During my first week in the North-Indian Tibetan colony of Bir, I saw a woman wearing a jumpsuit with the Tibetan flag. Though there were many things in town that made me think of the Tibetan exile, this image stuck out in particular because it reminded me of my brother’s childhood red CD case which had the same symbol as well as the words “Free Tibet” (and which he probably bought it at Tower Records, or Hot Topic at the Oxford Valley Mall in 1995).
I think that the jogging of this hidden memory speaks to the western pop culture version of Tibet that I brought with me on my travels. While I have been conscious of the country and its politics for most of my life, I must admit that I’ve only accumulated the basic facts over the years from the news, documentaries and Google. China invaded in the 1950s. The Dalai Lama and government leaders escaped through the Himalayas into Northern India where they all live as refugees until this day. And because I was precisely looking forward to learning more about the Tibetan story, I found it poetic that none of the students at my volunteer placement were actually Tibetan. I learned this while interviewing one of the monastery teachers.
“None of them?” I asked surprised. Really? I was in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a Tibetan colony. The community was founded by people that came from Tibet crossing the mountains (even by foot), and yet none of the students in the monastery that I happened to be placed in were Tibetan.
“Nope – none of them.” He replied innocently.
Here I was expecting to get some first hand experiences from the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the first wave of refugees from the late 1950s. Here I was hoping to gain some new perspective on things like identity, national consciousness and longing-for-the-homeland.
Instead the students are from other towns in the north of India like Sikkim and Ladakh as well as other countries like Nepal and Bhutan (by the way, the families from those regions and countries are also not Tibetan). Everyone however is Buddhist.
So while the story of monastery life wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, it was still fascinating.
The boys have very regimented schedules. They study ancient texts starting at 5:00am in spartan-looking classrooms. They go to worship (Pujah) with other monks of all ages where everyone is seated cross-legged and wearing a maroon frock. It involves an array of instruments such as horns, conch shells and large gong-size drums. It occurs in a temple with a large Buddha statue sitting quietly content and rotund at the front as you might expect. There is also a table full of cookies, apple juice and bananas that everyone is welcome to take (the food is blessed too). A man sits in a chair and reads from scrolls in a low droll voice. There is obviously some logic to all of what was happening.
My first day of teaching was also intriguing. I walked into a room of boys all seated cross-legged at wooden benches, wearing the same wardrobe as those at Pujah. Dee – a volunteer who has been here since September – was just finishing up the previous period’s lesson.
“They are very smart kids.”
“It looks it.” I said impressed.
“Just know that they bored with their textbook but they have to review a few stories in them. They’ve got a test in two weeks.”
“Sure – no problem.” I was sure it wasn’t that bad. After all, I expected the book to have an English language version of some sacred parable. Perhaps I would learn a little a about Buddha – and from the source too!
“What’s the story?”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“You know – Helen Keller?”
When Dee flipped to page 80 to show me, I guffawed in disbelief as I skimmed the text. There in front of me was a paraphrased version of The Miracle Worker – that black-and-white film from my childhood eternally associated with a prison sentence. That’s because Mrs. Hartenstein made us watch it at the Abrams Hebrew Academy library when all I wanted to do was play basketball at recess! The opening scene of the film surfaced from the crevices of my long-term memory bank, as I looked at a caricature of it in the textbook. It made me recall Helen’s father clapping his hands in front of the crib when he realized that his infant daughter was blind and deaf, “Helen!” “Helen!”
“Is everything okay?” Dee asked as she could tell that I was perplexed.
“Yep.” Except for the fact that I was in the foothills of the Himalayas and had to teach – of all things – the story of Helen-fucking-Keller to aspiring Tibetan monks (who aren’t even Tibetan).
When Dee left, I found my composure and was ready to teach. All the boys took turns reading passages from the story, in a sort of monastic monotone and rocking back and forth that reminded me a little bit of yeshiva boys learning torah. I corrected them in their pronunciations of words and when it came to using commas and periods too.
Quickly some vocabulary surfaced that was important. One phrase stuck out to me. For me it described Helen perfectly – that she was “locked up inside herself” (referring to the fact that she was deaf and blind). I wrote it on the blackboard in quotations and asked them to explain what it meant. Immediately a bunch of hands flew up jockeying to answer.
“Sir – locked, liked a door.”
“Sir, sir!” shouted another boy, “Not being able to see, hear …”
“Sir, sir sir!” shouted a third, “A key – open up – not free!”
“Exactly.” Not free. Imprisoned – just like having to watch The Miracle Worker.
Next I asked them all to write three sentences about the last time they felt “free.”
Once I gave the assignment, I sat down at the desk, allowing them to work. They were writing quietly and studiously in their notebooks, seemingly ensconced in crafting the sentences. That’s when a feeling of calm come over me as I sat at the desk watching them work. I may have even felt gratitude. There was something so innocent and refreshing to see students sitting at desks and writing with pencils in notebooks after having just written an assignment for them on a blackboard with actual chalk that I had to dust off on my pants. I was so far from my reality as a busy New Yorker.
But then I panicked as I realized that I had asked them a question that could be perceived as provocative. After all weren’t they in a monastery? Maybe none of them wanted to be there. Maybe they hated it.
“Finished sir!” Lundrik yelled from the corner.
“Sir! Finished too!” said Yeshi Sengey from the other side of the room.
It was too late. I went over to check the notebooks. My anxiety however was quieted immediately as I read Lundrik’s first sentence: “I felt free when I saw my family.”
“This is very good.”
“Thank you sir.”
“When was the last time you saw your family?
“Last year sir.”
I put a check next to his sentence.
That is how on my first day of teaching I found something simple and perhaps more profound and relatable than big existential and political agendas I came looking for. I was reminded that boys are just boys.
These were the thoughts going through my head as I quietly checked the rest of the sentences.