Saturday, June 13, 2009

Moral Stories. Thai-style.

So, the Prathom 4-6 (~ grades 4-6) and Matayom 1-3 (~ grades 7-9) went to a temple for a few days recently, and I was invited to go along. Naturally, I said, "Yes!" This is what I knew about the trip: The plan was for them to leave Thursday morning, stay Thursday and Friday night at the temple, and go back home on Saturday. The wat was about a 25 minute drive from the school.

Since I was at my other school on Thursday, we made plans for me to get a ride to meet everyone at the wat Thursday evening. Wednesday evening, I found out that my counterpart at the wat-bound school had had her house broken into and her valuables stolen. She was rather distraught and was deciding to skip the trip to get things straightened out. At that point I had to decide whether to bail on the trip, too, since my real opportunity to understand what was going on at the temple had just vanished. I thought about it briefly and came to the conclusion that the opportunity to build relationships with the students and teachers far out-weighed the inevitable confusion I was heading towards. Besides, I'm getting quite used to being confused (the Thai word is ngoong, I learned THAT one pretty early on), and Thai people really appreciate patience and a smile on the part of a confused farang (also something I'm pretty good at). I DID, however, decide to only stay Thursday night and head back home Friday during the day.

So Thursday night came, I ate dinner with my non-wat-bound counterpart, and he took me to the temple. I said hello to the teachers who were outside eating dinner next to a group of soldiers (apparently this trip was a joint venture between the monks and some soldiers, how's THAT for compatibility?), then headed into the hall of the main building where all the students were assembled with my paw-aw (principal). A big monk was telling jokes into a wireless microphone at the front of the room, while another monk sat next to him with a laptop hooked up to a digital projector. The students were seated on a floor that looked as though it had been carpeted with those 18"x18" carpet samples (not that it wasn't classy, it was just piecemeal and not actually attached to the floor). The monk with the mic threw in some farang jokes when I entered (or maybe he'd been telling them already), where he'd say a phrase in English ("How many?") then translate in Thai ("Tao-rai?"), then say something else in Thai and all of the students would laugh uproariously. Wish I'd been able to catch the punchline.

Anyhow, the monks spoke for a while, and I zoned out as I usually do, then my paw-aw asked me to sit on the floor. The monk with the computer opened a word document with the sudas(?) (the prayer chants that the monks do) and everyone began reciting and wai-ing the buddha statue at designated points. I spent the time by choosing a phrase on the screen and trying to read it, then listening to the chant and trying to catch when they got to what I was trying to read. I just watched everyone around me and bowed when they did. There is something hypnotic and relaxing about the chanting. I have been thinking about being ordained for a little while at some point while I'm here, but that's another story.
They did the abridged version of the chant, which I was pretty happy about, not to be irreverent or anything, but it looked like the guy was zipping past tens of pages at a time, and I can only sit mermaid style for so long (not cross-legged, because it's hard to get your forehead to the floor, and then your feet are pointing forward [towards the buddha image], which is mai-dee [not good]).

When that was done, we did some meditation, which I've really enjoyed since that yoga class I took at UofO. Of course, it was kinda hard for me to really zen out and think about nothing, since I do better in silence and they decided to play some music, and I think the monks were taking pictures of me since I kept seeing flashes through my closed eyes, but it was nice to sit quietly for a moment.

Pak! (break!) In my Peace Corps application, under interests, I stated that I enjoy sitting quietly. This IS true, it is one of my favorite activities. This fact made it into a "Getting to know you" activity where everyone was given a grid with a bit of information and we had to determine who the information was about by interviewing the other members in the group. People were somewhat intrigued about the statement that "... and he enjoys sitting quietly." and thought I meant I enjoy meditation. Here I made an important distinction. Meditation is conciously trying to think about nothing. You clear your mind, chant your mantra if you're into that, and focus on your breathing. Sitting quietly is where you sit down and you don't focus on ANYthing. You let your mind go where it will and you let yourself be aware of whatever you want. Job leeo! (The End!)

Anyway, after that, there was some more Thai, then it was time to get ready for bed. I got a sweet spot under the ceiling fan (one of the perks of being a guest) and they gave me a bed roll. I'm sorry to say that I slept rather poorly, it was still pretty hot, and the mosquitoes were rather bothersome, but it wasn't too bad. We were woken up at 4:45. I got up and took a bucket bath and went and drank coffee with the teachers and watched the sky get light (it was pretty damn beautiful). I don't know what the kids did. Around 6-ish the kids all assembled in lines and did some physical activites with the soldiers (some squats, then marching/running, and doing something with a few flags). While the students marched, one of the teachers walked around the temple grounds with me and showed me the buildings and the gardens and a variety of random things. It was pretty cool, and my first real communication since I'd arrived. After that we went back and sat with the rest of the teachers for a while and we all talked quite a bit, they asked me how to say things in English, asked me about Oregon, and all sorts of things.
Then the kids came back and it was time for breakfast (Khao Tom, rice soup, which is REALLY good. I'm trying to figure out how to make a link to my recipes that I've been posting on facebook to share those here). I impressed the teachers by popping a whole chili pepper in my mouth (I do that sometimes, people get a kick out of it), then we continued talking for a while after the kids headed back into the temple. The conversation petered out when I ran out of Thai and they ran out of questions I could answer (funny how that all happened at about the same time, eh?) and I headed back into the big room to see what was up.

When I walked in, they were watching some kind of video that had giant ghosts chasing and squashing people with swords and a chest of some kind who were running from said ghosts. After that, we got a whole SLEW of moral stories. Thai-style.

There was a powerpoint presentation about drunk driving that was a series of photos of a motorcycle accident scene from somewhere in Europe. I kid you not, we saw photos of a body that had been severed in half. Like, torso was ten feet from legs. And intestines were strewn about. Not knowing what else to do, I leaned over to my paw-aw and said I wanted to eat noodles, which, in retrospect was a pretty Thai thing to do (they like to make jokes out of uncomfortable situations to try to lighten things up), so good for me.

After that we saw some karaoke music videos that the monk had altered so that the video for one changed to a funeral and we got to look at some more bodies. Another video showed a bunch of images of hell and briefly showed all the reasons people might go to hell. Then we watched a longer, more graphic video about what hell might be like, with everyone being tortured as ironically (and brutally) as possible, based on the vice that had got them TO hell. We wrapped up with a couple videos about animal cruelty, one in which a man who was into cock-fighting abused his chickens (like making them fight ISN'T abuse?) when they lost and got his come-uppance when one of his birds pecked his eye out. But that wasn't enough. He eventually went insane, thinking he WAS a chicken, and killed himself by bashing his head against a post (a punishment he had used on chickens in the past). Then we watched a couple videos showing animals being slaughtered which reaffiremed my vegitarian ideals, and it was time for lunch!

And after lunch, I got a ride back home.

All in all, I'm really glad I went. It was a very good opportunity to spend some time with the teachers and for them to get to know a bit more about me outside of the school day when everyone is busy with something else, and although I didn't get to interact with the students much, I'm glad that they got to see me there and hopefully this will help them feel I am involved and interested in them.
But I'm also really glad I left when I did, because I don't know how many more of those moral stories and how much more Thai immersion I could handle. Phew!


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