This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Tapestry magazine.
Exile's Young Face:
The Olympic Struggle of Tibetan Children in Northern India
It's August and, like many, I will be covertly sneaking glances at any T.V. set I happen to pass, evading chores and pressing social commitments, lying and shirking if I have to, so I can watch as often as I can the world's best athletes compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics. The Olympics are something I always look forward to, especially the summer games, but this year I also will be watching for anything the games may help bring to light about the Chinese government's oppressive rule of the over the Tibetan people. Because of the location of the games, Americans have paid more attention to the plight of Tibet than at any time since the Chinese invaded that country over a half-century ago, and yet few of us know much about it, and fewer know about the thousands of Tibetan refugees who have escaped to India for a chance at cultural and religious freedom. This is the story of my experiences among Tibetan refugee children in India (with a short side-trip to Thailand), and how their fractured lives are part of the truly Olympic struggle for the return of liberty to Shangri-la.
A Little Background
Each year over 3,000 Tibetans flee their country for exile communities in India. A sizeable number of these are children. When Tibetan parents send their children into exile, they usually stay behind so as not to attract suspicion of Chinese authorities. The sacrifice that these parents make on behalf of their children is unimaginable to most of us. They send their children on a perilous journey over the Himalayas, often on foot and usually under cover of night, in order that they might learn their own language and culture, practice their religion freely, and enjoy a degree of economic opportunity denied them by the substandard citizenship that the Chinese government now extends to Tibetans in their own country. Many parents never see their children again, and if their children do return to Tibet, they are all too frequently thrown into prison.
The Chinese government invaded Tibet in September 1949, unchecked by any international outrage. During the subsequent decades-long occupation, almost two million Tibetans have been slaughtered. To give some perspective, this is six times the number of people who lost their lives in the horrible carnage in Rwanda. Thousands of other Tibetans have been imprisoned and tortured, many monasteries in Tibet have been destroyed, the Potala has been turned into a tourist attraction, and it is illegal to possess a photo of the Dalai Lama. Now Tibetans are less than third-class citizens in their own country. With rare exceptions, Tibetan language and culture are not taught in schools. Though temples are open, there are major restrictions on the way Tibetans may practice their religion, especially in regard to monastic life. In many areas there is dire poverty and starvation. The Chinese government calls this "liberation."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama escaped to India from Tibet in 1959. Since that time, the government of India has selflessly accepted the Tibetan refugees that have followed him into exile. Today there are large Tibetan communities throughout India. The Tibetan Government in Exile has set up a network of Tibetan Homes Schools—supported to a substantial degree by international donations and sponsorships—to house, care for, and educate the politically-orphaned children who flee Tibet. One of those schools is in Rajpur, a sort of suburb of Dehra Dun, which is about six hours north of Delhi by train. Another school is in nearby Mussoorie, a popular Indian hill station about a forty-five minute, stomach-churning drive up a precipitous winding road from Dehra Dun. I visited these schools in 2000, and again in April 2005, and the courageous children I met there have changed my life forever.
My friend Pam Maykut introduced me to the sobering but inspiring world of Tibetan refugee children. She has visited the schools in Mussoorie and Rajpur several times, interviewing the children and working side by side with the staff. On one trip, she asked children to draw pictures of their escapes and their memories of life in Tibet. Pam mounted these pictures into a stunning traveling exhibition that attracted considerable attention and helped her create a network of over 50 sponsors that she now tirelessly coordinates. In 1998, when I told Pam I would like to sponsor a child too, she knew just the boy—Nyima Gyaltsen, approximately ten years old, whom she had developed a special fondness for.
