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: