There are working poor and living poor in my village. You see the old yays at the market with an empty rice bag for a mat displaying goods for sale. It might be a few radishes or a bundle of morning glory picked from the side of the road. Living poor. Meager offerings for a couple hundred riel. Some have plastic bags of oil or fermented juice displayed on a bamboo tray, balanced on their heads. The destitute beg. Widows with shaved heads ask for money while I eat soup at the market. One man missing a leg, another with no hands, moves from stall to stall, begging quietly for alms. Most shopkeepers shake their heads no. Nothing for you. A young brother and sister beg together; the girl with a sleeping infant in her arms, holds the baby aloft, as if an offering. They beg solemnly with sad faces. A moment later the boy joins a spontaneous soccer game with other boys at the market. Then it’s back to work, the sad work of pleading for money for something to eat.
Just past the crossroads in my town there’s a deep ravine filled with stagnant oily water. Perched over the stench is a green tin shack on stilts that appears to be held upright by the neighboring houses. At first I thought the place was mercifully abandoned. Then the blue TV light flickered. The slats in the floor were spaced wide enough to lose a cat—or a baby. But at least this family has shelter.
The working poor have family and community. There might not be enough, but at least there is something to eat, a place to lie down. They make something to sell or have skills to offer. The shoe repair guy, whose entire shop fits on top of an upturned crate, is among the working poor. He has two of rolls of strong thread, one white, one black. His tools are a needle, a file, and a big sharp knife. He has sewn up my Tevas more than once for about twenty-five cents. My tutor would not consider himself working poor, although you might think so. He makes $260 a month teaching seventh grade. (He also tutors at a private English language school.) He told me he could make more money as a clerk at the police station, but he thinks teaching is an honorable profession. He believes learning English will improve his life and his student’s chances at a good job.
Moritz Thomsen wrote what I think is the best Peace Corps memoir, titled Living Poor. Towards the end of his service in Ecuador in the 1960s, he decides to live as his neighbors and eat what they eat, which was bananas and little else. He works with the men to clear land for an agricultural project. Moritz writes, “Two bananas would get me up hill to the farm; five would fuel me for about forty to fifty minutes . . .” Later, he acknowledges the experiment was probably masochistic, but he wanted to know what real hunger felt like. He also knew he could take a bus to the capital city, eat a hot meal in a restaurant, go to a movie, drink a beer—enjoy simple pleasures that would make him feel glad to be human again. But when you are living poor none of that is an option. It’s bananas or nothing.
Once our neighbor, with her cow in tow, stopped by as my host family and I ate lunch. She asked for rice. My sister got it for her, a generous portion, which was given without judgment. The neighbor took it without thanks. That is the network that binds the living poor to the working poor community. It is an understanding that we all need to eat. It’s the first thing you say when you greet another: Hob bai? Have you eaten rice?