Bewilderment and laughter

An administrative map of Burma with the Karen region in yellow.

An administrative map of Burma with the Karen region in yellow.


They are a small people, the Karen.  Most are short and wiry, used to carrying heavy loads. They laugh often.



Once, they cultivated the earth. People of the soil, they planted the land with seeds and cuttings to feed their villages. They knew the depth the seed desired, the care the small plants needed, and the time for harvest. They knew the rain by smell, marked the patterns of flight of greedy birds who circled over their fields, and recognized every insect, tree, and animal that shared the land with them.



They have been transplanted, forced to flee their land, Burma, to live here in northeastern Wisconsin. Soldiers have cultivated their homeland with death, planting landmines in fields and on paths. The earth, once life-giver, has become life and limb taker. Eastern Burma, the Karen homeland, now vies with Afghanistan as the most landmine-ridden area of the world.



Three months ago, Ba, Mer, Hsa, Paw, Aung and a dozen others doubled their latitude and landed on the other side of the world. Ba, Mer, and Hsa have never studied before. I bewilder them by drawing lines on the whiteboard, pointing to them, and making strange sounds. They understand the pictures in the textbook, but the sounds are hard to make.



In time they match sound to word, greet me with “Good morning, teacher” and “Good-bye, teacher.” Most of the other students now understand the grammar that we study, do well on the tests, and easily join in the pair work to practice speaking. When I explain the task to Ba, Mer, and Hsa, they laugh and say, “I don’t know.” I want to tell them “I don’t know, either.”



I don’t know the secrets of the soil or how to coax enough food from seeds to feed my family. I must trust others to tell me how to read the sky or translate the language of birds. I cannot harvest rice or carry grain across mountain paths. I know words and live most of my life inside. I live on the earth, not with the earth. What I know is a small tree in a vast forest of what I do not know.



Once, some years past, I had to flee a place I’d grown accustomed to, a place I loved. I left abruptly, never to return, and the ache remains. My own leaving is a small thing, compared to that of my students, thrust out of their homes by war, rape, landmines, forced labor, and destruction of their villages. But I feel a kinship. Somehow we have each been planted here, meeting in rooms to struggle with words, each of us knowing and not-knowing so much. We greet one another and begin the day, scribbling on boards and in books, smiling, speaking, wondering, and sharing our bewilderment. But always with laughter, the one true language we share.


Map courtesy of Aotearoa 


25 thoughts on “Bewilderment and laughter

  1. Bewilderment. A good word. A very good word. And Laughter, also a very good word. What we don’t know.

    Today, I just might take your word, and let it be the beacon that carries me through the confusion of the day. Yes, I am buried in bewilderment. A very good word.

  2. What a wonderful teacher you are to know laughter is universal! I feel for anyone trying to educate that is missing that crucial ingredient in their curriculum.

    Please give your new students an extra smile from me 🙂

  3. Submerged with work and projects, I paused to clear my mail and found this link. And opened it.

    I rarely cry anymore … years have dried up my tear ducts and I’ve learned to shrug my shoulders and shift my attention away from feeling. But your post has me moved unbearably. You understand SO very well not only the immediate and obvious effects of uprooting from one culture to another, but the subtle overtones which seem to
    invade each cell and imbue it with memory and longing. I lived for twenty years in India and the ghost of those years still envelopes me and follows me relentlessly, pulling me back and tearing my soul apart. Where do I belong? Where is my home? On gray days, I am an alien stranded on the planet … on good ones, I am a world citizen.

  4. This was a wonderful posting! There is also a group of Karen people in Washington in the greater Seattle area. I got to meet them when I was there for a retreat. They are as you’ve described them. I will also say of them that they are friendly and intelligent, as well as eager to adapt to their new country. The time I spent with them was thoroughly enjoyable as well as a fun learning experience for me.

  5. How wonderful to share your introduction and contact with these fine people. May they find relief from their sorrow in your country, and contribute their wisdom and knowledge to their adopted country, making it ever stronger and blessed.

  6. Yes, bewilderment is such an apt word. I see parents of children who have been born in this new place, trying to comprehend the world of their children, The children born to parents of another world, trying to fit into their world and maintaining the thread of their parents’ world. Language is the link-to either world. You are very wise to recognize the wisdom of those from such a different place. With language, perhaps they will be able to share their wisdom with us.

    • I have nothing but admiration and compassion for these new immigrants. Finding yourself in a new country with a new language and new customs, especially when it is not of your own choosing, is daunting to say the least.

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