I am, You are, He is

In addition to renovating temples, we teach English to student monks at a different monastery. Our first day of teaching, I understand the true meaning of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” After being introduced to the Principal Reve. Okandagala Chandaloka Thero (the head monk), we are led into a room with wooden chairs and desks, chalkboards, and expectant boys. The walls painted a sedate yellow, with a strip of dark red at the bottom. Four 11 and 12 year old monks in one corner, four 13 and 14 year old monks in another, and eight monks ages 15 to 18 in the center. I end up with the eight older boys. I have no experience teaching other than my online Teaching English as a Foreign Language course. Teaching teen-age boys in America would make my forehead crinkle with worry. My forehead uncontrollably crinkles.

I know I am in trouble when I ask their names. Sudhamma Thero, Samitha Thero, Sumedanda Thero, Dammissara Thero; Pangarama Thero, Sumanghala Thero, Jinananda Thero; Samitha Baddra Thero; Dammadasi Thero, Sumedananda Thero. Some have a third name, immediately lost to me. And one boy from the village, not a monk, sitting in the last row in his white uniform. Ruchira, a blissfully short name. The monks dissolve into fits of giggles and laughter as I repeat their names, mispronouncing each and every one. Comments about my mis-pronunciation fly across the room in Sinhala. Second and third attempts produce more laughter. Their laughter is infectious and good-natured, and I laugh too.

They show me their English notebooks. Hoping to assess what they know and where I should begin, I flip through the pages. Not a single page has writing on it.

A lightbulb lights up in my head that night. I introduced myself as Kris, but I, too have a long name. And if I add my mother’s maiden name, it becomes even longer. The next morning, I write on the chalkboard:

Kristin Mary Elizabeth Sweetser Koval

Under my long name, I write:


I point to the board. That is my full name. I point to Kris. Keti nama. Short name. I hand them each a piece of paper. Keti nama, I say. Pleased with my stroke of genius, I wait.

No short names. They each remove Thero, but that is all. My unruly monks will remain unruly because I cannot learn their names. I learn to laugh at myself as much as they do. I provide them with a warm-up worksheet each morning. Practicing conjugations of “to be,” they write “My name is _______” at the top of each worksheet. I walk around the room as they complete the worksheet, checking answers and helping. And surreptitiously creating a name map. The second morning, nine monks and three village schoolboys. My name map needs to change each day. I eventually learn all the names, but not the pronunciation.   To them, I am Mrs. Krish. Pronunciation is difficult for all of us.

Sinhala and English are not even remotely related on the world language tree, and their differences produce confusion on a daily basis. There is no equivalent of the verb ‘to be’ in Sinhala. Speakers simply use the noun or subject pronoun followed by the adjective or noun. ‘The car is blue’ becomes ‘Kaahr e-kah nil paah-tai.’ Literally, ‘Car blue one color.’ One syllable words in English (‘talk’) become six syllable monsters in Sinhala (‘kah-thaah ha-rah-nah-vaah’). Even when I have the word written in English letters instead of Sinhala script in front of me, I butcher the word. Working with the elephant Mali and her mahout Samndha, his most frequent command to her was ‘Dha!’ A combination of ‘forward’ and ‘move.’ Mispronounce ‘Dha!’ as ‘daha’ and a mahout will order the elephant ‘ten’ instead of ‘Move!’ When Sri Lankans speak English, they start most of their sentences with an apologetic ‘Actually, …’ as though they are correcting a mistake of mine. Actually, I think they use it because they all learn it in school. And the funniest mistake comes from a hotel menu. We can order “Tasty Tit Bits” or “Sweet Pleasures.”

Many of the monks have iPhones or Androids, but language can sometimes make it difficult to access or even set-up email and social media accounts. Logan, Linous, and Nicholas spend long afternoons clearing a jungle hill-side and digging a trench for water. When the head monk cannot access his email from his new iPhone 7, Nicholas breaks from swinging his pack-axe to help him.

