American Couple Proud of their Lives in Laos


Washington DC: Sabaidee chao, sabaidee bor are the words that one American couple uses to greet all Lao people they meet.

Carol Compton and her husband Lin are retired professors from the University of Wisconsin which is located in the north-central United States.

One might be surprised to hear this couple fluently speaking Lao in America and wonder about their background. This journalist went to meet them at their home in Madison recently to find out how their lives are associated with Laos.

Speaking Lao language is my heart, Ms Compton says. I miss Laos. I miss the people that I know. They are so kind and hopefully they are well.

Carol Compton is from Minnesota and her husband comes from Ohio.

They did not meet each other in America, but met in Thailand in 1963 while working as volunteers for the International Voluntary Service (IVS) project (the project no longer exists).

After getting married in America, they went to work in Laos in 1965.

We met each other in Thailand but we had our honeymoon in Laos, they say with a big laugh ‘55555555’.

As a non-profit organisation, the IVS programme was designed to rebuild Asian countries after World War II. The programme, which sourced funding from the US and other donors, mainly focused on Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The project activities were primarily related to agriculture and education. Ms Compton and her husband worked with the agricultural team to help boost farmers’ crop yields.

Their project was located in Borikhamxay province. One of the project activities was to conduct a survey to identify the needs of local people.

There were three things that most people wanted at that time. The first one was water wells, followed by schools and toilets. Perhaps the need for these three facilities is still there now.

Mr Compton described the hardships of the Lao people as they struggled with poverty more than 50 years ago. Nevertheless he was impressed by the capability of rural people, no matter how poor they were, as they were able to accomplish great things when they joined together as a community.

As individuals they can’t do that much, but as a community they join together in a project, they can do fantastic things, he said, saying that it’s critical to empower rural communities and properly encourage them to cope with the challenges in their lives.

Mr Compton last visited Laos in 2000. He worked with a UNDP programme to encourage people to work together to protect the environment, biodiversity and forests.

He was concerned about illegal logging in Laos, saying that it’s critical to ensure that local people benefit from protecting forestry resources and wildlife.

While living in Laos, the couple visited Vientiane and the provinces of Luang Prabang and Champassak.

Carol Compton recalled her wonderful life, including her time in Vientiane in 1973 when she rode a Suzuki motorbike to different parts of the capital.

I also remember walking through the forests. I remember my students and hopefully they have good lives. We used to have wonderful meals together in their villages. We went to look for bamboo in forests to make food, she said.

Ms Compton has many vivid memories of her time in Laos, being with groups of women and sometimes listening to Lam(folksingers). Mostly she remembers the kindness of the Lao people and the wonderful forests.

When she was in Laos she tried to build a small library and brought books for it so people could read Lao literature, and about the history of their country and the region.

She says books are a wonderful way to ensure literature becomes a part of people’s lives.

Laos is my heart. My husband and I got married and lived in Laos as the first place in our married life, she says.

Carol Compton was motivated to do a PhD on Mor Lam so she could understand it better.

She says Lam is a lovely combination of music and poetry, creating new ideas for music and dances.

Fifty years ago, Lam was very popular in Laos with large groups of people walking several kilometres to watch a performance. Ms Compton recalls several popular singers of the genre, including Ms Thongbang and Mr Thongkhoun.

It’s quite sad now that Lam is dying out because most people are more interested in modern music, dances, movies, videos and shows they can watch on the Internet.

Ms Compton did her PhD field research in the Siphandone region of Champassak province in 1972. While there, she learned a lot more Lao language and delved more deeply into the local culture.

When she returned to America in 1973, she started a Lao Language programme with students coming from all over the United States to study Lao language and culture. She is also writing a book about Mor Lam to educate young people about this art form.

The couple call on the Lao and US governments to strengthen their cooperation and jointly design programmes that respond to the real needs of local people.

What I want to see after the election is for the governments of Laos and the US to continue to shake hands and agree to strengthen cooperation especially in rural development and infrastructure development. These are the areas that Lao people need to be improved and are interested in. They need to grow more nutritious food and improve transportation and communication. There are many things to be done, Lin Compton says.

I hope that the US government will strengthen relations with Laos and ensure that similar kinds of projects to those I did 50 years ago can be initiated to respond to the needs of local people, Carol adds.


Source: Vientiane Times