On Sunday, we went to the First Annual Center for Lao Studies benefit at the Women's Building. In a way, our table exemplified the crowd.
Of course, you can't assess a benefit banquet the same way you'd critique a restaurant meal. The form rests somewhere between haphazard home cooking and a Clintonian rubber-chicken flesh-presser. Nothing is prepared to order. There is no service, and to expect it would be rude. You don't complain when the sticky rice disappears. You don't fret when you have to pay for water. You just eat something else. Instead of demanding gratis quaffables of some sort, you just drink beer, which you feel much better paying for -- even though you're already yawning through a double-dose of brain-fogging cold medicine.
We weren't expecting the kind of food we'd eaten at Champa Garden, Green Papaya Deli, and Vientian Café in Oakland; just a good feed, authentic and fun. From what we could manage in the way of taste, the chicken laab was delicious, and the papaya salad, a dish subject to much cultural wrangling, well-balanced and semi-searingly hot. At least, it provided more nose-clearing relief than those ominous dark-blue gelcaps of acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, and doxylamine succinate we'd popped down the hatch hours earlier. We should really read labels.
The point, of course, was not the food. While plates groaned, most of the attendees were there to ingest information and experience as well as eats. Over 30,000 Lao live in the Bay Area, but you don't hear much about them. Events like this not only expose the culture to broader scrutiny, they also bridge gaps within the culture, cementing bonds between old and young, Lao-speaking and non-Lao-speaking, gay and straight, and so on. Leilani Chan and Ova Saopeng performed an excerpt from their play Refugee Nation, in which a non-Lao-speaking Lao college student conducting an oral history tries to convince an elder to share a story of war and transience he'd prefer not to remember. Young people may come to something like this and decide visiting Laos through the Center for Lao Studies' SAIL project will connect them more profoundly to their past; older people may come and decide to be more proactive in passing along what they experienced decades ago. The rest of us, we may eat, learn, buy raffle tickets, and wonder if our unborn, unconceived child could, in a half dozen or so years, perhaps pull off one of these.