TUKWILA, Wash. – Michael Sa-Ngoun is no longer a monk.
The 19-year-old from Tukwila, who spent two years in a Cambodian monastery because his mother was desperate to stop his self-destructive behavior, is not prone to deep philosophical meditation these days.
He doesn’t work very hard to resist the desires of most young men his age, nor does he seek humility at every turn.
It took surprisingly little time, family members say, for him to turn back into a regular American young man after his return from Cambodia a little more than a year ago. He was profiled then by the Seattle Times.
He now works at a car dealership because he likes to make money, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do for a living.
He stays out too late with his friends, wastes too much time watching movies, and spends too much money at restaurants, he says. He doesn’t keep his room as clean as his mother wants, nor does he do his chores without being asked.
But he hasn’t been in trouble with the law since his return, and some of the things he learned while living the austere life of a monk have stuck with him. He said he still believes in karma, and he does his best to do right by others. He’ll capture an ant and release it outside rather than kill it.
“I really do believe in that part, and I try hard not to do anything that hurts someone else,” he said.
His mother, Chou Sa-Ngoun, said she was disappointed when most of Michael’s enlightened behavior quickly gave way to the material world.
“I wish sometimes that I wouldn’t have brought him back from there until he was past a teenager,” she said.
But she thinks she may have saved his life. And basically she’s OK with how things are.
The issues her family faces now are typical of those of other families with teens, and not the dangerous behavior she once feared.
Says Michael’s stepfather, Sanny Sa-Ngoun: “These problems, I can live with. The cops aren’t coming to the door.”
When Michael was about 12, he started skipping school, hanging out with the wrong kids, trying drugs and getting arrested for petty crimes. His mother tried grounding him and taking away privileges like television and video games. She switched his schools, got him into counseling, let him pay his own fines after juvenile arrests and let him languish in detention centers.
She called the Army, but her son was too young then to enlist. She looked into disciplinary boot camps but found them too pricey.
She begged the state to place him in a temporary foster home, but was told the authorities could do nothing until he committed a more serious crime.
She was afraid he would die violently in a car crash, in a gang altercation or in a drug deal.
Then the couple hit upon an idea while planning a family trip to their ancestors’ Cambodian homeland. Sanny Sa-Ngoun thought experiencing hardship would be good for Michael and suggested leaving him behind for a short time. A friend knew of a Buddhist monastery in the Kampong Cham region that would accept Michael as a novice if he took the vows of poverty and selflessness.
They flew in November 2004 to Phnom Penh, spent a few days doing tourist things, and made their way to the isolated village of Krolong, where Michael’s mother told him he would remain until he had changed. Michael, who did not speak Cambodian or have any of his own money, argued, begged, went on a hunger strike and thought about running away. Finally, he gave up and allowed his head to be shaved and prayers said over him.
He spent the first few weeks in shock and despair before slowly settling into the routine.
In silence, he rose at 5:45 each morning, drew water and laid out rugs, place settings and towels for his teacher and the elder monk, whom he called “Grandpa.”
He then set a place for himself and called his elders, and together they ate their meal of rice and meat or fish. He rested for 10 minutes and went to work on chores around the temple and school grounds.
He and the other young monks learned to mix mortar, lay stone and build fences. Alongside his comrades, he prayed and studied the teachings of Buddha, trying to learn to free himself from “wanting things,” he said. He went among the villagers asking for food in exchange for blessings.
His mother said he could return when he had earned his high-school diploma, which she arranged for him to do online from a nearby village he reached by motorbike once a week.
When he returned to Washington in November 2006, his head was shaved and he was wearing a flowing orange robe. He was nearly silent, and he honored the vows that forbade him from hugging his mother because she’s female.
He was overwhelmed at first, he said, by the pace of American culture. He wore his robes for several weeks, during which time he was invited to pray and issue blessings at local Buddhist temples.
Because Michael chose not to further pursue a life as a monk once he returned, he was released from his vows and his robes in a traditional cleansing ceremony.
Michael got a job at a restaurant and then at a car dealership, where he details cars. He’s thought about apprenticing as a mechanic there. He pondered joining the National Guard for the college money, but he wasn’t interested in more schooling.
His aspirations are not far-reaching.
“Really, I just want to have fun with my friends and get a new car,” he says.
Michael’s mother is sometimes disappointed, after all that he’s been through, that he didn’t retain a higher level of discipline and consciousness.
“He’s slipped,” she said one day this month when his room wasn’t clean. “Sometimes I think there is something missing in his brain, but then I remind myself that I shouldn’t overreact. He’s just a teenager with a teenage brain.”
Michael dates a 17-year-old girl who has “strict parents,” and he stays away from the drugs and friends that got him into trouble before, he said. Because he has stayed out of trouble since his return, he will be able to petition the court soon to expunge his juvenile criminal record.
He said he doesn’t know exactly what to think now about his time in Cambodia. He thinks he might have straightened up on his own by now, but also that he might have a longer criminal record if he hadn’t gone to Cambodia.
His mother feels like she did the best thing. Now she’s trying to stop worrying and let him make his own mistakes.
“I guess I’m going to have to. He doesn’t really know what life is about, but he won’t know until he finds out. We can steer him, but we have to let him fall.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.