Brief Note about Tibetan Names
With few exceptions, most Tibetans have two names, neither of which is a last name, and for the most part, the names aren't gender specific either. Thus the sponsorship secretary at Tibetan Homes School, Kalsang Namgyal (a man), is married to Kalsang Dechen (a woman). Pam and I sometimes jokingly refer to them as Kalsang 1 and Kalsang 2. And Tibetans always use both names when referring to each other. Amazed at this, I asked Nyima Gyaltsen if, during a soccer match, his team mates actually cried out "Nyima Gyaltsen, Nyima Gyaltsen!" It seemed like such a mouthful to me. Nyima Gyaltsen just gave me a blank look as if to say "Of course!" I have since found out that they do have a way of making spoken contractions of many names, but some can't be shortened, and I have never been able to figure out the rules.
Nyima Gyaltsen comes from a village in south central Tibet, about half way between Shigatse to the west and Lhasa to the east. When he escaped in 1995, he was only six or seven years old—Tibetans don't always keep birth records, so it is often difficult to know for certain. Along with some other travelers, the small boy caught a bus from Lhasa to the border town of Dram. Those like him who did not have passes had to hide under the seats. At Dram they bribed border guards and continued on foot across the mountains into Nepal. They negotiated police tents and sometimes had to flee from people trying to stop them. By this time, they were just three children and an adult from Amdo. A Nepalese family aided them and gave them shelter in their home. From Nepal they entered India, where Nyima Gyaltsen eventually was placed at the Tibetan Homes School in Mussoorie.
When I first began sponsoring Nyima Gyaltsen, I was ready to forge a strong, deep bond with the boy. The school in Mussoorie has around 2,400 children to care for, and though the staff actually does a remarkable job, it is a difficult task to foster in each and every child a sense of being unique and specially loved—something that is so vital to the development of all children, but more so to those who have been deprived of their homes and families at an early age. In this, sponsors can be a great help.
So I wrote Nyima Gyaltsen letters and asked questions, lots of questions, trying to find out everything I could about him—and he sent back letters, practically the same letter each time, saying that he was fine and describing the weather, never answering any of my questions. I wondered about this, then I was saddened by it, and finally I was reconciled to it, deciding that this just was not going to be the emotionally satisfying experience for me that I had hoped for. (As if this was supposed to be about me at all!)
I could not have been more mistaken—about everything.
In 2000, my friend Peter Kerndt, a doctor with a surplus of frequent-flier miles, offered to fly me and another friend, Frank Mauss, to Thailand—Pete knew that, when I was in graduate school, I had become friends with a Thai couple and had wanted to visit them ever since their return in the 1980s. But now my dreams had shifted a little, and I asked if we could go to India instead. The plane fare is the big-ticket item in a trip to India. Frank and I scrounged up the rest of the money we needed and we headed for the subcontinent. Kalsang Namgyal (Kalsang 1) encourages sponsors to visit the school. He says that five minutes there can explain more about their work and its challenges than any explanation he could give.
When we visited the school in 2000, we were given the royal treatment, as if $30 a month had been $3,000 a month. The appreciation was almost embarrassing. We toured the school and visited some classes, where we spoke a little about America. The students' impressions of the States seemed to be formed primarily by movies and popular culture, and we did our best to give them a more realistic idea of life here. Since turnabout is fair play, the students tried to teach us a smattering of Tibetan, which both Frank and I butchered to the great amusement of the class.
But of course the highlight for me was spending time with Nyima Gyaltsen. One of the first things he did was take me to his "home." The school in Mussoorie is older and more crowded than the newer one in Rajpur. Each school is a large cluster of buildings—classrooms, offices, and "homes." Most of the buildings are built of concrete or a mixture of concrete and brick, with screenless, shuttered windows frequently trimmed in a green that is simultaneously dark and bright. In Mussoorie, each home has between 30-45 students, supervised by an amala (mother) and pala (father). Typically, a home has separate dormitory-style sleeping rooms for boys and girls, a small kitchen space, and a gathering area where students eat meals and do homework. Eventually, older boys and girls are separated into different homes, or hostels. There is no heating or hot water to speak of, though temperatures get quite cold in Mussoorie during the winter and there is snow during the first part of the year. Warm bedding and warm clothes are essentials, and it is a constant struggle to have enough and keep it in good repair.
