08 November 2011

Travel Writing

Some thoughts on the media of travel writing:

I never considered myself a creative writer. I still do not consider myself a creative writer. However, I've been doing a fair amount of creative writing this summer, and it has given me some food for thought.
Winter flower
I've written in three formats: a daily, personal journal, bi-weekly blog posts, and a final essay.

Personal journal: This writing is different from the others in that it covers the wide range of thoughts and experiences I had in a day. Things that were on my mind that never made it into blog posts I recorded here--my best friend in the Philippines, my distaste for Harry Potter films, my excitement and trepidation for interviews--and therefore help to encapsulate the range of personality that defines me. I really value that sort of writing. On a day when I decided to write down everything I did, the entry reminds me of little things about McLeod, like walking around for thirty minutes to find a trash can, that helped to define my experience. The range of topics shows the dynamics of my personality, which I also value. Though I am hesitant to allow people to read anything from my personal journal, the text remains personally valuable.

Bi-weekly blog posts: I am inordinately proud of these posts. Sometimes I reread them just because they help me remember those moments in India that stood out as important, defining, and somehow significant. I never wrote a post about something that didn't really matter to me at the time. I would usually sit down every few days and think, what happened that was interesting in these last few days? I wrote at least one draft for each post and did my best to tie together ideas from my reading with the personal experiences that were so important to me. I love this post in particular, and not just because it received a positive response from the people who commented. I liked being able to blend several experiences, to show an evolution of sentiment, all in one post. I liked the unity of text and ideas and experiences. Years from now, when I want to reminisce about India, I will most likely go to my blog posts and read through some favorites, laughing about the crazy and wonderful things that happened there.

Final essay: I am also quite proud of this paper, though I worry that it will never be finished. This is the most limited of the formats and yet the most deep. I only share four stories--the one of the Jewish man, polyandry, the beggars on the kora, and a story of a Tibetan girl making its debut (I didn't post about it) but I am able to explore a single theme in much more depth than the other formats. In my essay, I deal with the issue of becoming a Christian (that is, trying to follow Christ) and the ambiguity that can exist in the process. Though the essay is, in some ways, an excellent representation of my time in India, it cannot show the shallow scope of my personal journal or the snippets of the blog posts.

All three formats have merit, and so I am glad I wrote all of them. As for which is the most authentic--I couldn't say. Is it the mundane, everyday thoughts and actions recorded in a journal that defines the time? Is it a little, thoughtful reflection on some highlights in a blog post? Is it the post-field interpretation of the most significant of those experiences? I would say that, without the three taken together, one could not have a full understanding of what it meant to be a field study student in McLeod this summer.

Photo credit: doug88888

Symbols part two

Significant to both Hindus and Buddhists, the lotus flower is a symbol of purification from the imperfections of the body, speech, and mind. Many Buddhist deities are portrayed sitting on lotus flowers.

The endless knot represents the unity of religious knowledge and non-religious knowledge. This symbol is endlessly popular on architecture, particularly as the filler on railings and fences.

04 November 2011

Symbols part one

Tibetan prayer flags: These colorful cloths, hung all around outside between the branches of trees, are printed with prayers and left outside forever. The idea is that, as natural elements slowly break the prayer flags down, threads of prayer flag will fly around the world to bless people everywhere.

Om mani padme hum: This is the Dalai Lama's mantra of compassion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the god of compassion, and this mantra (which, literally translated,  means "the god from the lotus flower" as far as I gathered) is chanted like a prayer. It is everywhere--engraved on the rocks around the kora, printed on little flaps of fabric on my host family's front door, and sung in songs that shopkeepers play on the streets.

31 October 2011

Taj Mahal

I am not ashamed to admit that the Taj Mahal has been a significant part of the draw of India for me. Ever since I read and reread Kathryn Lasky's rendering of Jahanara's diary during my historical fiction kick as a child, the story of the Taj has had an irresistible pull on my imagination. Happily, it did not disappoint.

Once inside the temple compound, we face an imposing red entry gate. 

A young, college-educated Indian man eagerly pounced on us, promising that his tour guide services were perfectly free and immensely useful. We reluctantly agreed, and we were fortunate in that he never did insist on payment. He regaled us with tidbits about the symmetry of the building,

24 October 2011

A Chinese Feast

I got home from a long day of research one evening just in time for Trisong to get a phone call from his friend. Tam Kho was preparing dinner, and it was nearly time to eat. When Trisong hung up, he said,

"Do you want to have dinner with my friends?"

I said, "Well, yes of course!"

And so Tam Kho turned off the stove and put the lid on what was now to be tomorrow's dinner. We put on our shoes and headed across town to a tiny Chinese restaurant near His Holiness's temple. There were about 30 people there, but we couldn't even eat all the food. Every person but me was Tibetan, and we were all eating Chinese food.

Here's the thing: Panda Express is not what Chinese food tastes like. Nothing was sweet and everything was hot. I got a bit nervous when I noticed that everyone was using chopsticks, but when my bowl of rice came there was a spoon instead, and Tam Kho was kind enough to use a spoon, too.

20 October 2011

15 October 2011

Learner-Owned: Digital Civilization

Calla Lily Unfolding What is self-directed learning?

I enrolled in Dr. Burton and Dr. Zappala's Digital Civilization course because I knew the course work was self-directed. It means that you get to shape your education to your own interests, major, and goals. I enrolled in the class as part of my preparation for my field study to a Tibetan community in India, intending to read and blog about Tibetans as I learned history and technology in the class. My first post, Tibetans and More, connected the ideas of Thomas More's Utopia with the exiled Tibetans' relationship to their homeland, and my addendum mused about the Utopian ideas of classroom technology--iClickers, Blackboard, and websites. Later on, I took a poll of a few classmates to discern their digital literacy and put together a working definition for my research.

For part of our course requirements, we were supposed to become familiar with new technologies and try using them. I started using Skype and ended up chatting, just through text, with Norbu Jinpa, an administrator in the school where I was hoping to conduct my honors thesis research, and with an exiled Tibetan blogger. I posted these conversations on my blog where they generated more conversations with classmates and other peers.

One of the most useful posts was my research grant application draft. I simply posted the entire text online and asked for feedback from anyone and everyone. Several people responded with thoughtful suggestions, including one woman whom I'd never met, and I ended up with a good proposal that received funding.

08 October 2011


"Today, I did a whole lot of meditation and yoga."

This is how I began my 23 July entry in my personal journal, but it could have begun most of my entries in McLeod. We--that is, Rachel, Megan, Elizabeth, and me--decided to take an intensive training course and become certified yoga instructors. It wasn't just yoga, though--no, we are also certified in pranayam, or breathing exercises, and several types of meditation.

At first, it was hard to keep a straight face. Om has a rather eccentric way of speaking English, and some of the postures are quite amusing.

As the class went on, though, it became more and more apparent to me that much of yoga and meditation is wrapped up in Hindu worship. We began and ended each class with a "silent prayer for God," which was just fine for my Christian beliefs, and then Om would sing a Sanskrit mantra. We did a bit of reiki, natural Indian healing, sometimes, which consisted of holding our hands over our eyes to self-heal. (Mahinder, our massage teacher, would also do a bit of reiki, believing that our bodies have natural energy to heal ourselves and others.)

22 September 2011

People Watching

August 8
I am sitting in the Chicago O'Hare airport, domestic terminal, just past security on a cushioned chair (a chair with a back, mind you) beneath the massive departure screens. I am between my fifteen-hour flight from India and my three-hour flight to Salt Lake. I'll be here for another seven hours, though, so I don't know which gate to go to yet. In the meantime, I'm people watching.

The long flight was 98% Indians, which was surprising to me considering the many vehement complaints I've heard about obtaining an American visa. Unlike my flight to Delhi, though, this proportion didn't make me feel slightly uneasy at being so obviously a minority. After going through customs, I took a train to terminal three and walked back into America.

I felt an unacknowledged kinship with the few Indians I could see. One guard insisted a woman take off her bangles for the security check. He was a bit short with her as he demanded she remove the symbolic equivalent of a wedding ring. An elderly woman was helping a frail little relative to remove his jacket. A family checked their boarding pass as they searched for the proper gate. One woman walked by with a shaved head and maroon robes. Part of me wanted to call for the attention of these people; they were more familiar than the bleached-blonde tourist wearing booty shorts and carefully applied make-up. Last year that man wearing a turban and black-rimmed glasses would have been strange to me, but now all these Caucasians are strange.


August 4
Tibetans don't keep track of their birthdays. When I asked Amalah which day is her birthday, she told me June 6. I asked Gyurme when his birthday is. June 6. Then I asked Tashi which day he was born. June 6. What are the odds of that?

