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 firstname.lastname@example.org.