Sunday, June 07, 2015

Ants and Superstition

I came back to my office after two weeks away to find ants. Not a line of ants, or an ant colony, but about 10 "explorer ants" per hour crossing my desk in different directions and on different parts of the desk. They are distracting, and also worrisome: where are they coming from? Will they eat my books? Since there is no food, and I have not been eating my sandwich at my desk for two weeks, it is quite a mystery.

I mentioned this problem to our office secretary, so she could have someone deal with it, either by putting some sort of pesticide or checking where the ants are coming from. I don't want them spraying pesticides while I'm here, but in a week I'll be away again so I told her they could perhaps wait until then.

The next day, when I went to the main office, my secretary asked me if I had seen the office tea lady yet (she is the woman who cleans, delivers mail, and brings water to the offices for making tea), and I said no. My secretary then told me that our tea lady had bought some poison. It is the kind that ants take back to their colony so that it kills off all the ants, not just the one who came upon the poison. She tells me that the tea lady says it is very effective, but then laughingly adds that the tea lady told her that we should not talk about the poison in front of the ants while in my office. The tea lady says that if the ants hear people talk about the poison, they will not eat it.  My secretary and I laughingly exchanged comments on how odd it is to think ants could understand us. Since I did not know how to actually use the poison (which looked like dry coffee grounds inside a small clear plastic box the size of a stamp), my secretary said the tea lady would come by my office to help.


About a half hour later, the tea lady came to my office wearing rubber gloves (she sometimes uses them for cleaning too) and holding a box cutter. To my astonishment, she spoke to me in English (we always speak in Mandarin, though I have long known that her English is actually very good) and talks about the poison. Then she says, laughing, that the ants don't understand English, so it is OK for us to talk about the poison in English. She was saying this while laughing--she clearly realized the absurdity of what she was saying, yet was also serious and "believed" it.

Anthropologists have also long discussed the nature of "belief."  The tea lady's belief in the ability of ants to understand Cantonese is not complete. There is some doubt in her mind, and she surely knows I, as a foreigner, cannot be expected to believe such a thing. Her belief in the ability of ants to understand Cantonese is not the same as a faithful pilgrim's belief that a deity can heal her son, or protect her family. It is not the same as the belief that the world is round, or any other "self-evident" belief that would make us become emotionally upset if we met someone who denied it.

Anthropologists have long critiqued the idea of "superstition" because one person's superstition is someone else's religion. The idea of virgin birth and resurrection can seem as preposterous as the idea of luck coming from a rabbit's foot or horse shoe, to those of another culture. But here is a case where the term "superstition" is actually useful: the tea lady herself recognized that the idea that the ants could understand her talking about poison was preposterous at one level. It was not an idea she was completely attached to. At the same time, she behaved as though it was "better to be safe than sorry" so did not want to talk about poison in front of the ants, at least not in Cantonese. Some scholars have defined superstition as a belief that is recognized as not part of the culture's mainstream. There are problems with this definition, but it can be useful, especially for ants who can understand Cantonese.

I wonder if the ants can read blogs on the internet. I'll have to change the password on my office computer to make sure they can't read this.

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