political science 300: the Vientiane runaround

Yesterday I watched a TED talk about a woman who escaped from North Korea and it triggered one specific memory that I’ve been trying to forget.

In the talk the woman recounted how she had smuggled her family through China and gotten them across the border into Laos. You could sense the horror she was reliving as she talked about how her family, just minutes away from the South Korean embassy, were imprisoned in the capital city of Vientiane. She spent so much time racing around trying to free them, and it was only by the generosity of another foreigner that she was able to pay the fine to get them released.

As I listened to her story, I completely empathized with her frustration at the governmental system in that country. Back in the summer of 2010 Jessie and I traveled around SE Asia for the first time. After enjoying three weeks in Bangkok, Kanchanaburi province and Chiang Mai, we crossed the border into Laos at the northern part of the country. We hunkered down for a two-day slow boat trip down the Mekong River enroute to our first stop, Luang Prabang. As the hours floated by we read books and talked about the university jobs that awaited us in Korea in a month when we finished our backpacking. It was a very relaxing journey.

We settled into our room in Luang Prabang and decided that we needed to make contact back home. So we headed to the Internet cafe. Seemed like everything was fine, except I hadn’t received confirmation that our criminal background checks had arrived. These are mandatory for teaching in Korea and without them we wouldn’t be issued a visa, hence losing our jobs. I called the FBI to inquire and was informed that our fingerprints had only just arrived. We’d sent them from Australia over a month ago with a 10-14 day guarantee. With the current processing time, our background checks would be available the first week of September.

Our jobs started in August.

We were facing being jobless and cashless within a month’s time. Also, we’d be letting down a friend who’d pulled many strings to get us these jobs. I made another call to the Secretary of State in Michigan and worked out a way to get our background checks in time. But we had to get the fingerprints to her immediately. We raced to the tourist police office. They told us that fingerprinting wasn’t done anywhere except inVientiane. Oh great! Now we’d have to zip across half the country in a panic, missing out on everything we’d come for. We packed up and bussed our way there.

As soon as our feet touched the capital soil we jumped into action. First was the American embassy. They didn’t have fingerprinting services, so they sent us to the nearest police station. At the station, they sat us down and questioned us for 20 minutes about why we wanted to do this and if we were criminals. They sent us back to the embassy. We explained what happened and the man called a different department and confirmed that we could have it done there. He gave us the new address and implied that we may need to give a “gift” in order to move things along. We walked over to the building, only to be told that foreigners weren’t allowed inside. But we had someone’s name, so after showing the paper they reluctantly escorted us to a room. Here we received the same treatment: a stubborn standoff between their arguments that only criminals get fingerprinted in Laos and our insistence that the government of Korea needed our fingerprints analyzed in order to know that we weren’t criminals.

A third trip to the embassy got us a name on the other side of town at the Ministry of Finances. Once again, we followed a reluctant guard to a small cinderblock-walled room and waited. Ten minutes later we were questioned. Then we were told that the man we sought was working today at the Foreign Affairs building, another 15 minute walk away. We were buzzed into the Foreign Affairs building and grabbed a slip with a waiting number. No one was manning the counters because they were all out eating lunch. An hour later we learned that our man was not working here today but was at the Ministry of Finances. This was ‘confirmed’ by a phone call. Another fifteen minutes walking back. The guard was very angry to see us again and said that the man was not there. He called Foreign Affairs and ‘confirmed’ that he was at the building we had just come from.

We’d been at it for six hours and had given up all hope. Besides what I’ve mentioned, we’d asked at every governmental building we came across along the way. Several times we were relieved to hear that they would fingerprint us, only to have our hopes crushed when they realized that someone would have to sign their name to confirm they had witnessed the process. Important lesson: in post-Communist countries, people still carry a fear of being responsible for anything. As we dragged our weary feet across the roundabout at Patu Xay, I noticed a small building with flaky golden letters that read “Ministry of Justice.” One more couldn’t hurt. It was 20 minutes to 5 o’clock; soon everything would be closing down and we would officially be doomed.

The first person we met with told us that he could do exactly what we needed. We were jubilan! What a stroke of last minute luck! Inside his office he dug around his drawers and then asked, “Is red ink ok?” Our hearts sank. Of course it wasn’t ok. Fingerprinting has to be done in black ink. He shoved us out the door, pointed us in the direction of a street market and told us to find our ink and be back before five.

Usain Bolt couldn’t have caught us that day. Somehow, miraculously, we walked out of the Ministry of Justice at 5:15 with officially signed and stamped fingerprints. At 5:29 we slipped into a DHL, one minute before closing. We placed our two pieces of paper in an overnight package and handed the clerk eighty US dollars. Then we went back to our room and didn’t emerge for a day. In the end, we got our background checks two days before our scheduled flight to Korea.

I’m not saying my fiasco was anywhere near as dire as the Korean woman’s. But I realized while watching her that traveling has done something marvelous for me: it has increased my capacity for empathy. For some people, like my wife, empathy can be found in every square inch of every bone in their body. Not me. I’m not sure why this is; I think some people just have it and others don’t. For some reason it’s always been difficult for me to understand others’ emotions unless I’ve experienced a situation very similar to theirs. But happily, and unexpectedly, the vulnerability of traveling in unfamiliar places has given me insights into the world of human emotion.

Patu Xay, Vientiane