Suddenly, from beside me the Mon [Burmese minority] farmer said to me
"Create and invent. What is the difference, please?" I was a bit stunned by
the shift in sophistication, and also confronted by the difficulty of
explaining with modest vocabulary to people still learning the language,
what the difference was. As I made some progress, the Cambodian doctor with
us said, helpfully: "Imagination?" so we then had three interesting terms to
deal with, and off down the language slope I slid happily, until the farmer
I said: "What about cows?"
He said: "Do cows have imagination?"
I said, after being totally halted for a moment: "Well, you are the
Buddhist, perhaps you can answer this question better than I can"
"Well," he said, "There is this cow in a paddock and he looks out and sees
all these other cows, and sees all this land and he says to himself 'All
this will be mine'. Is that imagination?"
Playing for time, I say: "You mean a bull?"
"Yes, I mean a bull."
"Instinct" says the Cambodian doctor, with professional dismissive tone.
So we now have four words to deal with: create, invent, imagination and
instinct. This is heady stuff, stuff to get tied up in even on SANET, let
alone among OK guys at the Workers Club trying to learn basic English.
A little deeper in the discussion, the Mon farmer says: "Rats?"
The Cambodian doctor says "What are rats?"
I say: "Do you know what a mouse is?" He says yes.
As I begin to explain that a rat is like a large mouse, his face clouds and
he says quietly: "I know what rats are." (He had been driven out of Phnom
Penh in 1975 at age 6 into forced labour by the Pol Pot regime. Later, back
in PP while the Hun Sen government was still isolated by the west because of
its support from Hanoi, in the late 80s he learned his medicine in French,
while engineering students learned in Russian and economics students studied
in Vietnamese - ah, what simple lives we lead in rich countries)
"So what about the rats?" asked the doctor, with pained expression. The
farmer gave a vivid account of the elaborate galleries of tunnel homes the
rats built under his rice fields in the farm from which he as fled to
political exile. "Is this not imagination?" he asked.
Later, the doctor asked me "Is it true as believed in my country, that a
snake will not attack a pregnant woman?" I expressed the thought in reply
that a snake might well be able to tell the difference between a pregnant
woman loaded with progesterone and a man hunter drenched in testosterone.
Our discussion of rats also led him to note that during the Pol Pot time,
killing an animal was punishable by death, so that people would take a pig,
tie it in a pond for a while, then bring it out and remove the leeches.
These would be roasted over coals, then slit down the black, and the baked
blood eaten. The pig, of course, would still be alive. An interesting tale
of adaptation and of the intersection of our proud human social systems
management with simple efforts to survive in an ecological niche.
Life in the atmosphere is much more diverse than life in the sea
http://kaos.erin.gov.au/life/general_info/bd_box1.html and it seems to me
that this can be seen not in terms of 'richness' but also because so much
more difficult adaptation is required to live in the air, with water filled
bodies, making energy by burning dangerous oxygen. I think the power of
technology takes us away from the sorts of questions in the discussion
above, which can only come from an awareness not of being a dominant and
science and technology proud species, but being part of an ecological whole,
survival in which depends on adaptation and cooperation rather than
competition and control.
So it is too, perhaps, with ideas as well as technology.
p.s. another little anecdote from my tutoring experience.
I had a discussion group around a table, in a classroom for advanced
students. I looked around me and was amazed at what we had assembled that
day. There was a Bosnian journalist, whose husband was at another table,
away from the Serbian doctor, also at my table. There was the officer from
the Lebanese National Police Drug Squad, come into exile to avoid the fate
of his assassinated brother. There was the young, totally idealistic Burmese
guerrilla soldier, 32, with 18 years in the jungle behind him. Then there
was the relatively suave Burmese democrat politician in exile. And the
Korean ballet dancer. And me, the retired diplomat. I remarked on this. "We
have the State!" shouted the Serbian doctor, and everyone fell about
laughing. The teacher approached, puzzled look on face, and asked "What's
going on here?" to which the doctor replied, instantly "And here comes the
citizen!". More laughs.
Later, the Burmese politician, discussing life on the Thai-Burma border,
between his years in a Rangoon prison and his time in a Bangkok prison, told
us very vividly and sincerely of his encounter, in a gust of wind in the
jungle one day, with the beautiful spirit princess who had been his wife in
a former life. As this story swirled and swirled, I could see the European
listeners reacting similarly and somewhat skeptically, hopefully learning
that Serbs and Bosnians are really much closer to each other than they might
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