Working cross-culturally: the Laotian experience

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Across the street and on the other side of the roundabout is the central market for the City of Pakse in Southern Laos. 10 years ago, the local heavy hitter in the coffee and real estate market built the rectangle of buildings that encircle the market. Small shops on the street side of the market extend through the building to the huge open spaces inside the rectangle.

Red roofs and two story white buildings create an offset to the jumble of other buildings that face the cross streets, main streets, and side streets all around.

Pots, pans, children, supplies, flowers, foods of all kinds, and fighting cocks are all available. Anything you can imagine and much that you cannot is on display and for sale.

During the 10 years I’ve been coming to Pakse, often staying in this very hotel, I’ve watched the town develop and the market fill with every imaginable alternative to buy, wear, or consume. I can trace the development of the town and the economy just by observing the new roofs that enclose the square to protect the growing number of vendors from the heat, rain, and maybe even each other.

Pakse is the regional capital of Southern Laos. It is both remote from the capital of Vientiane and serves as the entryway to the economy supported by the Bolaven Plateau. The Plateau rises from the banks of the Mekong River and it takes about 55 kilometers of perilous driving to ascend the 1250 meters of elevation change and arrive at the coffee capital of Laos, Paksong.

Now don’t get the wrong idea, this coffee capital is simply a larger version of the hundreds of small villages that dot the road to get there. No one knows for sure how many people live on the plateau. Somewhat in excess of 50,000 people is my guess. The horribly rutted roads crisscross the largest plateau in South East Asia and extend from the heights above Pakse to include the northern tip of Cambodia and the Western edge of central Vietnam. And for you history buffs, yes the Ho Chi Minh trail cuts across the Eastern edge of the plateau.

The area has a long and varied history. Below is a map that all by itself tells much of the story of Laos.

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You can see that the country is landlocked with crossroads of people going in each and every direction. With a little over 7 million residents consisting of 64 different tribal groups, it is a society working cross culturally within itself.

The Lao tribe represents about 50% of the population with the balance made up of small, medium, and somewhat larger people groups. As might be expected, the largest tribe is dominant with the balance of power swinging in their favor. Many of the people groups have no written language which means the children must then learn Lao when they go to school. Their heart language helps bind them to their history, Lao introduces them to the larger culture, and now English is the preferred market place language.

On the Bolaven Plateau, coffee is the primary cash crop. Thousands of small farmers have either Arabica coffee bushes or those living at slightly lower elevations have Robusta trees. For those of you that do not know coffee, the Arabica is the favored crop with Robusta being used as filler and the portion of a coffee blend that provides the “bite” favored by many, including Starbucks devotees.

Laos is the poorest of the SE Asian countries and is struggling to keep up with the mandates imposed on them as a part of the ASEAN member states.

Below is a map of those members:

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The countries include:

Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Indonesia Philippines, Malaysia

The area in general loves to use impressive labels to describe relationships. The phrase: One vision, one identity, one community sounds promising but there is a long way to go for it to become reality, if ever.

The differences between Singapore and Laos are striking, to say the least.

When you complicate the relationships by adding the China behemoth into any dialogue, it is indeed complex. 

During my years of coming to Laos, the positive changes are striking. The distance the country and the areas around Pakse have yet to obtain in order to be within economic striking distance of the surrounding countries is stunning.

With that perspective, they are working hard to move forward. As a society that is not only Communist, but also hierarchical based on age, it takes generations to see significant political or social change. When a signed contract becomes the beginning of negotiations, and the rule of law is not well recognized, it is difficult to do business, create economic relationships, attract investment capital, and improve the lives of the people. 

The economic engine that can propel a country or region forward is hindered when the gears are greased with sand rather than oil. The sand that grinds the gears to a full stop, is the pervasiveness of bribery as the preferred way of moving any project forward. In all societies, there has to be a grease that allows progress to occur. In capitalistic countries, you expect it to be profit based on market supply and demand along with efficient communication and delivery systems and effective business methods. Perhaps that will be the case here, sometime.

It is challenging to learn what it means to work in an event-based society.

It sounded easy to me when we started. But that is not the case. It is also hard to lead in new cultural directions when the idea of “cause and effect” is nonexistent. So much of what we think is “normal” or common sense is based on this premise: If you do x, y will happen. Or, if you do not do x, y will be the reward.

It is hard to imagine how difficult it is for someone from the West to operate without these standard operating conventions. This operational void impacts everything from learning, preventative maintenance, and strategic planning.

My partner and I have been in business here in Southern Laos for just over 10 years. The reality is that we have been productive and building a sustainable coffee farm and production facility for five of those years. The other five were consumed by the inefficiencies of the business and legal system and dealing with significant corruption of local partners, associates, and government.

There are many necessary lessons to be learned in order to work cross-culturally and to do so effectively. We have met many wonderful people and learned a lot about what it means to have huge helpings of patience coupled with massive amounts of persistence.

As recently as yesterday, we received new and updated paperwork allowing us to move forward towards the vision we saw 10 years ago. That vision should have been realized, or at least started to be realized, five years ago. Because of those painful experiences, we can connect now much better with the historical people and people groups forced to delay dreams and set aside visions for an extended time. The biblical characters of Joseph and Jacob come to mind.

I always seem to go back and reflect on the historical Jacob of the Bible. He worked for the father of the woman he wanted to marry for 7 years. His time and effort were based on a promise and a dream about the future with his bride to be. When the wedding was to take place, he was tricked and the father-in-law substituted the older sister in place of the promised bride. As a result, Jacob had to agree to another 7 years of labor in order to marry the woman of his dreams. A great love story but a truly painful experience.

During those last 7 years, he was blessed by God with wisdom, knowledge, and significantly increased wealth. Although we have not experienced the final benefit, we have certainly grown in wisdom and knowledge during these last five years. Perhaps increased wealth will come during the next two.

There are so many wonderful and helpful projects for the people in the region that are badly needed. Our desire is to help fill the void that exists because of government, society, culture, and history.

I’ve written at length in this blog about the culture and cross-cultural issues impacting Laos. Laos is one example of difficult cross-cultural challenges and there are thousands of others stretching across regions, continents, countries, and cities. There is no part of the world that is exempt, some are just different from others.

There is both a challenge and an opportunity associated with this conundrum.

The challenge is to understand and see the opportunity through to viability and sustainability as well as understanding and workability. A result of the process for me is that I have become a better person. I have become more resilient and more understanding with enhanced perseverance and greater wisdom. And, I’m 10 years older.

Would I do it again?  Well, I’m not sure Jacob would have gone for a third round either. Now, moving to the next stage of business development, I’m excited to embrace the future built on the challenges of the past. Stay tuned and you can journey with me to the next stage of the 4th Quarter.

Bruce