Tibet here in Dharamsala

Originally posted April 6th, 2014

Learning about Tibetans in India

A couple of weeks ago I woke up in one of those moods –  discontent, not well rested but too on-edge to relax; bored and lazy but wanting to do something nonetheless.

The weather was un-inspirational, everyone around was slightly ill or exhausted and there was just no energy anywhere. Work was in an ebb of the frequent ebbs and flows they have here, and with no real drive or direction but still wanting to be productive, everything was just frustrating. Besides it was back to plaid shirts and two pairs of socks after a few days of spring had given us hope that the change in weather was permanent this time.

So then I decided to leave the house. The walk to McLeod usually re-energizes me and after months of frustrating iTunes problems (there’s a programme seriously incompatible with international living) I had finally found a way to access most of my music on my iPhone and could once again listen to some old favourites while taking a peaceful walk in the woods.

But then this plan got slightly sidetracked when I ended up going on a search for a leopard-mauled cow corpse and getting a head-massage from a Tibetan man. Sometimes the world likes to remind you that you have to do is leave your house when you’re feeling stagnant and uninspired and novelty will eventually find you.

Let’s explain – I left the house and as I was making the turn next to the Brigitte Bardot Animal Shelter I heard a guy shout down from his porch above “be careful!”. There was a massive cow eating out of the dumpster next to me so I assumed that’s what he was referring to, and gestured to it. “You saw the dead cow down the road?,” he asked me. I hadn’t but now I was curious. He went on to tell me that he’d seen a leopard in the woods just the day before – a young one, but still strong enough to take down a young cow apparently since he’d seen the dead body in the field nearby. I asked if it was normal to have leopards in these woods and he said that they don’t normally appear in the winter but now that it’s spring it’s possible to stumble across one. Then he asked if I wanted him to show me the body. Obviously I said yes. (In case anyone reading this finds this decision odd, I promise it was out of curiosity, not serial-killer tendencies). So I followed this Tibetan guy down the road the way I’d come, while he stopped several times to inform groups of Indian men about what he’d seen. They all seemed quite in awe, so I can’t imagine this is a regular occurrence. When we got to the field it turned out the cow’s body had already been removed, so that was slightly disappointing. But I’m sure a huge relief to anyone reading this because it means there are no disturbing pictures included in this post.

By this point, however, the Tibetan guy I were kind of buddies and he was quite interesting to talk to and seemed eager to discuss his culture, so when he offered to show me around some of the TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) complex I agreed.  I’d been to the school which is right up from Dal Lake and the largest (and first) Tibetan children’s school in India with just over 1700 students. And I knew that there was a handicraft centre there too, but what I didn’t realise is that they also have a hospital and a retirement home for teachers who had worked for the school for at least 30 years. It’s quite the organised community.

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He showed me the call centres, the lecture halls and we chatted about the TCV as we went. He told me was born here, had gone to school at the TCV and then worked there ever since. We sat down for tea and shared khapse, a Tibetan bread they eat during Tibetan New Year’s (Losar) celebrations. I saw pictures of his wife and son and I asked questions about the school and about how difficult it is to go back to Tibet. I learned that in the TCV there’s a room for all the babies who came as refugees from Tibet; that many of them are orphans or have only one parent. That many of the children arrive with frostbite from crossing the border on foot. Many parents in Tibet send their children to India for school because back home all the good schools are solely populated by Chinese students, and that children in the TCV are discouraged from taking pictures because when Chinese government officials find out that Tibetan families have sent children to India for school they are punished. He said that it was incredibly difficult to go back and visit, and quite impossible to if you went to this TCV in particular because it’s the most well-known. It was started in the 1960s when Tibetans began to cross into India as refugees and the Dalai Lama realised the importance of establishing a place for them to educate themselves while maintain their culture. His younger sister was told to come oversee these schools and has been a huge advocate for Tibetan refugee children since.

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I asked if the children learn Hindi at school as well, curious about their integration into Indian society, and he said absolutely, and that they also have classes in Chinese. His explanation for this was really surprising – that if Tibetans could speak to the Chinese people in their own language they might be able to have discussions on a personal level about Tibet and to explain that they weren’t a threat and why their culture is important. He said that the government had spread much misinformation about Tibet among the average Chinese populace, and that they believed that the way forward was to enable dialogue, to push through the propaganda. Obviously I wasn’t talking to an unbiased observer here, but this seemed to be a really enlightened and pleasantly simple approach to such a divisive issue.

I still got the impression that Tibetans and Indians around here really don’t mix much. I asked about how he felt the Indian government had been to Tibetans – if establishing all this incredibly organised infrastructure had been a challenge or supported – and he said that while the government had been incredibly supportive, the local Indian people in the area were not necessarily very open to Tibetans. He explained that when Tibetans have some money they tend to be a bit flashier with it than Indians and this can lead to resentment. When he was talking about the hostels they have for Tibetans in Bangalore and Delhi I noticed that while he was mostly talking about how they were there to provide cheaper alternatives for graduates from TCV looking to go to university in one of these cities, one off-hand comment he made definitely made me realise that part of the intention here was to keep their cultures separate and making sure the identity of these Tibetans is not diluted, so to speak, by too much time spent living or interacting with Indians. I realise the importance of maintaining a sense of group identity, but that still made me a bit uncomfortable.

 

And then he was talking about how the school also taught massage for health purposes and he gave me a really intense head massage and told me I need to wear warmer clothes and rest more. So that was weird. And on that note I said my goodbyes, asked what to do if I saw a leopard (he said throw it into the dumpster – but I’m pretty sure he meant throw something at it), and continued my walk to McLeod.

I’m in no position to comment on the politics of Tibet and China and certainly don’t intend on making any of this one person’s comments seem like absolute truths, but it was really interesting to sit down and hear a bit about the experiences one person has gone through and how he sees the situation of Tibetans here in India. I’ve talked to a few other Tibetan men very briefly here and when asked how long they’ve been in McLeod or how they like it, always get the same answer. It’s very nice, they like it very much, but it’s not home and they wish they could go back or at least visit more easily. I tend to forget that people here are refugees just because they dress well and go out and have communities, but when you actually ask where they are from, no matter how many years they’ve lived here in Himachal Pradesh, they always make the point of saying that they live here, but that Tibet is their home.

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