Actually, the reason they all have the birthday of June 6 is because they don't know which day they were born, but for official refugee documents they need a birth date. It's easier to remember one date than three, so they all chose the same day for their "birthday."

When I found out, in July, that I had missed their communal "birthday," I was determined to make it up to them.  I decided to purchase dessert for each of them on three separate days. The only dessert they ever eat is fruit, since they don't like things to be too sweet. I asked them what their favorite fruit was--Amalah loves watermelon, Tashi likes litchi berries and bananas, and Gyurme's favorite is pineapple--and then I planned the celebrations. A birthday celebration day meant that I would say, in the morning, "Happy birthday, Amalah!" and she would laugh, knowing that I'd be bringing fruit for after dinner. I, having always had special accommodations on my birthdays, couldn't feel right about forgetting the birthdays of my Tibetan family members.

01 September 2011

World Religions

Some of the my most extraordinary experiences abroad were the different religions I encountered. I kept track of the number of different religious services I attended--five, six, eight--and I felt blessed to meet devout people of so many faiths. In London I went to an Anglican service, the 5 p.m. Evensong by the Choir of Westminster Abbey. One Friday I ended up at a Jewish Shabbat feast, and another time I walked the kora on the most auspicious day in Tibetan Buddhism. I've been to Hindu temples, Sikh temples, the great Muslim tomb that is the Taj Mahal, and plenty of LDS services. One Sunday I even headed down to the old Anglican chapel in McLeod to a Protestant service led by an American pastoress. Here are some picture highlights from my unofficial study of world religions:
The LDS temple in London

The Buddhist temple at the TCV
A Sikh entering the Golden Temple compound
The Golden Temple

Happy Birthday, Your Holiness! (And Lalita!)

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born on July 6, 1935, my yoga teacher's daughter Lalita was born July 6, 2008, and July 6, 2011 in McLeod was one big party!

In some places, the celebrations for His Holiness's birthday last three days. Here in McLeod it lasts all morning (even though His Holiness wasn't even here because he was in Washington D.C.). We headed to His Holiness's temple after yoga in the pouring rain and saw at the main entrance that we wouldn't even be able to get up the stairs and into the main courtyard because the crowd was so huge that it spilled down the steps. We pushed through anyway, refusing butter tea and accepting buttery pastries on our way, and managed to penetrate about ten feet into the crowd. Unfortunately, though we could hear the TCV students singing, the only way we could see the dancing children was on the display screens of tall people who held their cameras far above the crowd to snap pictures. For a few minutes we stood there, too uncomfortably close to the people around us to enjoy the festivities, and then decided that our time would be better spent watching the live broadcast on television. We pushed back out of the crowd and then decided that we might as well try the upper floors first. The second floor was no better than the first, but the third boasted small groups of students dressing up in their costumes and preparing to go onstage before the enormous crowd. We'd essentially found the backstage dressing room, so we settled in and took plenty of photos of the adorable little children in their bright costumes. Since we couldn't watch the dancing, we took the next best option.

They learn to play these traditional instruments in extracurricular classes at the TCV

The kids were a bit shy about being photographed and nervous to go on stage

We weren't the only ones taking pictures of these cute kids

Three young performers

Makin' Momos

I read (on the menu of an Amdo-French restaurant) that the best cooks in Tibet are found in Amdo. Since Amalah is from Amdo, I believe it! I've been offering to help cook and saying that I want to learn to cook Tibetan food for a while now, and little by little I'm allowed to help.

I cannot even express how much I love eating Amalah's momos. I've helped with the assembly every time--it's actually a family affair (it takes a village to make a momo) and it takes us a long time. Amalah makes the dough (flour and water) and filling (potato, onion, masala, and cilantro is my favorite) and then spreads plastic on the floor. We all gather around, sitting on cushions because sitting on the floor will give you a stomach ache. There is a bit wooden cutting board and wooden rolling pin in the middle. One person starts by pulling off small segments of dough, which the rest of us form into flattened balls and then disks. Then someone rolls out the disks into momo shells (this is my newest skill) and the rest stuff them with potatoes and fold the edges into a pretty finish. We alternate tasks in a rotating assembly line, so every person gets to do each stage until we've made about 150 of them. Then we steam them for dinner and fry them for breakfast the next day. Momos are an entire dinner!
The easiest shape is "balep," bread, the flat round double thick momo, and the second easiest is the Lhasa crescent shape, the same as potstickers from Costco.  The cute round Amdo momos are tricky, but the momo soup dumplings (not shown here) win for most difficult shape.
Thenthuk is a soup full of thick, wide noodles. The noodles are flour and water kneaded for ten minutes and shaped into snakes. After the broth, chicken, and bokchoy are on the stove, we make the noodle snakes into long, flat necklaces and rip off small pieces into the pot. You would not even believe how fast Amalah is at noodle ripping! My fastest is half her speed. After those are done, we add tomatoes and cilantro and have our thentuk dinner/breakfast.

The very careful use of food, the daily purchase of fresh vegetables and daily preparation of every meal from scratch, is part of the nomadic lifestyle that Amalah left in 2003. In a nomadic society, a woman like Amalah learns how to cook when she is 15, marries a few years later, and then cooks every day. It's just part of survival. Her cooking has changed a bit in India--she uses masala and much less meat--but the pattern of her food preparation has not. Every morning she wakes up around 5:30 to make fresh balep, or bread, and every evening she makes momos, thentuk, chowmein, or rice with vegetables. She's very good at it, and I think she loves doing it, too.
Amalah ripping thentuk noodles

27 August 2011

Why I Love Massage Class

July 30
In just two words, Mahinder Kapoor.

The pleasant ring of his name alone doesn't quite express the brilliance of his class, though.

I met Mahinder at exactly the right time. I'd met Raj a few days before, the young Indian man who nearly ruined Indian men for me. I was walking up the endless Jogiwara stairs on my way to buy fruit for our post-sacrament meeting potluck when Raj tapped my shoulder. Could he please share my umbrella? I consented, thinking he just wanted shelter from the sudden downpour. As it turned out, I was wrong.

We reached the top of the stairs, and when I said I was going left he was no longer headed right. At the fruit stand, he insisted on buying the mangoes and bananas for me. I was not going to accept, but the fruit man said the price in Hindi so I couldn’t pay. Then Raj accompanied me on the entire fifteen minute walk down the hill. “Please, can I have your number? Where do you stay? Will you come to my hotel? Visit me in California? Here’s my card; call me if you ever need a ride to somewhere far away. Please, ma’am, just one kiss? Just one? Please?” My “engagement ring” didn’t stop him from putting his arm around my shoulders, but my armful of fruit and umbrella didn’t hinder me from swatting that arm away either. “No, I am engaged,” I insisted repeatedly, “only my fiancé can kiss me.”

27 July 2011

Lessons Learned

27 July
He's never been to the US, but that's Abraham Lincoln's face on the five dollar bill in his breast pocket. He pulled it out to teach me about cultural values.

"Lincoln, he is not alive. But you put his face on your money because you value him. And you, all you Americans, trust each other and trust that value. It's the same in India, but we have Mahatma Gandhi on our money."

It was something I'd never thought of before. "But it's not Lincoln or Gandhi who gives this the value of five dollars or one hundred rupees," he continued, "it's my trust, your trust, the government's trust. People around the world trust the value of five dollars. That's not because of Abraham Lincoln."

I am not entirely sure how this is related to the preservation of Tibetan cultural values that we'd been discussing before, but the director's next lesson was not lost on me.

"So you are a student here?"


"And you live with a Tibetan family?"


"That is good. You cannot get a 100% education from textbooks. If you only read books, your education is not complete."

I nodded and thought of Goethe's Faust. This fatherly man was determined to teach me, like so many of my Tibetan friends.

Walking in the Rain

23 July

One day I was walking up Jogiwara and I saw an elephant. Who knew that they hang out in the Himalayas? This one probably wan't here if his own accord, though, since he was being dragged around by a bunch of Hindu holy men who wanted 100 rupees from me because I touched the trunk of their trophy. Heaven only knows how much they would have demanded if I had actually climbed aboard the elephant as he stood in the traffic-laden main square, car horns blaring at the crowd around him. As much as I wanted to find out, though, I never got to ride the elephant. My opportunity was spoiled by the rain.

As Khushwant Singh says in his novel Train to Pakistan, monsoon is not another word for rain; monsoon is a season. Monsoon means that every morning, I slide my feet into wet sandals that haven't been dry since the hot roads of Amritsar. It means that I no longer forget my umbrella at restaurants. It means that we haven't seen the sun for days, and it means that I gave in to the 70 rupee rickshaw ride to the TCV.

