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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

5. Being There

by rachel brahinsky
San Francisco Bay Guardian
August 2, 2005

English lessons

HE WANTED TO learn about the United States - how it's different, how it's
the same. So I rambled on about various aspects of our culture, until I got
stuck on the word "ethnicity," which didn't seem to have a good translation
in Tibetan. I tried to describe the intersections of race and culture that
make up ethnicities, and stumbled again.

Then he mentioned that Tibetans were the progeny of a monkey and a goddess,
who were lovers long ago. "Oh!" I said. "We also think people came from
monkeys, but we have a slightly different story." So I took out a pen and
drew, terribly, a series of apes turning into stick-figure people, and
talked about Darwin, which led back somehow to religion, war, and (finally)

I'd been in McLeod Ganj, the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, for nearly two
weeks, and this was just one of many conversations I'd had with Jampa, my
English-language student. Hanging with Jampa was my volunteer contribution
to the community while I was staying there, just a few miles from the town
of Dharamsala, in the Himalayan foothills of northern India.

The area, also generally called Dharamsala, is home to more than 8,000
exiled Tibetans, who've fled China-occupied Tibet to escape an increasingly
repressive government. It's not an easy life. Ongoing tensions exist between
the refugees and some locals, and though they're welcomed by many, the life
of a refugee is endlessly stressful: Nobody knows if China will ever accept
the Tibetans' claim to sovereignty, and there's no guarantee that the Indian
government will maintain its offer of refuge.

Back home, though, things are far worse: Free Tibet estimates some 1.2
million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese since the 1950s, and
thousands are believed to have been detained under brutal conditions in
Chinese prisons over the past 20 years.

Jampa's story is a pretty typical one. Growing up on a yak farm in a tiny
Tibetan village, he joined a monastery and spent 14 years there, studying
Buddhism. About three years ago, he says, the Chinese government took an
interest in his monastery and began "re-educating" the monks - essentially a
program to turn them away from the Dalai Lama, the spiritual (and onetime
political) leader of Tibet.

Asked to renounce the Tibetan government, which has functioned in exile in
India since 1950, when the Chinese invaded Tibet, Jampa refused and left the
monastery. In truth, though, he'd wanted to go for several years, finding
the ascetic lifestyle - no drink, drugs, sex, or killing of any kind - too
strict. "I couldn't keep the vows," he tells me.

Later, after being arrested and beaten on suspicion of scrawling pro-Tibetan
graffiti on a wall, Jampa decided to leave the country, riding in the back
of a soap truck for two days until he reached the Nepal border. From there
he made his way into India. At 28, he's unlikely to see his parents again;
it's not legal (or safe) for him to return, and his family doesn't plan to
risk the journey.

Meanwhile, back in Dharamsala, the past two decades have seen attention by
the Nobel Peace Prize committee and various American celebrities, which in
turn has brought Westerners sweeping through town.

Many go to learn about Tibetan Buddhism, or for a chance encounter with the
Dalai Lama himself. (During my stay, he was giving lectures on
enlightenment, and one morning I was in just the right spot along his exit
route to catch a glimpse. I rose with the rest of the crowd as he quickly
passed by - a flash of red robe topped by an oblong face - and slipped into
the beige SUV that swept him off for lunch.)

However, what Dharamsala needs and wants most are visitors who come with
time to work and help. There are thousands of refugees in need of English
lessons and schools for Tibetan orphans that need long-term commitments from
volunteers. Most places prefer a three-month promise, but more time is
always appreciated. Former Bay Guardian reporter Rachel Brahinsky is
traveling through India and Thailand this summer.
Trip planner

Volunteering Volunteer Tibet ( Gu Chu Sum
(, which supports current and former Tibetan political
prisoners, English-conversation partners and other volunteers. Louisiana
Himalaya Association ( offers language classes and social
services to Tibetans, including medical aid and clothing. Help is also
needed from people who work in the performing arts, on environmental or
human rights projects, with computers and media, and with kids. It's easy to
show up and offer help where you can, but many groups prefer if you set up
your volunteer stint from home so they know you're coming.

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Dalai Lama applauds Swiss for Tibet support
  2. 5th North America Tibetan Youth Congress Conference Toronto, Canada
  3. Probe Committee Submits Report
  4. 'Masalla' Music Threatens Cultural Purity
  5. Being There
  6. Understanding the symbolism of Thuenpa Puen Zhi
  7. Road accident kills one Taiwanese tourist in Tibet

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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