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