*Brady is an ATMA SEVA volunteer who has been living and teaching at a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai for one and a half months*
Talking to my Thai friends – most of whom are my students, who are all novice monks – I find there are many things I don’t understand about the world of a Thai person. By the same token, there is much that these novice monks do not quite get about the Western World. As a result, lots of our discussions with each other are centered around the exchange of cultural and geographic knowledge, which I absolutely love. However, we sometimes hit snags in the conversation when a topic is especially difficult for one of us to grasp. I have recently encountered two such topics that shocked my monk friends to the core: the size of my shoes and the size of the Eiffel Tower.
During my first week here one of my favorite dogs – I call him Lucius – ate my shoes (scene: “Lucius, No! Lucius what are you doing? What did you do? Oh my god. Oh no. You ate them, didn’t you? Why, Lucius? Why would you do that?” *falls to his knees and shakes his fists at the sky*). It was a traumatic experience, especially to have so soon after arriving in Thailand, but my parents sent me some new hiking boots, and within a few weeks, a brand-new shoe box was sitting in my room, waiting to be opened. As my friends in orange robes crowded around me, curious as ever, I procured my new pair of shoes. Silence fell among them. They looked at the shoes, then at my feet. “I think they are wrong size,” one muttered. “Too big,” said another.
“No,” I replied, “right size for me. Size thirteen.”
“No,” said another monk. “Wrong size.” I shook my head.
What ensued was a solid thirty minutes of them inserting their feet into my shoes, which they began to call boats, and making shocked exclamations about their vastness. Eyes widened, mouths opened, and every pair of feet in the room were placed next to mine in comparison – some more than once – which resulted without fail in a round of gasps, whispers and statements of utter disbelief.
A similar reaction, minus the foot comparison, was elicited by explaining to the novices the size of the Eiffel Tower. Of course, they know all about Paris and France, but none of them have ever had the opportunity to travel there. In their minds, the Eiffel Tower is a medium-sized statue/monument, not the enormous metal monster it really is. So, when I showed them pictures of the crowds of people standing beneath its four humongous legs, their shock was palpable. “Same size Wat Srisoda?” one novice asked me in a cautious voice.
“Same size as many Wat Srisoda,” I answered.
“Oh I don’t believe you!” laughed my friend Chert.
What really stuck with me was how similar their reactions to my shoes were to their reactions to the Eiffel Tower. It’s funny what you learn about perspective when you live in another country, especially when you get to spend time with some locals. As much as you have the potential to expand their schema for understanding the world, they can do the same and more for you. What had always seemed fairly normal to me – giant buildings and even bigger shoes (or is it other way around) – turned out to be completely extraordinary for my friends. When you learn to think within the frames of other cultural contexts, it can allow you to see the world with more amazement. From now on, when I lace up my…boats, or look at a massive piece of art like the Eiffel Tower, I hope that I will be able to channel some of the shock I saw in my monk friends, and allow myself to better appreciate just how extraordinary and incredible things in this world really are.
Learning to see the world in new ways is one huge benefit I’ve gained from living in Thailand. I’ve been able to experience a ton of new and exciting things that I never thought I would be able to. However, I would never have gotten to have so many incredible experiences, or develop such close friendships with Thai Buddhist monks, without the opportunities provided by an incredible organization for which I am extremely grateful. That’s why I’d like to end this post with a huge thank you to the NGO I’m working with here in Chiang Mai, ATMA SEVA. ATMA SEVA, which means “selfless service for the soul” in Sanskrit, truly embodies the concept expressed in their name by promoting valuable service, as well as the development of meaningful relationships with people here in Thailand. Without the opportunities they have given me, I would never have been able to experience Thailand and Thai culture as deeply as I have. I have become very close with a group of monks, who come to my room to hang out and practice English outside the classroom nearly every night. My experience working with ATMA SEVA was summed up in a few words by my friend, Choo, when he said to me last night, “Before I met you, I didn’t dare to speak English.” Cultural exchange, English teaching, and friendship. That is what ATMA SEVA is all about.
In the spirit if gratitude, this post is dedicated to my monk friends Choo, Chert, Winachat, and Gee, who have taught me way more than I could ever teach them; as well as to David Poppe, ATMA SEVA’s Program Director, who has been around to support me and provide a constant stream of amazing opportunities and exciting new experiences since I’ve joined the ATMA SEVA community. Thanks guys!
You can see me teaching in the classroom at 1:55 in the newest ATMA SEVA video!
*Brady has just began a gap year abroad! To read more about his adventures, check out his personal blog!
written by: Brady Gilliam