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When the Monks Come to Town Photograph by Finn O’Hara.

When the Monks Come to Town

A mysterious Buddhist organization recently arrived on Prince Edward Island with millions of dollars and a taste for organic farming. The monks and their followers are friendly—until you start asking too many questions.

Five years ago, a bunch of Buddhist monks from Taiwan moved into the old Lobster Shanty in Montague, Prince Edward Island and made it their home. At first, there were only four of them, but more kept coming, scores filling up the defunct hotel. They were very friendly, and they wore their orange robes, of course, and mostly everyone thought it was nice enough and a good idea and all that. Some of the things they did, such as buying live lobsters from the Atlantic Superstore and releasing them back into the ocean, seemed odd, but what harm could come of it?   

That might have been the whole story, but more monks kept showing up—there are about 250 today—and before long they had built their own brand-new monastery in Little Sands, about half an hour’s drive south, a hidden place by the shore where no mere visitor could ever go. They brought some of their lay associates, who began fanning out across the countryside, reportedly purchasing properties that no one else would buy. The Buddhists talked about organic farming and told of a grocery chain in Taiwan. These monks were not what the people of Prince Edward Island had expected.  

PEI is beautiful, but Montague is the Beautiful. At least, that’s what the town has called itself—“Montague the Beautiful”—ever since “we got into beautification a number of years ago,” Mayor Richard Collins told me. (He was referring mainly to the waterfront, half of which is now a park that services more tourists than fishermen.) Collins is a short, amiable man who operated Collins’ Variety Store down by the bridge for twenty-three years. He’s run for mayor fourteen times (won eight, lost six), and he views his mayoralty of Montague, population two thousand, as “an interesting hobby,” preferable to golf. I was born in Montague and lived there until the age of twelve, but I’ve only come back once or twice in the intervening years. Collins nonetheless evinced that remarkable Island capacity for remembering everything about everybody, dazzling me with detailed questions about “my people” and what we’re all up to.

I first heard about the Buddhists from my brother, who lives in Rustico Bay on the north shore, and it was the image of the monks occupying the Lobster Shanty that captivated me. The Shanty was a Montague institution, a sprawling, half-decrepit motel that offered semi-fine dining and hosted the annual antique-car show. The monks have since decamped to their new monastery, but the “Montague Campus” is still used as lodging for guests on retreat. Peering through the windows, one can see beds lining the walls in each of the rooms. Plain white trailers, of the sort used for overflow classes in rural high schools, creep down the wide expanse of lawn to the Montague River.

Collins remembers the early days fondly, when the monks were still close by and everyone was getting to know each other. The Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society, as their organization is called, hosted several public “gratitude teas” at the Shanty, where locals could enjoy a bit of hospitality and get a glimpse of the Buddhist lifestyle up close. Collins told me of being invited, prior to one such meet-and-greet, to a special briefing with some of their “top brass,” where he learned from a PowerPoint presentation what time they go to bed and what time they get up and what time they pray. Since then, the Buddhists have continued to stop by his office to drop off “boxes of treats” and “bags of stuff.” “You have to speak about people as you find them,” he said, “and I find them to be very genuine, very honest, straightforward, loving, caring, gentle people.”  

The first Buddhist I found was Geoffrey Yang, the enormously smiling and endlessly stonewalling public face of GEBIS. Yang went on to become the only Buddhist with whom I had any meaningful contact. Apart from 1) an unnecessarily off-the-record phone interview with the organization’s president, an elusive monk named Venerable Liu, about how to start believing in Buddhism if you don’t; 2) a class on goodwill with a monk named Venerable Frank, in which I shamefully fell asleep; and 3) an encounter with some asshole at a Buddhist restaurant, Geoffrey Yang was pretty much it. He was my only direct source for information about what the monks were doing on PEI. Though I found him to be (in the words of Mayor Collins) very genuine and very honest, he was also cautious and reticent. His first question to me was, “Why do you find it interesting to write about the monastery?” He went on to challenge my intentions for another ten minutes. Exposure—especially exposure beyond GEBIS’ control—obviously made him nervous.

