This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Tapestry magazine.
Exile's Young Face:
The Olympic Struggle of Tibetan Children in Northern India
Victory of the Sun
The narrow road snaked upward into the night toward Dharamsala and at each switchback the wan moonlight revealed alternately a precipitous drop or a wall of stone. My friend Frank Mauss, who had made this trip with me once before, and my Tibetan sponsor child Nyima Gyaltsen curled in their seats with their eyes closed and unsuccessfully tried to doze. Nyima Gyaltsen was in abject misery, suffering from the motion sickness that afflicts many Tibetans in India, and I went a little queasy myself as I recalled a story some western tourists had told us when Frank and I first visited in 2000. The couple had boarded a regular Indian transport bus to Dharamsala and sometime during their ascent into the mountains the steering wheel had popped off its column! The driver managed to stop safely long enough to reattach the wheel with some wire, and then continued the journey as if the event were perfectly routine. I was glad we were aboard a private Tibetan bus in good repair, but the landscape I could make out in the blackness beyond my window still gave me the willies. I also could not shake my apprehension for the fate of Pema Bhuti, Nyima Gyaltsen's sister, whom the Chinese government had imprisoned for returning to Tibet to rejoin their mother and father, or my guilt at snatching Nyima Gyaltsen away from his studies just days before his college placement exams. Everywhere there were precipitous drops, walls of stone, and it was impossible for me to steer.
We arrived in Dharamsala, sleepless and seasick, in the predawn dark, and Nyima Gyaltsen, whose Hindi is excellent, flagged down a cab to take us to McLeod Ganj, a community a little higher up. We checked into the Tibet House to catnap and shower before breakfast. With feet firmly planted on solid ground, a little rest, and a meal under his belt, Nyima Gyaltsen improved rapidly.
Perched in the foothills of the Himalayas, McLeod Ganj is the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile and at that time was home to two of Tibet's major religious leaders, the Karmapa as well as the Dalai Lama. The impacted little town is both a place of pilgrimage and a hip hangout for Western tourists, especially young people enroute to finding themselves, or just back from ganja-scented Manali. Most newly arrived Tibetan refugees, oblivious to the town's spiritual chic, stop here first to receive the Dalai Lama's blessing before dispersing throughout India to build new lives from scratch in a totally foreign land. The many children who leave their parents behind and escape to freedom from the Chinese government's repression in Tibet are cared for in India by a network of Tibetan Homes Schools. I had met Nyima Gyaltsen through one such school in Mussoorie and my life would never be the same.
Nyima Gyaltsen now had an aunt and uncle living in McLeod Ganj and I looked forward to meeting them. I also was hoping to meet the sister of my Buddhist teacher and bring her greetings from her remarkable brother. I am a student of Tibetan Buddhism and I am very fortunate to have Younge Khachab Rinpoche, a learned scholar and meditation master, as my teacher. Khachab Rinpoche's family comes from Kham in eastern Tibet and he grew up in Dolpo Nepal. He now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, but his sister, Yeshi Paldon, lives in McLeod Ganj with her husband, another Rinpoche, Cheo Rinzin Chemo. (Rinpoche is a title, not a name. It is usually given to a Buddhist teacher who has been recognized as the reincarnation of an earlier lama or saint.)
Of course I had lost my directions to Yeshi Paldon's home, and I couldn't track down Dan MacNamara, a fellow student of Khachab Rinpoche, who was in McLeod Ganj at the time facilitating a study group from Emory University. So, after breakfast, Frank, Nyima Gyaltsen, and I decided to start things off instead by circumambulating the temple-monastery complex where the Dalai Lama lives. Tibetans consider this complex a sacred structure and walk around it saying mantras and sometimes doing full-body prostrations. The beautiful walk is something you "simply must do" when in Dharamsala, following a rocky path lined with mani stones and festooned with prayer flags, with a breathtaking view of the Himalayas.
