Fans oscillate slowly while I listen to the monk speak in a room at MCU Buddhist University near Wat Suan Dok. He iterates how all religions share common themes such as morality, love, and compassion and that sugar by any other name is just as sweet. He continued on that sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and religion were not to be discriminated against and that all were welcome.
In Thailand and a few other Theravada Buddhist countries, women are not allowed to sit beside and touch monks because they are told they are temptations against the monks’ enlightenment. Women are also not allowed to enter certain sacred sides. When asked why we were denied entrance at the City Pillar, the monk said it was originally put in place due to possibility of menstrual cycles but now it is up to the Abbot, or head monk, and his personal beliefs.
I have grown up in a family with many sassy women who are career oriented and independent. My mother paid every dollar for her college tuition herself and was forced to finish her four year nursing degree into six. She has worked late nights saving many lives and is the breadwinner of our family. Her sister, has also been very successful as she was the Director, U.S. Market Strategy & Engagement for Microsoft for seven years and is currently the Global Head of Business Strategy & Growth for Facebook and has her own fashion line DB Style. I was raised to believe that men and women have equal opportunities and that barriers hindering these alienated rights were wrong and immoral.
In the five weeks I have been here, this blatant sign is only one example I have seen of gender roles. Various entrance signs to wats illustrated correct dress code and what not to wear; all of the pictures consisted of women models. Things like wearing a hat, tank tops, or shorts, could just have been easily violated by men. Then, as I was in the process of taking my shoes outside the temple, I was told a few times that wearing a hat was not allowed. However, I saw other men wearing them inside without being reprimanded. Lastly, when asking tour guide Icki about places women can go out to have fun, he claimed that women often stayed home and that it was not common for them to go out alone. His tone made me feel that he believed in that sentiment.
Observing these events were eye-opening and my initial reaction was hyperfeminist. Why were women so accepting to being denied entry at the City Pillar? Wasn’t the sign sexist and discriminatory? I have pondered at those thoughts and have since wrapped myself in one question– what does it mean to be a woman in Thai culture and is equal gender roles the only “right way?” My ideals are very American where one serves themselves and strives to be successful. I have noticed that the Thai way of life is more communal and that their decisions best serve the interests of their family and community. Perhaps, designated roles do not strictly mean a lesser quality of life. I hope to continue witnessing the roles of women, men, and children alike in Thai society and further evaluate the point of assimilation of modern ideals versus tradition.
One thing that I have been most moved by during my time here so far is the Thai people. Since my language ability is limited, I have been observing with caution and using my body language (along with the few phrases I know) to communicate. Something I have noticed is, yes, the Thai people smile a lot and many of us see it and comment “they are so nice!”, but I think it is more than just being kind. I think that it is all connected – the way they interact, the religion, the culture – but I am still learning how it connects.
Visiting the school helped me to understand more about kindness and warmth with the Thai people. When I interacted with the students, three of the girls latched onto me and helped me in my time at the school. When I sat down next to them I smiled and said hi and I could feel the nervous energy that surrounded us, but it was a hopeful and curious energy. I immediately felt so welcome. I think that as I became more open and comfortable, they too became more open and comfortable. Kind of like a mirror image with room for give and take. They were constantly giggling and smiling and very accommodating. When we would move places they would grab my arm and lead me to where we were supposed to go. My time spent at the boarding school is one I will never forget. It also reminded me that receiving this sort of hospitality and welcoming is one that all people benefit from and something I would like to do more of.
The monk chat allowed me to draw deeper understandings of suffering and love and kindness. One phrase from the monk that really stuck with me was at the very end when he said “take what is good and leave what is bad”. I think this goes hand in hand with the idea to not cause suffering to oneself and to others. By taking what is good, one is bringing more love and kindness into their lives and by leaving what they do no want, no suffering will occur. This idea fascinates me and is one I would love to take into my life. I think that I sometimes cling on to things too strongly and that is what causes my suffering. I believe that the desire to not cause suffering relates to the hospitality and kindness that I have so strongly felt here. I have noticed situations where I feel the need to say something, but the Thai people do not say anything and I think this stems from not causing suffering. I think that maybe since suffering is usually avoided that we feel the warmth in a more genuine way.
