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
Auras and Ailments
Back in Mussoorie, we settled into our digs at the Carlton Plaisance, ready to enjoy again the hospitality of Mrs. Anu Singh and her staff. The Carlton Plaisance is a fantastic Raj holdover just down Happy Valley Road from the school, and it often served as a welcome refuge for Frank and me during our trip. Little did we know how much of a refuge it was about to become.
When we had arrived in Mussoorie a little over a week before, we had spent our first night at the little Tibetan guesthouse and canteen that stands at the school's gate. The food was fabulous, the people very friendly, and the rates would have been minimal (if the school had let us pay at all), but Frank and I had traveled in India before and knew we would soon grow irritable at the lack of privacy, the Indian-style toilets, and the noisy activity punctuated by Hindi pop music very early every morning. Had we stayed, we would have been totally immersed in the Tibetan community and our experiences would have been unforgettable, but we also knew that we probably would have ended up at each other's throats. The Western need for personal space is almost incomprehensible in Asia, where there is so little of it to be had, and people live in close quarters out of both necessity and choice. The problem was ours, rooted in our pampered selves, and it was difficult and very embarrassing to tell Kalsang Namgyal the next day that we wanted to make other arrangements. While I cannot be positive about this, I think he was hurt that we were not accepting his hospitality, and more than a little horrified at the amount of money we would be spending (little by American standards, really, but huge by Tibetan standards). I myself was mortified that I was being so rude and so damn soft, but I wasn't mortified enough to change my mind. Kalsang Namgyal called the Carlton Plaisance and negotiated a better rate than we would have normally received. This helped, I think, to satisfy somewhat his deep sense of responsibility toward us, but I imagine there still was lingering disappointment and more than a little incredulity at those crazy Americans.
The Carlton Plaisance, set down on the hillside off Happy Valley Road, is nestled among trees and gardens that would have been spectacular had we arrived a little later in the year. Frank and I never stay in American-style hotels with American prices, but choose what I would call Indian "business-and-family-class" establishments that rent comfortable singles for between 700 and 1200 rupees a night ($17-$28 U.S.)— clean, no-frills places where we can get a good night's sleep and enjoy a western toilet and hopefully a shower. We prefer separate rooms to doubles because, traveling for long periods together, we want to remain friends. The Carlton Plaisance definitely had a frill or two and was at the upper end of our price range, but the deal included breakfast and supper, and so much more.
Recommended by Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hilary, the hotel was once a grand private home with stables. As with most buildings of its generation in India, it is impossible to maintain as it was in its heyday, but standing in the parlor, where elegant nineteenth-century furnishings are threatened by the ferocious, taxidermied big game of India, or sitting in the dining room surrounded by photographs of generations of the Singh family, you can get a sepia-tinted glimpse of earlier splendor. More than the building, its history, and its gardens, however, it is the staff and Mrs. Anu Singh herself that make staying at the hotel a memorable experience.
Frank is quiet—quiet enough to rank as a "good Tibetan" according to Kalsang Dechen—and Tibetans certainly do tend to be reserved, whether they are good or not. Amid all that measured reticence, I was beginning to feel like a rube—too loud, too vulgar, and, well, too foreign. But Mrs. Singh is elegant, educated, and thankfully, charmingly gregarious, and it was a comfort to me from time to time to share the company of someone who actually enjoyed talking and didn't feel ashamed about it. She left us to ourselves unless asked, but we asked frequently, and Frank, though he didn't say much, enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. Mrs. Singh is not only cosmopolitan, but has a spiritual side too, and she liked to tell us that she could see in our auras how being among the Tibetan children filled us with a special joy, and that when we returned to America, our friends would see it too. It was very important, she told us, to let as many friends as possible see this aura before it faded.
The staff seemed to have been with the hotel a long time and many were related to each other, either by blood or by marriage. At first they were timid and extremely deferential, but Frank and I would have none of that, asking them questions about their lives and their opinions and refusing to recognize the class barriers they were used to, which meant nothing to us. Gradually they warmed, relaxed, and seemed even to appreciate that we were so interested in them. We were about to presume upon their graciousness.