About mid-way on the walk is a large chorten, or stupa—a round, tapering, teepee-shaped structure topped with a spire—a symbolic representation of Buddha that has its counterparts in all Buddhist cultures. Across from this stupa is a viewing platform, and I remembered being told that Yeshi Paldon and Cheo Rinzin Chemo lived somewhere just below this platform. Actually, we discovered many small apartments there, impossibly glued to the steep slope, and Nyima Gyaltsen began asking everyone if a Rinpoche might live nearby. In less than ten minutes we were being ushered into Cheo Rinzin Chemo's quarters.
The Rinpoche was a thin, serious man who instructed us to take a seat in his narrow room. A young Tibetan, probably one of his students, was also there, and so was the Rinpoche's pesky little dog. The Rinpoche received us very formally, trying to correct the more casual atmosphere the dog's humorous antics were creating. He served us some buttery, salty Tibetan tea out of a thermos and asked us a few perfunctory questions. Nyima Gyaltsen did the translating. Within a few minutes Cheo Rinzin Chemo ignored Frank and me altogether, leaving us to our strange tea and hard cookies, and spoke only to Nyima Gyaltsen for a while, very seriously, in Tibetan. Then, abruptly, the interview was over.
Once outside, I asked Nyima Gyaltsen what the two of them had talked about. He said the Rinpoche was lecturing him about being a good boy, studying hard, and not disappointing his sponsor. Looking a little shell-shocked, he said it made him feel very uncomfortable. I thought about all those times when, as a youngster, I sat squirming while some adult with my best interests at heart drilled me about lessons I didn't want to learn, and I understood exactly what Nyima Gyaltsen meant. In a nearby apartment we were briefly introduced to Yeshi Paldon, who invited us to visit her again the next afternoon. Nyima Gyaltsen, fearing another lecture from the Rinpoche, could not disguise how unhappy he was when I told her we would be glad to come back.
Dan McNamara had left a note for me at our hotel, and that afternoon we met up with him briefly. Nyima Gyaltsen liked him very much, and he read the note Dan had written over and over, practicing the English words. Afterwards we strolled up the hillside past the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, where teenagers were rehearsing traditional Tibetan dances, and at the turn-off to Dharmakot we looped back down past the Tushita Meditation Centre, following the clay road lined with pines and flowering rhododendron trees.
Nyima Gyaltsen pointed to the scarlet rhododendron blossoms and said, "Do you remember when you came here the first time—you asked me what those were and I said 'sunflowers?'"
"Yes," I said, suddenly recalling my skepticism also, "and I told you that in America sunflowers are yellow."
"And I said 'In India they are red,'" Nyima Gyaltsen replied, confessing his little lie with a charming smile. It was something I thought I had forgotten, a startling, resonant memory from five years earlier, and I put my arm around his shoulder as we walked and gave him a quick hug.
We spent the evening with Nyima Gyaltsen's aunt, Tsering Tsomo, his uncle, Kalsang Khedup, and their little boy, Tenzin Woeden. Tsering Tsomo works at the Men Tse-Khang Branch Clinic for Tibetan medicine in McLeod Ganj, and Kalsang Khedup produces, among other educational materials, wonderful books for children at the Tibetan government's Department of Education. Kalsang Khedup joked ironically that his name fit his profession, for Khedup, he explained, meant learned. They served us delicious momos, which are dumpling-size pastries—sometimes steamed, sometimes fried—filled with meat or vegetables. As we ate, Kalsang Khedup also gave us his explanation of what Nyima Gyaltsen's name means: Nyima, he said, means sun, and Gyaltsen means victory. Sun victory—perhaps the dawn, I thought. The rising sun is a symbol of Tibet, and I remembered Nyima Gyaltsen's desire to help his people and become a great man. I also remembered sunflowers—maybe in India they are red after all, for, with a name like that, Nyima Gyaltsen should know. It was a wonderful time, and little Tenzin Woeden, who seemed to me about five or six years old at most, showed me pictures he had drawn, many of them very good—and some of them quite racy, which made me raise a quizzical eyebrow, but only made his father laugh.
