We’d been exploring central and northern Thailand for sixteen days already. Jet lag was a (relatively) distant memory. We’d searched out hidden temples, secret beaches, bustling markets. We’d been conveyed by transportation modes the boys had never even heard of: songtaews, long-tailed boats, tuk tuks. “I think Thailand will turn out to be one of the real highlights of our trip,” Miles said. And it was only the first stop on our journey.
That night, as the boys’ frenetic energy finally dissipated and they snored away quietly in our little room in Chiang Mai, Emily turned to me. “I’m not feeling settled in yet. Doesn’t it seem as if we’re just sightseeing?”
I’d been feeling the same way. Not that there’s anything wrong with sightseeing. But we’d expected more from this trip. We’d expected to go deeper somehow, to be something other than just tourists this time. We’d set aside eight months. We’d pulled the boys out of school for the educational experience of a lifetime. We had this vision of turning them into “global citizens.” But now in the darkness, with the rickety fan circling lazily above our heads, I realized we’d never defined what we meant by “global citizenship.” Were we, in fact, just tourists with more time on our hands than usual? We stayed up late that night, defiant, mapping out our plan.
Step one: Study the world.
In the morning over breakfast, we broke the news to the boys. They’d each be working on a research project for the duration of the trip. Interview-based, experiential, original research. Jonah would be studying the use of herbal remedies around the world. Miles would be doing a comparative study of contemporary and traditional musical styles. They were thrilled and got right to work, interviewing herbal apothecaries, chatting up street musicians.
Step two: Seek out substantive conversations
It’s hard not to view Theravada monks as other-worldly. Because, in some sense, they are. Early every morning, pairs of young boys in ochre robes can still be seen walking specter-like through the streets of Chiang Mai with only their begging bowls to collect dana offerings from the local residents for breakfast.
But Chiang Mai monks also go to school, eat junk food, listen to popular music (though they’re not allowed to dance), and surf the Web on iPhones.
There’s a lovely tradition in Chiang Mai where various temples offer “monk chats” at designated times–you drop in to ask questions about monastic life, or Buddhism, or Thai culture, and the monks get to practice their English on you. One lesser-known temple that offers a weekend evening chat is Wat Pha Khao, situated just around the corner from our guest house. Pha Khao recently celebrated its five-hundredth anniversary—it’s a temple baby by Chiang Mai standards.
Sunday evening, daytime heat abating, mosquitos buzzing about, we entered the gates to explore the temple grounds. The main sanctuary was deserted, but we remained there for a while, cross-legged on the floor, mesmerized by the towering central Buddha which, by a trick of fluorescent lighting, changed color every few seconds. At a smaller sanctuary to the east, we spotted a young monk. He was so hard at work braiding some sort of lanyard bracelet that I wasn’t sure I wanted to disturb him. But he smiled when he saw us and asked us to take a seat.
Unsure of monk chat etiquette, I started leading the discussion: How long ago had he ordained? (Ten years earlier, when he was fourteen.) Why did he join the monastic community? (He came from a poor farming family, but he knew he wanted to go to university, and he could do this for free as a monk. His father had left the decision up to him.) Did he like his life? (Yes, unequivocally—so much easier than a layperson’s.)
But our young monk soon took the conversation to more interesting places with a dharma talk about all of the ways in which we humans try to distract ourselves from our present experiences, and all of the reasons that we miss out on the pure happiness that is right here, right now, ours for the taking. Emily and I were enthralled. The boys remained silent, inscrutable. An hour had already passed.
“Do you guys have any questions?” I asked. The boys were shy, still awed by the young monk’s super powers. But Miles worked up the nerve to ask the question that had been on his mind since we’d arrived in Thailand. “Why do people always leave strawberry Fantas as offerings at spirit shrines, and never regular Fantas.” The monk eyed him, a smile creeping over his face, then burst out laughing. “I have been wondering this exact same thing!” he said. (He shared his theory that Chinese influence is increasingly leading Thais to make red-colored offerings.)
Step three: Become a local student for a day.
“We’ve decided to send you to a local Thai school,” I told the boys. Their eyes grew wide. “How do we do that?” I didn’t know, but I was hell-bent on figuring it out.
As far as I can tell, the Pittisoporn primary school had never, in its entire history, had an American family ask to enroll kids there. In Thailand there are Thai schools, and there are schools for international expat children, known colloquially as farang schools. (My advisor in grad school liked to translate farang as “honky.”) We hunted out the director of the school, who called in an assistant with better English skills. “You want to send them here for the year?” she asked, incredulous. No, just for a day. “You want them to study Thai?” No, they wouldn’t be able to learn it that quickly. We wanted them to get a sense of what life as a Thai student was like. The director had a heated exchange with the assistant in Thai, and I became convinced that he was putting the kibosh on the whole idea. Then he turned to us and said in English, “Okay, come Monday morning. One hundred baht.” Three dollars per kid. The cheapest child care we’d ever had.
Monday morning at 8 am Emily and I watched as a sweet young woman, Teacher Mot, led Miles and Jonah into the schoolyard where three hundred Thai elementary school students had already assembled in perfectly formed lines. A student drum corps pounded out Thai marching music. Jonah turned back to me with a nervous smile. “See you later, Dada.” I waved as reassuringly as I could.
“Are we sadists?” Emily asked me out of the boys’ earshot. I considered this. “I think of it as punitive,” I joked.
Miles put his arm around his little brother’s shoulder, and together they proceeded into the mass of gawking uniformed students, girls in blue skirts, boys in khaki shorts, all with crisp, white shirts. Emily and I stayed there watching for some time, our own boys melding into the crowd but not quite disappearing—we followed Jonah’s shock of blond hair, Miles’s Harry Potter-esque profile (which the Thai ladies at our guest house had endearingly called to our attention). Our boys stood with the other kids for the Thai national anthem, facing first east, then west. They stood with the rest of the students as they chanted portions of the Karaniya Metta Sutta, the sutra on loving kindness.
And it struck me how brave they both were. I’d never have been able to do this at their age—I was much too shy. And I realized that they were teaching me what it means to become a global citizen: the openness to the world that it requires, the instinct to connect with people anywhere regardless of our differences, the fearless exploratory spirit. And I couldn’t have been prouder.