Frank and I both expect that, when we travel to India, we will be stricken with acute gastrointestinal distress at least once and come back a few pounds thinner than when we left. But it was beginning to look like we were not going to get sick this trip, all that expensive Cipro we'd brought was going to go to waste, and I was going to come back even fatter than when I'd left. Happily, the night we returned from Rajpur I got hit first, and Frank fell victim twelve hours later, so no money was wasted and I was able to shed some of my winter weight by the time I got home. Cipro works fast, and we only lost a day or two, though I did miss the formal blessing of the school's new dental equipment (sigh). Actually, we got sick at a very convenient time and place. Nyima Gyaltsen was in Delhi, we had just left Tsering Nyima, nothing pressing was on our plate, and it was easy to just rest.
If the Carlton Plaisance was a tranquil refuge from the daily congestion, noise, and hyper-stimulation of India when we were well, it proved an even better place to be sick. Mrs. Singh checked in on us and had Mr. Usman serve us a special tasteless but effective gruel to ease us back into regular food. Kalsang Namgyal and Kalsang Dechen stopped by to see how we were doing, and everyone helped make our recovery as pleasant and speedy as it possibly could have been.
Beautiful, Dazed Faces
Once back our feet, we had lots of work to do and very little time left to do it in. I was worried how Nyima Gyaltsen was doing on his tests—I was beginning to appreciate the constant, draining preoccupation good parents have with the welfare of their children. I knew he planned to spend a little time relaxing with friends in Rajpur after the test and maybe see a movie before he made his way back to Mussoorie. Getting down to work would help keep my mind occupied until I saw him again.
We had brought to India the names of five new people who wanted to sponsor children and we both were interested in other needs the school might have, so we scheduled a meeting with Kalsang Namgyal as soon as we were fit. We walked Happy Valley Road to the school, entered the administrative building, and were immediately ushered into Kalsang Namgyal's office. Kalsang Namgyal in the barest whisper offered us tea—I think the whole complicated business of running the school must be conducted at a decibel level that's almost inaudible to Americans—and then he asked me if I'd seen Nyima Gyaltsen yet. I told him that I hadn't, but was looking forward to hearing how the examinations went. Kalsang Namgyal looked extremely shocked. Evidently, since I was a sponsor visiting from America, it was somewhat expected that Nyima Gyaltsen's would spend every moment with me. To let Kalsang Namgyal know that I was not offended in any way, I explained that Nyima Gyaltsen and I over time had achieved a level of openness that allowed him to speak and act freely, without an overwhelming sense of obligation, and that I valued highly that kind of honesty. After all, he had just spent several days with me visiting Dharamsala without seeing any of his friends and he deserved some time among them after his exams. I told Kalsang Namgyal that, when I saw Nyima Gyaltsen again, I would know it was because he really wanted to see me, and that's the way Americans like it. I could tell that part of Kalsang Namgyal understood and maybe even appreciated what I was saying, but another part of him thought it was just one more of my foolish American notions. He is a very patient and respectful man, however, so he let the subject drop and we got down to business.
First Frank and I paid some sponsorship money we ourselves owed and finished up the "bookkeeping" from the shopping trips, turning over for the children's future use the unspent portion of their sponsors' money. We also had packets for a few teachers and students from the leader of our sponsor group, Pam Maykut, and we gave their names to Kalsang Namgyal to arrange for us to meet with them. While we endorsed traveler's checks and handed back and forth my little solar calculator, Frank and I brought up again the needs of the school that sponsorships didn't really cover.
Kalsang Namgyal handed us a detailed budget for projects that the school considered high priority: New bedding, furniture for the medical clinic, and a computer lab. He explained that about half of the school's bedding recently had been replaced, but the other half was threadbare and no longer kept the children adequately warm. He said he would point out some of the substandard bedding when we visited homes to meet children. I asked if the $10,000 requested for the computer lab included the wiring, etc., that would be needed, for it seemed to me that it would barely cover the price of the computers. Kalsang Namgyal smiled and said, "This is India," explaining that those costs, which were minimal there, often came with the deal. He seemed surprised when I told him that in America, depending on the project, those expenses could represent the lion's share of the cost of such a project. Frank, the sensible contractor, corroborated me. On the one hand, the amounts staring back at me from the pages of the budget seemed huge—far more than anything my friends and I could come up with individually. On the other hand, the figures seemed very small indeed compared with, for example, what it takes each year to run the museum I work at. I knew there were people back home who easily could give a thousand dollars, or ten thousand, if asked, though I certainly didn't know any of them personally and I wasn't sure how to meet them. I also remembered Kate and the promise I had made to myself to do everything I could for these kids. I told Kalsang Namgyal that, once back in the States, my first priority would be to recruit as many new sponsors as I could, but that I wouldn't miss the chance to raise other funds as opportunities presented themselves.
