What began as helping three Cambodian monks get to their English lessons soon became a very real education for me.
Just up the road from where I live, in a quiet, wooded setting, there’s a Buddhist temple for the region's Cambodian commuity.
I was asked a few years ago by Dona, a young nun who volunteered there if I knew anyone who could drive the saffron-robed monks about 25 minutes to their English for Speakers of Other Languages classes in town. (These ESOL classes were once called ESL classes or "English as a Second Language" classes, until it became clear to the teachers that many of the students in fact spoke two, three, four, five languages already. In this case, the monks spoke Khmer and Pali, and young Soeun Vong, as I recall, also understood French and knew a little bit of English earlier as well.)
I was, of course, delighted, to add 5 or 10 minutes to my daily commute to work to help out the three monks -- Eath (pronounced “E-yat”), Pheap (pronounced “P-yap”) and Soeun Vong (“Soon Vong”) -- so I readily volunteered.
Pheap, who was described to me as the abbot of the small monestary, would usually sit in the front passenger seat of my small Subaru hatchback, while Eath and Soeun Vong typically rode the back seat the four mornings a week that there were classes. Dona would drive them back home.
"Good morning, Richia," Pheap would greet me each day, having walked out maybe 2,500 feet to the main road. "You happy today?"
When I asked them how they were, each reported, pretty much uniformly, that he was happy today, with the exception of shy, gray-haired Eath, who struggled noticeably more than the others to speak.
"How are you today, Eath?" I remember asking him one day. With a confused look, he responded, "Today Wednesday." Which evoked a hardy laugh from his fellow monk, Soeun Vong, who was quick to correct him in Khmer. At least that's what he seemed to be saying.
My first lesson, then, was that although I was typically headed into another day of work, with all of the stresses and anxious thoughts that typically entailed, my three monks without fail cheerfully reported being happy every day. Not good, as we might report, but happy.
"Richia, your mother, father happy today?" Pheap would occasionally ask. "Ma'am Suzanne happy today?" he'd add, referring to my wife. "Daughter, son happy today?"
Depending on how engrossed in conversation I wanted to become, I would either respond agreeably that yes, everyone was happy today. Or, while I might refrain from going into why I might have been less than entirely happy after listening to the morning's news, I could have informed them that my adult children no longer lived nearby and I had no idea whether they were happy today. Or that my parents were no longer alive.
Even then, a smiling Pheap would repeat the question the following day or the following week. So the preferred response was that, yes, we all were happy.
I could often tell what the previous day's lesson for the monks had been in English class, depending on the conversation they volunteered.
"Richia, what kind luncheon meat you like," Pheap asked out of the blue one morning. "You like Ham? Bologna? Salami?" And then he broke out into a big laugh. (I'm not really a luncheon meat kind of guy, and I imagine these monks weren't, either. Yet here we were having fun discussing salami.)
Another lesson for me came the day I brought along what I thought would be a special treat: tiny wild strawberries that I had collected, one for each monk. Each took his berry, wrapped in a tissue, and put it aside. I tried convincing them to taste it, to no avail.
It was only then that I realized that I had inadvertently temped them to break their solemn fast between sunup and sundown.
I remember my three monks on one particular freezing winter morning, after they’d trudged out to the road on the deep snow in sandals and white socks, with just orange sweatshirts under their orange cotton robes to keep them warm.
And there was another lesson one morning, as we headed down the hill from the temple, when I spotted my wife in the rear-view mirror, driving directly behind us on her way to work. When I pointed this out to the monks, they were thoroughly confused. Although we worked in the same town, my wife and I kept entirely different schedules, with multiple appointments during the day, and so drove in separately.
"Why Ma'am Suzanne have different car?" Pheap asked, bewildered. I'm not sure that my attempt at an answer about practical complications, like all five of us trying to squeeze into my car if she were with us, would have made any sense to the monks. And when I thought about it, I, too, realized how weird this was.
I would certainly have been confused those evenings when I visited the monks to take in their prayer, chanted in Pali in a temple of glittering lights and many statues of the Buddha as I kneeled in wonder. Instead, I was grateful to be bathed in the rhythmic beauty of the chant and the ancient language.
The year was 2007, and the monks seemed on some days to be interested in American politics the campaign for the approaching primary election.
"Richia, you like President Bush?" Phap would ask, following it with a laugh: "Hahahaha! You like Hillary Clinton?"
I tried to steer clear of outright personal preferences, not wanting to influence their opinions.
But it didn't seem to matter. "Richia, You like Obama? Hahahaha!"
At one point, we were driving along, and I responded to a question about what I thought about the coming election. Their question and my answer are long forgotten, but I do recall vividly my surprise at Theap proclaiming, "Richia, I want you be president of United States!"
And then he uttered that wonderful laugh.
They made my every day happy.