At one point Nyima Gyaltsen left the room, Tsering Tsomo was in the kitchen, and Frank and I remained with Kalsang Khedup, whose English, thankfully, was a heck of a lot better than our nonexistent Tibetan. We talked about his job, and then mine, then a little about Nyima Gyaltsen. I said how worried I was about Nyima Gyaltsen's upcoming exams and how much extra pressure he must feel because his sister was now in a Chinese prison. In rapid succession on Kalsang Khedup's face there appeared expressions of surprise—then comprehension—then joy. He told us he had recently received an email from Tibet that Pema Bhuti was out of prison and back in her village, held under a sort of temporary village arrest before she would again be free—as free as Tibetans are allowed to be in their occupied country, that is. He hadn't realized that Nyima Gyaltsen did not already know.
Nyima Gyaltsen came back into the room, and I was thrilled to be there when Kalsang Khedup gave him the good news. He listened to what Kalsang Khedup told him, taking it in calmly in that Tibetan way. But slowly a smile filled his eyes and he was seized with a bout of nervous energy for the rest of the evening, unable to sit still anymore, popping up and down to help Tsering Tsomo with tea or dishes.
The next day we returned to Yeshi Paldon's. We only saw the Rinpoche briefly, without any additional lectures for Nyima Gyaltsen, much to his relief. We spent about five wonderful hours with Yeshi Paldon and others in her family. Rinchen Tsomo, the Rinpoche's mother, was almost always spinning a prayer wheel. She gave me a large seed enveloped in its own papery kite, like a seed I remembered from the southern United States, perhaps some sort of Catalpa. I told her I would keep it forever, and I will. The Rinpoche's sister, Kusang Wangmo, was there, too, with her delightful little son, Jigme Phuntsok, and there was a young monk, Kusang Namgyal, my teacher's cousin, who recently had arrived from Tibet.
Nyima Gyaltsen's joy-filled nervous energy from the night before seemed to have carried over into the next day. When he wasn't busy translating or taking notes for me, he helped Yeshi Paldon make vegetable momos, which we ended up eating far too many of. Yeshi Paldon's hospitality was tremendous. We talked a lot about my teacher, her brother. A picture of him wearing a cowboy hat has a very special place in their photo album, and it was obvious that they all hold him in the highest esteem. I found out a lot about his family and family history, which Nyima Gyaltsen dutifully recorded for me in my notebook. As the day wound down, I enjoyed playing with little Jigme Phuntsok, we took photos by the stupa, and then we said our goodbyes. Yeshi Paldon said to give her deep love to Susan, a friend back in the States, and to tell her brother to eat his vegetables and not so much meat. We all laughed and hugged each other and then we left.
When we first had visited Dharamsala in 2000, Frank and I had spent much more time there. We did some extended hikes, visited temples, sampled food. This time our visit was much shorter, but much more fulfilling, because of the doors that Nyima Gyaltsen had opened for us. We spent our final morning tying up a few loose ends, and in the afternoon we caught a bus for the miserable trip back. Nyima Gyaltsen had drained my iPod's battery on the trip up, and there wasn't a USB port to be found where we could charge it up again. Without distraction or relief, he suffered silently during the whole hair-raising ride down to Rajpur.
Making a List
Nyima Gyaltsen remained in Rajpur, where he connected with other students to make the trip farther south to Delhi for his examinations. Frank and I traveled back up to Mussoorie so we could shower, get a decent night's sleep, and grab some clean clothes, before we returned to Rajpur to spend some time with the kids there, especially Frank's sponsor child, Tsering Nyima. The next morning, well rested, we were enjoying breakfast in the warm sun, getting the night's chill out of our bones and hoping the haze would burn off enough to give us a good view of the mountains, when Kalsang Namgyal, the sponsorship secretary at the Mussoorie Tibetan Homes School, stopped by our hotel with Kate, so that we could say goodbye to her. When we first had arrived in Mussoorie, Kalsang Namgyal had introduced us to the school's dentist, a Frenchman who volunteered for a portion of the year to serve the school, and to Kate, a warm, very professional young woman from Great Britain who worked with the Tibetan Relief Fund and was visiting the school briefly for the first time. Kate coordinated hundreds of sponsors, whose individual donations to the school usually were less than those of sponsors in our little group, but whose cumulative contribution packed a major financial wallop.