Then we turned to the job of selecting children to be sponsored. I was feeling very proud for having recruited five new sponsors, when, to my horror, Kalsang Namgyal handed me 98 case histories of children who had arrived at the school in the last four months, some as recently as a few weeks before! How could the Chinese government still insist that things are better for Tibetans in Tibet when, even after half a century of occupation, so many continually risk so much to flee? Now I faced the uncomfortable task of choosing which few children would be getting sponsors that day and which would have to wait. The words on the case studies began to blur: age 10, age 6, age 12, parents still in Tibet, father dead, mother dead, farmers, shopkeepers. On each case history was a photo the size of a postage stamp—beautiful, dazed faces all becoming the same face, the face of every child who is a victim to political or personal barbarity. I barely got through the first twenty case histories.
Confronted with so many, I wondered if I should sponsor a second child myself. Officially my sponsorship of Nyima Gyaltsen ended with his graduation, but he was hopefully about to enter an Indian college on a Tibetan Homes scholarship and might require my continued support. I asked Kalsang Namgyal what I should do. He said I could continue paying toward Nyima Gyaltsen's scholarship if I wanted, or I could sponsor a new child if I wanted. I didn't know if this was wry Tibetan humor or if he thought he was actually clarifying things for me, so I asked which he would prefer I do. He said with a grin that he preferred I sponsor a new child because—here he teased me with some glee—if he could speak frankly, since he understood I preferred openness and honesty, the commitment would be longer, and he knew that I would continue helping Nyima Gyaltsen with pocket money anyway. We both laughed and his logic was unassailable: I would sponsor a new child.
I had very few criteria to help me match children with sponsors. Four of the five new sponsors were women or had young daughters themselves, so I selected girls for them, and I matched one male sponsor with a boy. Selecting a new child to sponsor myself seemed even more daunting, but both Kalsangs 1 and 2 thought I should sponsor a girl "for a change," and Kalsang Dechen pointed out that among those who had not been chosen was the older sister of Tenzin Sangmo, a little girl I had just selected for one of the new sponsors. The older sister was named Nyima Dolma, which confused me at first, because I thought I had already selected her for another sponsor. But she was a different Nyima Dolma. I had experienced this same-name phenomenon during our shopping trip in Dehra Dun, when one of the Rajpur students also was named Nyima Gyaltsen, though he wasn't my Nyima Gyaltsen!
Nothing on paper set Nyima Dolma apart—she seemed no needier, nor had she suffered any more or less than any of the other deserving children—but her thin, haunted face, framed with short-cropped hair, pleaded with me from the page. That she had the same "first" name as Nyima Gyaltsen somehow connected them in my mind and, after all, I couldn't find a sponsor for her sister and then just leave her behind. It may seem a little silly and sentimental, but I think she chose me.
It was finally time to visit some of the children I'd selected, to take their pictures, tell them a little bit about their new sponsors, and in turn gather some personal impressions to share with their sponsors when we returned. I was glad to get moving again. That little office had become unbearably crowded with those 98 youngsters, most of them facing a separation from their families and friends that perhaps would last a lifetime.
Meeting Nyima Dolma
Kalsang Dechen led the way down the hill from the administration building. It was a bright, clear afternoon. On our right as we descended, the mountains towered above us, and the children were running from their classrooms toward their homes and teatime. Sometimes they would stop near us out of curiosity, giggling and volleying to hide behind one another so they could safely stare without being seen. We would only meet three of the six students I'd selected that afternoon—first Dechen Paldon, then Nyima Dolma and her little sister Tenzin Sangmo.
