Teaching Monks to “Cook Sandwiches”

In the third floor classroom of Chiang Mai’s Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University, the eyes of thirteen students registered varying degrees of confusion as I taught the first part of the English lesson: we do not “cook” sandwiches in English, we “make” them.  Clad in the saffron robes of Theravada Buddhist monks, the students wrestled with this anomaly of English.  “Will we make sandwiches today?” asked one of them, trying the new verb on for size.


One of the highlights of my recent trip to Chiang Mai was a morning spent helping my friends Ron and Kari teach English classes at the Chiang Mai campus of one of Thailand’s two monastic universities.  Ron and Kari are a Texan couple about my age, whom I first met nearly six years ago at Union Language School in Bangkok.  Most of the students at ULS are missionaries although other students are welcome.  My answer to the common question I received from fellow students – “What brought you to Thailand?” – was usually met by bewildered silence.

Ron and Kari were the exception.  They asked questions and were interested in meeting Tawn and over the years we have stayed in touch as their missionary work has taken them from Thailand to Kenya and back again.  Now they are in Chiang Mai and one of their duties is to teach English classes to monks and novices attending Buddhist university.  When they heard I was coming up, they invited me to be a guest teacher.

“The monks asked if we could cook sandwiches,” Kari explained.  “You would be good at teaching them that.”

On Thursday morning, after spending an hour practicing the intricacies of telling time, Kari pulled out two loaves of bread, a half-dozen tomatoes, a jar of mayonnaise, a container of lettuce, and a container of bologna.  First, we cleared up the confusion over which verb was appropriate.  Since we don’t use any heat, we “make” sandwiches, not “cook” them.  Next, we practiced the names of the ingredients.  “Bologna” seemed too difficult, so I called it “ham.” 

Finally, the fun began.  Working in groups of three, the monks, who range in age from 18-44, came to the front of the room, sliced tomatoes, and assembled sandwiches.  There were a few mishaps, such as the sandwiches which ended up with mayonnaise on the outside of the bread.  But all in all, everyone seemed to have a good time.


An advantage of having me teach this segment was that I could work more closely with the monks than Kari can.  One of the restrictions for Buddhist monks is that they may not touch, or even accept things handed directly to them from, a woman.  Sometimes, like when a monk who has perhaps never sliced a tomato in his life is having problems, it is easier to get in there, grab the knife, and demonstrate.  This would be complicated if a certain physical distance had to be maintained.

At the end of the class, everyone ate their sandwiches along with a banana for dessert.  Who knows if they liked their food; monks are required to eat the food they are given without complaining or expressing like or dislike.  But several students asked when I would come back and teach again, so maybe they enjoyed the sandwiches well enough.  There were requests that we cook massaman curry next time, though. 

While the class lasted only two hours, and I didn’t have much time to talk individually with the students and learn more about them, it was a fun experience.  Several years ago, I volunteered as an English teacher in a small provincial primary school and teaching is something I enjoy.  Maybe I need to make another trip up to Chiang Mai as a guest lecturer.  At least I have the right hair style to relate to the students.


A Row of Novices

There is something about monks that makes them very photogenic.  Perhaps it is the bright saffron robes, a brilliant color that creates notable contrast in photos.  Perhaps it is the pared-down simplicity of their person: no hair, no eyebrows, nothing but their robes and an alms bowl.  Perhaps it is the beauty of and image repeated, when you see a row of monks.  Whatever it is, I’m not the first photographer in Southeast Asia to notice that almost anytime you have a monk in a scene, there’s the opportunity for an interesting photo.

Last week while walking to the Skytrain station in the front of my alley, I passed a less-common sight: a row of novice monks collecting alms without any adult supervision. 


There were nine of them – an auspicious number – along with a tenth who was armed with a megaphone and was announcing their presence.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand exactly what was happening.  Normally you can find a few monks from the local temple on the next corner up, right at the Thong Lo fresh market.  They are there every morning and the locals, mostly the housewives and housekeepers who are shopping for the day’s ingredients, will make offerings to the monks.

It was unusual to see a who group of novices actually walking the street, so I imagine perhaps they are part of a group that will be entering the monastic life and this is part of their training.  Just a guess, though.

Just a note for when you travel in Southeast Asia: Buddhist monks (at least the Theravada variety who wear these saffron robes) do not accept monetary alms directly as they are forbidden to by the Buddha’s teachings.  Offerings are made of food, robes, candles, toiletries, etc.  Monetary donations are made directly to the temples where they are handled by lay members.  In my travels to Hong Kong and Singapore I have seen “monks” on the street soliciting cash donations.  It is likely they are not legitimate.