Sent to tutor Thai monks, teacher becomes a student

by Janice Greene, San Francisco Chronicle, January 30, 2005

San Francisco, USA -- I knew the monks liked bingo, but I didn't know much else about how to teach them. Months before the tsunami created a need for another kind of volunteer, I had signed up for a three-weeks assignment with Cross-Cultural Solutions in Bangkok. My task: to teach English to a class of 20-ish monks at Mahamakut Buddhist University.

Oh, I knew a few customs regarding monks. Women aren't supposed to touch them, sit or stand next to them, or even brush against their robes. Objects must not be handed directly to a monk, but set down, so that he can pick them up. I was anxious about facing a classroom full of monks, but what worried me most was that I'd forget what I was doing and touch one of them.

Thais are tolerant and welcoming people, yet deeply offended by cultural transgressions. These include: slighting their beloved king, public displays of affection and showing lots of skin. We volunteers were advised to dress modestly, in short sleeves, collared shirts and skirts covering the knee.

So I arrived at the classroom with my teaching partner, Jo Ellen Smith from Pittsburgh, Penn., dressed for the office and barefoot (shoes are left at the university entrance) and faced the class. We had no experience teaching English. We'd never met a monk before. We'd paid $2,000-plus to come to Bangkok to make a small difference in the world. Could we reach across a huge cultural divide and help these young men in saffron robes learn English?

We gave the monks the most reverential Thai greeting -- hands lifted to the top of the forehead coupled with a bow -- and began, sharing photos from home: family, the house, the dog. A few shyly asked questions. Some of their English I couldn't understand at all.

In the days that followed, Jo Ellen and I made up dialogues for them to recite. We had them form sentences from lists of words, and I had to demonstrate to a confused monk that, "I put the chair under the table" actually meant the entire chair, not just the seat. English is difficult, they told me. And I saw just how difficult it could be. We coached them on pronunciation every day. Their concentration was visible as they tried, again and again, to pronounce "the."

We pushed them. They had to speak up. They had to tell us if they didn't understand something. They began to loosen up, even tell us what they wanted to work on. And their voices became louder and surer, except for the big, round-face monk I thought of as Mr. Shy. Before it was his turn to speak up, Mr. Shy would move to the back of the class.

They surprised us in a dozen ways. When putting sentences together, the word they chose most frequently was "beautiful." They had some of the warmest smiles I've ever seen. After class, several would come up to us, saying, "Thank you, teacher." They wished us good dreams that night. Once we were startled by a cell phone's ring, and even more surprised to see a monk pull a phone from his robe (from where, exactly?).

We probably surprised them a lot, too. Being women, we were an exotic presence at the university. The proof was the bathrooms. There were no labels on them for men or women. They were just bathrooms, and there were only men around. I did all I could to avoid using them.

I hoped the monks could tell me about Buddhism and about what they did, but that was far beyond their abilities in English. I did learn more from Cross-Cultural Solutions. The staff answered a lot of my questions. (That cell phone? I found out that monks have a kind of pocket inside their robes.)

Besides room and board, and transportation to one's work site, Cross-Cultural Solutions provides daily culture sessions. Ours included a visit from a monk, a teaching assistant from Mahamakut University nicknamed Art, who explained the fundamentals of Buddhism. From Art, I learned another taboo: A monk must never be in a private room with a woman.

In class, we got into a rhythm. Today's lesson was built on yesterday's stumbling block. We moved around the class a lot and once I might have lightly brushed against a monk's robe. I wasn't sure, and I hope he never felt it. One day, though, I held out an assignment for a monk to take. He sat still and looked at me patiently. "Oh!" I said, and put the assignment on his desk.

It wasn't serious, but I didn't want to accumulate any more cultural gaffes during my remaining time. These open-hearted young men had already claimed a special place in my thoughts. I didn't want to be remembered for a clumsy act of disrespect.

Before I was ready to say good-bye, the last day arrived. The office staff gave Jo and me bunches of three-inch long bananas, the best I ever tasted. After class, the head monks entered the room, and Jo and I were presented with tea trays, a handsome book of the university's art, and a certificate, which concluded with, "May Buddhist Triple Gems bless her forever." We took pictures and a few of the monks gave us gifts. Mr. Shy gave me an amulet, putting it on the desk in front of me and quickly retreating to the back of the room.

And it was over. It had been a long day and I'd drunk too much tea. I ducked into an empty bathroom, and when I emerged from the stall, there was a monk at the sink, brushing his teeth. Here I was, alone with a monk in a very private room. For a dead-silent moment, we stared at each other in the mirror. Then I said hello in my best Thai accent, and gave him the greeting for monks. He turned to face me -- and chuckled.

In that moment, I found a formula to guide me in future trips: Learn all you can about another culture, play it from the heart, and the rest will fall into place.