In each home, older children help watch after younger ones, and there is an atmosphere of caring and selflessness that as Westerners we found remarkable. The children also assist with cooking, cleaning, and laundry, and they do it without complaint and often with a sense of play.
Nyima Gyaltsen proudly showed me where he studied, the bunk where he slept, and finally something I was not prepared for: From behind his pillow he collected a little bundle that he especially wanted me to see. There was a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama—and every letter and photo I had ever sent him! This was not some sort of staged demonstration, but a child revealing his heart to me.
During the course of that first visit to the school, I realized that his letters had seemed all the same, not because he didn't care, but because his English language skills were so rudimentary and he was often helped by adults who were helping 30 other kids write letters too! In fact, he had cared deeply, and while Frank and I were there, other children surrounded us wherever we went, asking if we could get sponsors for them, or telling us all about their own sponsors, who came from all over the world. Frank decided to sponsor a scrappy little tyke named Tsering Nyima, probably no older than six or so, who had just escaped with his sister from Tibet.
On the day before we were to return home, Nyima Gyaltsen pulled me aside to keep me all to himself for a bit and wouldn't let any other children near. In my offhand, American way, I asked him if he liked me now that he had actually had a chance to spend some time with me. I was just anxiously cracking a joke at my own expense, but unexpectedly, tears filled his eyes, and he said, "I like you. I like you very much." I nearly lost it.
As the years passed, his language skills improved, and so did his letters, while I, with my boring middle-aged life, wrote letters that probably all sounded the same, just like those first ones he had written to me. But I know he loved them and looked forward to them, and we wrote as often as we could for the next five years, as he moved steadily toward his high school graduation.
Planning a Second Trip
I tried to save enough money to return to India in 2005 so that I could see Nyima Gyaltsen graduate from high school, but when the time arrived, I hadn't even come close. Then, just as my poor financial planning seemed to make that dream almost impossible, my good friends Lila Nelson and Peter Kerndt came to the rescue, and Frank and I started plotting our return.
Pam Maykut contacted all the sponsors in our group and they sent us baggies filled with letters, photos, small presents, and shopping money for their kids. Frank and I would have the great fortune of taking almost thirty children shopping, watching their faces fill with joy as they picked out new clothes, shoes, a basketball or a soccer ball (they call it a football in India).
The school couldn't seem to settle on a graduation date, and we had to go ahead and get plane tickets, arrange for hotels and train transportation, etc. (When traveling in Asia, especially India, it is very helpful to arrange these things beforehand if you have to keep to a schedule.) This time we would be able to stop off first in Thailand to finally visit my friends Udom Likitwonnawut and his wife, Aurapin Pochanapring (they really know how to do names in Thailand). Udom supervises all of CARE's health and education programs in northwest Thailand and we were looking forward to seeing some of his projects.
We would leave on March 21, and arranged things so that we would arrive in Mussoorie on April 3, in plenty of time, we thought, to be at the graduation. A week before we left, after all plane and train tickets and hotel reservations had been finalized in two countries, I got word that the graduation would be held on April 2. I was totally crestfallen, but there was nothing I could do. I would be spending two weeks with Nyima Gyaltsen, and that itself was blessing enough.
The trip was long and cramped—over 26 hours of travel time to Bangkok. During our first few jet-lagged days in Thailand we did the touristy things, saw a lot of incredible temples and palaces in Bangkok and Ayuthaya, and more temples (Thais call them wats) in Sukhothai.
Generalizations are never totally true, but I think that visitors to Thailand will likely find the Thai people warm and friendly—so much so in fact, that it can be a shocking revelation, once you return home, to discover how rude we are to each other in our daily interactions. On the other hand, Thais like to tease each other and, as you become more familiar, they may tease you, too, with childlike abandon, which can seem a little rough until you get used to it.
