Befriending Monks

I befriended a monk in the tea isle.  Yes, it’s true.

He was trying to find Colombian Coffee but couldn’t read the label without his glasses. And so marks the beginning of my first real encounter with a monk.  His name was John Smith.  Yes, RATHER unexpected, as you can imagine that there are probably countless John Smith’s running around the world without any idea that their namesake is a Cambodian Buddhist monk.  He had a sturdy, grandfatherly air about him and had lived much of his life in the US, arriving after the Khmer Rouge and civil war in Cambodia.

I was delighted to have this chance to talk with him, as I’ve been kind of fascinated with monks since I arrived in Cambodia.  Their lives seem mysterious and yet ordinary- like the social fabric of a bygone day inserted into a city teeming with odd mixtures of its “Indo-Chinese”/Western identities.

So we struck up a conversation and before I knew it, accepted his invitation to come meet his English students he’d been teaching.  Ironically, this man’s English wasn’t so good himself—and I found myself often piecing together truncated bits of sentences to try to get his stories straight (which is sometimes difficult with an older person whose been speaking English all their life).  So I hopped on my bike and followed this friendly monk in his rusty-orange monk regalia on his motodup taxi as I quietly laughed to myself at the supreme obsurdity of the situation. While I am eager to trust people, I’m also not stupid. Working on human trafficking makes one a bit more aware and suspicious of inviting strangers, unfortunately. But I also don’t want to be paranoid and miss out on small adventures.  So there I was, on my bike, calculating streets, exit plans, feeling for my mace (which I absently mindedly put in my purse the night before) and thinking of excuses to leave, should I decide I need them later. What a mess of contradictions I am some days.  But I know monks are people too—they make mistakes.  Some visit prostitutes, they ride tuk tuks, they shop at the supermarket and are picky about their coffee.  They’re people.

We arrive at the guesthouse where he stays and teaches his students.  We get to the room and I begin to piece together his history.  He lived in California (he even showed me his drivers license, where he is of course wearing his bright monk sash) and New York and, to my great surprise, Witchita, Kansas! He has even frequented the Buddhist temple in Kansas City, MO (where I went to college). Talk about a small world. He’s been building Buddhist temples in the US as well as in Cambodia, like a regular Evangelical Christian church planter— except Buddhist ☺.  But before his monkhood (you’ll never guess) he made doughnuts for a living in the US. And his mother was Catholic.

Monk John and his ESL Posse

Monk John and his ESL Posse

Eventually, the English students arrived.  There were five of them, all in their late teens and apparently mortified by the presence of a native English speaking foreigner (me).  Still trying to figure out exactly why I am there, I try to initiate some basic conversation and inquiries.  Everyone seems rather nervous and awkward standing stick straight against the wall.  Apparently underperforming, my friendly monk begins sighing loudly and snapping at them in Khmer, sometimes switching to English to fill me in.  I keep trying to think of scenarios and basics to coax out their English, but Monk John just gets angrier, muttering about how 4 months of training has been wasted.  Needless to say, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable, and a bit defensive for the poor students whose stammering increased with the deflation of their self-esteem.  I suddenly had visions of miffed nuns in Catholic Schools, rapping rulers on tables in a huff. I throw out questions about time, school, food, family, anything to give them a chance to redeem themselves.  Monk John continues to sulk in disapproval.  I ask if we should go over anything—alphabet? Numbers?   Then he lights ups, and proudly prompts the wide-eyed students to sing a song.  Then, to my dismay and utter surprise, Monk John directs the timid chorus in a round of “I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, No turning back, no turning back.”

I this point, I think to myself, this entire evening has turned into farce.  With delight, confusion and surprise I clap at the end of the tune and confirm that yes, indeed, Monk John did teach them this song himself. And it’s also quite obvious that students had not real understanding of the words coming from their mouths.  The glory of contradictions. You just can’t make this stuff up.

After a few more strained tries at conversation, I can see that my new students are beginning to wane.  I begin to make my exit, we take a few pictures and I keep flashing my sweating students encouraging smiles as I try to convince Monk John that all is not lost for is ESL bunch—they just need a little practice.

He escorts me out the door, I hop on my bike, take a deep breath, chuckle to myself and wonder what just happened.

Monks are people too
Never judge a book by its cover
Practice! Practice! Practice!



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