Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In Which I Could Be Offended

I'm getting used to being cautious.

My tailbone and back still smart from my fall yesterday, so between the muddy unpaved paths and the marble tiled paths, I'm being terribly careful with each step I take. Eunice joked yesterday about how that's simply the mindfulness Buddha taught - focus on on thing at a time, only on the present moment, step by careful step.

Then there's the monks everywhere. Have I told you about the rules?

Being a woman here at the wat means I have a lot more rules to follow than the male volunteers. Some are the same - let a monk cross or pass by first; move out of the way if one is walking near you; if you are walking together, stay a few steps behind him; if you cross by a monk, duck your head to be lower than him (that's one I'm struggling with, since I'm taller than all of the monks here); when you see a monk, wai deeply to him; and so on.

As a woman, though, I'm not allowed to have any contact with the monks or anything the monk is touching. If I need to hand something to a monk, I'm supposed to hold the object with both hands, set it down (ideally on a piece of cloth, but those aren't always available at a moment's notice). and then the monk will pick it up. If he hands something to me, I cup my hands and he drops the object into my hands.

I'm not supposed to sit next to a monk, which makes it tricky when I go to use th one row of computers here at the library. I try to snag one on the end with an empty seat between me and the other monks who are on line, but with only five computers available, that hardly ever works out evenly. Usually I wind up with a monk on at least one side, and I cower over as far away as I can, pulling the mouse and the keyboard close to try to show that I'm trying to give him space.

I'm not even supposed to touch an object like a textbook if the monk is touching it as well. I'm very aware of this when I'm teaching, since I discovered this rule when I pointed to something in one monk's workbook while he was holding it. After being corrected on it, I try to indicate things by gesturing from a distance. Not too easy, when you're trying to point out nuances like periods or particular letters in words. I usually try and fail a few times, then ask the monk to please set down the book on the table (mostly through pantomime) and then point out what I'm trying to indicate once he lets go of the book.

I catch myself overdoing it sometimes - I feel awkward when I look a monk in the eyes for too long or converse with him without other people joining in. Those are both fine to do (as long as we're not alone together), but I'm a little trigger-shy. Monk-shy? Something like that.

I'm walking slower, breathing slower, I move around things and reposition things with much more precision as I try not to make noises. None of that is necessary, they're just byproducts of being constantly cautious and trying not to offend.

And so I'm constantly surprised by the humanness of the monks. They crack jokes; laugh loudly with each other and with us, their teachers; and talk about their families, homes, and feelings with such sincerity.

There's this one monk here who, every time he sees me, shouts, "Hey, fat lady!" with this big, brown-and-missing-teeth grin. I was totally shocked the first time I heard it, since, well, you just don't say things like that. I thought I might not be understanding what he's saying exactly, but the first time he said that he went on to elaborate in a mixture of simple English, a lot of Thai, and some large gestures. He's the image of the laughing Buddha himself (the Chinese one, not the Thai one), so I think it's a compliment? He at least has added an addendum to his greeting - now when he sees me he shouts, "Hey, fat lady! You so beautiful!"

Oddly, I'm not offended by it. I have just been wondering how much of it is the language barrier, how much is a cultural difference, and how much is just this one particular monk. Another gentleman here, a meditation student from Vietnam, looked at my wet hair when I got to breakfast yesterday and said, "Oh, it must be hot - you sweating a lot, a lot!" I tried to explain that it was actually from my shower that morning, but I don't think he got it. I gave up.

As part of the whole "learn to let go" philosophy I'm trying to do here, I'm working on not caring about how I look. It actually started about the moment I arrived in Thailand, those sweaty, sweaty first days you might recall. As one of the other volunteers back in Singburi put it, "I'm destined to be ugly in Thailand." No makeup, my hair clumped and askew from sunscreen and air-drying it, sweat dripping down my face and neck, my white clothes rumpled and picking up dust and rust that I can't wash out, my feet constantly dyed orange from my shoes... and I'm going with it. I don't like it, but that's how it needs to be right now, so I'm doing it.

And so I'm a little bit proud of myself that even while I'm feeling very much not nice-looking, I can hear someone call me "Hey, fat lady!" and someone else comment on my apparent sweatiness without taking offense.

I did, however, start washing my hair at night.

P.S. Thank you to those of you who have commented/emailed me to say you're enjoying these travel entries! I'm really glad to know they're not too boring, what with my tendency to ramble a bit with no pictures to break things up. Plus, I really like getting those touches of friendship while I'm out here among strangers for so long.


  1. Not boring is a drastic understatement. It's like reading an adventure novel!

  2. Boring? Are you kidding me? How the heck am I supposed to pretend I'm in Thailand if your posts aren't so detailed? Keep it up.