It's really easy to be irritated at the torrential rain. Once I was walking back from the TCV when the clouds broke. I hadn't rolled up my pants in time, so the linen was soon sopping wet. As I plodded along, I regretted refusing the rickshaw driver and motorcyclist who had offered me rides. On the deserted mountain road there was no shelter, so by the time I trekked the five kilometers I was soaked from the elbows down. In my mind I was reviewing all the things in my flimsy backpack, which I had clutched to my chest, that would lose the battle with the water. A cell phone, a digital voice recorder and its record of my interviews, and the irreplaceable notebooks that represented weeks of school work were what I stood to lose. Oh, please oh please don't make me analyze Kim again . . . .

After I read G.K. Chesterton's "On Running After One's Hat," though, I decided to change my attitude about the monsoon. No longer was my umbrella an additional, obnoxious appendage. No, now it is my cane, and I am a stately gentlewoman riding in my coach that is really a rickshaw. And now my umbrella is a spear with which I must save myself from yet another furious barking dog. And, right after, it's a cane again, and I'm an old woman who takes a very long time to climb the stairs.

I was walking home from meditation in the heaviest rain of the monsoon so far. The wind actually blew my umbrella inside out, exposing my head and precious backpack to the furious downpour, but I just laughed because I am a character in Mary Poppins, and that's part of the territory. The road was a brown river, but that's as it should be, because I'm a pirate jumping from rock to rock to avoid the crocodiles. I want to take a picture, but my camera battery died, which is just as well because I'm Rachel's avatar Shelley, and I'm just experiencing this moment instead of trying to capture it. When I finally reached a shelter, halfway home, I leaned on my umbrella cane and laughed as fat droplets fell on my head after they slid down the underside of the pavilion. Because I'm a girl in the Indian monsoon, and that's half the fun.

Photo credit lokenrc

25 July 2011


Elizabeth, Bonnie and I had a fruit feast! Sadly, I can't add the photos yet, but I will describe the experience in such luscious detail that you won't even need a picture.

First, the bargaining. This did not go well. We thought we might get a discount for buying so much fruit, but turns out that it's actually more expensive to buy fruit in large quantities . . . or something. In any case, most of the fruit and vegetable vendors have small scales and weigh the produce to determine the price, so it's also possible that we paid fair price. Grand total: 110 rupees. Breakdown: 40 for three mangoes (one of each of the types you find in McLeod), 45 for a bunch of litchi berries, and 25 for a papaya. He wouldn't take a rupee less.

Then we headed down to the kora to eat our fruit. We got many strange looks for making such a mess with so much fruit, but the only lasting damage was a lot of fruit juice dripped on the cement, and that didn't hurt anyone.

The small green mango: medium sweetness, stringy, pleasant size. The baby size, green mangoes are aesthetically pleasing with their golden yellow interior and lime green exterior. It's the perfect size to get a mango rush without being overwhelming.

22 July 2011

Shopping for a Salwar Kameez

20 July
In an open field near a gravel pit there is a dirt mound. The view of the gravel pit is dark and hopeless, "what nothing really is." If you take a few steps on a "tract of unlit sand," though, you come to the dirt mound with its "weed-covered slope." From there you can see everything--mountains, city lights, and the moon. In the gravel pit you'll hear the soundless vacuum of emptiness and feel the colorless loneliness of nothing. On the dirt mound you'll hear the breeze and feel the reverberation of the silent voices of the night. Clearly, the mound is the place to be, but the gravel pit is not to be resisted.

Dr. Burton's text works as a metaphor for my mind--the gravel pit of depression and the dirt mound of joyful relief. The tract of sand has its place, too, as neither one nor the other. For my mother's sake I'll not that, like the narrator, I do not jump into the pit but merely look in. I should also note that gravel, sand, and dirt are all natural states of rock in the same way that these mental states are normal parts of my life.

Just before we left for Amritsar a group of us went shopping for salwar kameezes. The excursion began happily, as I'd just spoken to my adorable family on Skype, and swiftly went downhill from there. We discovered that the time needed to tailor the clothes meant that we would not have them in time to wear in Amritsar, which was the only reason I was buying one. I therefore requested to see the ready-made options, none of which I liked at all. I was unfortunately in the company of an aggressively opinionated Indian woman named Ragni who insisted that this one looked great with my face and I ought to buy it. I consented to appease her, and then looked around at the other fabrics.

18 July 2011

Highlights from an Interview

"Students hardly get the chance to hook up in the internet, so whenever they get the chance they always try to go for some entertainments . . . social networking, email, chatting, visiting each others hi5 profile or facebook profile, and most of the time they use it for sending messages and pictures and emails."

"This year we are trying to make the internet really common for the students . . . [but] we're trying to block all these social networking sites. We are trying to encourage them to use the internet for distance learning."

"There are so many good things about Tibetan culture and so many backward things. Culture itself has to be improved; it has to be changed. Good things should be maintained and bad things should be abolished."

"There is a problem, that's true, but that's not because of the internet. I think the problem is the one who uses the internet."

Precious Pills and Parasites

16 July
Have you ever wondered how folk wisdom comes about?

My guess is that it is not unlike the way Thalia's neighbors in Donald Marshall's "The Week-end" generated their own version of her getaway: a grief-driven trip to escape the home where her mother died. The neighbors are wrong about Thalia, but that possibility never occurs to them. Perhaps, later, the story will become an old wives tale--"I once knew a woman who was so crazed with grief at her mother's death that she locked up her house, leaving her pets in there to starve, and ran away to California with the postman. That's what grief will do to you." Two parts truth, eight parts fabrication.

A friend of mine learned from the folk wisdom of Ukraine that sitting directly on the floor will cause barrenness because it will freeze your eggs. Tibetans believe that sitting directly on the floor will cause a stomachache, and that is why Amalah always hurries over with a cushion if I sit on the floor to read. Bits of folk wisdom are the quirks about foreign cultures that usually make me laugh. It stopped laughing, though, when it became necessary to trust my health to folk medicine.

Julia was the first in our group to get sick. She ended up at the traditional Tibetan hospital and acquired some "precious pills," along with perhaps 20 other pills of still unknown function. A precious pill is a tablet that has been blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and can only be taken on auspicious days. Fortunately, Julia had fallen ill on an auspicious day, so her host mom helped her dissolve the pill in boiled water, which she was then supposed to drink. If you were a child like me and chewed on a pill that you didn't know you were supposed to swallow whole, then you know what Julia tasted not only as she drank the water but as she tried to forget about drinking it for the next several hours. It didn't do much for her already-ill stomach.

Fortunately, we've had only minor illnesses so far. 

Is This My Life Right Now?

13 July
It was some godforsaken hour of the morning when we arrived at our hotel in Delhi. The taxi, annoyed that we'd pre-payed inside the airport, had gone off the instant we evacuated his vehicle, leaving us to wonder if that mangy stray dog was chewing on a real animal or a stuffed one as we made our way to the hotel's glass door. There were people and dogs sleeping on the streets, and through the glass we could see the hotel employees sleeping on the couches in the lobby. Rachel knocked and woke one of them, and he ambled unhappily to the door.

"I made a reservation here," said Rachel. She handed him a card.

The man was tired and didn't care. He was ready to turn around and lay back down on the couch. A group of men, spotting us standing there vulnerably, surrounded by our luggage, swarmed with offers of alternative "very nice" hotels "not far" from here. I pretended that I could not speak English. Then I heard Rachel say, "excuse me--no--I have a reservation!" and I turned to see the door shut and watch that employee go back to bed, leaving us completely stranded on the street in Delhi at 2:30 a.m., with only the dog, its meal, and the group of hotel-men for company.

It was this moment when Julia thought, "is this my life right now?"

The phrase became representative of our summer in India. When the train to Amritsar pulled up to the station in Pathankot, so full of Indians that they were spilling out the doors, Julia said aloud, "is this my life right now?" Nevertheless, we boarded the train ten minutes later. We were fortunate; that same day, a train identical to ours crashed fatally elsewhere in India.


9 July
"Tell me about your project."

Usually this can be translated as, "please give a synopsis of the boring academic side of your trip to India that does not exceed two minutes in duration." People are generally disinterested in the relationship between Tibetan cultural preservation and digital media, so I feel like a professor lecturing on the history of economics to a class of sleeping students. No matter how enthusiastic you are about The Wealth of Nations or technology in developing countries, some listeners won't care.