Our visit really took off when we reached Chiang Mai and met our friends Udom and Aura. We saw a few more temples and, though we were getting a little wat-ed out, the La-Na-style Wat Phra That Lampang Luang was fabulous. Aura led us to some hard-to-find textile places, including the fascinating Studio Naenna, where Laotian and Thai women weave and hand-dye superb textiles, and as a thank-you for helping me return to India and my beloved Tibetan children, I bought Lila Nelson an incredibly soft shawl with a subtle indigo ibat design. The four of us also visited an elephant camp and two elephant hospitals. Elephants are endangered by a combination of landmines and abuse and, amazingly, their advocates often can find their own lives threatened as well. It is heartbreaking to see such a majestic animal with its trunk slashed in half or one of its feet blown off. As an interesting side line, the elephant camp supports its operation, not only through delightful elephant shows, but by selling colorful paper cards and bookmarks made from elephant dung!
We were very privileged to see some of Udom's CARE projects and get a glimpse of a Thailand many visitors aren't lucky enough to see. First we drove to Huay Hong Krai, a beautiful Royal Project educational center in Doi Saket district, where CARE had rented space to run a summer camp for AIDS-affected children. While many Americans still stubbornly believe that AIDS is "just a gay disease," Thailand acutely feels the effects of this horrible epidemic in all sectors of its population. The country then had one of the highest HIV infection rates in Asia, with 670,000 AIDS patients, or about one percent of the population. At the summer camp, children who have family members with HIV infection or AIDS can receive support and escape the stigma that is associated with AIDS even in tolerant Thailand.
Playing a major role at the camp are the katoey, gay men whose mannerisms and speech are effeminate in an exaggerated and very playful way. As a Buddhist country, Thailand is at least superficially more accepting of alternative lifestyles than the United States, but it would be wrong to say that gay people there do not suffer prejudice and marginalization. Perhaps it is their personal experience of unfair treatment that leads these men to open their hearts and their talents to AIDS-affected children, and they do a remarkable job. The children, especially the younger ones, follow them everywhere and lovingly ape their gestures, and the katoey infuse every activity and song with laughter and a subliminal but powerful lesson in personal dignity.
On a two-day outing we visited two remote Karen hill-tribe villages. The challenges that Thailand's hill tribes face in the modern world are complicated, and those who supposedly have their best interests at heart are actually at odds about how to help them. Some tribes historically have been migratory and would clear an area of forest to farm for a number of years, then move on to a different site. Thailand's government has turned most of these areas into national forest and has put an end to what it characterizes as a "slash and burn" lifestyle in the name of ecological preservation. In subsequent years it has become obvious to some that hill-tribe practices did not harm the forest, and in some cases actually promoted conservation in ways that stationary agriculture cannot. Many now believe that the government's enforced lifestyle change has created a whole new set of social and economic problems and is endangering the very existence of these indigenous cultures. It has led to poverty, the deterioration of traditional mores, and in some cases it has unintentionally promoted illegal activities, like the growing of opium, which the government, ironically, is also working hard to stamp out. But, as everyone in every country knows, even in the face of poverty and social confusion it is hard to change a government's mind.