When I first met Yang, all I knew about GEBIS was what I’d learned from Collins, the local newspapers and my brother. (Another organization, the Moon Light International Foundation, is connected to GEBIS but run by disciples of the monks’ Taiwanese spiritual leader rather than by the monks themselves.) It was clear that the monks have business interests in organic farming, and that they might even hold the key to a vast Taiwanese market for PEI-grown soybeans. But who are these Buddhists, really? How are they so mobilized? And why are they so wealthy and ambitious?

When I asked Islanders what they thought, I encountered a complex atmosphere of curiosity and suspicion. The monks are not helping matters by playing their cards so close to the chest. While they are happy to talk about Buddhism, other details are in short supply. It’s almost as if they didn’t expect their sudden appearance on PEI to seem strange—as if masses of cash-laden monks were just the sort of run-of-the-mill export you’d expect to come out of Taiwan. As I dug deeper, though, the secrecy began to recede, and a picture of an intricate international organization began to emerge—one with at least a few good reasons to stay under the radar, but also one with something special to share: an innovative and highly successful solution to the problem of destructive farming practices.

Splendid Essence, in Charlottetown, is one of those vegetarian restaurants that specializes in making things look like meat. It opened in 2011, and is operated out of a converted clapboard house by lay adherents of the monks’ Buddhist tradition; Moon Light’s office is upstairs. On my first visit, I had the soy chicken nuggets, which were crispy and delicious, and, after finishing my plate and consuming a few sweet crumbly things, I asked to speak to a manager.

The server went three booths down and brought over an effortlessly stylish man in his fifties with a beautiful, round face. He said his name was Max. But when I brought out my recorder, he practically squealed his refusal. I asked about the relationship between the restaurant and Buddhism, and he peevishly declared that “Christians have businesses too,” but it doesn’t mean they are expressions of Christianity. (This would be a fair point if it weren’t so misleading, since the restaurant is linked, however obliquely, to a Buddhist organization.) When I asked Max what position he held at the restaurant, he laughed and said he didn’t work here at all. Okay, I said, so why did the server retrieve you when I asked to speak to a manager? Is the restaurant in the habit of having strangers represent it to the media?

Max’s demurral is typical of the general unwillingness of the Buddhists to speak about themselves. This reticence is matched only by the hesitancy of the Islanders to comment on them. The very presence of the Buddhists on the Island has created an awkward situation, an awkwardness that consists of the awkwardness itself. Islanders are not awkward people. I was recently in PEI conducting interviews for another article on another subject that was far more sensitive, and, even though those conversations could easily have felt very uncomfortable, every single person I spoke to either outright declared or otherwise exuded the following maxim: We’ve got nothing to hide. But this time, whenever I asked about the Buddhists, it was all shy smiles and retreating grins and nervous chuckles. Clearly people have an opinion, but something stops them from expressing it.

One plausible explanation is that they don’t want to seem racist. People secluded on islands aren’t exactly known for their immunity to xenophobia. On PEI, they’ve even got an acronym for outsiders: CFAs, the “Come From Aways.” And, certainly, I occasionally detected something other than open-mindedness. One Islander could hardly talk about the Buddhists without searching for insect analogies; another worried about the long-term “social and cultural effects” of their presence; one farmer declared that he’d let his property “go to the trees” before he sold to the Buddhists. But, mostly, Islanders reminded me that everyone’s an immigrant and spoke of cultural differences with fond curiosity. Brad Oliver is a ubiquitous real-estate agent in King’s County, on the eastern side of PEI, where Montague and the monastery are located and where the Buddhists are buying their land. He likes to respond to any grumblings about the monks with the sardonic retort that “there are too many Irish Catholics around here.”

For their part, the Buddhists claim to feel very welcome, and have gone to great lengths and expense to let this be known. In February 2012, they flew in from Taiwan a sixty-member choir and a small orchestra for a free performance of praise music composed by their spiritual leader, Mary Jin. In an interview with the CBC, Yang declared that the concert was presented “as a way to express our gratitude to all the Islanders.”

But the inveterate secrecy of the Buddhists keeps inviting suspicion. If you go to PEI and start asking about them, it’s their seemingly bottomless coffers that will eventually dominate the conversation. “The perception is they come with a lot of money,” said Stephen Visser, a potato farmer in King’s County.

