Homestays! bustling streets! adorable Tibetan children!
03.03.2012 - 11.03.2012
Yes, these and more have been dominating our lives lately, since we’ve been living in McCleod Ganj for a week (!) now. I’d meant this post to be about our “pilgrimage” for Losar (Tibeten New Year), the visit of Emory dignitaries and program alumni for the 10-year celebration, and our audience with the Dalai Lama, but my fingers seem to have had other ideas. So the pictures will have to wait.
Where to begin? I said I was so fortunate in the roommate I was given, and I can only reiterate that sentiment for my homestay family. “Pala” Norbu was raised as nomad (drok-ba) in the eastern region of Kham and now makes jewelry for a living, while “Ama-la” Yöden comes from Central Tibet (Ü-Tsang) and teaches in the nursery of Yongling School, the Tibetan day school in McCleod. Most Tibetan children, including my parents’ older daughter, go to boarding schools like the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). Their younger daughter Tenzin Diki (unsure of the proper English spelling of her second name), who I think is almost three, goes with her mother to Yongling and has been very patient with me.
I generally don’t particularly like small children. That’s not to say I actively dislike them, just that given the choice, I’d rather spend time with more adult-ish people. (My parents are probably chuckling right now; this has always been the case with me.) Anyway, there are individual children who have managed to get me to really like them; my pottery teacher’s son (I remember the day he was born!) is one, and I think my little sister here is another. Interestingly, Pala calls their daughter “Tenzin” and Ama-la calls her “Diki.” Go figure.
My host family, like many around them, lives in a one-bedroom apartment with separate kitchen and communal bathroom. So that’s different. But it’s clean and neat and the definition of “cozy”,” and frankly it’s really nice being in a home after living in college dormitories since high school (except for breaks).
Here are some pictures of the apartment. Note the gigantic shrine, complete with statues/images of the Buddha (Shakyamuni), the Dalai Lama, Chenrezig (Avolokiteshvara), Tara, Manjushri, and Tsongkapa, complete with bowls of offerings. Some of the offerings were food—candy and dried cheese—that has since been taken down and eaten. The lights around the shrine, as an offering of light, are on at all times. Pala does three prostrations to the shrine at night (when he remembers), but that’s the only activity related to it I’ve seen. The enormous image of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan flag to its right (just outside the frame) also seem typical of the homes I’ve seen, and the other big picture is of the Potala Palace, traditional home of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.
(Incidentally, my little sister came over while I was writing this and is currently staring up at me with those gorgeous eyes with a mostly-eaten Indian version of a Kit-Kat in one hand. Methinks` mischief is afoot.)
We Emory folks have class at the main IBD campus (the mothership of Sarah College), live with our families, and have some rooms in a guesthouse where we have our library and keep extra possessions (I left my big suitcase there and keep only a few days’ clothes with me at home—it’s pretty small, after all). A general schedule, which the reunion has completely disturbed this week:
6:00-7:00: wake up, breakfast, etc.
10:00-11:30: Philosophy or Culture class
11:30-2:00: Lunch, some free time (errands, homework, etc.)
2:00-3:30: Language class
Time to shower, wash clothes, go on Internet, do homework. I generally get home 6:00-7:00.
7:30-8:30: dinner (somewhere in there)
It’s an OK schedule, though I miss having class only in the morning—our flex time is fractured into little chunks at different points in the day, and since my home, classroom, and the guesthouse are pretty much at three opposite corners of town, travel time is 10-15 minutes to any destination. (Swatties: it’s like moving from Parrish to ML…)
Many of you are probably asking about the food, and you have no need to worry. We receive a stipend from the program to eat lunch in restaurants, so we’re quickly learning all the best (and less-good) places in town. Breakfast and dinner are with our families, and I’m lucky—my Pala was a cook at the all-veg Om Restaurant for two years, and Ama—la was a waitress there. Both cook marvelously, (Tibetan, not Indian, though Pala’s main job was the Mexican section of Om’s menu), and have graciously accommodated my vegetarian diet. I was a little nervous about asking, but the program folks encouraged the vegemites (to borrow a word from my fencing coach) in the group to ask, and so far nobody’s had any problems.
Ama-la makes breakfast, and they seem to trade off who makes dinner. Breakfast has been scrambled eggs (“Omlette” is now an Indian word, though I once saw it spelled “aammlet”), or oatmeal-like stuff (I’m not sure which grain), or pale with butter and peanut butter. Pale is, I think, a general Tibetan word for bread, though in this context it refers to the little hand-rolled circular bread with an air pocket in the middle, like pita—I think it’s the same as plain parantha. Dinner has been various veggies (possibly including bok choy, choy sim [Chinese cabbage], pepper, onion, tomato) on rice, or thuk-pa (oily noodle soup, made with wide flat what noodles), or, one day, mo-mo. Momos can be fried or steamed (ours were the latter), and are very similar to the smaller kind of Chinese dumplings (jiao zi). One of my happiest moments at this program has been walking in a little bit late to find Ama-la rolling out the skins, Pala stuffing, and Diki playing with extra dough. For the first time, they let me help with the cooking, so now I know the technique (and can teach you!). Ours were stuffed with potato and scallion—kind of like pierogies.
