During my in-country orientation I learned that maize/corn is also an important crop in Laos for human consumption and sometimes I see it being grilled by street food vendors or it appears as an ingredient in fried rice. Generally, however, it’s not a food I pay much attention to.
On Friday, I went out to a traditional Lao eatery for lunch with some of my students. Think salad bar and then imagine a build-your-own-soup bar where you assemble all the vegetable ingredients (corn too!) for your soup and the servers bring plates of grilled chicken and fish along with baskets of sticky rice. It was quite a feast for the middle of the day and the premises were packed with customers evidently on their lunch breaks from work.
When we were just about finished, I spotted a little girl of about 8 or 9 years old approaching our table. She was carrying 3 plastic bags, two of which contained 2 cobs each of corn and the third bag had some sliced vegetables. She held out the bags and you knew from her gestures and intense stare that she was asking us to buy her food.
As expected, nobody wanted any more food and the other clients who were finishing up their lunches waved her on as did we. Then one of our group, D, called her back. D asked the girl what she was selling, selected the bags with the corn and then opened her purse.
While D found money to pay the child, I wanted to know why she wasn’t at school swamped as she was in a school uniform that was easily a size too big. Where were her parents? Who sent a child to sell food in a restaurant to people who have already eaten?
The little girl clutched at the money D gave her and her discomfort was apparent. She’s probably just relieved to have money to bring back to the parent or adult who sent her out selling food, I thought. Her eyes were downcast as she mouthed “Khob jai” (thank you).
I watched her leave and another student, M, asked me if children worked in Canada. It appears that what constitutes work is perceived differently around the world. I could have said something to M about the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Numbers 1 and 4 which relate to poverty and education but I replied quietly that in Canada children the age of the little girl are in school Monday to Friday. We can hope, I added, that the children of that little girl will never have to sell food as her mother did.
Then D who had shucked one of the cobs and broken it into two handed me my share. I wasn’t really hungry at that point but it would have been impolite to refuse the corn. Steamed in its husk and still warm the kernels burst with juicy sweetness with every bite. That’s when I wondered if the little girl had eaten some corn that day.
When you ask somebody if they’ve eaten in Lao language, you ask them “Have you eaten rice already?”
I wish I could ask the little girl “Have you eaten corn already?”