Sometimes, it is so difficult to know what the rules are for meeting other people. Usually, I just follow what other people are doing – but it’s hard when these other people are not around.
I walk up the stairs to the second floor, a little bit sweaty. The Thai Buddhist meditation center is further up Hennessy Road than I would have expected, so I had to walk fast to get here in time for my appointment. Before I enter the door to the Buddhist center, I take off my shoes and place them next to the other shoes. The necessity of taking off shoes before entering a temple has already been made clear to me a few months ago, and even though this center doesn’t look like a temple (stored away on the second floor of a commercial building), it still is. Buddhist temples here are subjected to the same problems as residents: There is no space in Hong Kong to built big buildings.
I enter the center and are welcomed by about five people who stand in the hallway. From a small room to the left, a monk – beautifully dressed in orange – walks towards me. He introduces himself, and I know it’s him I have come to meet. Hand shaking is probably not allowed, so I slightly bow to him. Bowing to persons is something that still feels strange to me, so I’m not sure how to do it. I especially feel ashamed when, after me, a Thai woman comes in and fully bows to the monk, including kneeling down on the floor.
We walk into the Buddhist meditation room, where there is a beautiful statue of the Buddha. Again, I slightly bow to the statue, as a token of respect. After that, the monk puts some chairs in the middle. I sit on one of them and put my bag on the ground. Wrong! I cannot put my bag on the bare floor. That was my second mistake is just five minutes time. Where is this heading to?
A Thai woman walks in, with a cup of water in her hand. She kneels before me, offering me the cup. I kindly smile to her and bow my head to her as well. It always makes me feel unconfortable when other people bow before me, making themselves smaller than I am. Who am I that this woman (an Thai Buddhist, at home in this center) has to show so much respect to me (a mere researcher)?
The conversation we have is a good one, pleasant and informal. But of course, at the end, I make a mistake again. I want to give my business card to another monk that has also joined us (a Dutch monk; what a coincidence). I take my card from my bag and hand it out to him. Wrong! He doesn’t take it. Why not? Doesn’t he want it? But he just said he wanted to keep in contact via mail. Should I write my mail address down instead of handing him my card? What am I doing wrong here? My brain works overtime, mainly focussing on the question: Why does he not want my card? I get nervous, and don’t know how to act. Finally, after a very long time (probably only 10 seconds), he monk explains to me that in Thai Buddhist culture, a male monk is not allowed to directly take something from a woman. Therefore, I should put my business card on the empty chair next to me, so he can take take it up from there.
The conversation wanders off to other things (still interesting; I am always amazed how much information I can gather after the official interview, when my questions are finished and the informant feels more free to talk about whatever he/she wants). Then, a group of Thai women and a Thai man walk in the door. They want to have pictures with me and the two monks. All of the sudden, everybody is standing up, gathering other chairs, putting things in place. I just stand by and watch. When everything is set in place, the monk askes me if I would mind sitting on the floor. Of course not; I had already expected that I would have to sit lower than the monks and the Buddha. So I sit down, legs crossed. Only later, when I am joined by the Thai women, I realize it: Wrong again! I am not supposed to sit cross-legged, but kneeled.
After the photo session I say goodbye to everybody – bowing once more – put on my shoes and step outside. I’m back on the busy Hennessy Road, where I don’t have to be so overly careful of my manners. And I wonder: Will I ever get used to bowing before people?