One day, an English-speaking monk approaches us as we paint, curious and eager to practice his English. He spent three years teaching in a monastery in San Francisco. My Buddhism learning previously restricted to books and school, I pepper my new friend with questions, grateful to have a real monk’s answers and to hear his interpretation. The next day I return to him with Nicholas. Ven. Gnanawimala Thero patiently talks to us, answers more questions. Offers to meet with us if we go to Nuwara Eliya, near his home temple. We end up in Nuwara Eliya the next weekend, and from the colonial era St. Andrews hotel, I screw up my courage and call Wimala Thero to see if he is free. He is. We spend Sunday riding in a speedboat on Victoria Lake and driving to waterfalls in a purple car, accompanied always by Wimala Thero and his 15 year old student in their orange robes. Even better, visits to four temples. One where he studied, one where he was ordained, one where is staying, and finally, Kothmale, which has the second largest Sri Lankan pagoda. Head monks greet us warmly at all. Some with no English, others with some. All four provide us with tea so sweet it is a dessert by itself, bananas, cake, and welli thalapa. Lunch at one, deep in the jungle. A gift of jaggery while we sit surrounded by tea plants at another. Our day ends as we walk slowly around the inside of the Kothmale pagoda, Wimala’s gentle voice echoing in circles around us. A day to remember.

Arriving back at the volunteer house Sunday after our day with Wimala Thero, we chatter about what we have seen, learned and experienced. I record the day as I sit under the jasmine tree in the late afternoon. Delicate tan spiders drop onto my head, the table, and my chair like soft rain. Fearful of damaging their thin legs if I push them away, I let them scurry away on their own. The bread man drives by in his tuk-tuk, blaring “It’s a Small World” with a tinny, high-pitched xylophone. Nicholas hoped it was an ice-cream truck the first time he heard it, mistakenly waved down the tuk-tuk driver, and blushed with embarrassment when he had to tell the driver No Thanks.

We only have one week left of renovating temples and teaching English to the young monks. On our walk home from the Viddya Keerithi Maha Pirivena each day, we pass a rainbow of houses. I will miss this when we are done. Sri Lankans love color, and homeowners who can afford it paint their houses. Creamsicle orange with white icing trim, peach fuzz with tan trim, sedate yellow with green trim. Pink and purple, pink and red, pink and white. Purple and white, purple and purple. Magenta, violet, lavender. Fuchsia and maroon. Coral. Aquamarine, everywhere. In this country of ever-present green, even green houses. Lime green, forest green, dark green. Green on green on green. Paint comes as a thick paste, the final color dependent on the amount of water used to mix the paint and the whims of the paint-mixer. And all homes decorated, if possible, with ceylon-tea colored wood shutters and intricate latticework.

Flower pots and gardens line the periphery of each of these homes. Those with no funds for pots use canvas bags or old rain gutters to grow tomatoes, chilies, pumpkin; mint, cardamom, and curry. The fecund jungle provides bananas, coconuts, mangos, mangosteen, and rambutan. Giant jackfruit, breadfruit, and durian, bigger and heavier than our largest watermelons. Jackfruit curry appears at mealtime every day. In season, so plentiful that villagers cannot sell it at the market.

The rainbow of houses, gardens and flowers can’t hide us from the traffic and diesel fumes which coat our skin and the inside of our noses and eyes depending on where we have been each day. We are now accustomed to the narrow roads and roaring traffic and we walk on roads without flinching when trucks and buses honk “I’m coming” behind or next to us. Mornings, I stop at a tiny shop to make 5 rupee photocopies of hand-written worksheets for my class. One morning, I sit on the curb to prepare one last worksheet and barely notice when a small delivery truck parks two feet from my face. Perhaps too accustomed. I will not miss the traffic and diesel fumes.

Monday morning of our last teaching week arrives. My students are understanding more and more written and verbal English. I realize how much I will miss the teaching and laughing, the giggling, all of our multiple attempts to pronounce Sinhala or English. The notes I sometimes find at the end of the day: I like you. You are nice. Thank you. The progress means we can now joke in English: I am afraid of spiders. You are not afraid of birds. He is afraid of snakes. I talk, you talk, he talks. I stop, you stop, he stops. I stop talking when the teacher talks. My pronunciation of their names still produces giggles, but I do know all their names, all their smiles, all their kindness. Who is brave enough to complete a worksheet without copying. Who helps make our morning tea when the head monk goes to Colombo, who gives me new fruits to try each day. I am, you are, he is. We are.

When I first met Wimala Thero, he explained the meaning of his full name, Gnanawimala. Pure Wisdom. Then, quickly explained “But I am always learning. I am still learning.” That has been the wonder of this trip. The monks are learning. I am learning. We are learning. From everyone and everything around us. From our student monks, from Wimala Thero. From colors and flavors. From laughter. From risks taken, mistakes made, and unexpected successes. From spiders falling from jasmine.

2 thoughts on “I am, You are, He is

  1. Wow Kris. Finally it is Spring Break and I have some time to sit down and read your beautiful and insightful writing. (you really need to follow your idea of publishing your writing, you have a gift!) Such an amazing experience you two are having. We miss you, but look forward to many wise and insightful stories you will have to share with us once you return.



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