We all had spent those first mornings together hashing out impressions of the school and what we thought it most needed. Sponsorship money covers only the most basic living and educational necessities, and the school cares for children whether they have sponsors or not, so there are always other needs that school has to raise money for. It was interesting how different people viewed and prioritized those needs. Naturally the dentist thought oral hygiene was a major issue, and that rudimentary supplies like toothbrushes and toothpaste should be a top funding priority. I started looking at everyone's teeth, and it seemed to me that he was doing a good job—beautiful smiles that would be a match for any set of bleached pearly whites in the United States—but I did not discount his concerns, in part because Kate shared them, too. Kate also shared one concern of mine—water. In many instances, homes at the school relied on outdoor spigots for water to cook, clean, wash dishes and clothes. There were few showers and other amenities, the water supply was barely potable by our standards and often unpredictable due to the demand from the many hotels in Mussoorie. Hot running water was all but a Utopian ideal.
Kalsang Namgyal and other Tibetan officials at the school shared these concerns, too, but these weren't the concerns that they placed at the top of their lists. Discussions about priorities were very enlightening, and eventually I came to believe that the divergence of opinions again underscored the narrow, privileged position we were coming from. The Tibetans had dealt with these conditions for years, had learned to live with them, and at least in the case of the water supply, were to some extent at the mercy of the municipality. In fact, the present situation was often a major improvement over the conditions many of the children left behind in Tibet and at the moment posed no real health threat to their quality of life. Of course, if someone wanted to donate enough money to totally revamp the school's water system, no one at the school would argue with them, but until then they could continue to "rough it" in some areas, especially if it meant obtaining other things they desperately needed. I tried to imagine what it would be like if donors to the museum where I worked suddenly acted as if they had the right and the expertise to be curators, deciding what exhibitions should be mounted and what artifacts acquired. I already had seen that, at the school, everything revolves around the welfare of the children, every penny is hoarded for their sakes, staff members are paid meager salaries, and many of them live on campus in conditions comparable to those of the students. I began to feel that our job was not to do their job, but to help them in any way we could. Maybe if we worked hard enough to recruit sponsors and raise some cash, everyone's concerns could be met.
As I hugged Kate goodbye, I realized how much I envied her—envied how much she was accomplishing on behalf of the school; envied her wonderful job, a job in which she helped others and saw the world at the same time; envied her personal courage, her incisiveness, and her youth. I wished we had been able to spend more time together and I promised myself that I would try to be more like her, doing everything I could to help these rare and remarkable children.
Shopping—Part Two: Discovering Che
We spent two days in Rajpur with the school's indefatigable host, Jampa Yengchen. On day one, we took 14 students shopping in Dehra Dun with the money sent by their sponsors. The northwestern part of India has been recently reorganized, and Dehra Dun is now the capital of the new state of Uttranchal. This rise in Dehra Dun's status has brought with it more crowding, more noise, and more pollution. Delhi's air was now noticeably cleaner because the city had banished diesel-powered auto-rickshaws, but it seems that many of them simply moved north, and an Eau de Dehra Dun was definitely brewing.
