Last September when I was in lush Laos following around Barack Obama during his last tour in Asia as president, I met a fellow foreign correspondent I had long admired — William Wan. William, who was back in DC after a long stint in Beijing, is a storyteller with a kind and gentle spirit, unlike some of the more rough and tumble “flungs,” as our shop calls us international reporters.
We were in Vientiane most of the time, staying at a rather gross hotel that had too many mirrors in the bedrooms and smelled of too much air freshener. After long reporting days, I avoided time at the hotel and tried to hang out along the mighty Mekong, instead. William, who knew my voice from his NPR listenership, asked to tag along for dinner on a Tuesday night.
Obama was scheduled to fly to the historic town of Luang Prabang the next morning. I had a flight to go along, but owing to just learning I was two months pregnant and feeling the sickness (and paranoia about Zika mosquitoes), I canceled my trip. Over our dinner of fried things, William waffled on going to Luang Prabang, too. Obama was simply going to do meet-and-greets with locals and talk to young Southeast Asians in a forum; the White House didn’t arrange travel so we were all arranging our flights unilaterally, William went back-and-forth about whether it would be worth it just to see a typical dog-and-pony show.
When we said goodbye that night he still hadn’t decided. But the next night, I ran into him late in the evening at our filing center in the mirrored hotel. He was the only one left. He explained he was puzzling over what to do with what he got that day. It turned out he did go to Luana Prabang, but instead of following the president, he stood in the lines of people waiting for the motorcade along the street. That’s how he ran into a young monk named Sengdao. William stayed with him for hours and turned this lovely piece. An excerpt of what happened:
“He kept a watchful eye on the street beside his temple for signs of the police and Obama’s motorcade.
All morning, he waited beside the temple walls.
Around 1 p.m. a Scottish couple wandered past him.
“Did you see Obama?” they asked Sengdao.
The president, it turned out, had taken a back road to the adjacent temple. The couple showed Sengdao pictures of the motorcade on their phones, and he looked on politely, hiding his disappointment.”
The story still came out well and it was one of those great examples of going out and finding people stories instead of following around a predictable politician. This week, an epilogue. Obama heard about the monk missing his motorcade and wrote him answers to questions about life that Sengdao was seeking. It turns out the president wrote him back just weeks after the Laos trip, but the letter only recently got to him. William followed up:
He has shown the actual letter to even fewer people because of how precious it feels. “It’s not a secret, but it feels very personal and private that he would choose to write something to me. I don’t want to ruin that feeling,” Sengdao said. He emailed me a copy of the letter, but asked that it not be posted in full online.
Obama encouraged Sengdao to keep pursuing his dreams and dedicate himself to improving his own life and the lives of others. “The letter is an answer to all my questions,” Sengdao said. “He is like me, someone who started from nothing. It makes me think I can do that as well.”
It’s worth reading both stories. I’m so touched and happy this happened. And way to go, William, for finding the humanity in these otherwise super-staged trips.