The first village we visited was Saam Sop Larng (lower Saam Sop). We met the project's young field officer, Vitoon; a forester named Wuthikorn, who was responsible for data collection, land-use mapping, and training villagers in technical matters; and some teachers. The village itself was full of wonderful contradictions—beginning with the fact that there was nothing particularly low about lower Saam Sop, perched on a hillside and approached by an often steep and rutted road that must be terrifying during the rainy season. The homes tended to be built on stilts of wood and thatch, though some buildings had corrugated tin roofs and a few had walls made of concrete blocks. Surprising to me, however, were the solar cells on posts outside some buildings, supplied by the government to bring electricity to this fairly inaccessible place—though it was unclear what they used the electricity for. One woman showed us how they pounded grain with a device constructed like a teeter-totter. A medium-sized limb fashioned into a pounder was attached to one end of a long lever, and you stepped on the other end of the lever, raising the pounder, then letting it drop with a crash—over and over again—into a large carved out stump filled with the grain. I tried my hand at it (or my foot rather) and soon appreciated the sheer stamina these people needed to make a meal. Another woman showed us a shawl with an intricate pattern of shell-like seeds that she had woven especially for the queen of Thailand, who had been scheduled to visit the village, but never showed. The talented woman gladly let me buy the shawl because she had little practical use for it, but sold Frank a colorful woven shirt more reluctantly because, although it was originally woven for no-show royalty too, her husband or children could wear it.
The next day we visited Sobe Wark and were introduced to projects through which villagers have achieved a level of financial sustainability. Women are taking a major role in some of these projects and are moving toward a kind of empowerment that is benefiting, not just themselves, but their whole community. With CARE's assistance, they have organized into cooperative groups to weave and embroider textiles, both simple and magnificent, for sale. I was astounded to discover that almost every house in Sobe Wark village had a large wooden loom like those on display at Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American museum where I work in Decorah, Iowa. Both Frank and I ended up buying several samples their weaving. Then a man proudly led us to a small shed with equipment, purchased with the help of CARE, for grinding their own animal feed, which they then could use themselves and sell to other villages as well.
One of our last stops was the Sobe Wark school, which CARE was rebuilding in Mae Chaem. The old school was in dilapidated condition and very small, and I mentally compared it to the much preferable conditions at Tibetan Homes School in Mussoorie, India. A new school was definitely needed. Frank is a contractor, and as he and Udom toured the construction site, Aura and I wandered around the ruins of the old school and I tried to sneak peeks at the daily lives of those who lived nearby.
Up in the northern hills we took in a temple festival at Wat Mae Na Jorn, complete with dancing (both traditional and not so traditional) and bootleg hootch (which we wisely left alone). Frank and I were the only farang (white foreigners) to be seen, and as such were sort of celebrities to the parade of happy, intoxicated dancers winding their way through the town to the temple. I was able to show them a few of my "moves," but I held back a little because it was difficult not to get swept away in the tide. The whole festival—both the sacred and the profane—was wonderful. On the way back to Chiang Mai, we stopped on the edge of town to see the monk Thanawat Thaechapanyo at Wat Hourin. His project, which promotes AIDS awareness and education in the villages and where volunteers do a variety of textile work to benefit those with AIDS, has attracted international attention. Unfortunately Thanawat Thaechapanyo, nicknamed Tu Daeng (Monk Red), was not there, but we were able to tour his inspiring workshop.
These are places we would not have been able to see without Udom and Aura, and I hope we can find ways to help them in return. Thailand was supposed to be just a brief stop on the way to India and the struggles of Tibetan political exiles, but instead it was an eye-opening journey into a whole new world of need, and it deserves an entire story of its own. The country, from what I can tell, is right on the cusp between the developing and the developed nations, and while conditions there can be pretty grim, in some ways Thailand is well ahead of India, our next destination.
India is a nation of opportunity and hope, a country of great engineers and computer programmers, industry and wealth, scenic beauty and rich history, Bollywood and Hindi Pop. It is also a country of over-population, abject poverty, political corruption, breath-taking pollution, detritus, disease, and despair. Often there are no clear lines of demarcation between these contradictions—they stand side by side in a surreal, dizzying juxtaposition that can leave a visitor feeling simultaneously frightened and enthralled. What is most remarkable, considering all of the challenges it faces, is that for almost 50 years India has accepted and successfully absorbed thousands of Tibetans fleeing their occupied land. Perhaps it is this generosity that should characterize India most.