Something should be said about shopping in India. Unless you are in a major city, shopping is both an art form and a bit of a contact sport. Haggling is part of every transaction, and nothing is too small to be haggled over, so it can be very time-consuming. All of this usually transpires in small stalls open to the street. To the Western eye, many of the stalls seem identical, and you sort of fall in and out of stalls the whole length of the congested road. You always have to be aware of where you are in this constantly changing sea of activity, dodging bikes and scooters and people trying to make their way in the opposite direction, giving a whole new meaning to "shop till you drop." Luckily, Frank and I had 14 kids to watch out for us and we had a lot of fun.
In one Tibetan stall I looked up to find a t-shirt with a classic image of Che Guevara that had been such a part of my Sixties youth. I had to wonder what Che would have thought of two middle-aged white guys floundering around India with a posse of Tibetans. Just before I had left the States, I had seen the movie Motorcycle Diaries. Spying this shirt seemed ominously synchronistic, so I asked the young Tibetan behind the counter to reach it for me. If it didn't fit Nyima Gyaltsen, maybe it would fit one of the other kids. When the clerk handed it to me, I automatically checked the tag—"Made in China." My political scruples got the best of me and, teasing the clerk about being a Tibetan selling Chinese goods, I handed it back to him. But, I should have bought that shirt, for it was remarkable when you think about it: Che Guevara on a t-shirt made in China and sold in India by a Tibetan.
As in Mussoorie, on their shopping spree the Rajpur children could buy anything they wanted, yet mostly they bought sensible things—clothes, shoes, book bags, toiletries. One girl bought an Eminem t-shirt because she thought it looked cool, though I doubt she had ever heard his music. One boy bought a basketball, another a "football," but these were really presents for every kid in their homes.
Walking down many city streets in India can pose another unique problem for Westerners: We stand out like sore thumbs. Sometimes there seems to be an endless onslaught of touts, street vendors, and rickshaw drivers crying "Mister, Mister, Mister!" Also, poverty is great, beggars are common, and some of them can get a little physical in their persistence. Initially they break your heart. Many are crippled, often they are mothers with emaciated children, and you want to give something to everyone, though it would be impossible, and perhaps wrongheaded, to try. Eventually you are horrified and disgusted to find yourself desperately yelling "nahin, nahin, nahin" and giving them the palm sign to stop as you push past them without looking them in the eye. Oh, but you see them nonetheless, and the sight changes you forever.
At one point during our Dehra Dun shopping spree, we stopped to buy ice cream for the children. One small Indian boy, begging can in hand, came up to me to ask for ice cream, too. I thought "Why not?" But in the minute it took to turn to the counter and then back to him again, six more children had joined him in his plea. Eventually the Tibetan children began running interference for us. Jampa Yengchen explained that she would give baksheesh only to someone who is old or infirm or mentally challenged. If they looked like they could work, no dice. Her assessment may be a little simplistic, given India's astounding unemployment rate, but at least it was a rule of thumb that kept her from being overwhelmed by so much need.
India would rather be known for its remarkable achievements in modern science and engineering, no doubt, or else for its timeless philosophical and spiritual contributions to humankind, but it is the poor who make a first indelible impression on the average visitor. Most comparisons to the United States would be too facile. Like its population, India's unemployment problem is incomparably huge, and it is complicated by issues of class and residual caste, education, and race—even to an outsider, it is apparent how in northern India often the most menial jobs fall to people with darker skins. But India has been an independent country for only about sixty years, and we need to recall, as Gurinder Chada reminds us in her homage to Bollywood, Bride and Prejudice, that, sixty years into its independence, in the United States it was still legal to own another human being.
From my limited perspective as a tourist, however, it seems that, despite the country's socioeconomic woes, begging, though very visible, is more the exception than the rule among India's poor. In Delhi and Dharamsala we saw entire families working and living at construction sites, men doing heavy labor, digging ditches and clearing foundations with only hand tools, not an end-loader or pickup truck in sight, while women carried out baskets of large stones on their heads and small children in their arms. Most Americans would sooner beg than work like this.