Here in Thailand I found myself comparing different interactions to ones I have experienced in Minnesota. I often find myself testing how the people react. For example, when I find myself walking down the street in Minnesota a lot of the time the people will do anything not to look at you, and if they do look at you, there is no smile on their face. I think that this has to do partly with our more individualistic culture. Here I have found that people, if you look at them and smile, most will smile back. It is kind of similar to what I mentioned before with the students. I think that I still have a lot to learn about the Thai culture and people, but what I have observed so far I think also relates to how I am portraying myself and interacting with the people. I am being open and kind and thoughtful and most people respond in positive ways to these interactions. I think with more time here my connections will grow deeper and my knowledge on the topic will continue to expand.
Coming to America with a perspective that everything will be just like what they display and commercial on Television about U.S culture. I will see everything white, white teachers, white friends, and white neighbors. My assumption was everybody would be really friendly and no segregation regarding social classes differences. However, the reality is always surprise and opposite from your expectation. I was lost in a culture shock and confusion in the fact that America has the most greatest culture diversity in the world compare to my origin homeland, Laos. There are so many cultures, races, and people from everywhere in the world live together in America, which creates a complexity and competition.
Because the existing of multiple cultures in U.S, people tend to enhance their individualism over developing the community base. I remember throughout my time of living in U.S; people always complete with each other. For example, I took a college course, “Multicultural perspectives”, and we had a reading about the role of women in Islam religion. There was an open discussion in the class where we allowed to collaborate opinion and thought about the role of women character and her actions in the reading. I don’t remember exactly what was going on in the reading, but we had have a heat argument between the classmates. One of the students was an Islam and the other was Christian. Both of the students tried to make an argument that their religion or culture is better than other. An Islam students believe that what the women did was a right thing to do, but the Christianity students argued that it was a wrong and inappropriate action regarding to his culture. So that moment made me realized about how American living system that emphasize on individualism. I see this concept almost every day in my life living in U.S. People always assume and jude about other about my ability because I can’t speak an efficient English. That why there is always competition between group of cultures and people from different back group compete each other to make themselves look superior than others. And this is how I adapted and live my life in America.
But coming to Thailand has opened me to see a different perspective on how people live their lives in other place. Thai people really live their lives as simple as how the Buddhism principle play a role in their lives. I remember when we went to Wat Chedi Luang to meet with Jo lee, a master monk in the temple, and had a valuable conversation with him. There he was giving a speech about what Buddhism is and how it play role in people lives in Thai, but one thing that struck me the most was his example about why do we need to argue about the differences of religion and which one is better than other. He used “sugar” as his example to explain his concept and principle of Buddhism. There are many ways and term in implying to the word sugar. For example, in English we called sugar, but in Thai they called “Num Tan”. We could see the differences between the two country of how they pronounse and spell the word sugar. We might say that American sugar is more quality or better than others just because we are develop and civilize country. But one thing that we forget is all sugar taste the same which is “sweet”. Therefore, why are we even arguing about who is better than who. Every religions teach people who to be good, love, and share to one another. And This is why people called Thailand is a “smile country”.
Since landing in Thailand, the feeling of being in a foreign country seemed so surreal. However, now it has really hit me of how far away I am from home and how this country has become my temporary home. Through all the friendships I have made and peers I have met on this beautiful journey, Thailand has been amazing thus far and words cannot explain how I feel.
5/22. Each day spent in Thailand has been a roller-coaster of emotions, observations, impressions, and outcomes. I have felt excitement and fun as well as discomfort and confusion. The most specific experience that has me comparing life here to life at home was our visit to the Hmong Village in Chiang Dao District. Immediately what I noticed were the style of homes, next, as we climbed the mountain more in the van, I noticed the nature and views. My thoughts throughout our stay changed drastically as we explored more and got to know some of the locals.
The home where I was raised is in Minneapolis and while it may be considered small compared to some of my neighbors and friends, it would seem large and excessive to some of the Hmong villagers. Many of the homes we drove past were very small and some in pretty rough condition. My immediate reaction was that the village was all low-income, and while some may be, I have come to learn that there homes do not reflect the amount of money they make or their ability to work hard. This is different from many places in the U.S. as so many homes truly do reflect how much it’s owners make. However, when I thought more about it, my grandparents also choose to live very simply and grow food in their own garden and live in a smaller home. This connection was neat to make between my grandparents and some of the Hmong villagers as they are both extremely different people raised in not-so-similar areas of the world.
Overall, I came to find so much beauty in the culture and the area they lived. I thought to myself when we made it to the top of the mountain “wow- why would you need anything else if you had this view??” The nature and surroundings were breathtaking and my heart felt such joy from the beauty. If the Hmong have their community, their family, their religion, their pride, and their mountain I can see how simple happiness can come to their lives. I look forward to comparing this experience to our next Hmong village visits.