This is not a misperception. Because GEBIS is a registered charity, its financials are available through the Canada Revenue Agency. In 2011, GEBIS received nearly $7 million in donations, far exceeding its annual operating expenses of just over $1 million, and this figure doesn’t even include funding for Moon Light. (Yang would not disclose the source of those donations.) Nor does it include GEBIS’ liabilities, which in 2011 totalled another $4.5 million. Nearly all of that figure fell under the category of “Amounts owing to non-arm’s length parties.” What “non-arm’s length” means is a bit ambiguous, but it often refers to family members or otherwise close associates. In other words, there may not be much pressure to pay those loans back.

Since 2008, the Buddhists have purchased a lot of land in eastern PEI, from previously unsalable farmland to expensive waterfront property. Yang said that GEBIS itself owns just 485 acres. But one seed-mill manager, who asked to remain anonymous, estimated that the Buddhists—that is, both GEBIS and its lay associates—have purchased a total of 5,000 acres.

Property has always been a contentious commodity on PEI, which has a total area of just 1.4 million acres. The Lands Protection Act, introduced in 1982, was designed to limit large land acquisitions by non-resident corporations and absentee landlords. Even for residents, there are limits: individuals are restricted to 1,000 acres, and for a corporation it’s set at 3,000. The Buddhists are able to purchase land through their individual associates, who are considered residents so long as they live on the island for 183 days out of the year. So, while GEBIS can’t own more than 3,000 acres, and while its associates can’t own more than 1,000 acres individually, in the aggregate this can still add up to a lot of land without breaking any laws. There is no real limit to how much land they can own, so long as the money keeps flowing in.

Of course, bringing money onto the Island isn’t a bad thing. It’s just confusing when the people with the money would rather talk about anything else. Spiritual Master Jin is herself another example of the bizarre crosscurrents of GEBIS’ social engagement: the organization will promote a concert of her music but otherwise conceal her from view. It’s nearly impossible to get an interview with her. Yang says that this is because she is too busy teaching her disciples—so busy, in fact, that she didn’t even have time to speak with the CBC before the widely publicized concert of her works. When I complained to Yang that I couldn’t find anything about her online, at least not in English, he said to me, “You won’t find anything about her in Chinese, either.”

In fact, most Islanders probably don’t realize that Jin now lives in the Little Sands monastery, or that, for this reason, PEI will soon become a major pilgrimage destination for the tens of thousands of disciples across the world who claim her as their spiritual leader, and who will be travelling to PEI for summer retreats. It was Jin who, after a global search, chose Prince Edward Island as the site for GEBIS’ monastery. Why? “Because it is so peaceful,” Yang said. 

But Jin has only been the Buddhists’ spiritual leader since 2004, when she took the metaphysical reins of a Taiwanese group called Bliss and Wisdom from Venerable Jih Chang, a man I learned about from Yang but whose name has never been publicized in connection to GEBIS. Before Chang died nine years ago, he had upwards of sixty thousand followers internationally. Of that number, Yang told me that a thousand are monks and nuns, some of whom now live on PEI. And, early in his career, Chang made a few unique decisions that would set his followers on their unexpected path to the Maritimes.

At sixteen, Venerable Chang moved from his parents’ farm in Jiangsu province, China to Taiwan to live with his uncle. His plan was to become a civil engineer, but, like so many of his subsequent disciples, he found that the desire to live a better life occupied him totally. He ended up joining a monastery and was ordained in 1965. In 1970, he travelled to California to promote Buddhism among Chinese Americans. It was during this period that he was exposed to different schools of Buddhism, and, as Yang put it, “finally determined his path and chose the book.” “The book” is the Lamrim Chenmo, a Buddhist text ascribed to a fourteenth-century Tibetan Lama named Tsong Khapa. Tsong Khapa is the Buddhist equivalent of a saint, residing eternally in fantastical artistic renderings. He did stuff no one you know has ever done, like memorize books really fast, and as a child he never misbehaved.

In 1982, once Chang had determined that the Lamrim Chenmo would be the basis of his teaching, he founded the Great Enlightenment Lotus Society in Los Angeles—his first organization, but not his last. Chang later returned to Taiwan, where he founded the Bliss and Wisdom Group, which became the parent organization to various smaller societies and foundations across the globe, some serving particular geographic areas and others tasked with accomplishing specific aspects of Chang’s teaching. The main focus of this teaching was to “help both monastic and lay people apply Buddhist teachings to everyday life,” according to the group’s website. Chang’s philosophy is extremely practical, emphasizing education and physical health as well as meditation.