Without too much trouble at all, I can almost imagine a giant distribution center somewhere in India where, each morning before sunrise, thousands queue up in the dark to receive their daily allotment of postcard packets, cheaply printed guidebooks, and wooden trinkets, for at every tourist destination and anywhere Westerners are likely to wander by, there are often several people hawking identical items within feet of each other.
Often great ingenuity is needed to create a job where none exists, and sometimes that ingenuity can be mistaken for a swindle. During our first trip to India, Frank and I visited Bodhgaya in Bihar, one of the country's poorest districts. At the ancient temple built on the site where Shakyamuni Buddha achieved enlightenment, there is a large pond surrounding a statue of Buddha seated atop the coils and under the protective hood of the cobra-like Muchalinda, king of the nagas (snake-like water spirits). On the steps leading down to the water, we encountered a couple of gentlemen selling Baggies of minnows for 10 rupees, or about a quarter. The idea was to purchase these fish and release them into the pond just as the Buddha releases us from ignorance and suffering. There was an element of poetry in it, some real creative thought—and of course it was a total scam because, once we left, those two entrepreneurs would scoop the fish back out of the pond, re-bag them, and sell them again to the next pilgrim, liberation be damned. Nevertheless, I bought a baggie and watched the small fry get in a brief swim. Perhaps some of them even made it past the reach of the net. How different was this, after all, from someone selling tickets to an amusement park ride, which is over in a few minutes' time? Actually, to me, this was much more imaginative—and at least they were doing something.
Julie Andrews In Rajpur
The morning after our Dehra Dun shopping trip a minor miracle happened: I got moving a little earlier than Frank, who was usually up hours before me. I left my room while he was still shuffling around in his, and took my camera out to sit in the early morning cool. Rajpur's Montessori section was just convening, and the preschoolers caught site of me. Soon I was pulled into their little amphitheatre, where they put on an impromptu show for my benefit. They had memorized the Do-Re-Mi scene from The Sound of Music—the whole scene, dialog too, not just the song. A little Family Von Trapp with Tibetan accents—it was captivating, and I found myself laughing and crying and applauding like a madman. It made early rising seem worthwhile for once.
Poor Little Guts
After breakfast, Jampa Yengchen helped us gather up Tsering Nyima, his sister Tele Chonzom, and one of his friends, for a day outing with Frank—first to Clement Town, about four miles from Dehra Dun, to see the largest stupa in India, and then on to an amusement park. The stupa is a stunning monument eight stories high, which recently had been built by the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is filled with breathtaking murals. Honestly, I didn't think the kids would enjoy the stupa at all, but these were Tibetan children and it was a fabulous site to see—and you could buy ice cream nearby. To my surprise, they loved it. Unfortunately Tsering Nyima shares Nyima Gyaltsen's predisposition to motion sickness and spent much of the outing puking his poor little guts out! Frank and I swore that on our next visit to India we would bring a whole suitcase of Dramamine with us.
Tsering Nyima got sick on the drive to the stupa. He got sick on the trip from the stupa to the amusement park. At the amusement park he couldn't handle any ride that went round in a circle (which was most of them), but everyone loved the bumper cars. Then, although he got sick again on the way to a restaurant for lunch, Tsering Nyima still begged us to take them to an even bigger amusement park after we had eaten. Frank and I realized that he was enduring this for the benefit of his companions, that he would suffer anything to show his sister and his friend a good time. We decided to employ a little "tough love." We bought some food for a special supper and a cake and some pop and we brought it back to his home for a party with all his housemates—once his stomach had settled down.
In time even Tsering Nyima was glad we had decided to cancel the outing and come back to the school. Now that he was fully recovered, his face lit with pride because he could throw such a party for his friends (about 20 of them, I'd say). During the party, his sister would not let go of my hand. She had taken a particular shine to me during the day (and I to her) and I gave her my mala to wear. When we had all the food and treats we could eat, we went outside to play a little monster tag before evening prayers.
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Exile's Young Face: The Olympic Struggle of Tibetan Children in Northern India—Part Two
This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Tapestry magazine.
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