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.


"I will tell you the great Tibetan secret," said my host uncle Gyurme. I knew what was coming, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that I've known the secret for months.

"My brother and me, we share a wife. We all love each other."

I nodded and kept silent. Gyurme doesn't like to be interrupted.

"In Tibetan we say dhoba." (This word has two definitions, one being lust and the other wishing or desiring.) "In Tibet it is traditional, but in India it is because of dhoba. I think this is the same reason that gays and lesbians are can marry in your country."

I was speechless.


The head administrator of the TCV schools looked at me with his piercing gaze. "Every student should come to Asia," he said, "after they graduate. Then they can see what real life is."

Is it just Asia, though? After reading Tessa Santiago's essay "Brother Wiseman" twice, and crying both times, I've thought that post-apartheid South Africa must be as rich an experience as McLeod. This summer I have dear friends living in Cambodia, China, Korea, France, and Austria, and we're each having frustrations, adventures, and unforgettable learning moments. Sometimes I read Elisabeth's Paris blog and wonder, "why am I not in France?"

And then I remember the things I learn in India, and not just in my intensive yoga class and glorious massage class. I remember the evening that Amalah and I stood in her tiny kitchen making noodles for the thentuk. We were discussing marriage in Tibetan nomad communities.

"I married eighteen," said Amalah in broken English.

"Oh, so young!" I said.

She laughed. "Nomad married sixteen, eighteen, yeah nineteen," she explained. "Yes, very young."

"So if I were a nomad, I would be married by now, because I am nineteen."

"No," she said, perhaps misunderstanding me. "In America, you go to school. You no marry young."

And Amalah, my sweet host mom who is just ten years my senior and a few inches shorter than my 5'2" stature, looked at me with an expression that communicated far more than she could say in English. Maybe she would not have chosen this life for herself. Maybe she did not want to flee to India in 2003, to juggle two brother-husbands, to spend her life in the kitchen making bread and soup and rice and momos three times a day and washing the dishes afterward. Maybe she would have liked to go to school and travel and live independently like I do. Maybe not, but maybe.

And just like that, my heart nearly burst as it filled with affection for Amalah and a new understanding for the extraordinary privileges that have long been a normal part of my life.

The director was right. This is not something I can learn from a textbook, or even something I could have learned by staying in Utah. Sometimes we must live and learn, or perhaps live to learn.


  1. Oh yeah. How many times do I stop and wonder, "why am I not on the London study abroad again?" Yet, as I told you the other day, while we come home with a lot of hard core stories (and probably different people), they will all come home and talk about how much they missed drinking fountains. :)

    And yeah, the money thing is another one I still have a lot of questions about. Gandhi is declared the father of modern India, but he is all but absent from everyday life. What happened to him? Yet, I never stop to think about the presidents on our own Monday. Kind of the same thing. Immortalized, but still dead.

    Glad to know your family opened up to you on the big Tibetan secret. :)

  2. Kristen!! This is absolutely amazing to read about your experiences!! Thank you for sharing! I hope you can go live in France someday!! I am so glad that your eyes have been opened as mine have been living out of the country!!
    :) <3