When Ashley asked, though, my two-minute synopsis didn't satisfy her. She wanted to know what I'm doing and how I'm feeling about what I'm doing. She asked about my anticipated final product, a hazy vision that's slowly and privately been taking shape in my mind. She wanted to discuss my interview questions and read my survey and meet my informants. Best of all, she wanted to help me improve my efforts. In that thirty minute conversation Ashley encouraged me to articulate the focus of my project and decide what I was most interested in. "Your interview questions right now will get you a lot of background information, which you don't need anymore. How about you revise them so that they focus on cultural preservation? Also, you might email Sandee and ask for permission to conduct a few informal interviews with students. Have you though of talking to people here in McLeod as well?"

Like the wise mentor in Kenneth Grahame's "The Roman Road" from The Golden Age, Ashley has a vision that far surpasses my own. She's been to Rome, as it were, and come back to tell me about it.

Desire vs. Satisfaction

6 July
I was sitting in the senior section staff room writing when Tenzin, my friend who teaches Tibetan, began to argue with some of the female teachers.

"I don't care, I just want his money. You can never have too much money," said one teacher, looking up from her Apple laptop to discuss a very rich yoga master.

"Then you are greedy," said Tenzin.

"Maybe I am greedy," she replied, "but I still wouldn't mind having his money. I don't care about his yoga."

Another teacher piped up. "Humans have an unlimited capacity to want," she said.

That was the last straw for Tenzin.

"What? You think people can't be satisfied with what they have? Maybe there are some people who always want more but they are greedy. Hey!"

He was talking to me. I looked up from my notebook. "Yes?"

Stylistic Imitations Cont.

You can read my first four here.

5. The best to come to India is in January. When you visit in July you've come in the middle of monsoon. The Tibetans and Indians are on their guard, and one of them will warn you, shaking his head, eyes weary, "The streets turn into rivers of dirty water. If you think you can walk to the TCV in the heavy rain, you should think again." What you must do is walk down the road, keeping your umbrella over your head and your backpack on your front, pretending you can't hear the obnoxious squeak your wet sandals make.

6. One summer, in 2011, I went to a hill station in India with a group of six other students for three months. We all got sick from the water and had to take pills twice or three times per day and one girl got locked on a roof; but besides that the field study was a success and all of us thought there was nothing in the world quite like that hill station in India.

7. The research process is now as firmly established in academia as the professor's lecture or the essay exam. First you decide on a topic of inquiry, conduct the research, and then publish the results. This is capable of expression by the formula inquiry > research > publish, or IRP. Last year, when I started my research blog, I began an inverse procedure: PRI, for publish > research > inquiry. Fortunately, the results of publishing my early thoughts included in-field contacts, good rapport, and a several  pre-field interviews, which resulted in a more developed project proposal than my vague preliminary idea for my fieldwork--a classroom experiment in which students used facebook for homework. In light of the process I made from so simple a change as documenting my thoughts and experiences on a public blog, it's too bad that I am just an undergraduate researcher. A full-blown professor, with impressive credentials, years of education, research experience, extensive knowledge, and the wisdom of age would surely produce something extraordinary.

8. As far as I could guess no white girl had set foot in this tiny Chinese restaurant before I came. I was told before we arrived that we were going to dinner with friends. I took this to mean that we were going to eat at someone's home, perhaps Tashi since he had come to dinner twice before. I didn't think that we'd be joining a group of about thirty Tibetans for an ironically Chinese feast.

9. Sacrament meeting again. We're sitting on a green painted bench at the Dalai Lama's temple, as we do every Sunday, trying to avoid being a photo op for large groups of Hindu and Sikh tourists, which is always impossible. We are that group that encompasses everyone at one time or another: religious minority.

10. TCV? It's a 45 minute walk from McLeod, a beautiful trip that takes you along a Himalayan trail, and if you are someone escaping Westernized McLeod or just seeking Tibetan culture, then by all means come here. Nestled in the hills, overlooking the hot Indian plains, and behaving like its own city, it is a Tibetan boarding school with heavy monsoon rains for a quarter of the year, roughly June to October. There are adorable children, really extraordinary hydrangea bushes and calla lilies, and if you have permission from the headmasters, the classes, though difficult to navigate, are excellent, which, when you consider that many of the students are orphans and refugees, is a very good thing. Almost everything in the TCV is pleasant, though, so before coming here you should do two things: befriend an administrator and buy an umbrella. Following this advice will allow you to access the libraries, classrooms, and staff lunchroom without getting your hair wet, though the same cannot be said for your shoes. The TCV is a city of students, a school where teachers are also parents, an unconventionally family. This is somewhat like the community in McLeod, where many people have left their families behind in Tibet and therefore recreate those relationships in India; for that matter, McLeod and its TCV have another common denominator: self-containment. The average Tibetan, for instance, thinks Christianity and the Pope are the same thing, whatever that may be--in any event, he doesn't care; and some Westerners, captivated by maroon robes and low-voiced chanting, come to agree.

Imitation of Models (reversing number 7)

He might have written a masterpiece, had he eaten a Long Island duck, a pair of lobsters, a thin sword-fish of steak of generous area, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, three sauteed soft-shelled crabs, some bay scallops, a peck of steamers, a bowl of clam chowder, and a dozen Gardiners Island oysters. It's a pity that Proust forewent this hearty appetite in favor of such mild a stimulus as "a light cake made with sugar, flour, lemon juice, brandy, and eggs," the madeleine. My significantly more robust taste--travel, Cote Rotie, stuffed tripe, stewed rabbit, and small birds--was happily recreated when I once read The Food of France. My experience could be expressed in the formula BMT, for Book > Memory > Taste. The inverse, TMB for Taste > Memory > Book, occurred when a man ate a biscuit, the taste evoked memories, and he wrote a book. This process is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton's apple or Watt's steam kettle. It's the Proust madeleine phenomenon.

09 July 2011

The Price to Ask of Sahibs

In order to use a public restroom in McLeod, you need to pay a few rupees. The exact amount that you pay, however, is not posted, and that is because it depends on the color of your skin and hair. A Tibetan or an Indian will pay three rupees to the man who guards the door; an American, Australian, or European will pay five.

Two rupees, of course, is a negligible cost that won't make a dent in anyone's wallet, but the issue is in the principle of the thing. Rudyard Kipling's character Kim in his novel of the same name is an Irish orphan raised in India. Hindi was his first language and his is intimately familiar with Indian culture. At one point in the text, however, he is wearing the clothes of a Sahib, or white boy, and asks a letter-writer how much he will charge for one letter. The letter-writer tells him four annas. Annoyed, Kim, speaking in the vernacular, calls his bluff--"That is the price to ask of Sahibs"--and demands a real quote. Eventually, he gets his letter for one and one half annas, less than half the Sahib price.

Unfortunately, I am not very good at bargaining. The best bargain I ever made was only an accident, and I didn't buy the item because I'd never intended to. As it turns out, genuine disinterest is an excellent way to encourage the shop owner to drop his price. Megan in my group is excellent at haggling, and so far five of our group members have purchased, for the same price, a pair of yoga pants which she reduced from 300 to 200 rupees. With fruit we've had worse luck--a papaya, two mangoes, and three bananas cost 110 rupees and the fruit stand man won't budge. The price doesn't add up (35 rupees for the papaya, mangoes cost 20 each, and three bananas for 15 should be 90) because apparently when you buy large amounts of fruit the price of mangoes increases. If you choose the right fruit guy, though, you can get three bananas for the price of two, and then you'll feel better.

08 July 2011

"Om . . . "

29 June
"Okay, so next, toes together, your feet close, hands upside, interlock the fingers, inhale . . .

"Exhale, your hands down.

"So next, right hand up, all body right side turn, you sitting comfortable position, your hands gamotra position.

"Three times speak the om verse.

"Om . . .

"Om . . .

"Om . . .

"Next your hands . . .

[We all rub our palms together furiously]

"Few seconds touch the eyes, self-heal. So feel all positive energy of zhe, negative energy outside they are finished. You feel all positive energy of zhe, negative energy outside they are finished.

"Few seconds face massage . . .

"And next thanks for God . . . thanks for God . . .

06 July 2011

Are We Not All Beggars?

25 June
The middle of June contains the most auspicious day of the year. On this day, spinning a prayer wheel one time is like spinning it (or praying) a hundred times. It is very easy for your good karma to increase exponentially if you behave well on this day (but the reverse is also true--if you do bad things on the most auspicious day then you get 100 times worse karma). School and work are on holiday so you have plenty of time to work on your karma.

That day I walked the kora, the path around His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple. There were more beggars than usual, every one of them helping you increase your good karma by giving you the chance to give to the poor. On a regular day, there are about 10 beggars at various points of the kora. On the holiest day in Tibetan Buddhism, there are 2,000.