When we arrived at the first home, the amala, or housemother, came outside to greet us and Kalsang Dechen explained in Tibetan that we were there to see Dechen Paldon. She smiled at us and went inside, but was back in a moment with a radiant little girl who I guessed was no more than six or seven, followed by a handful of other girls of varying ages who were giggling and smiling shyly. To my surprise, Dechen Paldon took immediate control of the situation, motioning them back as she approached us. Kalsang Dechen explained briefly to her who we were and I began to speak in English, telling her about the wonderful family who wanted to sponsor her, describing their children in America who were eager to welcome her into their lives. She looked at me with adult interest, as if she were trying to decipher on her own what I was saying, then with as much charm as she could muster, she impatiently motioned for me to stop talking for a minute and turned to Kalsang Dechen for a translation. Repeatedly Kalsang Dechen would translate, I would resume, then the child eventually would lose patience again and turn once more for a translation. I am afraid we could not keep from laughing a little, for there was little that was childish about her impatience to understand and her no-nonsense manner, which were so unexpected in one so small.
Once she had a clearer sense of what we were about, she led us to a low wall and motioned for us to have a seat, telling us with hand gestures and a fetching smile that we should relax and make ourselves at home. She did it with such pleasant authority that there was no question but to obey. She then disappeared inside for a moment and came back out with a teapot and cups and began serving us tea—a child not yet ten years old who had left her parents and escaped from Tibet just weeks before, yet her only thought was our comfort and our pleasure! This is a remarkable trait in almost all Tibetans, a basic tenet of their religion and their culture—putting others first, no matter how crazy you suspect they are (and I am sure I struck many of them as being more than a little odd). Watching this child so spontaneously and so masterfully care for us was captivating and deeply moving, even though the incongruity of the scene also made it quite hilarious. After explaining about her sponsors and how they would write her soon, I took some photos of Dechen Paldon and her housemates and, as we made our farewells, I said we would try to return, for I was grateful I had met her.
The sun was warm and, because it was the dry season, the path, though mostly paved, was dusty. Frank and I had the wilted, late-afternoon look that travelers often wear, but Kalsang Dechen still looked fresh in her immaculate traditional chuba and striped apron, though the breeze teased a strand of hair out of place as she led us to Nyima Dolma's home.
Nyima Dolma and her little sister escaped to India in March 2005. She was born on April 11, 1995 in Saga Donz, Tibet. Her parents, Tsewong Namgyal and Tsering Thakchoe, were farmers. She has two older sisters and two younger sisters, one of whom, Tenzin Sangmo, is with her in Mussoorie. I don't think Tenzin Sangmo had ever seen a Westerner before, or at least not many of them, and she was very timid, even frightened, around Frank and me, clinging to her older sister and eyeing us distrustfully. But Nyima Dolma was not frightened, not of us at least. Instead she clung to me, clutching my hand, trying to understand what I would say to her, now and then touching her forehead to mine as Tibetans sometimes affectionately do. She was obviously happy with her new school and home, but in contrast to Dechen Paldon, her eyes, her demeanor, in fact her whole self, expressed a kind of repressed terror at being separated so radically from her parents and the world she had known. Mixed with that terror was a sense of the great responsibility she felt she bore for the welfare and happiness of her little sister Tenzin Sangmo.
With Kalsang Dechen's help, I explained as best I could that I would be her sponsor and what that meant, and that a good friend of mine would sponsor her sister, Tenzin Sangmo. She held my hand and stayed quite close to me. We spent some time meeting the people who shared her home and, over the course of our brief visit, a wonderful smile began to blossom on her face. But little Tenzin Sangmo remained guarded and very suspicious. Since I knew we would be returning the next day, I began devising a way to win her over.
The next morning Nyima Gyaltsen showed up at our hotel and we enlisted him to help us accomplish a list of chores before we returned to the school to meet more kids after classes were done. During the day, everywhere we went, in the background of every task we turned our attention to, there loomed the war.
Since we had first arrived in India, the country had been at war with Pakistan—not on the border of Kashmir, but on the cricket field—and the final days of the conflict coincided with our last days there. In a country where electricity is unpredictable, even the most ramshackle stalls along Happy Valley Road somehow had a television, business slowed, and all eyes were glued to the matches.
