Saturday, November 07, 2009


Fifteen minutes into a conversation with a Tibetan refugee, I noticed some of the girls shuffling around, looking restless. One tried to signal me, mouthed some words I couldn't understand, and reached into her purse. I just shook my head.

For the past three days, I had been chaperoning a group of 23 high school students, mostly twelfth graders, in the city of Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Though educational, the trip was up to this point mostly exasperating, as it usually is on something like Activity Week, constantly waiting for latecomers, shushing them at night, watching in horror as they look bored or fall asleep during an audience with the prime minister.

This was our last morning in town, and we were visiting the Reception Centre (For New Arrivals From Tibet). After a short introduction to the centre from a staff member, we met a 38-year-old man who had recently arrived. His story was typical for one group of refugees, the ones who risk arrest or worse if they stay in their home country any longer: He and a group of about 40 people had participated in an anti-China demonstration in the capital city, Lhasa. Shots were fired, some of his friends fell, but he and his wife managed to run away with only the clothes on their backs and a scar on his arm from a bayonet wound. They left their 12-year-old daughter behind, hoping she would be taken in by relatives, and made a 23-day trek over the Himalayas to reach Nepal. From there they were taken to Delhi and finally to Dharamshala.
The other typical refugees are: children whose parents send them over the border to receive a Tibetan education (one of the main schools is in Mussoorie); monks and nuns who want to continue practicing Buddhism; and old people who want to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama before they die. (We had also hoped for an audience with the Dalai Lama, but he was out of town.)

As some students asked questions which were translated by the employee ("When do you hope to return to Tibet?" "If I return, I will be killed."), others were looking like they were up to something. Please, I silently pleaded, just this once don't do anything stupid. Instead, as teenagers often to when you least expect it, they did something wonderful: They discreetly took up a collection for the man and his wife and whispered something to the centre's employee, who accepted the money and quietly rolled up the bills. I saw 500-rupee notes, as well as smaller denominations--plenty of money the kids could have blown on lunch and snacks and souvenirs.

The man looked touched when told of the donation. But when one of the students told the employee to "tell him that we are praying for him and his family," that's when tears welled up in his eyes and he said, "I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

For years, I had heard of the Tibetan struggle for independence; in fact, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's exile in India. Growing up, "Free Tibet" seemed like a trendy catchphrase uttered by Hollywood celebrities and pop stars. These days, the cause seems to be less fashionable, and even Barack Obama has refused to meet the Dalai Lama, afraid of Chinese response. Reading about and listening to stories of the struggle, it is evident that the Chinese are close to their goal of eliminating the cultural heritage of the country. Tibetan children are taught in Chinese and sing patriotic pro-China songs. There are now as many Chinese living in Tibet as there are Tibetans. All residents of Tibet, regardless of their background, must speak Chinese to get a white-collar job and won't be served at stores and restaurants if they speak Tibetan. Buddhist monks and nuns have been marginalized, and "reeducated" by their Chinese handlers.
But all is not lost in Dharamshala. The cry of "free Tibet" is slowly being replaced by "save Tibet." Religious and cultural practices are continuing here in India, with young and old practicing the ancient arts, speaking the language, sharing the cuisine with visitors. The government-in-exile is still trying to engage the Chinese, still asking to be allowed to return home. Instead of independence, however, they ask for autonomy, for the right to live in peace.

At the same time, there is a sense of hopelessness. When asked what young people can do to support the cause, Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche paused, then said, "Pray for us. But also, pray for the Chinese people."

This kind of answer does not satisfy everyone. We met one man, the owner of a bookstore, who disagree with the Dalai Lama and his government. His more radical approach would call for each Tibetan family to send one child to become a "mosquito," trained to disrupt China by performing small acts of sabotage on the mainland. So far, he has five volunteers.

On a visit to a nunnery, we watched the young women--heads shaved and clad in red robes--debate. One nun would loudly and energetically shout a question and clap her hands, while the second one, sitting on the ground, would respond. If her answer was incorrect, the one standing would perform an inverted slap. With dozens of voices and slaps going at once, the courtyard was a spectacle of noise and animation. This kind of religious training can probably no longer be seen in Tibet, according to the principal of the nunnery.
As we groped for answers to unspoken questions, as we searched for hope in this hopeless situation, we met nuns from Tibet, India, Bhutan, and Korea. One student mused: "At least because of all this, the Tibetan culture is being spread around the world." A small victory for those hoping to "save Tibet."

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