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Letter 10 from Eric Arnow                               Arnow Letter Index

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Eric Arnow has his own web site now. For years I've been putting his letters from Asia here. From now on they'll go on his site, the Bumble Buddhist which also now has all the previous ones from cuke and photos more. - dc



Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2005
From: Eric Arnow <e_arnow@yahoo.com>
Subject: The Joy of Culture Shock

Dear Friends:

Well, I had planned to get back to Wat Tam Wua and continue my retreat after just a week, but one thing led to another. When I finally got back a couple of days ago, after over two weeks, I noticed that all the monks were gone, except for a 15 year old novice monk, who is very much 15 years old, not that he doesn't try  his best at times but he is also not the most disciplined monk either.

Turns out the abbot is visiting family in Bangkok. Four visiting monks returned to their home temple, two resident monks are on "Tudong".Tudong is kind of a walking pilgrimage when monks walk, in their case, to Chiang Mai, a good 150 miles away, barefoot. They carry no money so get their food in their alms bowl, and sleep in the forest or at temples along the way.

And one monk, Kru-Ba, got kicked out because he was a real slacker. Flirting with girls (a major no-no for presumably celibate monks), copping out of Tudong, and generally bugging the heck out of everyone there at Wat Tam Wua, and apparently even popping antihistamines and amphetamines together. No wonder the guy was acting weird.

And Jason, the soon to become novice 30 year old American, told me of squabbles among the folks left behind. So rather than stay there, I am back in Mae Hong Song and tomorrow visit

Soppong, and an American friend and his fiancÚ, a Lisu (very small ethnic group of North Thailand descended from Tibetans who migrated to Thailand sometime in the past.)  When the Abbot returns in a couple of days, I will go back.

Well, by the joys of culture shock, I mean that when you don't know the language, and in fact the dialect which is even different from Thai, it is a very different life experience, probably similar to being an infant.

Jason, who knows enough Thai to be dangerous, is always telling me that the Thais often bad-mouth the "farang", i.e. foreigner, the literal meaning being "guava", but  with a kind of demeaning tone to it, probably similar to the Japanese gaijin.

When I got back, I was greeting everyone with a smile hello, but one old guy looked icily straight through me. He would often actually move away from me, as if I have body odor. Maybe to his Thai nose I do, though nobody has told me as much. But since I don't know anything, I am just "being there" to allude to an old Peter Sellers movie about a simpleton, whom everyone thinks is very wise, because he doesn't (and can't) say anything "intelligent".

And I speak so little Thai that even if I knew what was going on, it would be useless to argue, since I can't speak Thai much at all.

Anyway, Nen, the title for novice, announced that there was to be a very special ceremony the next day, and invited people to go. Jason, ever the dutiful one volunteered immediately, but I demurred. "Jason, I've been to these before. It's just a Buddhist party not worth my time."

But since Nen is alone, perhaps he needed some moral support. So Jason and I agreed, along with several of the older nuns and laywomen.

But at 7:15, Jason was sitting gulping gobs of rice with no intention of going. I figured I might get a ride to part way to Mae Hong Son, where I could finish up some business, and then visit Soppong for a day, so I figured, what the heck.

We all piled onto a motor cycle with a padded back seat for Nen, the rest of us in a kind of front car (as opposed to a side car seen in old movies of motorcycles). Three nuns in front plus me sitting on the metal railing (more bumps on my bruised backside), the driver, and Nen.

We get out to the road, and since I have no ability to speak Thai, I am mystified as the women yell at the driver of the pickup truck/bus that takes us to the temple.

The bus went ahead a mile, then turned around back past the starting point, into the village near the temple, then picked up some vegetables and a school boy, with another woman  yelling instructions  all the while.

I thought we were only going up a few miles, but ended up going all the way into Mae Hong Song, a good 30 mile drive on a windy mountain road that took an hour. The nuns then did their sign language to show me what I was supposed to do with some kind of offering to the Buddha, with Nen giving marginal help. One interesting thing about almost totally inability to communicate, is that you become like an infant with manners.

People give you things you really don't want, talk as if you understand precisely what they are saying when you haven't a clue, and then you say things to them (i.e. in English) that are very clear and they just don't understand. What's the matter with these adults, anyway??

But unlike an infant, it is not appropriate nor useful to throw a temper tantrum, especially since they are all smiling and trying to be kind and helpful, so you just smile and nod yes as if you understand.

Well, at the Temple, a very nice man approached me, and treating me with great kindness spoke, telling me something, then took my hand.  So we were walking hand in hand, me the little kid, he the "father" showing me around. Fortunately, I just got an English Thai dictionary, so with a lot of pointing at words and garbled Thai and his speaking at length, and pointing to a pretty woman who came up to him asking for a cigarette, realized that the reason for the "special ceremony" was that it was the man and his wife's wedding anniversary.

Damn but I knew this was an event not to be missed. And the throngs of famous monks and scores of devout laymen and women--well they weren't there.

So I guess even though I have no idea what was going on on a moment to moment basis, and could barely understand anyone, but just had to be friendly and open, I had been right all along. It was just a way for a 15 year old to get out of the temple and get some spiritual entertainment.

But what the heck, I got a free ride to Mae Hong Son, and even a free lunch, which I've always been told just doesn't exist.

Catch you next time.

Eric

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