Monday, October 09, 2006

Another Quiet American

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos by Brett Dakin (Asia Books 2003).

It's difficult not to judge a book by its author. Another Quiet American is an excellent book, a detailed and perceptive account of two years living and working in Laos. If only the author were less annoying.

Author Brett Dakin makes a bad first impression when he indulges in the most irritating characteristic of Ivy Leaguers, their compulsion to inform you immediately that they're Ivy Leaguers. Dakin shows more restraint than some of his brethren; he waits until the book's second paragraph to start dropping his credentials (Princeton and Harvard Law).

Judging from the various unintentionally revealing passages, Dakin wants to appear modest and self-effacing while simultaneously ensuring that you know exactly how sterling his credentials are. "Without having done a thing to deserve it, I had been born into a life of comfort and privilege," Dakin writes. "I had grown up in London, New York and Washington, D.C., and had been educated in elite, private institutions just about every step of the way." By the end of the first chapter, all right-thinking people should hate this guy.

Dakin decides to work in Laos as part of a Princeton University program -- did he mention he went to Princeton? -- and the book improves vastly. Dakin did the reading. He probably studied every major text in English about Laos before he started his travels, and his observations are enriched by his research.

Dakin accepted a position at the National Tourism Authority and saw first hand the inefficiencies of both the Lao government and the well-meaning non-governmental organizations which lavish aid money on the country. At the NTA (nominally lead by an allegedly timber-poaching general), promotions and assignments were determined by a person's reputation within the Communist Party, allowing talented people to languish. An employee might arrive at the office to learn that he had no work, that someone had been moved into her office, or that he was being transferred to another ministry.

Not that anything was in danger of getting done at the NTA. A planned marketing push, "Visit Laos Year 1999," was delayed and had to be re-branded "Visit Laos Year 1999-2000." After the revamp, the NTA staffers were unclear when the year was supposed to begin and end. Employees drafted brochures in mangled English about tourist spots that none of them had ever seen. Consultant reports on tourism promotion were accepted, translated and ignored.

The NGO staffers and expats are the book's comic relief, formerly idealistic internationalists who now just feed at the trough with varying levels of competence. According to Dakin, United Nations consultants earn a standard rate of $10,000 a month, a Microsoft fortune in Laos. No wonder that some expats settle in and, despite their grumbling, can't bring themselves to leave. They couldn't afford a large French house with a cook, a maid and a guard in the First World and, Dakin observes, they would be held to Western standards of performance and professionalism if they returned to their old lives. So they stay in Vientiane, a capital with good food and little anti-foreigner sentiment, and engage in useless development work, like gifting a state-of-the-art copier to the NTA when the NTA can't afford to purchase a replacement toner cartridge.

Dakin's writing is crisp and informative and entertaining . . . when he writes about Laos. For example, his portraits of residents, Lao and expat, are illuminating, and his summations of Lao historical events are succinct and informative. But Dakin insists on engaging in navel gazing and "who am I to judge" junior varsity philosophizing that made me want to throw the book against the wall.

"Here I was, 23 years old, fresh out of the ivory tower. For most of my life, I had been told what to do -- what papers to write, what courses to take. And now, as a 'consultant' of sorts at the NTA, I was expected to tell others what to do," Dakin writes in a characteristic passage. "But what did I know about their jobs, or about how to develop tourism in Laos? Just about the youngest person at the office . . . I was among the least qualified to provide advice on sound and sustainable development policies for Laos' future. It is true, I had been offered opportunities most of my colleagues could only dream of . . . but --".

It is true that, at Dakin's mention of his opportunities that others could only dream of, I threw the book against the wall. Then I retrieved the text and checked the Table of Contents for a chapter called "I'm Incredibly Privileged and Accomplished, But I'm Extremely Modest And Introspective About It." I believe the British term is wanker.

Luckily, Dakin's internal monologues are kept to a minimum. Don't get the wrong idea. Another Quiet American is a must-read if you are interested in Laos, an accessible yet thorough portrait of the country. But there are passages you'll want to skim over.

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Blogger Nyatzi said...

I agree! I picked this book up in Vientiene and while I do like the book, the author himself is really making it difficult. But he was 23 or so when he wrote the book, and most 23 year olds ARE annoying. Ten years later i bet the author is more mature and finds his tone in the book embarrassing.

6:29 PM  
Blogger BJ said...

This is an excellent book that is right on the money. Reading this book while cruising on the Mekong from Luang Prabang puts things in perspective. Having also been part of and living in a developing country (Kenya) some years back it seems that nothing has changed. The amounts of manpower and money totally wasted in these countries are astonishing. You are right on Brett.
BJM in New York.

3:05 AM  

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