Cricket is an odd game from an American standpoint, and it seems odder still to me that India is so infatuated with it. India won its freedom from Britain, and yet could anything be more British than cricket? (Well, tea, I suppose, and Indians love that too, with milk and plenty of sugar, but India gave tea to England, not the other way round.)
In any sport, the constant ping-pong of the score is what keeps most Americans on the edge of their seats, and a game that's too lop-sided is counted a dull one. When I would ask who was ahead in a particular cricket match, however, I was told more than once that it is impossible to know until the end, which left me wondering what, then, could account for such rapt attention. Also, the score involves a mystifying kind of algebra that no one had the patience to explain, which made the game seem to me better suited to a college professor than to a sports fan.
One thing for certain, though, was that everyone knew who was ahead in the series, and in these last days, India definitely needed to make a comeback. Mr. Usman, the concierge/head waiter/jack-of-all-trades at the Carlton Plaisance, would drop by regularly to check if my T.V. was working, flipping through channels until he found the match, but when I told him he could watch anytime he found a spare minute, he stopped coming. Mr. Usman is Muslim and I secretly wondered if there was a part of him cheering for Pakistan, but he told me he was Indian and hoped India would win. In town, the matches were on at the photo stall, the shoe stall, the sundry stall, every restaurant, and even some cab stands, so that, except for the real estate, you might think you were in a Chicago suburb on Sunday afternoon. The Tibetans seem to be as crazy for cricket as the Indians and, once Nyima Gyaltsen returned from his exams in Delhi, his attention was drawn to any T.V. that might be in his immediate vicinity.
Nyima Gyaltsen assured me that he had done very well on his examinations and I told him I was very proud of him, though I knew I would remain anxious until I heard the official results, which would not be in until after we were back in the States. To reward him I would have liked to let him watch the cricket match uninterrupted, but I needed his help.
First I had to buy a present for Nyima Dolma and I also wanted to get something special for Tenzin Sangmo to win her over. Frank wanted to purchase a soccer ball for Tsering Nyima. And we had to assemble packets of photos, letters from the students, etc., to bring back for the sponsors we were representing. All these sponsors in their own way are as attached to their children as Frank is to Tsering Nyima or I am to Nyima Gyaltsen and Nyima Dolma, and we knew those packets would be precious to them.
We walked into town from the hotel. The streets were crowded, for there was a spring Hindu religious festival honoring a deity everyone simply referred to as "the Goddess," and buses full of people were arriving from the plain below. Chants and traditional Indian music mixed surreally with the ubiquitous black-and-white hum of the televised cricket match.
Nyima Gyaltsen believed a book bag would be a great gift for Nyima Dolma and he tested several, pulling at the straps and opening and closing all the zippers, before he found one worthy of buying. I wanted something less practical and more joyous for Tenzin Sangmo, and we searched in vain for some time until we stumbled on a large stuffed Asian version of Mickey Mouse, which Nyima Gyaltsen was sure would delight her. We had some difficulty locating a decent soccer ball for Tsering Nyima—which I thought odd, considering the national sports hysteria going on all around us. Frank began kicking himself for not buying one when we were in Dehra Dun, until Nyima Gyaltsen recalled a small sports shop tucked away on a side street. Armed with our booty, we headed to the photo stall to pick up our pictures for the sponsor packets.
I love Hindi pop and Bollywood tunes, though I don't have an ear that can distinguish a good song from a bad one. Months before I had picked up at a Rochester, Minnesota, Indian food market the soundtrack to the movie Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya. Almost every Indian I've met since has gleefully informed me that the film was a total Bollywood flop and that most of the music was crap, but I loved the CD, especially the title song, which I had tried to learn to sing phonetically. As we walked the congested, noisy streets, I began crooning the bouncy melody to myself, without a clue to what I was singing about—"Chori chori sataane lagaa, raaton ko bhi jagaane laga"—when, to my total astonishment, Nyima Gyaltsen joined my singing. We both sang all the way to the photo stall, humming the bars we didn't know the words to, while Frank rolled his eyes at us, laughing. We kept it up on and off all the way back to the hotel.
Frank went down for a nap, but Nyima Gyaltsen and I went to my room and set to work. First, of course, we turned on the TV to see how the cricket match was going. I asked Nyima Gyaltsen who was ahead, but he still couldn't tell me, though certainly they had to have been playing the entire day.