I don't know if I can really explain what it means to walk amidst 2,000 beggars. They were all Indian. They lined the path on each side, mothers and fathers and grandparents and children. Lepers with missing fingers and limbs. Men with gory, bleeding sores, prominently displayed to arouse revulsion and sympathy. Children without pants or diapers. Women no older than myself with four children. Nursing mothers. Wizened faces. A small family gathered around a saucepan, dipping spoons into a mush of corn. Monks and holy men. Beautiful, brightly colored saris. Gold jeweled nose rings. rumpled hair. Brown skin. Sad, perplexed, angry, excited eyes. Squatting on dirt, on mats, on rocks. Holding silver plates and bowls. Begging for rupees.

Two thousand. At least two thousand.

25 June 2011

The Survey

Okay, it is ready.

I followed my professor's advice and spent some time observing classes (and teaching classes, actually) and talking to teachers, administrators, and students to make sure my survey questions were relevant and useful. I decided to simplify from the 20-30 questions I'd originally planned and instead stick with nine.

Here they are:

  1. I go online: every day, several times each week, several times each month, several times each year
  2. What do you usually do on the internet?
  3. What are your favorite things to do on the internet?
  4. How do you use the internet for schoolwork?
  5. True or false: I can almost always find what I am looking for on the internet
  6. Why is it useful to talk to people on the internet?
  7. Why do you use facebook?
  8. Why do we have internet? How is it useful?
  9. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that his main concern is to preserve Tibetan culture. Does internet make Tibetan cultural preservation easier or more difficult? How?
The principal is currently reviewing my survey and will tell me on Monday if I can proceed. She might have some ideas for revisions, and it may be that I give the survey once and decide to revise, but I am happy with it so far. I have, with the teacher's permission, posed most of these questions in TCV classrooms and had excellent verbal responses, exactly what I had hoped and anticipated I would find. I am optimistic about the written responses because students are much more comfortable writing English than speaking it.

I haven't been posting much about my project at all, and that is partially because I limit my time in internet cafes and also because I cannot publish my raw data. I can say, however, that I had a great conversation with Phuntsok yesterday and he is very excited about my research. He says that I am the first person to research in this area and that the school is eagerly anticipating reading my final report. 

All I can say is--I have a lot of work to do.

Me and My (Unrealistic) Expectations

22 June

One thing I've learned about travel is that things won't turn out like you expect them to. You've seen pictures of Delhi and London and Paris before you go there, but the pictures you've seen are artistic shots of beautiful architecture or poetic renderings of quaint streets. You haven't seen that street our hotel was on because no one wants that part of Delhi framed on their wall.

Like the boy in James Joyce's "Araby," I've had to learn that the bazaar isn't the romantic Eastern land of enchantment I expected but a half closed, silent, dark collection of shops whose keepers aren't even all that friendly (so to speak). When I went to the Tibetan wedding I had a lot of preconceived notions about what a wedding is--a formal ceremony, a smiling and kissing bride and groom, a white dress, dancing, and so forth. Of those, the only thing present was dancing, and that was just one guy after he got a little tipsy. I wasn't actually aware when the wedding ceremony started, and it consisted simply of a line of guests laying white scarves around the necks of the wedding party. When I went to the Welcome Cafe, I expected just about anything except a Jewish worship service. I also had no idea of the bond that traveling in India would forge between the members of my group since we didn't know each other at all before field studies.

24 June 2011

"Tashi Delek!"

Last week I went to a Tibetan wedding. It started only thirty minutes late, which is amazing because they'd had only two days notice that the wedding would even occur! The young bride wore an exquisite chupa made of red patterned silk and her hair was done in two French braids. The groom wore a traditional black suit and both wore fur-lined hats. The family had placed a bucket of milk and a pile of manure on their front porch in the morning to give the couple good luck. Everyone was dressed in Tibetan clothes: the family wore silk chupas and the guests wore cotton chupas. All the shoes, however, were Western. Dolma, the bride's sister-in-law, wearing a pair of high heels exactly like a pair I have at home, told me that she never wears heels except for weddings. As a result, her legs and feet were in quite a lot of pain as we ascended several of McLeod's many steep roads.

When we arrived we stopped at the door, flicked seeds into the air three times, ate some floury substance (which turned out to be tsampa) and flicked a liquid into the air three times (which was chang, a beer made of barley). This procedure represented the first offering or gift, which goes to God. Then we entered and sat down to a plate of cookies. They were mostly Tibetan cookies, which have only a trace of sugar, but a few chocolate and butter biscuits, too. We were offered no less than six different beverages, and we declined all but water and Fanta since we don't drink traditional Tibetan butter tea, Coke, Mountain Dew, or alcohol. Soon afterward we had a dish of spicy peas, peanuts, and lentils to accompany the cookies.

21 June 2011

Friday Night at the Welcome Cafe

18 June

I didn't realize it, but the slender bearded middle-aged man seated on the cushion next to mine was in charge of the entire event. He was, I discovered shortly, a Jew from Brooklyn, "a little place in New York City with only six million people." I gave him license to mock me like the others had when I remarked dryly that six million is twice the population of Utah, a feigned serious response to a flippant statement that did, in fact, lead to more compliments on my English: "it's really almost like you're a native speaker!"

We were a crowd of extraordinary diversity. We were African, Indian, and Caucasian, American, French, Russian, and Austrian, Jewish and Mormon and Protestant and maybe even Hindu. We were gathered in a small cafe perched on the top of the mountain, seated on cushions around five low tables, looking around in the dim lights that blended smoothly into the surrounding darkness and cast strange shadows around the room.

The generous cafe owner tapped the Jew on the shoulder, prompting him to begin. The Jew welcomed us all and explained that he would pray first in English and then in Hebrew. The prayer was as familiar to my ears as it was foreign--our faiths are thousands of years apart but they still resonate in the same way. He then said a prayer from his own heart, thanking God for life, and split a piece of chapatti to pass in both directions around the table. He himself drank the Coke that he had substituted for wine. Outside, the two lit candles still burned and flickered.

16 June 2011

The Emily Post

June 15
Robert Louis Stevenson's text The South Seas, or at least the portion I read, focuses on the twin experiences of foreign hospitality and breaches of etiquette on the part of the traveler. Certainly, when all social cues are removed by immersion in an unfamiliar culture, the traveler is bound to make some blunders! My worst so far was asking, in my first few days, to have the table so I could lay my sweater out to dry (I am one of those people who obeys the care instructions on the tags of my clothing, and that sweater insists that it cannot be hung on a clothesline with everything else). The table was the best available surface, and I thought it a bad idea to risk dampness on the couch-beds where we sleep. Unfortunately, I was not thinking right. The table is the only table in the house. We use it to dine, do homework, place mugs and papers, and generally fulfill the table purposes for which American homes have 20 table surfaces of varying sizes. And it was this table, the table in the center of the house, the table around which life revolves, that I selected to house my wet sweater and thereby took out of action for the day.

Fortunately, my ridiculous request was only partially honored, and the sweater was moved to a better location outside. The lesson to me, to learn and respect the way my host family lives, was stamped on my brain in permanent ink. I've read Emily Post's giant book on etiquette, but it didn't go as far as tell me how to behave in a Tibetan home in India.

The narrator in Stevenson's South Seas evaluates the Marquesan people in terms of the manners in his own culture. To some degree this is unavoidable. Some things have been so thoroughly ingrained in our minds as socially unacceptable that we don't recognize them as unique to our own culture. When I sit in the kora and write my reading journal for my literature class, my writing seems to fascinate the people sitting around me. Bound by Emily Post's laws, I can't shut my notebook from prying eyes for fear of being rude myself, yet I can't stop myself from thinking it impolite for a stranger to lean over and read my journal.

But that's just the thing--different cultures have different rules of etiquette that Emily Post doesn't know. The waiter in Delhi, who stared brazenly at the four of us eating, even taking a video recording on his cell phone, was acting in accordance with the restrictions and allowances of his own culture. Likewise I, when eating chow mein noodles twisted around my fork in small bites so that I take twice as long as everyone else to finish dinner, act in accordance with the Emily Post bible. The point is to learn the rules of the foreign society--don't walk counter-clockwise on the kora, clasp hands and nod to greet, refer to the Dalai Lama as His Holiness, don't ever come late for dinner--and then to treat them with the respect that you know Emily Post would.

