Wednesday, January 20, 2010

And then the monk asked for my number...

Photo Courtesy of Jodi Hilton

When I was five or six years old, my mother told me, “Cover up. Lok cannot see your skin.” I wore a skirt that covered my toes and a white long sleeved top. I longed for the silk scarves the older women wore draped delicately across one shoulder. Pinks, blues, turquoises, olives. Gold and silver patterns woven through them. Some fringed, some with sequins. It was nyay boun, a holy day, and we were getting ready to go to the temple in Broomfield. I always dozed off during these rides, which to my kid self felt like an eternity, but really was, at most, an hour-long.

The “temple” is a ranch-styled house with a red barn to the left of it. Back then, it could have been mistaken for any old farmhouse. Today, it features intricately detailed, giant-sized concrete statues that tell the story of Buddha in the yard area. At first, I thought these statues had an artificial Disneyland-esq quality to them. Some of them have fake eyelashes that I’m sure are eventually blown away by the wind (only to be replaced by another pair of feathery lashes). Others have diamond gems for pupils. But having now been to Cambodia, it seems that what we in America deem as cheap and tasteless is often considered beautiful in Cambodian society. Gold paint. Fluorescent colors. Gems. Glitter. Doll-like make-up. Being overdone rather than underdone.

There are some informal rules I always follow at the temple:

1) Always bend over when walking so that your head is low, especially when walking by older people as a sign of respect for them.

2) Women should never show skin, especially cleavage. Ever.

3) Women should not make eye contact with a monk.

4) Don’t fall asleep while the monk is chanting.

5) Bring the monks offerings to receive their blessings.

6) Never touch a monk if you are a woman. Ever.

I should probably elaborate on number six. It is a bap, best translated as a sin, to touch a monk. Not only are you sinning, but also you are passing the sin on to the monk who is trying his best to keep holy. Avoid doing so at all costs.

Oops. Well I didn’t touch a monk, but in a way, I feel like I might as well have. It began like this. My friend Jodi and I were on our way to the National Museum two days ago. We passed by a wat on the way, and thought we’d check it out.

“The temple is closed,” said a woman near the entrance. She was fifty, maybe sixty, wearing linen high waters, a safari hat, and fuchsia lips. Perhaps a Parisian tourist.

We continued to wander about the temple yard. A group of monks were standing atop the remains of where a building once stood. They hacked away at the foundation. As we approached, they stopped working.

Photo Courtesy of Jodi Hilton

“Is she Cambodian like us?” one of the monks said.

“Yes, she’s definitely Khmer,” said another.

I stared at the dirt. Head down. Don’t look at the monks, I told myself.

“No, maybe she’s Japanese.”

I made sure my scarf was covering any cleavage that might be going on. “Cha,” I said in a meek voice, no longer able to pretend that I did not know what was going on.

“Ah ha! I knew it!” said a monk with a round belly, large smile and burnt gold robe.

Jodi went over and climbed up onto the pile of crumbled stones where the monks were standing. Oh shit! I thought. We can’t talk to monks. Women aren’t really supposed to approach men in Cambodia, let alone holy men. We’re really in for it. She began chatting with them, and they seemed to take a strong liking to her.

“It’s okay,” – said the round-bellied one – “You can come up here.”

With big sheepish grins on their faces, they asked for my story. You know when you meet a guy and he asks about your interests, what you do etc., and the guy really “digs” what you tell him, and gets all excited because he’s into all the same things? Well, I started to feel like some of the monks were really "digging" my story. They stared at me with these strangely fascinated eyes. I began to get creeped out for a second, but then I thought Maybe they’re just intrigued that I am American-Khmer, and I speak Khmer.

One of the monks wearing a short-sleeved robe with perfect biceps and a sharp chiseled face (bad, I know) nodded saying, “Yes, yes, the snow seems very nice. I would like to see snow.” We were within an arms-reach apart. He unfolded his arms and paused a moment before--Jesus, no, not kissing me-- asking, “So, do you have a phone number?”

I hope my eyes didn’t bulge out. But I think they did. “No, no I don’t have a phone,” I said, thinking if my phone rings, I’m fucked. The good-looking monk laughed, and I ran away, just as I often do from attractive nice men, but in this case, I think it is a good thing I did so.

I walked towards Jodi and another monk who “opened” the doors of the temple, which according to the woman we’d met earlier, was “closed.” The monk explained the story of Buddha, which is painted on the walls and ceilings. He also explained that he was 24, studying hotel management and hospitality, and didn’t know what his future plans were.

“Will you continue to be a monk?” I asked.

He shrugged and replied with these honest eyes, “I don’t know.”

I’ve been thinking more and more about monks and their situations. The monk who is studying hotel management has been a monk since he was fourteen years old. He is from a poor province, and he wanted to attain a higher education, so he came to Phnom Penh. Men are allowed to live in temples free of charge. At Wat Botum, there are over 700 men living there, 500 of whom are students. Most of them are monks.

“They’re men, too,” Jodi said. These young men have needs and wants—sexual and material. They aren’t born to be monks. They must learn the way of monkhood. Siddhartha was a young boy who led a lavish life, fell in love, and married before he reached enlightenment. How can these boys and young men who are monks be judged for desiring a life that many people lead? Many of these men enter monasteries not because of religious motivations, but because they want to live in Phnom Penh—the only place they can attend university.

I'd heard a while back that many parents send their gangsters sons to join monasteries, hoping to correct their bad behavior. Many of these young men who are forced to join, rebel. They get drunk, gamble, and sleep with women at the temple. I would not want to get blessed by one of these monks.

Jodi, the monk, and I sat under a pagoda chatting before we left. We were brought chilled Fanta-like orange and green sodas to drink. I felt strange accepting these, but knew it would be rude to refuse them. We were the ones who were supposed to give the monks offerings, not the other way around. The monk sat closely, and if I moved my right foot, it would probably touch his. I sat very carefully. I did not want to bap for both my sake and the monk’s. As Jodi and I rose to leave, the monk asked that we exchange emails. He pulled out a bill that looked like fake money.

“Is that a dollar?” Jodi asked.

He picked up the bill and shook it in the air laughing. “No, it’s a gift for when you go play. They gave it to me.”

I looked at the bill more closely, and it said, “Play to win. $10.00 certificate.” Ah, this one’s a gambler.

Photo Courtesy of Jodi Hilton

1 comment:

  1. LOVE IT. cannot wait to be there!

    oh and I love love the first picture