Bliss and Wisdom has never been publicly linked to GEBIS, but it is likely that the large Taiwanese group plays some role in what is happening on PEI. In early interviews, Yang spoke more openly about organizational and financial connections between Bliss and Wisdom and GEBIS, but later backtracked, insisting that the two entities were only linked through the teachings of Chang and Jin. The details of how Bliss and Wisdom interacts with smaller organizations like GEBIS—how donations are doled out, who orders a follower to move to PEI and buy a bunch of land—are unclear. But an organization with GEBIS’ financial clout does not materialize out of thin air.

The key to understanding GEBIS’ secrecy is the Lamrim Chenmo. To use a dull analogy, the Lamrim Chenmo is, for Chang’s followers, the Bible. But, given Chinese geopolitics, the decision to use Tibetan scripture was anything but dull. Chang’s choice of tradition became very significant for his followers, and not just on a spiritual level.

China and Tibet have been connected in one way or another for almost 1,400 years. But a lot of other countries have historically also been interested in Tibet: first Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes, and more recently England, Russia, the United States and India, against which China has taken a protective—that is, possessive—stance on Tibet. When the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911 and Japan invaded China, Tibet enjoyed forty years of autonomy while the Chinese were otherwise distracted. But, in 1950, along came Chairman Mao, who invaded Tibet and set off decades of occupation, resistance and suppression. By 1964, somewhere in the range of three hundred thousand Tibetans had gone missing. While the Chinese now consider themselves investors rather than occupiers—building infrastructure, improving education, expanding the economy and so on—many Tibetans still see it differently. February 3 of this year marked the hundredth self-immolation of an anti-Chinese Tibetan protestor since 2009.

This, I think, is the primary reason the Buddhists of PEI want to keep a low profile. Bliss and Wisdom belongs firmly in the Tibetan stream of Buddhism, and it continues to sell books by the Dalai Lama, whom China considers a secessionist and theocrat, in its bookstores in Taiwan. But GEBIS is not politically motivated, and it has no desire to attract unwanted attention. Although Yang dismissed my interpretation, the political fallout of the monks’ spiritual inheritance from Venerable Chang is clearly something they could do without.

But still: why choose PEI? According to the sociologists David Schak and Michael Hsiao, Bliss and Wisdom emerged as part of a major resurgence of Buddhism in Taiwan over the last four decades. They attribute this renaissance to the rise of a new brand of “socially engaged” Buddhism that focuses on public welfare and assisting the poor. In a 2005 article in the journal China Perspectives, Hsiao and Schak write that this emphasis stems from a theology known as Pure Land Buddhism, which reflects adherents’ “belief that the ‘Pure Land’ is this earth, and that their mission is to purify it.”

In the new Buddhism of Taiwan, Bliss and Wisdom stands out for three things: its Tibetan intellectual heritage, its globalizing pursuits and its promotion of organic farming. Chang believed that chemically grown produce and additive-laden processed food were poisoning the earth and our bodies, so he taught his followers to eat naturally, even if that meant growing crops themselves.

The problem with growing organic food is that it’s really hard. I wanted to get a better sense of what’s involved, so I went to visit Raymond Loo, who, more than twenty years ago, was one of the first farmers on PEI to obtain organic certification. Like all farmers, Loo has a lot on his plate and moves quickly and decisively, but he managed to find two hours to tour me around the beautiful 250-acre farm that has been in his family for seven generations. I learned two things from that visit: the first is that farmers are scientists; the second is that they should be paid more.

One of the biggest challenges to growing organically is finding a suitable market. Loo organizes with several other farmers to sell to buyers in Japan, but he still keeps a vegetable stand at the end of his driveway. The most difficult problem is working with Canadian grocery chains. Loo told me that he was once forced to sell his zucchinis to a large chain for the same price as conventional zucchinis, even though his are much more costly and labour-intensive to grow. He later discovered that they were being sold to consumers for three times the price of the regular vegetables.  