Stylistic Imitations

These are some short passages I wrote for my travel writing class:
  1. The waterfall had many clear pools amid the boulders and a great many places to sit. I might not have gone to the top if it weren't for the mighty roar of the largest column of falling water. Yet the sound promised natural beauty of the purest sort, such as is found all throughout the Himalayas. This waterfall is nestled between two green hills. It is long and narrow. Its origin is high out of man's reach. Its water falls in white sheets. Its roar is the only sound. We took to the hill, admiring its excellent and clean beauty. It looked like the perfect place to sit in peace. But this was not so. For it was home to a hundred bathing Indian men, and they were all too pleased by the sight of six girls.
  2. The other day I was walking at the kora and, stopping midway to read, encountered a bearded monk who gave me an old Tibetan book, which he insisted I keep. The writer had been a fine-fingered man who was also likely a monk. The 44 beautiful pages were unbound, their dyed crimson edges exposed on every side, and the pages were an old, stained orange. There were prayers, perfectly formed in Tibetan script, hand-lettered with ebony ink that had smeared in some places, and the whole volume, with its worn corners and small holes from stray incense offerings, seemed to express the religious devotion of a devout community. I brought it to my host family and, while we were entertaining a friend of mine, listened to the title read aloud: "[Insert Tibetan script here]." (I don't know how to type Tibetan script, sorry!)
  3. It happened at the kora, a holy place for Tibetan Buddhists. I was sitting at the covered pavilion, which is at the halfway point of the path across from the prayer flag garden and the temple's back steps. The monastery entrances are on either side. The pavilion was build for the tired Buddhists to rest before ascending the steep hill to the temple gate. It is not private, but quiet enough. The other benches, set up on the steep hill, are less desirable; cold metal, inadequate roofs, and high traffic. On that day I looked up to see, walking toward me, a man, a Buddhist monk, who had an unshaven head. He was younger than many, perhaps forty, though unorthodox, with long hair and a beard. He was tall, and he was wearing the normal maroon robes that adorn all Tibetan monks. The thing he had in his hand was a find book, old and edged with crimson dye, recalling the treasures displayed in museums. Its shape was long and narrow, its words were perfectly etched in ebony ink, and there was something sacred about its careful preservation, something rarely given to a stranger.
  4. When I decided to teach English abroad, I thought that teacher training would cross cultures without trouble. I know now that teaching changes with every class; it turns out that Tibetan classes vary as much from each other as they do from their American counterparts.
More to come!

Where I Am and What I'm Here For

June 11

(Written with gratitude and appropriate credit to Henry David Thoreau)

I went to the mountains because I wished to live differently, to meet and live with people from a culture, or, indeed, a world, distinct from mine. When I come to die I do not want to find that I've only stared at Plato's shadows of the world and never seen reality. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. Culture shock, the bewilderment of the eyes seeing an excess of light, eventually becomes a fresh understanding of life and humanity.

I am learning something about Thoreau's "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" here in a home that is just larger than my bedroom in Utah, in a culture that operates on polychronic time, and among people who have spent their entire lives in Tibet and India. Every day I walk around the kora, the path around His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple, and sit on the benches across from the prayer wheels. Tibetans spin these wheels clockwise, and one rotation represents one prayer. The wheels were originally created so that the illiterate, who cannot read prayer books like the monks do, could also pray, but today everyone uses them.

Honestly, though, I don't know how Thoreau did it. I get depressed when I don't speak to a living soul for an entire day. There are two reasons people in McLeod speak to me: one, they want my money, or two, they want a private English tutor. Every so often I think someone is just friendly . . . and then they ask for my number and an English lesson. I am disheartened by this, so I have retreated into my shyness. I spend whole days reading and writing my coursework, very productive and very alone.

Yesterday I became anxious at the thought that I might finish my coursework early (which I will, if I continue at the rate of four books per week) and then have nothing to do in McLeod. Fortunately, Rachel invited me to lunch just then and helped me realize that there are plenty of pleasant activities available in this city. I've made a list of things I'll do when I finish my coursework: full day hikes, yoga instructor training, shopping for gifts, meditation and prayers, the Norbulingka institute and lower Dharamsala, hit the live music scene, take a cooking class, figure out how to replicate those extraordinarily delicious chocolate balls, find the Tibetan library.

Still, I don't know how Thoreau did it, alone in his cottage with nothing to do. The hardest part is to be always alone.

08 June 2011

Tradition and Modernity

8 June
On the day I met my Tibetan host family I asked, innocently, a question that probably embarrassed my thirteen-year-old host sister Pema: "Is Tashi your father or is it Gyurme? I'm a bit confused."

She gave me a strange look. "Tashi. Gyurme is my uncle."

My confusion came from the way Gyurme had introduced me to the family. "This is my brother Tashi, my sister-in-law Amalah, this is Pema and this is Sonam," he said, indicating a man, a woman, a girl and a boy. "Tobgyal is away at school; he is twelve years old." Later, though, he referred to Sonam as his son, a small comment that nonetheless provoked my question for Pema.

A week or so later, when all the children were again away at school, Amalah stopped sleeping on the bed out on the porch and moved inside to the bed that shares a corner with my own in the one-room home. Tashi and Gyurme, however, stayed put. I waited until one morning when Amalah and Gyurme were still asleep in the corner bed and Tashi walked in, back from morning yoga, to be certain that I was living in a polyandrous household, but by that time I had few doubts.

When I spoke to the girl from my school who had lived with this same family a few years ago, I learned that she, too, had been introduced to Amalah as Gyurme's "sister-in-law" and had, like me, discovered that description to be euphemistic. She offered some insight: "Gyurme's probably embarrassed by polyandry because he's such a 'modern man.' That's what one of his British friends said."

Polyandry is, in fact, a traditional Tibetan practice. In an article published in Natural History I learned that nomad brothers in Tibet often share a wife and thereby prevent the family from splitting into different groups, only the eldest of which could inherit the family's property. It was desirable for the woman, who would have multiple incomes to support herself and her children.

06 June 2011

Miss Tibet 2011 Finale

We changed the time of our group prayer meeting last night to accommodate the highly anticipated Miss Tibet competition and awards ceremony. We arrived 30 minutes early, but not early enough to get a good seat. In the end we were too far to see the faces of the contestants, but fortunately we didn't have to stand for the three hour program! Due to technical difficulties, the pageant started 45 minutes lat. We were surprised at the beginning because the host welcomed the crowd and introduced the event in English. He then introduced the judges--another surprise as they were both white Westerners, one American and one English.

The host then announced Lobsang, the pageant's founder, who came out in all his glory: shimmering silver suit, flowing waves of waist-length hair, and a practiced model's strut down the red-carpeted runway. His speech was entirely in Tibetan.

Next came two previous Miss Tibet winners in evening gowns to tell how the program had changed their lives. Last year's Miss Tibet is now working as a supermodel in south India.

The rounds of competition were separated by dance performances. The first was a solo Indian dance performed by a bare midriffed woman in flowing pants with bells at the waist. Her dance was simple and was interrupted by further technical difficulties. The second dance was a Tibetan woman in a short blue skirt performing an interesting hybrid dance that seemed, to me, to be an Indian Pacific Islander cha cha. Maybe that's my ignorance of cutural dance. The third dance was a large group of Indian women, split into a tall and a short group on opposite sides of the stage. The women were entirely covered in clothes except their faces. The dance seemed to be a story of conflict or competition between the tall and short groups of women, though I didn't understand the Hindi lyrics so I can't be sure.

The six Miss Tibet contestants had four appearances. The first was their introduction of themselves and their causes. This was entirely in English, and the women invariably spoke of forwarding the Tibetan political cause and empowering Tibetan women. Three girls were from Tibetan settlements in India (one from McLeod), one from Switzerland, one from Australia, and one from Minnesota, USA. One was a registered nurse and another was a certified accountant.

The second round was Western-style evening gowns (though the sole Tibetan dress, in long red silk, was my favorite). The third was traditional Tibetan apparel and the fourth was a question for each contestant from the judges. By far the best answer came from the McLeod girl, who spoke with honest grace about what she would do if she did not win the competition. Several of the questions and answers revealed a communication barrier between the judges and contestants, the same problems I've experience in my host family.

Just before the award ceremony, all the contestants danced to the popular modern Tibetan song for freedom while still dressed in the traditional attire. TIPA's power went out halfway through, but after 15 minutes it came back on and they started the dance again from the top.

The 17-year-old contestant from Switzerland won, despite mine, Rachel's, Megan's, Elizabeth's, and Bonnie's solid support for the contestant from McLeod Ganj, the one whose answer I liked. Fortunately, however, four of the contestants were named Tenzin (after His Holiness) and the others were named Dolma. We were rooting for Tenzin, and Tenzin won! Dolma was first runner up, and Tenzin second :)

My host family also attended the pageant finale. When I got home around 10:30 Tashi told me that he didn't find any of the contestants beautiful in the slightest, nor the winners from the previous years. His brother explained that people have different eyes and think different things are beautiful. That, he says, is a very good thing, and I agree.

