[book review] Meeting Faith

This is the first book that has really challenged my perceptions of what reading non-white travelogues means. Meeting Faith, by Faith Adiele, is about becoming Thailand’s first black Buddhist nun, and all the things that happened along the way.

This is a book review, but we’ll be honest; it’s mostly a blog post about Steph.

I started this project because I love travel writing, and so much of it is white person business, the othering of those of us who live there or who are from there. And this project is helping me process that and work through that, and somewhere along the line I assumed every book I read would remove a bunch of problematic aspects in travel writing.

The thing to remember, though, is that we contain multitudes, all of us, and we none of us are perfect.

USAmerican Faith Adiele, with an absent Nigerian father and a single Scandinavian mother, dropped out of college at 22, and went to Thailand to become a Buddhist nun. It was ostensibly for research, but really it was to reboot herself, just like every other American before her.

I assumed, I suppose, that because she was black, in small-town America, and with all the attendant indignities that come along with such a situation, that the niggling things that bother me about western travelogues would be absent. They were not.

There were still the little things that jerked me out every time. For the first several chapters it’s ‘my Thai friend Chong’, but only ‘Scott’ and ‘Jim’. Chong clutches Adiele’s hand ‘with her own tiny Thai one’; Pōng, her ‘Thai brother’, has a private Buddha smile and a golden face. She’s surprised at the English skills of Maechi Roongdüan (the head nun where she stays) and of the razor-sharp English of a young monk. The ‘thick Mandarin accent’ of a friend’s mother in her hometown is transcribed as ‘Zhe-sus rove me dis I know.’ Adiele mentions, an aside, that her ability to ‘Go Native’ is so good that it allows her to pass in Southeast Asia, a phrase that has me vomiting with frustration no matter who utters it. These are the microaggressions we always experience, the how is your English so good (colonialism) and the eyes shaped like almonds that we can never quite shake.

It’s an important reminder that sometimes our bad habits come to us from our colonised minds, and we all have to work within them and without them.

I guess the problems I had with this memoir really come from the USCentricity of it all. This is the first travelogue I’ve read in this project that was written by an American, and I suspect the unquestioning (or only mildly questioned) narrative is what lead to many of my problems.

I’ve spent almost 400 words complaining, and to leave it there is to do this book a disservice. These microaggressions I’ve detailed are but a small part of this book, and I did enjoy reading it.

It was interesting to read someone’s genuine attempts to come to terms with the faith my family follows without question — Adiele never intended to remain a Buddhist nun, but she was engaging with it genuinely, and I appreciated that. She documented it meticulously, and as someone who’s spent a lifetime weaving in and out of the meditative spaces that come from practicing tai chi and calligraphy and painting (Chinese, obviously; I assume you don’t meditate as part of western calligraphy but what do I know), I sympathised with the frustrations and difficulties she felt in meditating and maintaining that rhythm.

The book is lined with the notes she kept; they create a border along the edge of her memoir. I love this layout, it was fun to read and keep pace of her journal thoughts simultaneously with the memoir and her processing as she wrote the book twenty years later.

I appreciate her openness. She’s frank about how shaving her head makes her feel; she’s frank about her feelings of failure over killing mozzies during her temple time and her struggles with hunger and the ascetics of nun life.

It was good to be reminded to be gentle with other people as they learn and change and journey on, which I GUESS is some of what my Apoh would want me to remember about Buddhism. I GUESS. Part of Adiele’s openness was in talking about that stuff, her struggles and the lessons and her realisations, the racism she experienced throughout her life both in the USA and in Thailand, and the frankness with which she presented it and the generosity of spirit she shared.

I would recommend this book to people interested in theology and religion, and in concepts of memoir and travel writing. I’m looking forward to discussing some things about this with a couple of my SEA Buddhist friends, and I might pass this on to them with some caveats. But I don’t think I will read this one again.

Three out of Five Travel Penguins