My parents also keep a basket of little munchies on the table at all times, particularly for the many guests who seem to show up at any time. Thusfar I’ve seen kupse (the very chrustchiki¬-like pieces of fried dough leftover from Losar), nuts, tiny-but-good dried apricots, and two kinds of dried cheese: one soft and sweet, the other is bland and needs to be sucked on and chewed slowly lest it break your teeth. There are always two big thermos-things of hot water and black tea, and for breakfast sometimes we have pö cha, butter tea (lit. “Tibet tea), which in this family has lots of milk in addition to the butter and salt. The last two days there’s been a little bowl with some kind of pungent spice I don’t recognize that these people eat a couple of with dinner when they want. Pala likes this more than Ama-la.
These are kupse:
I’m really enjoying the way these folks seem to lead their social lives—our little apartment is a sort of base for a bunch of unattached neighbors. There are a couple monks who pop in from time to time, while little Diki is given the freedom to leave on her own to visit the nuns who live in some of the apartments nearby, though I’ve only met them on the way to the bathroom. Lobsang Yeshe, a friend of Pala’s who lives by himself stops by a lot; he’s studying English and has just started learning French, so he’s been helping me with Tibetan and I’ve been helping him with those languages.
We’ve only had dinner twice where it’s just been the four of us—Yeshe and/or one of the monks is usually here, and last Sunday the four of us ate at the home of another family—a couple with an adorable little boy about Diki’s age. What’s more fun than rolling around with a cute Tibetan three-year-old? Rolling around with TWO Tibetan three-year-olds. (At least in small doses.)
Speaking of adorable Tibetan children, this is what an adorable Tibetan child looks like when teaching me the word for candle, tang-ma (I think), in the little mostly-outdoor entryway to the apartment. These were set out as part of an organized thing among Tibetan families to put candles out on the night of March 10, to commemorate the uprising that took place on that day about fifty years ago; since then, March 10 has been a sort of national holiday for the Tibetans.
That family’s apartment was about the same size as this one, but they don’t have a separate kitchen or little outdoor entry/washing area in a kind of balcony—their kitchen was a heavy-duty-looking hot plate, a small fridge, and some storage against one wall. Still, they produced a bucket of chaang (homemade barley beer) from somewhere at the end of the meal, and while nobody partook at that time, my parents brought an overfilled pitcher home (I haven’t seen what happened to it). Earlier that day, I’d gone back with Yeshe to his apartment—it’s literally the length of his bed, and roughly square. He (or his predecessor) must have brought the bed in the door and slid it right to the other wall—but it works. Yeshe’s is another interesting story: having become a monk at a young age (I forget; younger than 15), he lived in a monastery in Kham before moving to the re-established Sera Jey monastery in South India. When I asked him why he’s not a monk anymore, he pointed to the picture of a young Tibetan woman he says is currently studying at an Indian university in the South. Her picture was one of several dozen in the room, depicting his family, monastery, and his monk buddies; one was clearly of him debating with other monks, and offered an interesting contrast to his current situation. Tara-la says that the majority of monastics who give back their robes were Indian-born and that the Tibetan-born monks are much more focused; while this fellow did return to lay life, he’s definitely kept up the work ethic and has a greater endurance than me in our study sessions.
Side-note: I’ve started going by more names than before, largely two-syllable variants of “Chris”—Tibetans seem to have a really hard time with putting that many consonants in one syllable. For those who don’t know my name or just can’t deal with it, I’m Inji, the corruption of “English” that is a general word for “foreigner” (i.e. neither Tibetan, Indian, nor Chinese. I’m not sure if this only applies to Caucasians or not). Sometimes this makes me feel like I’m among the Amish, though one look at the huge altar in every tiny apartment brings me back to Tibet-land.
This hasn’t all been perfect; living in one room with three other people, one of whom isn’t quite three, plus frequent visitors and an often-on television, gets pretty intense, if not overwhelming at times. I’ve learned not to expect to do any reading or other classwork at home—but that’s what the guesthouse and cafés are for. But they’re so sweet it’s hard to be frustrated for long.
Anyway, these families seem to be very open to each other, and the day I visited Yeshe’s place two of his friends came in (also laymen in their twenties), and after a few minutes, our host left and the three of us stayed; they were very gracious in helping me with Tibetan, though his friend Tashi (who’s been going to English conversation classes regularly, and it shows), got me to help him figure out how to express in English a story he had trouble explaining in class. These people don’t have much money (though they seem to make ends meet ok) but they’re very free about sharing their possessions, children, and adopted injis. It reminds me very much of the descriptions I’ve heard and read of life in the tenements of New York, and indeed these refugees have much in common with those immigrants. And while it’s not the best of material circumstances, it’s definitely liveable. At least for three weeks.