(Originally posted by Rebekah Glebe, a Journalism and Communications major studying abroad in Thailand. She her blog at http://rebekahtglebe.wix.com/rebekahroams)
Even after spending a month here, I am still enamored by monks. Their bright saffron robes knotted around their bodies catch my eye every time they pass by. They have a mysterious air about them that draws me in. Monks are everywhere; I don’t think I’ve gone a day in Chiang Mai without seeing one. But I hadn’t interacted with them at all. I had been watching from afar, curious and intrigued. But this morning I had the opportunity to teach young monks English with a group of students from my program. It wasn’t structured, so we had to make up a casual lesson plan on the rot daeng to the monastery.
The large group of USAC students filed into the classroom and a group of young monks (16-20) drifted in and took their seats at wooden desks. We all introduced ourselves and wrote our names on the board, and had the students say our name back to us to practice reading and speaking in English. Then, we went over a list of prepositions and explained each one slowly. We made the lesson more lively by acting out each word and asking the monks to describe the scene with the words we had taught them. “Sally is behind Mark,” or, “Bekah is under the sunglasses”. Simple to start. Then, we had each monk come up and write a verb on the board. Using their list, we incorporated the verbs into our little teaching skits. “Iva is running in front of them,” and “April is singing between Mark and Sally.” It was a tad unorganized, very unstructured, but a boatload of fun.
Looking at the group of young monks, I could pick out the studious types, the goofy kids, and the quiet ones. Some of them were taking notes; their eyes were glued to the speaker. Yet others gazed into the distance, a daydream face I know all too well. When we did something silly, like act out “singing,” they would laugh and smile with us. It hit me that these monks were just regular kids. We were teaching people, just like us, but they wearing bright orange and had sworn to abide by 227 precepts.
The second activity was “conversation practice.” We broke up into small groups, and the reality of their regularity sunk in even more. I learned that a 17 year-old-boy liked rap music (like Whiz Khalifa). Another like watching movies, particularly Spiderman. They had even read Harry Potter (did we just become best friends?)! These young men, some of which had been living as a monk since they were 5 years old, had elements of 21st century life engrained into their being. It surprised me at first, but the more I thought about it, it made perfect sense. They were regular kids in the turn of the century: they just happened to be Buddhist monks.
During the breakout conversation session, two of the monks were speaking Thai to each other and looking at me like they were trying to figure out the english phrase. They pointed to my eyes and my hair, and one said, “You are beautiful”. I was a little surprised that he came out and just said it, but also flattered. Then I was confused, because I knew monks are supposed to ignore women (to an extent). I wondered if it was somehow taboo for him to say that. But it wasn’t awkward or discomforting. It was a genuine compliment, almost more of a statement. I suppose seeing beauty in others is acceptable in their culture, and pointing it out doesn’t have any connotations or romantic ties.
This experience demystified the meaning of “monk”, but I am no less enamored by their presence in the city. They still have that air about them that makes them seem more… enlightened. I guess that’s an obvious descriptor, but you can really feel it when you are near them. Being a monk is more than wearing orange and waking up at the crack of dawn; it’s a conscious and mindful lifestyle which emanates from their very being. I’m not trying to be super cheesy and preachy here, I promise. But it’s hard not to describe them in these ways.