SOMERVILLE, MASS. — MAYOURY and Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn smile as they recall the Laotian capital city of their youth. ``People were afraid to go beyond the pagodas at night,'' they say. ``Too many tigers.'' They hadn't expected tigers in Cambridge, Mass., where they had come to study and write at Harvard University - the first visiting scholars to come to the United States from Laos since the communist takeover in 1975. But neither had they expected to feel free walking at night.
They had read that American cities were full of violence, and were startled to find people on the street smiling ``for no reason at all'' and offering to help ``without even knowing us,'' says Mayoury (may-YOR-ee).
``Except for bureaucrats,'' adds Pheuiphanh (pwee-PAHN), still in the throes of making travel arrangements back to Laos for the family's year-long visit. ``The bureaucrat here is like in other parts of the world.''
Pheuiphanh is a high-ranking official in the Laotian foreign ministry. He studied economics and management at Harvard's Mason Program for mid-career government officials. Mayoury, her country's first woman jurist, used her time as a visiting scholar at Radcliffe to research a book on women in Laos.
They met and married as law students in Paris in the 1960s, and returned to Viantiane (now Viengchan) in May 1975 - just as most other Laotian intellectuals were fleeing. It is a decision they say they do not regret, despite adjustments and hardships.
``According to American statistics,'' Pheuiphanh notes, ``no country had ever been bombed as much as Laos.'' But the transition to communism was ``less harsh'' than in neighboring Cambodia, where 1 million to 2 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge, he adds, a fact he attributes to the importance of family ties and a tendency to ``take the middle'' in Laotian culture.
Mayoury recalls stepping off the plane from Paris in 1975 with stylish European shoes and long painted fingernails. She quickly filed her nails and adopted the shoe of the times - sandals made from rubber tires. Her last belt from Paris was sold to buy chickens, which the family raised in their apartment. Their sons would sell eggs door-to-door to neighbors, she says.
The chickens are gone, but many other changes dating from that period remain. Most striking, Mayoury says, are changes for women. ``My mother came from a peasant family, but she took her husband from the city. She never expressed her ideas directly,'' she says. A woman was expected to walk several steps behind her husband in public and wait until he had taken his third bite before eating.
For peasant women, the rhythm of agricultural life continues much as it did before 1975, she says. Women take care of children and gardens; they fetch water and wood. Urban women, however, work harder now. Many have office jobs, shop, and attend political meetings, as well as caring for children. But they also have their own voice, can talk with their husbands and even challenge their ideas, she says.
National mentalities are changing as well. After years of strict isolation, Laos is opening its doors. The country expects more than 1,000 tourists this year, about the same number in total since 1975. Thailand opened the first supermarket in Laos recently, Laotians watch Thai television regularly. a bridge across the Mekong is planned, andand the Laotian government recently passed the most open code of foreign investment in any socialist country.
This opening will mean new business, growth, technology. But it may also have a dark side. The Laotian capital city is very beautiful compared to Bangkok or Manilla, they explain. There is little crime, no prostitution. But with floods of tourists, foreign investors, and ``quick money,'' social problems are more likely.
They worry most about children: Half of country is under 18. Increasingly, Phieuphanh says, they are growing up without traditional Lao ideology: ``Everyone must live simply.'' It is, he says, the view of small peasant, ``not struggle to get money, to live with what we can earn without big effort, big ambitions.'' With so many imported goods and temptations, they fear the young generation cannot live the ideal.
How have his own children borne the temptations of life in a US city? ``They changed, too, but they lived here simply,'' he says. ``But they want to get new sneakers and hit songs.''
So has he succeeded in protecting his children from the temptations of urban life? He smiles. ``There is some contest.''