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