We arrived in Delhi very late in the evening. All planes seem to arrive or leave Delhi between 11:30 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. It was my turn to have the airline lose one of my bags (Frank lost one of his in Delhi on our last trip). The bag with all those textiles I bought in Thailand was sitting somewhere between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, but the people at Hi Tours, our Indian travel agency, spent the next day tracking it down for me, and we were able to get some rest and even visit the Gandhi Museum, a fascinating tribute to the great thinker and emancipator. I think Gandhi-ji would have enjoyed the fact that the lights went off two or three times while we were there.
On our first trip to India, the air in Delhi had been literally orange, except at the height of the afternoon, and it had a specific aroma that may have been deadly, but was oddly agreeable—a curious combination of diesel fumes and dirt and masses of people that blended together in a spicy perfume. It was an olfactory association I will always make with Delhi. However, on our return I was surprised, and a little dismayed, to find that air had become really quite clear and breathable and there wasn't even a whiff of Eau de Delhi. You see, auto-rickshaws—noisy, three-wheeled, open-sided taxis—are the backbone of Asian urban transportation, and Delhi has thousands of them. In 2000, they all had been powered by small, polluting diesel engines, but sometime between then and our return, the diesel rickshaws had been replaced with ones that ran on compressed natural gas. The result is nothing short of miraculous.
The early morning Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Dehra Dun offers a fascinating train ride through the towns and countryside of northwestern India. Perhaps the back-door glimpse it gives you of daily Indian life may be too intimate—open fields dotted with squatting people taking their morning dumps as the sun rises—but it is an oddly tender and affecting sight. The train stops for about ten minutes at Saharanpur, and I studied a young shoeshine boy on the platform who was persistently making his way from one meticulous business man to another, asking if he could polish their shoes while they finished their smokes. Through the window, his whole life seemed distilled into a few repetitive but eloquent gestures, as if I were watching a silent movie, The Shoeshine Boy of Saharanpur, poetically evoking the life of India itself.
When we arrived in Dehra Dun, we stopped briefly at the Rajpur school to see Frank's child, Tsering Nyima. He looked the same, but was so much taller. He was still very unsure of his English, and by all reports was as mischievous as ever—which is probably why his smile was so beautiful. We tried to communicate as best we could, but he was most at ease teaching us some "football" moves. We told him we would return soon.
A Great Man
In Mussoorie, as we stepped out of the canteen at Tibetan Homes School that first day, Nyima Gyaltsen was walking up the hill to meet us. It was so wonderful to see him. He had grown into a tall, handsome young man who looked much older than a senior in high school, I thought. When he took me to his hostel, we walked through the large dormitory filled with bunk beds to a small, closet-like room that was his special privilege as a school captain. When we entered, one of his friends was using it for a little privacy, listening to some music, but Nyima Gyaltsen hurriedly shooed him out. On the wall there were several photos of me mixed with ones of his family, friends, the Dalai Lama, and the Karmapa, whom he had met and spent time with when the young Karmapa visited the school in 2004. Nyima Gyaltsen is a very good student, was named the 2004 Tibetan "Best Boy" student in India, and he proudly showed me all the certificates he had earned. He also showed me a photo of his parents in Tibet. His father was only about 58 years old, but looked fifteen years older. Such a hard life. Then Nyima Gyaltsen told me that his sister Pema Bhuti had returned to Tibet after years of exile because she longed to see her family and the Chinese government had put her in prison for it. She had been in prison for the past four months. Nyima Gyaltsen is even more reserved than other Tibetans and he holds things inside a lot. It was a big deal for him to share all this, and what he left unsaid was enough to break my heart.
At one point, he told me that he wanted to become a great man, but also wanted to help his family. These seemed like opposing choices to him. Full of facile American optimism, I told him that he certainly could do both. He looked at me with a tired wisdom beyond his years and said, "I don't think I have enough time." I remembered that photo of his prematurely aged parents and I understood.
