After dinner at a pizza restaurant we decided to take the kids to the local playground. The playground is in a park -Chou Anouavong Park- that spans about a mile, from a historical Statue, King Chou Anouavong, to the end of the night market, which has grown immensely since we arrived last year. As usual in the evenings the park was buzzing. Aerobics class was being held on the steps, the playground was full of Lao children and the night market was hopping, even for it being down season.
Mike asked if we could go sit on the grass, I told him I wasn’t all that comfortable leaving the kids on the playground without being able to see them, it was hard enough standing in the middle of all the kids, I doubted I’d be much of a conversationalist with my eyes darting all over trying to keep track of the kids. Tess was clingy and Mike said it was a perfect opportunity to sit, so I made a point to tell Maggie and Finn that we’d be sitting in the grass; which was not more than 30 feet from where she was standing. Mike had been out of town all weekend, so it is nice to have the kids entertained while we get a chance to talk a little without constant interruption.
Sitting in the grass, I have eyes on Finn and Tess is wadling about near us, I tell Mike, “I don’t see Maggie.” “I see her she’s by the slide. Oh there she is. I see her look over in our direction, but we don’t make eye contact. I wave, but she doesn’t see me and goes up the stairs. I have a fleeting thought that she might be overwhelmed with so many kids, but as she walks up the stairs, Mike and I comment about the way she carries herself now. Her mannerisms are those of a confident teenager. After a little bit, Tess was antsy about going to the playground, so I go with her. I see Finn, but I don’t see Maggie. My heart beat picks up a bit, but I try not to fret, she’s probably in one of the 4 play structures. After a minute I see Finn, but still no Maggie. I scoop Tess up and walk
Mike walks over and I angrily tell him “I can’t find Maggie!” Woah, so am I mad at him? I shouldn’t be, yet I want to be. It’s not time to panic yet, do another sweep of the area. Nope, no Maggie.
I grab Finn and head straight to the Night Market, where the toilets are. Maybe she went there? Nope. We wander through half of the market looking, at this point I am calling for her and the tears are bubbling. Mike calls…No Maggie.
We meet at the playground and decide to split again, at least Mike can ask people in Lao if they saw Maggie, try being me, asking lots of people if they saw my little girl with brownish blond hair wearing a rust colored dress. Lots of blank stares, while I can usually grasp what someone is saying to me, I have no idea how to tell someone I lost my little girl…bah whoo louk sow is what I kept saying, which to me means I don’t know my daughter. .. One woman told Mike she walked in the direction of the statue. So I go that way, Mike heads back toward the market. I get nothing on my end. Mike calls me to tell me he’s called the RSO…The crying really begins. It must be more serious if we have to call in our security officer and WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT!
Calmly Mike tells me not to get worked up, she’s probably wandered off and someone has scooped her up and is keeping her somewhere till it can be figured out how to link her back with us.
I’m not buying it. I’ve seen the Save the Children’s ads: Stop child sex tourism. My mind is going full steam. This is my “imagine the absolute worst and it won’t happen” brain coming out. Now I will note these negative thoughts completely go against how I feel about living here in Laos, it’s safe. I let Finn and Maggie walk, alone, down the street to buy ice creams, or dare I say it, BEER. The kids and families all know us by now. They definitely know not to call Maggie “falang” (really means French, but any foreign person is labeled this), her name is Maggie and she will not speak to or look at you if you call her anything but Maggie.
I so desperately want to blame Mike, or even Finn. Finn how could you not be watching her, but he’s obviously scared. Mom’s crying and we’re looking for Maggie. Don’t lash out at anyone, just keep looking. His feet were hurting, but he knew not to say anything, he just cried with me as we decide to check the car, but after we cross the street, I realize there’s no way Maggie would’ve tried to cross this.
So we head back and I get the call… “I don’t have her but someone does.” Oh thank god!
A couple who were eating dinner at the same restaurant as us was flagged down by a Lao woman and her two children. They recognized Maggie and said that yes, she was at the park with her parents. So they exchange numbers, she keeps Maggie while the couple rush to the playground to find one of us. She was being protective and didn’t want to give her up to just anyone. While it is completely normal for a Lao kid Maggie’s age, or younger to be wandering around without a parent, it is completely abnormal for a “falang” kid to wandering around without a parent. That’s why Mike knew, she is with someone. Although, he’s a bit baffled by the fact that she wasn’t walked back to the playground. Kid wandering around crying, near a playground…you know.
You see, I say this was the longest 30 minutes of my life, but Maggie was actually gone for closer to 40 minutes. That moment when I felt she was overwhelmed on the playground, she went down the slide then wandered off to find us.
In the States, I gave Finn quite a bit of independence. He’d go to the lobby of our apartment building and check the mail, he’d run to the apartment playground a few minutes ahead of me, I’d let him use a public toilet on his own. He’s a drive by pee-er. He’s the kid mom’s dislike when it comes to cleaning toilets (which is why he cleans them). I know it’s 20 seconds tops that he should be in a bathroom, anymore than that and I’m in there. I judge a situation and usually feel pretty confident on my decision based on the situation.
Last night, I probably should’ve listened to my gut a little more than I was; and made a point to show Finn and Maggie exactly where we were, instead of being general about it…over in the grass. I felt that Maggie wasn’t comfortable BUT I had confidence that my kids knew what to do. Maggie had done the wrong thing by wandering off, and this was a good example to us as to why the name game and I’m lost speech only go so far when we are not in the land of security guards and PA systems.
Ever since the kids could start talking I told them about stranger danger, and what to say in the event they do become lost. In most places we designate a go here if you get lost spot. Maggie did most of this. She said her name and who her parents are. She told them she was an American and she was 3.
In the end, now I know 1. Tell the kids if we leave them in a place and you don’t see us, stay there, we aren’t leaving without you; something close to never leave without telling us, which they know, but what if they are looking for us. 2. Make it perfectly clear where we will be, in case they do need to find us.
There are some people who don’t support my independence pushing parenting style, I can appreciate comments and concern for this; and it’s my choice on what to do with such comments and concern. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for their opinions of my parenting, because I have my own. This experience won’t stop me from allowing the kids to play solo, I wasn’t a hovering mom before, I won’t be now.
A big thanks to Ann, the woman who kept Maggie safe, and calmed her down. And to our RSO who started calling in our Local guard force and police to come help us look.