Another Quiet American

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 May, 2004, 12:00am

Another Quiet American

by Brett Dakin

Asia Books $90

His days as an Asian studies student at Princeton University rapidly coming to a close, Brett Dakin was looking for a new challenge in 1998. He found it on the notice board of the Princeton-in-Asia programme, in the form of an opening for an unpaid language and marketing consultant to the National Tourism Authority (NTA) of the government of Laos, which was then just opening its borders to lure tourists.

Dakin was intrigued. Despite speaking fluent Chinese and Japanese, he spoke no Lao and knew little about the reclusive hardline communist state.

Yet his book is a fascinating glimpse, albeit through the eyes of a privileged young American, of life as a minor bureaucrat in a country rapidly opening to the modern world amid the fallout from the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

The other quiet American of the title is not the author or a Graham Greene character, but a retired Vietnam war pilot called Joe, a long-term Laos resident who has a love-hate relationship with the country. While Dakin takes to life in Laos, he's reluctant to stay too long, lest he ends up like Joe, 'another quiet, bitter American who has renounced his ties to the US, but had yet to find a home for himself in Asia'.

Dakin's characters are from all levels of society, from his boss at the NTA - a powerful and widely feared general - to a prince from the era of French colonialism and average people struggling to get by.

Dakin also gives a good portrayal of the country's geography and culture. He explores its economic potential with a light touch, readily admitting to knowing little about finance or even his work, for which he is totally unqualified.

But he's still willing to ask tough questions about his own country's role in making Laos one of the poorest nations. He is scathing about the expatriate consultants attached to the 'alphabet soup of aid agencies and NGOs that flooded the capital'. He describes a self-serving, over-paid development aid community doing more harm than good with largely useless projects.

Nor does he have much time for the army of backpackers who visited following the publication of a Lonely Planet guide to Laos. He considers the young travellers a threat to indigenous culture, despite the jobs their foreign currency creates.

Dakin sets himself apart from the aid agency consultants, which is perhaps hypocritical, given that he's a consultant himself, in effect. Some might also see him as one of the young travellers he disparages, rather than the long-term Vientiane resident he considers himself.

Dakin also seems confused about Asian women. He frowns on relationships some have with westerners. 'In cities across Asia, I'd seen white men and Asian women together, and they had often made me feel uneasy,' he writes. 'The cultural disparity and power balance was striking ... the men only cared about the sex, and the women just wanted the money.' But he's happy to sleep with a Lao girl after a drunken party (and bolts when she suggests a relationship).

Although Dakin may come across as naive, even disingenuous, the reader should remember he was only 22 when he arrived in Laos. Another Quiet American is honest, well written, entertaining and informative. Dakin provides unusual insights, however distorted the eyes of a westerner may be, into Laos.