So on Monday afternoon at about 3:30 pm, I get a call from the DCM. The Political Officer who was to represent the Ambassador at a ceremony for the 21 successful graduates of a 5-month Senior Explosive Ordnance Device Technician training program couldn't make it. I was tapped to fill in. Just one thing. I had to give remarks on behalf of the USG. No problem, I said. I've done it before, and I have spent considerable time working on UXO issues for the Embassy. Great, says the DCM, you are on. Tuesday, 2:00 pm.
5 minutes later. Another phone call. Oh, by the way, says the DCM, you have to give your speech in Lao. Seems that remarks had to be submitted 3 days in advance so they could be translated for the assembled group. Because Greg, the POL officer, speaks Lao like Lao person with a master's degree in Lao, he was just going to give his remarks in Lao, so no remarks were submitted.
Now, sure, I can hold my own in Lao, but I certainly don't speak Lao like a laureate, like Greg does. Greg is one of those annoying people who decides to teach himself Khmer on a whim and speaks proficiently within a few months. Anyway, I speak Lao to people every day, but it is usually in small groups, and they usually want something from me (e.g. a visa to the US) so they are very forgiving of my myriad tonal and word-usage mistakes. This group, not so much.
I wrote up some quick remarks and, after a few minutes of trying to translate them into Lao, handed them off to consular staff to take over. Getting them back Tuesday morning, I started to practice. Tones, short/long sounds, and strange throaty vowel sounds were now my enemy. Say Som Seuey, and you are saying Congratulations, say Som Suey, and you are saying Beauty Product (makeup and the like). Very different meanings, and probably confusing to the assembled crowd if I started my speech by saying:
"On behalf of Ambassador Haslach and the United States Embassy, I would like to say Beauty Product to the graduates of this important training program"
Anyway, I had a 40 minute drive to the event, and I used the time to repeatedly congratulate the embassy driver just to get in some last minute practice.
I was one of three foreigners speaking from the dias that day. The UNDP resrep and a representative of the Australian version of USAID (aptly named AUSAID) were there as well. And NEITHER of them spoke in Lao, nor had had their remarks translated in advance. So I was off the hook. I could retreat back to English. Sure, none of the graduates, and most of the other assembled various and sundry Lao people, wouldn't understand a thing I was saying, but at least I would say it correctly.
To hell with that, thought I, I will charge ahead with my jumbled and mumbled Lao speech. And so, here it is. 5 minutes of hell. I did, however, do a pretty damn good job. It was more reading than speaking, but I did add a few off the cuff asides so that I could gaze triumphantly at the audience, who faces registered a mixture of surprise and boredom (if such a combination is possible). Surprise at the fact that a Farang was giving a speech in Lao, and boredom because I was the 5th of 6 people to speak. I followed the course coordinator, the Vice Minister of Labor (to my left), the UNDP resrep (far left), and the director of programs for UXO Lao.
Note the glistening forehead. It was a bit nerve-wracking in the moments leading up to the launch of my speech, and I did break out into a bit of a shvitz, but once I got into the flow of it, it was actually pretty fun. I did, however, forget to tighten my tie.
After my speech, and after the ceremony finished up, the Vice Minister smiled at me, shook my hand and said "You speak Lao language good." I promptly corrected his English.
Okay, no I didn't.
A surprise addition to my duties came when the M.C. called me up to pass out certificates of appreciation to the international experts who organized and taught the training course. More surprising was that the women who handed me the certificates to give to the recipients had them in no particular order. As such, I had to explain to Nigel Mulroy, for example, that he was getting the certificate for Brian Stevens, and that he just needed to go with it.
The graduating class. These guys are the cream of the crop of UXO Lao's clearance technicians. As SEOD Techs, they will be responsible for the overall clearance operations in their respective provinces, and particularly for more difficult operations, such as big bombs, white phosphorous, or water-based UXO. Most provinces also have international UXO experts working alongside the Lao, but as time goes on, those people will move further into the background and let the Lao take the lead.