Chang and his followers discovered a solution to this problem: they sold to each other. Li Ren Organic Food Company is the eighty-eight-store grocery chain operated by Bliss and Wisdom in Taiwan. To put this into perspective, there are seventy-six Loblaws in Canada, or fifty Atlantic Superstores in the Maritimes—and Taiwan’s population is about two-thirds that of Canada’s. As Yang explained it to me, Bliss and Wisdom beat the drawbacks of organic farming by asking Chang’s followers to shop at its stores.

Li Ren stores aren’t coming to PEI anytime soon, but the company does plan to buy organic soybeans from Island farmers, many of whom will work on land owned by individual Buddhists and leased to them on short-term contracts. Soybean is growing rapidly as a cash crop. In 1995, China consumed 14 million tons of soybeans; by 2011, that number had jumped to 70 million, most of which goes to feed pigs and fish. The US, for its part, now grows more soybeans than wheat. On PEI, the shift to soy is also noticeable. Although the Island is famous for its potatoes—people born here are called “spuds”—its number of acres of potato fields has fallen precipitously over the last ten years, while the number of acres of soybeans has jumped from 7,000 to 55,000. Much of that goes into processed foods and animal feed, but Li Ren wants it for soy milk. “If you say, ‘Hey, this is organic soy milk from PEI,’” explained Yang, “people will be very touched, and very eager to support it.”  

One serious obstacle for farmers who want to convert from conventional to organic is the conversion process itself. It typically takes at least three years of farming without manufactured chemicals before a farmer can acquire organic certification, and, as the soil replenishes, the yield from the crops can remain low for much longer than that. While much of the land the Buddhists have purchased in the last few years still lies fallow, some of it is now in production, and the Buddhists have been out in the fields, learning from PEI farmers. Presumably, once the soil has been given a chance to recover, that land will become a trusted source of organic food for Li Ren shoppers in Taiwan.

Li Ren succeeds because it draws on a customer base that is growing exponentially, for reasons that go well beyond food. Bliss and Wisdom mostly sticks to one simple practice for increasing its membership: study groups. As Yang explained, “The reason the Li Ren model works is that there are consumers in the meantime being educated by the other foundations.” Everyone who follows Chang’s teachings is part of a study group—the Insightful Praises choir, which gave the gratitude concert in PEI, is essentially a travelling study group that sings—where they learn about the Lamrim Chenmo, and also the best place to buy their food.

The Bliss and Wisdom website claims that, “in Taiwan, there are over 1,100 classes in progress at any given time.” Bliss and Wisdom has a specific foundation for its educational program, which contributes curriculum to Taiwan’s Ministry of Education, and runs its own K-12 school and a whole array of camps for adolescents, college students and businesspeople. Its Business Elite network claimed over a thousand members in 2007.

But my impression is that the heart and soul of the Bliss and Wisdom movement remains the Lamrim study groups. I did manage to grill a few of the servers at Splendid Essence, and along with Yang, a former bioengineer, and Max, an aerospace engineer, they all told a similar story: I started attending the study groups, realized I wasn’t satisfied with my life and after a few years chose to devote myself completely to Buddhist practice.

I decided to visit a study group myself. It took place in the large living room of an old yellow house in Montague that had been emptied of creature comforts and filled with three rows of folding tables, and it was run by Venerable Frank, a monk from the monastery. About a dozen people were there, ranging from your reserved farmhouse set to your classic Maritime punch-line-deliverers, as well as an American couple who projected a strong sense of proprietary familiarity toward Buddhism in general. Rose Viaene—a farmer who, with her husband Dave, was the first on the Island to formally partner with the Buddhists, and this year sold her crop of soybeans to Taiwan—was also in attendance.

At the beginning of the class, Venerable Frank announced that the Viaenes had a small crop of organic lettuce that hadn’t found a market, so, as an expression of friendship, the monks had purchased the lettuce and were donating it back to the community. Later, as I was leaving, Viaene fished out two sandy heads of lettuce from her trunk and plopped them in my hands. Even though I had fallen asleep in the class and was still bleary, the moment is crystallized in my memory: floppy wet green sheets bunched out of the dirt and passed around in the night, the weird fragility and tangibility of abundance.