I had taken many photos of children during our visit and we spread them all out on the floor, first sorting them by child in a game of photo-solitaire, and then matching each student's pile of photos with a sponsor. I would be taking the last photos of children later that afternoon. The two of us worked quietly, except for the low jabber from the TV, and we worked a little sadly, too, for we were both aware that the next day would be our last together, at least for some time. The children whose faces looked back at us from those photos, and their sponsors half a world away, were all part of that tender sadness we shared.
Sponsors are huge assets to these refugee children personally, and of course to the school. Most sponsors never visit India or meet their children face-to-face (though all would be welcome). Instead, sponsors sacrifice their money and time, with little expectation of more than a handful of letters and photographs as their reward—and of course the sure knowledge that they are helping to save, not only these children, but an entire ethnic culture in very real danger of being wiped out by the Chinese government and world indifference. (I always try to say "the Chinese government" rather than "the Chinese" because, as an American, I am painfully aware that a nation's government and a nation's people are not the same thing.)
There are groups of sponsors worldwide. My friend Pam Maykut has organized a group of over 50 sponsors, all of whom collectively make a notable contribution to the Tibetan Homes Schools in Mussoorie and Rajpur, and I have worked directly with those sponsors who have some connection to Decorah, Iowa, including Randi and Matt Spencer Berg, who sponsor Dechen Paldon; Parker Deen and Matthew Johnson; Laura Demuth; Mimi Rockne; Nancy Geshke and Peter Kerndt; Lou Ann & John Hall; Becky Idstrom and Kim Huinker; Jackie Loesche; Frank Mauss, my traveling buddy, who sponsors Tsering Nyima; Steve Marty; Tanya O'Connor; Janet and Vaughn Pultz; Gretchen Scheidel, who sponsors Tenzin Sangmo; Mary Smith; Ann Streufert; and Shirley & Mike Vermace.
I could give you the speech about how sponsorship only costs about the half the price of a daily latte, which is true enough as far as that goes. But sponsors make sacrifices worth praising. It costs $30 a month (postage can make it closer to $40). For many, that ain't chicken feed, especially in these strapped times. And money isn't all that's needed. Time is required too, for these children long for letters and photos. While they are very well cared for, the emotional connection between a sponsor and a child is an important part of a sponsor/child relationship.
But sponsorship isn't the only way to help. Others, like Linda and Tom Brandt, Hans Peter Jorgensen, Ellen Rockne, and the Decorah-based Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship have made generous financial contributions to the Tibetan Homes School in Mussoorie. Such contributions allow the school to care for many children who do not have sponsors and to meet other ongoing operational needs.
When I first became a sponsor, I recognized that I was making a financial contribution, but I didn't really believe that sponsors could give these children a sense of unique value. Now I had the privilege of sitting in a hotel room in India, with the muted rage of an Indian-Pakistan cricket war in the background, watching my own sponsor child Nyima Gyaltsen sort photos of other delighted children to give to their sponsors, whom I knew those children cherished. I had become a believer.
The outcome of the cricket war was still inconclusive when we had finished rechecking the packets. Nyima Gyaltsen and I roused Frank and we headed for the school. Kalsang Namgyal took a turn at being our guide and the four of us headed down the hill—Mickey Mouse and book bag in-tow—toward Dechen Paldon's house. I had accidentally exposed one of the rolls of film I had shot the day before and was glad for the excuse to revisit her. When we explained why we had to take more pictures, she gave us a bemused smile, as if to say, "Oh, these adults!" I knew I had chosen the right girl for the Spencer Berg family.
Then we moved on to the house of Nyima Dolma and Tenzin Sangmo. Nyima Gyaltsen was right about the gifts we had chosen for each of them. Nyima Dolma, saddled with a maturity beyond her years, was thrilled with the comfortable practicality of the book bag. Nyima Gyaltsen spoke with her for some time and, when they were through, she looked at me and smiled. Tenzin Sangmo finally smiled, too, though warily, when we took a picture of her holding the Mickey Mouse doll, which was almost as tall as she was. But in the wonderful "family" shot Frank took that includes her with me and my two Nyimas, she still peers up sideways at me, ever doubtful.
