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Karis Kazuko Taylor

“Once I was in Asia” or “The Last Blog”

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Once I was in Asia. Did I learn anything there that you might find enlightening, interesting or at the very least somewhat amusing? Yes. Allow me to summarize it all for you in 200 words.

That was a joke. I cannot give a general overview of the experience and if I tried to it would not keep your attention. All the goodness is in the specifics. Like that one time in a Malaysian hostel when I fell through the bottom of the top bunk almost killing Ariel Smith (if standing beside a tiny Asian person does not make you feel fat, falling through one of their flimsy beds will). Or that other time at the night market in Chiang Mai when I had not yet gotten the hang of bartering and I spent ten minutes haggling over ten baht which is the equivalent of thirty cents (boy, was that vendor lady mad at me). Or at the Maesa Elephant Camp when the elephant wrapped her trunk around me and blew snot in my face, confirming my childhood belief that I and the elephants of this world are kindred spirits. And in the Philippines, taking pictures of Tira Ingersoll dancing with stoic starfish and vexing waterlogged sea cucumbers.

The Asia trip, far more so than the Europe trip or the cumulative SSU experience, is a book of short stories. Perhaps there is a common theme to all the different stories: digestive problems, copious amounts of sweat, or pretty flowers. Honestly though, it is a challenge to find something cohesive about the Asia trip save this: once we were in Asia together, traveling the same road that past SSU students have traveled, and where future SSU students will one day journey–another chapter in the larger, fuller story of being a part of this school.

Monks

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I used to see one every once in a while, in an airport or crossing the street, maybe talking on his cell phone. Shaved head, saffron robe, sandaled feet–holy men of a religion different than my own. They have always inspired a deep sense of reverence in me. What is it like to wander the world with a sense of enlightenment? I recall little Zen imponderables like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and imagine the answer settled somewhere in the still water of their souls. How could I understand, or relate to, or speak to such a man? Were I to engage a Buddhist monk, one or the other of us might evaporate. Would I be talking to a human being or a little glimpse of Nirvana? What is one supposed to do when encountering wisdom and belief so different from one’s own?

I have yet to have a conversation with a full blown monk, or Zen master, but here in Thailand I have met several novice monks. Six of them were children and I was told to teach them English. One was an older novice, 27 years old and he was told to teach me and my classmates about Buddhism.

I met the child monks first. Tira and I taught them Simon says and the hokey-pokey. We had them draw a picture on a random scrap of paper in the hopes of teaching them the English words for the objects they drew. They ended up drawing a man with a flaming head who might be some sort of Manga super hero, we don’t know. In the background there were mountains, clouds, flowers and a flying saucer. Nobody evaporated.

The other monk (his name was Domnan and he was from Cambodia) had been a novice for 14 years. He said he had become a monk because more than anything he wanted to learn. His favorite subject was psychology. The meaning of life, he told us, was to understand oneself. He talked a bit about how the root of all suffering is ignorance, and about the importance of balance. He said that real monks have both wisdom and morality, not just robes and a shaved head, confessing that the first two still eluded him. And he echoed the Buddhist teaching I have heard most often repeated on this trip: you come into this world with nothing and you leave it with nothing. Nobody evaporated during this conversation either.

So as usual I come away with more questions than answers.
What is holiness? What does it look like in someone from Cambodia and what does it look like in someone from the Maritimes? What is wisdom? Can a religion be judged apart from its followers? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Even though Domnan told me that you can’t tell a real monk by his outward appearance, I still can’t help feeling some awe when I see a monk. But is it the man that I feel awe towards or the holiness he represents? It’s a mystery to me. I guess I still don’t fully understand myself.

Killing Me Softly With His Song

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There is an old fashioned method of courting in the Philippines that is sometimes still practiced in rural villages: the love-struck fellow stands underneath the lady’s veranda and sings songs to her with his guitar. This is called Harana, and Tira and I had the privilege of experiencing it our fourth night in the Philippines. Some young friends of our host family gathered outside the door and I was awoken from my late afternoon siesta by their sweet serenading coming in through the window. We went downstairs and the boys were invited in so they could continue to sing (they were only minimally distracted by the Filipino soap opera on TV). After a while they persuaded Tira and I to join in but there were only a few songs that everyone knew well enough to sing along to: “Stand By me”, “Killing Me Softly”, and “Hey Jude”. But it was so much fun. In fact, this experience encapsulates my entire experience of the Philippines. Filipinos know how to have fun. They sing, they dance, they eat, they laugh, it’s lovely. I think one of the most lovely things in the world is a group of friends smiling, laughing and singing off key, encouraging the funny looking white girl on the karaoke mike who doesn’t quite know how the song goes.
And I would just like to close with one last note: for all you lovestruck young men reading this blog, I recommend trying Harana. I’ll bet that it works.

And We Shall Eat Mangos – Karis Taylor

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It will be mango season when we arrive in Southeast Asia. This is cause for much rejoicing. Also cause for rejoicing is the fact that Professor Gregg Finley will traveling with us. I cannot wait to listen to him discussing “thin places” with the saffron robed monks of Thailand. What is more, I am signed up for the climbing expedition to the peak of Mount Kinabalu. And to top it all off, my home-stay partner is not grossed out by flatulence. Without a doubt, this is an auspicious beginning to the travel term. I am especially looking forward to going to Thailand, the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by Europeans.  We are told to bring gifts to give to our future friends and home-stay families. I wonder if Obama paraphernalia would do the trick. Tira (the one not grossed out by flatulence) thought that a photo of the two of us in front of a snow bank would be good, but now I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be better if we just brought nine or ten life-size cardboard Obamas. We could bring some Steven Harpers too, if Tira wants.  But in all seriousness, I am very much looking forward to this my first venture to Asia. The Europe trip was the experience of a lifetime, and this one is looking to be just as incredible. What a lovely school, to make it an academic requirement for us to eat fresh, ripe mangos on the other side of the world.