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.