eating, playing or reconciling, and not running away through our many ways of numbing out from social media, packaged entertainment or snacks to a hundred other addictions.

What does this have to do with language or multilingual education, with A Man Without Words or The Boy Who Cried Wolf?  Story telling connects us.  Regardless of how frightened or disturbed I am by your differences, when you begin telling me your story, my defenses begin to lower and weaken.  We connect human to human.  I no longer see your strange stripes or “weirdness” but realize our universal needs and struggles as humans.

If you think I can be of service, to promote more sharing and community building through story telling, share this with your teaching/parenting/literacy friends, invite me to facilitate story telling in your community or inform your friends that I am available to travel to their living room or library or school or community center.  Write me with your ideas, be a guest blogger and/or push the donate button (to the left) to give the gift of postage, books, DVDs and transportation to your or new communities.

Write me here or directly at susan (at) susanschaller.com with any feedback, insights and, of course, your story.

We are our stories; let’s share them.





The Road Goes Ever Ever on, Even to Ossining

For a moment, I forgot what city I was in.

If you have ever been in New York City, you know how absurd it would be to not remember you are in New York City.  Too many places and faces in too short of a time was, obviously, taxing my brain.

The main purpose of my journey is to connect and to talk about connecting through sharing our stories, whether starting with A Man Without Words or The Boy Who Cried Wolf or the new story we are creating simply by being together and sharing. I now have far too many stories to write about.  If I wrote more, then I would have less time to share with others, making new stories – another balancing act while traveling through life.

Traveling is no different from living anywhere.  It’s just more concentrated. With a slower and more routine day, made up of mostly our well worn habits, I can process more easily the new places, faces, and stories.  I have time to reflect, categorize and file, then go to sleep and start a new day with mostly habits, and just a few new stories. Often, however, my habits prevent me from seeing, meeting and creating anything new.  It is easy to lull myself into the feeling of living a full life when I am mostly going through the motions on automatic pilot.

Traveling wakes me up.  I try to have my same old habits, but I can’t find anything or have to ask where something is that I need to get on with the habit. Or, I have to change – ouch!  Meeting new streets, transportation systems, houses, and all the new faces attached to different ways of looking, expressing and being does tax the brain.  I am forced to think and be open enough to learn in order to live through the day without getting lost, going hungry, and doing something besides avoiding getting lost and being hungry.  I am forced to live with my eyes, mind and heart open; I cannot rely on autopilot thinking or non-thinking.

In Berkeley, I know so many people.  Some of those people I have known for years and years. The difficulty – almost an impossibility – is to see a familiar face without all the assumptions accumulated through those years.  I change everyday.  I certainly have changed from year to year.  How could I assume to know the person across the table from me just because I recognize that face which looks almost the same as the one I saw across from me eleven years ago?  It is so much easier to follow the habit of assuming I know someone or something than it is to have an open mind and an open heart (e.g., being tolerant of someone having the nerve to change and make me think afresh).

One of the rude awakenings is having to learn just how to be in Chicago, just walking down the street or asking someone how to find the purple line, as opposed to how “we” do it in Berkeley (you know, the right way, and without purple lines). I actually have to be alert and open enough to learn new ways of acting in public (it was hard enough the first time). Chicago was not too difficult, but then this Western American found herself on the streets of Boston. This is where habits can be dangerous.  Walking out onto the street my first morning, looking for a nice cup of habit, I was operating on autopilot, behaving as if in Berkeley.  “Good morning,” I said with a smile, looking the unsuspecting Bostonian in his eyes.  The immediate tension in his body and eyes darting away from me as quickly as possible, after the initial glare at my offensive behavior, was a clue that I was no longer in Berkeley.  Just to be sure (after all, I hadn’t yet had my coffee), I experimented with simply eye contact with passersby, and a slight head nod of acknowledgement of passing a fellow human. After the third “who-do-you-think-you-are?” or the British “what-do-you-think-you’re-playing-at?” look, I, fortunately, spied a Café where it appeared they were exchanging money for cups of coffee in a somewhat familiar manner.  I hurried past the next two people with my eyes clearly on my destination.

I soon left Boston for New York City where I learned that it wouldn’t have mattered if I had sang, “Good morning” while staring at someone with a big grin only inches away.  My existence was not actually acknowledged in that constant stream of millions.  Also, it was too noisy to say or hear anything most of the time. It is perhaps the noise that turned off my brain for the moment when I forgot what city I was in.

Traveling, like life, is a challenging balancing act.  After feeling a bit traumatized by Boston and New York, I have been a recluse in a Takoma Park home of a dear and generous friend.  I have befriended three cats who act very much like Berkeley cats, offering respite from learning new behaviors.  I did venture out, yesterday, and bravely sat out in public scribbling some notes, reminding myself to work the name “Ossining” into my next blog post.  To my surprise, everyone who passed greeted me with a bright “good morning” along with a sweet smile.

I have no idea who they think they are.