Altogether the pageant was a melange of the same elements that compose McLeod Ganj itself--Tibetans, Indians, and Westerners, Tibetan, Hindi, and English, tradition and modernity, east and west, politics, art, dance, costume, and power outages.

Traditional Tibetan Dance

On May 26, I went to a dance performance at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA). The show started about 30 minutes after the time scheduled. There were six traditional Tibetan dances and one modern song. A live band of 3-4 musicians seated on the left side of the stage played a flute, a stringed instrument, and some percussion. The dances represented different regions of Tibet, some from the cold nomadic regions in the east and some from the warmer cities in the south. All of the costumes were made for a cold climate, though--men wore fur-lined hats and boots and several layers of wrapped fabric that could serve either as decoration or as additional insulation. Women wore simple chupa dresses, with colorful aprons to signify their marital status, and intricate headdresses. Both women and men wore long-sleeved tunics over their clothes, one arm through a sleeve and the other sleeve hanging down the back. Both genders also had golden ornaments hanging from their belts. The costumes were colorful and nearly identical, with small variations in pattern or ornament. Each dance had a different costume, representing the region of the dance's origin, but the costumes were all quite similar (and, as His Holiness notes in his autobiography My Land and My People, similar to traditional Persian dress).

Because of so many layers of clothing, the dancing was limited. The men kicked, stomped, knelt, and jumped, sometimes while playing stringed instruments, but mainly walked about and swayed in time to the music. The women, whose movement was even more restricted, primarily performed graceful hand motions in addition to the walking and swaying. The dances were simple: all dancers did the same motion at the same time, though groups of men and women usually differed. Choreographed movements into new positions were the primary changes in the dances.

The one solo was a distinctly modern song written by a contemporary Tibetan composer. The song is a poignant plea for the freedom of Tibet. It is quite popular in McLeod--it was the final number in the Miss Tibet 2011 finale. The modern instrumentation combined with Tibetan wooden flutes results in a blend of ancient and modern, western and eastern, that represents McLeod Ganj quite well. Performing traditional dances is an important part of preserving Tibetan heritage, which is the main concern of many Tibetans, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Tibetan Language

One of my cultural proof credits is a study of Tibetan language. I have some basic knowledge from a class I took on my campus winter semester, but I have a long way to go.

I bought a little book by Norbu Chophel entitled Say it in Tibetan: Conversations in colloquial Tibetan to guide my language study. Here is my schedule for studying the book (based on headings of different sections):

May 15-June 5: pronunciation guide, introductory phrases, social phrases, basic questions and answers
June 6-12: talking about yourself, making yourself understood, travel directions, bus and taxi
June 13-19: post office, telephone, restaurant
June 20-26: sightseeing, visiting a monastery, hiking and camping
June 27-July 3: shopping, books and stationery shop
July 4-10: parts of the body, stores and services, domestic items
July 11-17: clothing and accessories, colours, materials
July 18-24: meat, vegetables, grains and cereals, fruits
July 25-31: weather, time, days of the week
August 1-7: months and seasons, family members and relatives, counting

Though I can't reasonably attempt to memorize the entire book, my goal in this study is to learn phrases and words to use when speaking with my host family and in brief exchanges with Tibetans I meet. Throughout the process I will be keeping a vocabulary log of words I learn and want to remember. My host parents are learning English, so I help them with their homework and in return they are happy to help me pronounce words and produce sentences.

The most difficult part of Tibetan is reading and writing the script. I will be studying the 30 Tibetan consonants and learning to write and pronounce each one. I will also learn to write my name in three different ways.

Other proofs will be listening to spoken Tibetan on television, radio, and in person to increase comprehension. Usually, during meals, the Tibetan television or radio station is on, and occasionally I tune in to see what familiar words I can pick out. Over the three months my vocabulary will increase, and so will the number of words I recognize.

Et voila!


3 June
As evidenced by my personal journal, the one thing that I can't stop thinking about is food. I recently tipped some balance so that instead of usually feeling hungry I am now usually not hungry. I suppose there are a lot
 of reasons that I was already counting the hours to my next meal while still eating the last one, and I'm not quite sure how it happened that I stopped wanting to eat all the time, but I hope this new digestive norm will be better for my health.

However, that quandary is only part of the reason that food is on my mind. Amalah's cooking would give anyone sweet dreams (though sweet is the wrong word--Tibetans don't like sweet things), and the process she goes through to produce three meals every day has got me thinking a great deal about this life-sustaining activity, the key to survival anywhere around the world.

In Kipling's "Mandalay," the narrator pines for the spicy garlic smells of India, a single sensation that defines the nation quite well. "Rikki-tikki-tavi" is all about food--the mongoose eats the snake who eats the baby bird. The story is a drama of the food chain. All the trouble in A Passage to India happens because of a special picnic breakfast, one which Dr. Aziz plans meticulously so that no Hindu or Muslim or Christian will eat anything that does not please and satisfy them. The Poisonwood Bible dwells on food and its preparation for a huge portion of the text, since that is the Price's biggest challenge in the Congo.

Of course, I've always known that food doesn't grow on grocery store shelves, but as an American I take the extraordinary convenience of the supermarket and drive-thru window for granted. There is no such thing in McLeod.

02 June 2011

Eastern Hospitality

"I still haven't tried the lemon ginger honey tea," said Rachel as we sat in Nick's glorious Italian eatery.

My jaw dropped. "What?! It's delightful! You must try it!"

"Well, I want to . . . ."

My mind wandered, as usual, to life after field studies, and I remarked, "I want to make lemon ginger tea when I get back to America, but I don't know when. We don't usually invite guests over and offer them tea like the Tibetans do, you know?"

"Well, you can if you want to!"

Hey, wait a minute! I could do that! How nice that would be, to fix up some lemon ginger tea for my friends when they visit and to invite unexpected visitors to come inside and have some tea.

Hospitality in India is not what I am accustomed to. Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India goes into debt, spends the night at the train station to ensure punctuality, borrows a slew of servants from his friends and rents an elephant to ride just to provide Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested with the ideal picnic breakfast at the Marabar caves. While I haven't been the recipient of such an elaborate excursion, I have certainly experienced Asian hospitality! I wanted to list everything, but that wouldn't be possible. Here are a few examples:

30 May 2011


May 28
Right now, I'm having a hard time even understanding what happened on Thursday (partially because I am trying to erase it from my memory), so it's more difficult to combine it with the themes and ideas from The Canterbury Tales, Kipling's poetry, and A Passage to India.

Maybe what I should do is describe people I've met here, somewhat like Chaucer does. After all, it is complexity that creates humanity and, by the same token, ambiguity. People are rarely so thoroughly corrupt as the monarch in "The Ballad of the King's Mercy." We are more like Dr. Aziz or Mr. Heaslop: good parts and bad parts.

Administrators at the TCV are all graciousness and hospitality. They are as good as anyone I've met. Today, the headmaster, who is an intimidating man due to his intelligence (but who minimizes intimidation by being an extremely courteous host), invited me to sit down, offered me refreshment, introduced me to a computer teacher and gave me a timetable of the remaining computer classes. His polite smile and respect for me calmed my nerves. He was dressed in clothing that was both professional and weather-appropriate--slacks and a button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

28 May 2011

Library and Cyber Cafe

Project update!

I have done some observations and interviews at the TCV and I've found some amazing things! For example, today I spoke to the headmaster for the high school but I wasn't able to get permission to observe classrooms yet. Instead, I found the library! It exceeded all my expectations--there were at least ten computers around the perimeter of the room, and the librarian informed me that they have free internet access for students for an hour after school and for four hours on Sundays. During school hours they have E Granary, a program that allows students to conduct research offline. The library was exactly what I needed, and I have a feeling that I'll be spending a fair amount of time there over the next ten weeks.

After speaking to the librarian I went to the cyber cafe on campus. The internet there is available to students after school and on weekends and holidays. The cost is 5 rupees for 5-10 minutes, 10 rupees for 10-30 minutes, and 15 rupees for 30-60 minutes (which, when compared to the 30 rupees/minute cost in McLeod, is a great deal). I asked the employee if the students have Facebook profiles, and he told me that virtually every student has a Facebook profile, but I'm not sure if he meant all of the TCV students or all of the students who frequent the cyber cafe. I asked him what students most often do in the cyber cafe, and he said that they chat on Facebook or on Yahoo messenger. He also told me that they check their email accounts--frequently gmail--and said that a few students maintain blogs. I had to leave before the students came, but I am sure I'll be spending time in the cyber cafe, too.

