LUANG PRABANG, LAOS — When Sengdao Oudomsinh heard Barack Obama was coming to town, the first thing he did was look him up online.
Sengdao — an 18-year-old novice monk who had left his impoverished family’s rice farm in search of a better life in this city’s temples — had seen Obama’s picture before in newspapers and knew he was president of United States, but not much else.
Punching Obama’s name into YouTube a few weeks ago, he found dozens of the president’s speeches — about the power of hope, about the need for change. One speech in particular struck Sengdao like lightning. And he began reciting its lines over and over like the Buddhist chants he and his fellow novices practice every morning.
Eager to share it Wednesday with a visitor at his temple, Sengdao pulled out a hand-me-down tablet given to him by a relative — the most valuable object he possessed — and tapped on a bookmarked page.
Out came the booming voice of Obama: “If you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. . . . You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”
Sengdao said he found the words mesmerizing and spent the next two weeks vacuuming up everything on Obama he could find.
“I know he has a wife named Michelle. I know he lived in a town called Shee-cago? Or Chick-ago?” Sengdao said. “I know he cried one time when he was talking about guns. I know his first job was to sell ice cream and he ate too much and doesn’t eat it anymore.”
For the past two years, Sengdao said, he had been teaching himself English by watching YouTube clips and repeating words and phrases. In the process, he also learned a great deal about the United States.
There are golden beaches there, he said. New York is called the Big Apple. Famous people all live in a place called California. And Americans are always trying do the impossible, improving themselves, chasing big dreams.
And today, he hoped to catch a glimpse of the man who, to Sengdao, embodied everything he knew of America.
While in Luang Prabang, he heard, Obama was going to visit the temple right next door to Sengdao’s. And the monk was desperate to catch a glimpse, a wave, handshake or even a brief exchange of words.
While scouring the Internet the other day, Sengdao saw this question posted on Facebook by the U.S. Embassy in Laos: If you had a chance to talk to Obama, what would you say?
“I want to ask him about his speech,” Sengdao said. “He said, ‘In America, you can make it if you try.’ I think it’s very true. But not always. I want to know if it’s true in Laos.”
Every morning, after prayers and meditation in his ancient temple’s pagoda, Sengdao starts downloading videos, using the WiFi of a tourist motel across the street while the guests are still asleep and the Internet is fast.
He watches a lot of English travel shows, including “Itchy Feet,” but his favorite videos on YouTube are the TED Talks.
He likes how smooth and sophisticated the speakers sound. He finds them inspirational. After watching a TED Talk, Sengdao said, he often feels great hope, as if anything is possible in his life.
He finds this kernel of American culture especially addictive — the idea that you can become anything you want. That you are only limited by how big you dream.
Like many in Laos’s rural villages, Sengdao grew up working in his parents’ rice paddies. When he finished elementary school, he had few options. So, as many boys from the countryside do, he decided to become a novice monk to move to Luang Prabang — a bumpy, three-hour bus ride away — and find a school here.
He has been away from his family for five years. Even now, when he hears his mother’s voice on his tablet, he sometimes cries.
That experience, he said, makes him feel Obama’s speech about trying hard is true. He now attends a school run by a British nonprofit organization for underprivileged children.
But things also are not as simple as Obama says, he thinks. “You have be at the right place and right time,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how hard you try in the countryside, your dream is not going to come true.”
He wishes he could ask Obama about this.
There is a yearning in his voice, as if answers about Obama might yield solutions to his own life. He wants to know whether Obama is a wise man.
“He must be smart and wise,” Sengdao said, “or he would not have become president.”
His family back in the rice-growing village does not understand such things, he said. His grandparents still harbor a bitter dislike for the United States — having lived through the Vietnam War when American warplanes dropped nearly 300 million cluster bombs on Laos to target Viet Kong and North Vietnamese Army fighters using parts of Laos as sanctuaries.
Even now, millions of bombs litter the countryside, and at his elementary school, Sengdao said, he was taught at age 7 how to identify unexploded munitions.
His parents are mostly indifferent about the United States. “When you live in the village, you don’t know that much,” Sengdao said. “You just know waking up early, farming, selling your rice.”
But to Sengdao, with his used tablet, the United States has become just a swipe away. And the closer he gets to it in his mind, the more distant he sometimes feels from his family.
His dream is to win a scholarship to go to a university in the United States.
On Wednesday, 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.
It would have been nice, he said afterward, to meet the man in charge of America, a country he has learned so much about but never seen himself.
“It’s okay. I have bigger dreams,” Sengdao said. “Someday, I will go see it myself.”