Shopping—Part One: A Good Tibetan
That evening we took 13 kids from the Mussoorie school shopping and out to dinner. They had a great time and it was a hoot to watch Kalsang Dechen (Kalsang 2) haggle with the Indian businessmen. We had met some of the children in 2000, and it was good to see them again. Before we started off, we passed out the baggies of letters, photos, and small presents from their sponsors and made sure they understood that their shopping money was coming from their sponsors, not us, but both Frank and I still felt a little guilty that we might be getting too much reward for the love and affection others were extending from faraway. Frank dutifully recorded each child's name as I took photos of them for Pam to send to their sponsors.
Walking the rolling streets of the town, I noticed that Nyima Gyaltsen was continually mumbling, as if he were reciting mantras. He was almost compulsively reading to himself every English store sign he encountered, always learning, always practicing. The children were remarkably careful shoppers, studying each piece of clothing as much for durability as style, checking each book-bag to see how sturdy it was. It was 10:00 p.m. before we ate supper, and almost 11:00 p.m. by the time we turned onto Happy Valley Road for the long walk back to the school.
The warm evening was turning cool and the usually bustling road was practically deserted. Frank walked silently along, now and then encouraging the tired smaller kids as they dragged their feet homeward, while I teased the older girls mercilessly, which made the older boys laugh and whisper among themselves. Remarking on how Frank spoke so little, Kalsang Dechen said, with droll emphasis, that Frank would make a good Tibetan. A short, pregnant pause followed, and then a chuckle, half shy, half sly, as if to say that I, on the other hand, would need to do a lot more (or maybe in this instance a lot less) to qualify. There was another pause, like a wink or a nudge in the ribs, and then she and I both burst out laughing.
On our first trip to India, Frank and I had traveled to Dharamsala and its famous "suburb," McLeod Ganj. This is the first place most new Tibetan refugees come—to get much-needed medical care and assistance in settling into a new country, and most of all, to be received by their spiritual and political leader, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. On this trip we planned to revisit this bustling, sacred place, and we wanted to take Nyima Gyaltsen with us, because now he had an aunt and uncle living there. Nyima Gyaltsen was due to be in Delhi in just a few days to take his advanced college admission tests, so although we had just arrived in Mussoorie, Kalsang Namgyal and Kalsang Dechen thought it best if we traveled to Dharamsala right away.
Dharamsala is a 12 to 14 hour bus ride from Dekyiling, a little Tibetan community near Rajpur. Because of the mountains, you have to go south before you can go north, and the winding passes and alternating ascents and descents can turn the most stalwart of stomachs. Unfortunately Nyima Gyaltsen shares with many Tibetans a tendency toward motion sickness when traveling in cars and buses. (Ironically, a few of the Tibetans who are unaffected by this malady become some of the craziest drivers in a country of crazy drivers.) Nyima Gyaltsen was miserable all the way to Dharamsala. I lent him my inflated travel pillow and my iPod Shuffle. He closed his eyes, although he was far too sick to sleep, and he hardly said a word the whole trip. From time to time I would look at his closed face, miserable underneath his thick black hair, and I considered his life: A virtual orphan by age 7. A hair-raising escape across the Himalayas. The gut-punch impact of a new country, climate, culture, and language—all totally foreign. Aging parents living in dire poverty and a sister imprisoned just because she wanted to go home. And with all this weighing on his mind, in a few days Nyima Gyaltsen also would be facing a battery of college entrance exams on which his whole future depended. I was as uncertain about that future as he was, and about what role I might be able to play in it, and while I pondered it, I could only gaze down at him in helpless awe.
Exile's Young Face continues in the September issue of Tapestry. To learn more about the Tibetan struggle, watch the excellent documentary film Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion, available on DVD. If you are interested in sponsoring a Tibetan child in exile, contact Charlie Langton a email@example.com for more information.
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Exile's Young Face: The Olympic Struggle of Tibetan Children in Northern India—Part One
This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Tapestry magazine.
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