The limited internet in the library and the 15 rs/hr charge for the cyber cafe are the result of the expense of maintaining an internet connection. I realized, though, that because students will have to pay for their time in the cyber cafe they'll use the internet for shorter time periods. Therefore, more of the 2,000 students will have access to the limited number of computers.

The survey is still pending. The TCV goes on summer break for 1.5 weeks beginning next Wednesday, and I'm hoping to have the survey ready to go by the time they return. Transportation to the school is still an issue, though I think I have a solid way of getting back to McLeod. Altogether I think the project is going well!

25 May 2011


On Sunday evening, after our pancake-and-mineral-water sacrament meeting at the Dalai Lama's temple and after walking to the top of an extraordinarily beautiful waterfall, Rachel, Matt, Julia, Bonnie, Megan, Elizabeth and I walked clockwise along the path around the temple, a route called the kora. We stopped in the middle, beneath a pavilion that protected us from the fickle rain, spoke, prayed together, and indulged in three sleeves of America's, and milk's, favorite cookie. (It's really too bad we didn't have any milk.) The flavors: regular, strawberry cream, and chocolate peanut butter. At 49 rupees a pack, oreos are certainly a luxury, but this time the benefits outweighed the cost: eating an oreo is almost like being in America.

Homesickness is one of the symptoms of culture shock that also continues in the absence of culture shock. Ulysses, in The Odyssey, notes that "there is nothing dearer to a man than his own country and parents, [no matter how] splendid a home he may have in a foreign country." If we reduce homesickness to simply longing for familiar foods, then it's easy to see its effect on our group: the most frequently ordered menu item in any restaurant is french fries (or "finger chips," as the case may be). Homesickness is more than food, though: A cold bucket shower immediately reminds us of shower heads and water heaters. A faulty internet connection and failed skype conversation pours fresh salt on the parts of our hearts we have left after leaving half of them in America (or something :).

It may be for the best that we cling to oreos and french fries, though, because if we were to eat of the lotus (in this case, fried momos and sweet bali and lemon ginger honey tea) then we might never be able to leave Dharamsala!

23 May 2011

Skyping the Family

In our group meetings lately we've talked about our support system back home, including the field studies office, our family, and our friends. I just spent about an hour talking to my family over skype, so I thought I'd share the text messages that went on with my little brothers, aged 8 and 6. (The word "napa" is part of our Finnish heritage, and it means belly button. My mother's father was an immigrant from Finland.)

[8:06:24 PM] Cardon Family: i iove you
Cardon Family: hi hi hi hi hi hi hi hi hi hi hi

Kristen Nicole: hi kids
Kristen Nicole: yeah, you're made of cheese

Cardon Family: cheese napa
Cardon Family: your a cheese napa
Cardon Family: your a cheese napa
Cardon Family: do you like mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
Cardon Family: you nnnnnnnnnnnniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiccccccccccccceeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
Cardon Family: I
Cardon Family:  I
Cardon Family: I
Cardon Family: I .................miss.
Cardon Family: I miss you

Kristen Nicole: i miss you, too :)
Kristen Nicole: yes, I like you n stuff

Cardon Family: I miss you
Cardon Family: I miss you
Cardon Family: i wish that you did not leave us
Cardon Family: .  from Dallin

Kristen Nicole: adorable :)

The Maiden and the Red Beard

Once upon a time in a faraway land lived a young woman, who was good and happy, and an old man-witch. Every day when the girl walked by to fetch water the angry man-witch watched her. "Why does she have youth and happiness when I have nothing but this red beard to comfort me in my old age?" said the man-witch, "I must put an end to her pleasure or I cannot bear her existence." Stroking his red beard, the man-witch muttered a curse on the girl for he had learned dark magic from his mother's knee.

Thou who has been bless'd,
Thou must take this test.
Each time I twist my long red beard
The worst will pass, just as thou fear'd.

When he had finished the wicked curse, the maiden was just passing in front of his hut. She stumbled and spilled her water, then looked around in surprise. She had never before fallen on those steps. From the foul-smelling hut next to the path she heard a wicked little laugh and saw the man-witch pointing at her. "Wicked man, why do you mock a fallen girl?" The man-witch did not reply but twisted his red beard. Frightened, she hurried away.

19 May 2011

The Tapestry

I've now begun the meat of my travel writing course work for my time here in McLeod. Twice every week I'll write short pieces reflecting on what I've read and experienced so far. I've decided to post these on my blog instead of emailing them to my professor, so what you'll see are rough drafts of creative non-fiction (personal essays) about my time in India. Here is the first installment:

May 18 
There seem to be many aspects of my life intersecting here as I sit in the red bean cafe in McLeod.  The life experiences, thoughts, and experiences of any one person are complex and, I've often thought of my own, incomprehensible.  It is both a battle and a quest to achieve coherence among the countless threads that compose the fabric of our lives.

How is it done? How do I weave my past with my present with my future, my cultural identity with my experiences abroad? I left the passions of childhood when I became a responsible, practical, frugal adult.  It is impractical, when there is so much to be done, to read or write for pleasure, or indeed to pursue anything solely for pleasure.  The dishes must be washed, so it is better to convince yourself that you thoroughly enjoy washing dishes (which I have successfully done). In an attempt to avoid the illusion of the greener grass, I will note that both of my personalities (habits? lifestyles?) I've just described have positive and negative components.  It is ambiguous rather than white and black. However, as any anthologist has learned, there is a finite amount of space in the canon (or time in a day, or paper in a notebook), and we must choose and exclude in filling our days and canons and reflective writing assignments.  It therefore stands to reason that in becoming the practical woman that I am I no longer have room for the passionate child.

Culture Shock, Part 2

Okay, so I thought I was transitioning into the irritation/hostility phase of culture shock a few days ago, and I was proud of myself because it was so mild.  This morning, though, was the point of no return, and I am overwhelmed by its intensity. The reason for the suddenness and intensity was, of course, a triggor--in this case, my shoes were stolen. They weren't just regular shoes, though, they were the most expensive shoes I've ever owned--chacos, the shoe-of-choice for study abroad students, those amazing shoes that are supposed to last for years without wearing out (though I will never find out if that's true), those shoes that I should have paid for but I allowed my parents to buy for me, one more straw of guilt on the camel of my finances. You have to know that everyone and their dog told me these shoes would be indispensable for my field study, you have to know that they were growing on me to the point that I actually liked them, you have to know that they were perfect for protecting me from rocky roads and unidentifiable liquid substances and whatever other horror I see on the road, you have to know about all my cultural sensitivity training in my prep class, where I learned to do as the locals do and always be considerate of my host family, you have to know that on the very first day I came to my host family's house I was directed to leave my shoes outside, like they all did, to keep the house clean, you have to know that I would never ever ever consciously do something that would offend my host family, especially bringing my shoes inside when I'd been specifically instructed not to, you must know that I have only two pairs of shoes to wear in McLeod--my chacos and some cheap plastic shoes for which a street vendor ripped me off, purchased to wear in the shower as my host family does, you have to understand that I was really liking McLeod and feeling confident in my plans for this day when I opened the door to go to the city, and you have to know that the very last thing I expected at that moment was to not see my shoes sitting by the door, and then maybe you'd understand how my culture shock went quickly from honeymoon to anger, why I glared at the people I saw on the street and couldn't decide if I wanted to yell or cry or slap anyone who tried to speak to me, how the rocks beneath my feet on the path to the city, the rocks that I could feel for the first time today, added one by one to the mounting fury that encompassed me while I walked, why I sought out the familiarity of a computer screen and keyboard to get away from everything that makes me mad, and why I've been crying why I write this post.  Anyway, I am feeling less furious by now, it took me about an hour to cool, and fortunately Norbu was very kind:

[10:46:35 AM] Kristen Nicole: hi Norbu, I was planning to come to the school today but I was robbed this morning and I'm really upset
Kristen Nicole: so I don't know if I'll make it today

Norbu: o hhhh
Norbu: wat happened
Norbu: u robbed means like wat

Kristen Nicole: well, someone stole my shoes
Kristen Nicole: they were $100, which is about 5,000 rupees
Kristen Nicole: and now I don't have any shoes to wear for three months
Kristen Nicole: so I'm really upset

Norbu: ohhh thats bad
Norbu: well cheers gal
Norbu: its not great deal...obstacles are the means to make u stronger...all u got to do is over come it...
Norbu: thats like you got to more cautious when watever u do next time...coz u are in different world out here
Norbu: there is a saying " when u know u can't get back things lost or can't undo the past...
Norbu: there's no use worrying or being upset of that
Norbu: but if something can be done or there's any hope...you could do any thing to make it happen...
Norbu: so anyways relax and breathe and jsut get over with it...