Luna is from rural Thailand, near the Lao and Cambodian borders. She grew up in the 1970s without electricity, without shoes, without motorized vehicles. Money was rare. It was largely a subsistence life, eating what they grew on the farm and what they could forage (such as mushrooms, frogs, land crabs, lizards, snakes, insects and algae) and building shelters out of whatever materials were on hand. Luna spent her days taking care of ducks and buffalos, carrying water and cooking, planting and harvesting rice and vegetables, and hacking down the forests to create new fields. She never attended school (until her early 30s, when she went to hairdressing school, driving school and four weeks of English classes). Buddhist nuns and her grandmother taught her the basics of writing before she was 12. But she didn’t really learn to read and write until her 20s, when she worked security in Bangkok and had nothing else to do during the long nights in building lobbies and parking lots than to practice her handwriting and hope it would get her a pay raise. She learned basic math when she worked as a bus conductor in her teens.
When I go to Luna’s farm, all I see are nice green fields, pretty trees and some animals. When she looks at that same countryside, she sees all the places where things to eat can be found, endless resources to build and repair things, and a landscape that can be endlessly modified to better suit new crops, animals or human needs. With little more than a machete, she can enter (what to me looks like) an empty field and finish the day with a chicken coop. With the help of a couple of family members, they will finish the day with a small farmhouse. She can start with a cotton plant and a few leaves for dye; and after a few days show me a multi-colored textile with elephant patterns. When she tries to explain the loom to me, and the multiple knotted strings used to produce the pattern, I can only shake my head in despair at ever being able to understand the complexity of it all.
I feel like a child when I am in the country with Luna. I am totally dependent, totally ignorant, totally incompetent. I am in awe of her talent and intelligence. She can take home a single example of a handbag that she wants to copy—often a complex bag shaped like an owl or a dolphin—replicate it at home and then design a mass-producing system for her and a friend to create hundreds of them with multiple color patterns. She can watch somebody cook something once or twice—whether in India, China or Italy—and then go home and successfully recreate the dish. She can watch somebody paint a new flower design on to her fingernails, and then next time go home and paint it herself. She built most of her concrete and iron home by herself, just by watching how other people worked. Sometimes she hired people to help her, but as often or not ended up doing it herself because they were so incompetent.
When she comes to New York, however, I learn the limits of her skills. She is eternally lost in the city. She can barely make heads or tails of a map. She is more likely than not to take the subway in the wrong direction, even on routes she has already travelled several times. She can’t make sense of computers and their various parts: the system, the applications, the internet, the browsers, the websites. Indeed, she is flummoxed by most electrical appliances (except cell phones). Every time I teach her, it just slips right out of her memory the next minute and her fingers are fumbling again—much like everything she tries to teach me about plants and crafts.
After a few months in New York together, I catch myself thinking that Luna is a bit stupid, a bit uneducated. I teach her things so many times, things that seem obvious to me, but she just can’t remember or figure it out. She can hold great English conversations in Thailand—indeed she can tell stories better than many native English speakers. But in conversations with my friends in New York she is perplexed and awkward—not only in her language skills, but in her complete misjudgment of the proper flow and tone of a conversation.
Fortunately, I can remember the skills and intelligence that I saw in Thailand and quickly repent of my critical judgments. But I am startled by how different a personality can look in a different context. It makes me realize how different intelligences can be; how much they are dependent on situations.
I’ve read somewhere that learning to read at an early age changes the wiring of our brains. We are trained to relate readily to small objects the size of a word, and can understand their intricate relationships. A childhood of reading also trains us to think in terms of abstractions and generalizations. But it leaves us incompetent to read a natural landscape; to anticipate the activities of plants and animals; or to think in holistic terms of a world made up of complexly interwoven particularities. I can believe it.
I often read scientists claiming that IQ tests are effective measures of intelligence and can predict success in life. They argue that high IQ scores correlate with high incomes and job success. Based on this correlation, some of them pooh-pooh the idea of different kinds of intelligences and insist that IQ=ability. But this correlation between IQ scores and job success is completely tautological. The kinds of abstract, paper & screen-based reasoning that can make one succeed on an IQ test (or the SAT or GRE or LSAT) is precisely the kind of skill that makes one successful in school and in modern white-collar jobs. Being good at these kinds of tests helps you get into better schools, and graduating from a better school often gets you a better job and starting salary. So, of course IQ tests can predict success in American and European society; because American society rewards precisely the kinds of abstract, paper-bound skills that are measured by tests. Skills and intelligence in practical construction, in utilizing landscapes, in material creativity are skills that don’t pay (except for a handful of successful artists and decorators). And people with this kind of intelligence are routinely treated with condescension–both in America and in urban Thailand.
I can’t imagine Luna doing well on one of those standardized tests. She’s never seen one in her life, and wouldn’t know where to start (I’ve filled out visa and customs forms with her–even the basic organization of the sheet seems to perplex her). But I will still defer to her intelligence and wisdom on so many things, both practical and emotional. Every now and then, when she is frustrated about some stupidity on my part, she says “You have school. Why you not understand anything?” The answer is easy. “Because nobody learns anything useful in school.”
To be sure, Luna is a bit exceptional. None of her eight siblings (with the possible exception of a sister who lives in Germany) are as smart and talented as she. Part of the reason is that she was the only one to be raised by her grandmother, who taught her a lot. But maybe it is also because she is the only sibling who did not go to school. All of the others had 3-5 years of school. Even though some of them still can’t sign their names, perhaps those few young years of paper-bound abstraction were still enough to eat away at their native, environmental intelligence.