As I said, I fell asleep in the class. I do know that the conversation was bumptious, and revolved around an acronym that the participants have converted, through much use, into an intransitive verb: OMAKing. It stands for Observe Merit/Appreciate Kindness, and as far as I can tell it refers to the habit of noticing other people’s good qualities and working up a sentiment of gratitude for the niceness of others. The Testimonials page on the GEBIS website is full of delightful and somehow tragic examples. One woman writes that, after a stressful day of caring for her brain-injured daughter, she got angry when her husband commented on a bad habit. “For a few minutes I was upset and angry with my husband for pointing this flaw out to me. I just did not want to have to solve anything else because I was emotionally tired. I soon realized that he was right and was not being mean or critical; just trying to help me with something I want to correct.”

There is something astonishing about this testimonial. Is there really a force in the world strong enough to overcome the defensiveness and bitterness of daily life? If the teachings of the Buddhists can bring about such a feat of gentleness, then surely we should rejoice when the monks come to town.

It’s true—the monks aren’t so bad. It’s possible they seem suspect because it’s hard to believe that anyone anywhere just wants to be good and do the right thing all the time. My complaint with Buddhism is that it doesn’t speak to nihilism and self-destruction, which, for me, anyway, are major parts of life. The Buddhists are basically saying, “It’s smart to be good.” That’s fine, but knowing something is stupid hasn’t always stopped me from doing it before. I expressed as much to Venerable Liu (via texting with Yang), GEBIS’ media-shy president, who by way of response suggested I read a book entitled Return From Tomorrow by George Ritchie.

Return From Tomorrow tells the story of Ritchie’s near-death experience in a military hospital in 1944, during which he walks around as a ghost, meets Jesus, checks out heaven and hell, and then comes back, all in under nine minutes of being dead. At first, I thought this was an eminently weird book for Liu to choose, but after we talked on the phone a few days later—a conversation that Liu insisted stay off the record, lest anything he say fall short of his organization’s stringent doctrinal standards—I came to understand that the persistence and even intensification of consciousness after death is a pivotal concept for Buddhists. (Or, at least, for these Buddhists.)

I guess this is an approximation of karma. I’m sure Liu and Yang would want to be very careful about the language, but, however you say it, karma is a motivator. For Jin’s followers, it pushes them to take care of life, all life, including lobsters. It’s not a joke—the Buddhists of PEI really do put captured lobsters back into the ocean. This is done as part of their “releasing life” ceremonies, a religious exercise so popular in Asia that there are animal-poaching industries devoted to it, and environmentalists sometimes complain of ecological disasters arising from vast numbers of fish and other animals being released at once. I tried it, gingerly carrying my spindly karmic partner from the tank at the Superstore down to the Montague wharf, but in the end it just felt like an expensive exercise in feeling furtive and silly.

The Buddhists don’t confine themselves to liberating lobsters, however—Moon Light also keeps a horse and cattle rescue farm. Yang wouldn’t tell me where it was, but a few hours of driving around and knocking on doors finally put me at the right place. As I walked up, Andy Fitzpatrick, the irrepressibly friendly farmer hired to care for the animals, climbed down from his tractor and stopped me at the gate. “No one is allowed back here,” he said reluctantly. I called Yang, but it wasn’t happening, so I drove away, cursing the Buddhists.

An hour later, Yang texted me, saying I could visit the farm after all. “Just my kind gesture,” he wrote. Fitzpatrick met me again, this time with a big smile, telling me that he’d called Yang and argued on my behalf. We crossed a large field to where the animals were kept, him on his tractor and me on foot. So far, the Buddhists have rescued thirty-one horses and fifteen cows. Most of the horses are former race animals that would otherwise be destined for the knackers after they’d outlived their careers—some at just two or three years old. Often, they’ll be shipped to Quebec, “where people eat them,” Fitzpatrick told me, shaking his head.

The animals are grain-fed and happy, which makes Fitzpatrick happy. He clearly loves his job, and the farm gets bigger all the time as the Buddhists continually purchase new animals. “It’s like a regular farm,” he explained, “except nothing gets shipped out.” Most of the time he is alone, since the Buddhists very rarely visit and guests aren’t allowed. It was quiet, just horses being horses, cows being cows. Here, even the docile world of King’s County seemed too busy. It felt good to linger.

We ended up leaning against a fence in front of a shivery crowd of horses, talking these things over, when a mare came up to me and placed her head on my shoulder. “See that one?” Fitzpatrick said. “That one was real mean when she came. She would have bitten you. But look at her now. See how happy she is?”