The world these two girls would grow up in is a far cry from the world they had left only a month before. They will be free to learn their language and traditions and practice their religion, and they also may be afforded opportunities they might not have had even if China had not occupied Tibet and marginalized Tibetans. For in exile, out of necessity Tibetan women have taken on more prominent roles. They are educators, doctors, political leaders—though, as is the case almost everywhere, as women they still must struggle with male dominated social structures and mores.
We had to meet two more new children to tell them about their sponsors and also deliver a package from a sponsor to a student who had been away from school when we first had arrived. On the way Kalsang Namgyal gave us a chance to visit the school's home for the elderly. The school does not just take of new refugee children. There are seniors who need care too, and because this exile has been going on for over 50 years, there are many Tibetan children born in India who also need to learn their native language, traditions, and religion, in order to keep the rich Tibetan culture from vanishing completely.
That night Frank and I were honored to have dinner with the General Secretary of the school. Kalsang Namgyal was there, too, and Kalsang Dechen assisted with the serving, though when I asked if she would be joining us, she shot me an appreciative, but remonstrative glance: This was obviously meant to be a guys-only affair. Over the meal, we recapped our visit, spoke of our impressions of the school, and reviewed the difficulties of delivering good water in an Indian hill station town. I talked too much and with too much animation, as usual. Then came the predictable but embarrassing formal thank-yous for our help and interest and, when the meal was over and the conversation began to lag a little, Kalsang Dechen returned to help with another surprise. Frank and I were both presented with traditional dress chubas and blouses. They were beautiful, made at the school, and we were floored by such generosity.
During the dinner it turns out that I had unintentionally embarrassed Kalsang Namgyal by telling the General Secretary how much we appreciated everything Kalsang Namgyal had done for us. He had arranged transportation to and from the train station in Dehra Dun. He had arranged our housing, first at the Tibetan guesthouse and then at the Carlton Plaisance. He arranged the travel and housing for our trip to Dharamsala. He arranged to shuttle us back and forth from Mussoorie to Rajpur. He arranged shopping excursions with sponsored children from both schools and an outing with Tsering Nyima. He visited us when we were sick. He personally took us to meet children. By our count, he had done a lot and I told the General Secretary so. But in Kalsang Namgyal's mind he had done very little for us. Before we left the next day—he knew he could tell me this because I appreciated honesty (there was no laughter in his eyes this time)—he said very seriously that I should not have complimented him so to the General Secretary during the dinner, for he had done almost nothing for us. He was actually visibly upset at receiving what he thought was unwarranted praise. It's hard to know how to react to such humility. It was so different from the way we accepted with bland politeness all the undeserved respect we had received from the Tibetans. When I apologized, Kalsang Namgyal probably did not realize how much I was apologizing for.
The morning of our last day, after I finished packing, I went to sit in the mild warmth of the garden at the Carlton Plaisance. As I basked in the sunshine with my tea and imagined what the garden would look in full bloom two weeks later, Nyima Gyaltsen strolled in from the school, sat down beside me, and handed me an envelope. I asked him if he wanted me to open it and he indicated that he did. He held my hand as I read the enclosed note aloud. I leave his grammar and punctuation uncorrected here because they add somehow, I think, to the message's emotional impact.
My dearest and greatest sponsor (father) Charlie Langton,
I am extremely happy to stay with you for ever and ever, but life is so funny sometimes meet together with big fun and sometimes depart each other with big sad. Now its on our time to depart each other, dear! I can't express my feeling towards you to say how much I love and miss during your absent. These words are not from my mouth. These words are from the bottom of heart.
Anyway, I am always thinking about how much I am lucky to have a sponsor like you since whenever and wherever you are I am always with you. I love you so much.
Moreover, maybe you thought that our journey from Mussoorie to Dharamsala had makes me so hard or difficult but its not. I was really happy as you and your calm friend (Frank) with me.
And I know how much you love me and try to do the best thing for me but from my side I can not do anything for you so I am very sorry for then even I can't express my feelings to you and how to say thank you and goodbye.
At time, immense thanks for your great support and once again I love you so much and my warmest wishes are always with you.
