Are monks as interested in foreigners as foreigners are in monks?

When I was sitting on a bus in Sri Lanka, (though it really could have been any of the countries I’ve traversed over these last few months,) two young monks boarded and took the seats next to Drew and I. For the hour or so we bumped and jolted noisily along the pot-holed road next to our brightly adorned co-passengers, I noticed a jumping of eyes. First from the local passengers to our white skin and light hair. Next, to the golden robed, bear-footed young monk boys. Then, from myself to the monk boys and likewise, from the boys to Drew and I. It amused me, and I couldn’t help but allow a few long inspections of these young monks with their shaved heads and cloth satchels: long gazes I’ve noticed with a bit of agitation upon me. On this particular bus-ride I remembered a conversation I had years ago, driving through the Indian Reservations in Arizona. We slowed our family van down to a creeping pace so that we could see the round, mud structures built by Native American families. Someone, I can’t remember who, suggested that we are really no different than the tourists we roll our eyes at in Amish Country Ohio, slowing their vans to stare at the horse-drawn buggies of our aunts and uncles. Remembering this comparison from years ago, I wondered to myself, “Are monks in Asia as curious about foreigners as foreigners are in Asian monks?”

While standing outside of a bus station in Bangkok waiting for our bus to the Thai border in Ayanaprathet, a monk approached Drew and I and introduced himself as a local of Ayanaprathet. The conversation was short and simply established that he was from Ayanaprathet and we were from the U.S. After our brief exchange, he smiled and walked on by. I watched him for awhile, curious to see him pull out a cigarette for a smoke-break while his monk companion put on a pair of aviators. I really know very little about monks, and didn’t know whether or not to be surprised by the sight of a smoking monk.

Today offered yet another example of this mutual curiosity between monks and foreigners. Drew and I were milling about a little grocery store here in Phnom Penh, examining with irritation the high prices of cheese when a pair of monks approached us. (Do monks always travel in pairs, and is there only one of each pair designated to do the talking?) This monk turned to us with a polite nod and said, “Hello, how are you doing?”
“Good, and how are you?” we asked.
“Good. Happy Cambodian New Year. It is my New Year here in Cambodia. Where is it you’re from?”
“The U.S.” we said, a little star-gazed because a moment earlier I had spotted the monks in the cereal aisle and admitted to Drew that If I were less concerned about proper respect of monks, (or anyone for that matter,) I’d try to snap a photo.
“Ah I will go there in one month. California.” He said. “For a ceremony.”
Yet again I noted a feeling of baffle and recognized how little I know about the life of a monk.
“And what state are you from?” He asked.
“Virginia.” We said.
He then went on to tell a brief tale of his inability to find a bus ticket back to his current residence, exclaiming that the buses were so full during the Cambodian New Year holiday! Then, as abruptly as he had begun the conversation, he finished it saying, “Ok good luck to you.”
He and his companion turned and walked away before I could decide whether or not it would be appropriate to ask a monk for a photo.
I did not take any photos of our new friends, nor did they snap any photos of us that I know of. So still, the question remains…

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