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An Individualist Living in a Collectivist Culture

Selfie of author Phillip McKnight with his smiling friends, embodying the collectivist culture in Laos.
Phillip McKnight with friends, experiencing the joy of community in Laos.

I didn’t realize it until recently. I was sitting in one of my favorite restaurants. Fans overhead blowing the slightly cool, slightly warm monsoon air over my arms. Low voices chatting to each other in Lao. My ear picking up tidbits of words that I recognized from my 9 months of language study here. Two women and two men, all wearing aprons, are preparing a traditional Lao soup called Kapoon. Mine is a coconut-based spicy curry flavor with fish providing flavor and protein. The words appeared in my mind “An individualist living in a collectivist culture.”

When I first arrived in the country, I had learned that Laos is a collectivist culture, where strength comes in the form of being together and in a community. I had heard phrases such as “food tastes better if you enjoy it with a group.” I had seen it time and again: groups of students eating a papaya salad snack between classes at the university. Work colleagues in the same uniforms, walking slowly side by side and chatting on their way to work. Families kneeling down in front of a monk who blessed them by tying a white string on each person’s wrist. Each person putting a hand on the arm of their family member to establish the connection.

Before coming to Laos, I had identified as an individualist. I had once had the realization years ago that having time on my own felt restorative and made me appreciate time with other humans so much more. But now, as I finish my soup and the rain begins to drizzle outside, I think about the moments I have practiced being a collectivist. I remember my friend named Song saying “We love to share” as he offered me chopsticks and invited me to join in on a snack that he and his friends were having. Another time I joined a new friend, their sisters, and an elderly mother at a New Year's party where water was sprayed out of big nozzles on the people below. I also remember being given an emblemed shirt from the university where I work and seeing my colleagues beam as I put it on. All have been saying the thing, with gentle invitations “You belong, and we’re better together.”

About the author:

Mindfulness Teacher Phillip McKnight
Mindfulness Teacher Phillip McKnight

Phillip McKnight is a dedicated mindfulness teacher and practitioner with a passion for fostering connection and understanding across diverse communities. He has completed a rigorous two-year training program accredited by the International Mindfulness Teachers Association, equipping him with the skills to effectively teach awareness and compassion-based practices.

Embarking on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Laos, Phillip has expanded his horizons by exploring the mental health benefits of cross-cultural appreciation, mindfulness, and the natural world. With a Master's degree in Instructional Systems Design, Phillip is adept at assessing the unique needs of individuals from various ages, backgrounds, and abilities. He employs his expertise to tailor mindfulness meditation sessions and equip participants with tools that nurture the body, heart, mind, and community. As an advocate for personal growth and cross-cultural appreciation, Phillip is on a mission to help others tap into the transformative power of mindfulness and forge meaningful connections with the world around them.

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Thanks, Phillip, for sharing a bit of your Laotian experience. I was struck in a positive way by your awareness of being an individualist living in a collectivist culture. So good.

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