Have a wonderful journey and see you soon! Your sponsored child or loving son.
I was able to hold back tears only because of the greater urgency I felt to reassure him that he gave me far more than I could ever repay. I probably would have never traveled to India, I explained, never learned so much about his culture and people, never opened my heart so much to someone so far away. If I was deserving at all, it was because he gave me the opportunity to be so.
We sat together for a few more moments in silence before Frank joined us. I showed him the letter and saw that he was as moved as I was. Then, to break the laden atmosphere, I made a joke about how even Nyima Gyaltsen thought Frank was "calm" in comparison to me, and we all laughed.
We walked to the school to make more farewells. In Kalsang Namgyal's office I was able to sit for awhile with Nyima Dolma, where we spoke in hushed tones, communicating as best we could, and touched our foreheads together often to console each other. I bade farewell to my friend Mr. Dorje, the Tibetan art teacher and thangka painter, who presented me with a beautiful painting of a traditional Tibetan subject: Called "The Four Friends," it is based on a tale from the Buddha's previous lives and illustrates how we are all mutually dependant and no individual is truly greater than another—a lesson the Tibetans kept teaching me in spades. As we made our way from person to person, Nyima Gyaltsen stayed with us, never leaving our sides until, back at the hotel, we loaded our luggage into the car and were about to begin our descent to Rajpur. After such a protracted farewell, the final goodbye between us was mercifully brief. We hugged and assured each other we would email. As we drove off, I watched until he was out of site.
In Rajpur I sat a short distance away as Frank presented Tsering Nyima with the soccer ball he had bought him. The ball was not inflated and the pump Tsering Nyima found had seen better days. Watching the two of them as they struggled to pump up the ball, each analyzing the task at hand, I realized how similar they are: quiet, methodical, caring. (Perhaps Tsering Nyima is more impish, but then, I didn't know Frank when he was 10.) I remembered how Kalsang Dechen joked that Frank would make a good Tibetan. I could see she was right.
On the train ride back to Delhi, as we were recouping some of our emotional equilibrium and gearing up for travel mode, we were surprised to see Kalsang Namgyal's smiling face looming above us. He and Kalsang Dechen were traveling to Delhi as well and had seats a few cars up from ours. They gave each of us a golden budai (hotei) statue for luck. I realized that I was bringing home my weight in presents and had left so many people empty handed.
In Delhi, almost everything was shut down. Security was tight because Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf had arrived to begin peace talks and, more importantly, attend the last India-Pakistan cricket match. We began to worry if his visit would disrupt outbound flights the next day and about how early we would need to leave for the airport. I thought of what Mrs. Anu Singh told us: We had to get home fast, for we were already losing our auras and soon there would be nothing of them left for our friends to see.
Nyima Gyaltsen did get into college and now attends graduate school at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Gujurat, India. We email and I try to meet some of his expenses. I am very proud of him. Nyima Dolma pursues her studies at Tibetan Homes School and is becoming quite an artist. I understand that, happily, her parents are now in India, too, living in Dharamsala, though they are far too poor to care for their children yet, in a new country where land is at a premium and they cannot easily resume their familiar trade of farming. The school continues to care for both her and Tenzin Sangmo and Gretchen Scheidel and I continue to help as much as we can. Frank faithfully sponsors Tsering Nyima and remains calm and quiet enough to make a good Tibetan.
Both Indians and Tibetans inexplicably still love cricket, but Musharraf is no longer president of Pakistan and there is unrest in Kashmir. China still occupies Tibet. Riots broke out in Lhasa and eastern Tibet this past March. The Tibetan Government in Exile claims that over 100 Tibetans perished; the Chinese government asserts that only 10 people died. The country was closed to all international news access for a time and international human rights groups assert that hundreds of dissidents have disappeared into Chinese prisons. Coverage of protests during the Olympics was successfully suppressed. The world is already forgetting Tibet—again. Tibetan children continue fleeing to India and Tibetan Homes Schools continue to need our help.
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 at email@example.com for more information.
See all articles...
Visible by: Everyone (public).
All rights reserved
Exile's Young Face: The Olympic Struggle of Tibetan Children in Northern India—Part Three
This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Tapestry magazine.
Jason Elkins has particularly liked this article