January 22, 2013

Loose of Limits Stands in Solidarity with Tibet

I didn't really know much about Tibet before we visited McLeod Ganj. I knew that China had forcibly occupied Tibet and that, many years ago, people plastered Free Tibet bumper stickers to their cars and boycotted Chinese products, following celebrities like the Beastie Boys and Richard Gere (I'd follow Gere anywhere) in a rant against China. But that's all I really knew. Traveling is such a wonderful thing because you see how the rest of the world lives, both good and bad, and that knowledge is humbling. We were fortunate to have this exposure and education on the Tibetan people while in India, and we learned a lot about Tibet, Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama while in McLeod Ganj. Before you read this post, it might help if you read a little about the Tibet/China situation by reading this or watching the quick video below (Warning: Parts of the video are graphic.)

Within 24 hours of being in McLeod Ganj (read about our time here), we were approached by two Tibetans who asked if we would be willing to spend some time with them, teaching them English. We were instantly humbled by their willingness to ask for help and their warm demeanor as they invited us into their rooms for tea. So we said yes, which turned out to be a fantastic decision and these two became our good friends. Dumdal is 23 and studying English full-time. In Tibet, he was a nomad, herding animals and, because his family (understandably) objected to the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the forced Chinese education in the schools (banning the Tibetan language and culture and replacing it with Chinese), he never went to school. At age 18, he fled Tibet, crossing the Himalayas on foot in the hopes of going to India, learning English and, eventually returning to Tibet to teach Tibetans English so that they may have a better chance to prosper. We love Dumdal's smiling eyes and playful demeanor and were seriously impressed by how dedicated he was to learning English and, as a result, how advanced he was. Nawa is 33 and has been a monk for 20 years. He came to India 13 years ago as well, also crossing the Himalayas on foot with the hopes of entering India so that he could study Tibetan Buddhism freely. He wants to learn English so that he will be able to teach Buddhism (in English) to new monks and students. Nawa was quiet at first, but soon warmed up, and we really loved hearing him speak with passion about Buddhism and the beauty of the practice. By the end of our 2 weeks in McLeod Ganj, I considered Nawa a dear friend and I hope I'll always know the gift of his friendship. 
Steph and Nawa
Nearly each day, we met up with Nawa and Dumdal (sometimes with another Tibetan friend joining) to talk. Sometimes, we just talked about our lives, pausing to explain a word or correct a sentence, and sometimes, they would have specific questions they wanted answered like, "When do you use the word 'shift' and when do you use the word 'move?'" "What does parasitic mean?" and "Can you just add -ly to the end of a word and it becomes an adjective?" Some of these questions were really tough for us to answer and we struggled to find explanations for our answers. And we could get going down a deep rabbit hole from one sentence. Anyone who has taught English as a second language knows what I'm talking about. But we loved doing it and really enjoyed our daily tea visits with Nawa and Dumdal.
Dumdal and Tom
Many of our conversations with our new friends centered around the struggle of Tibetans in Chinese-occupied Tibet and preserving their unique culture as refugees in a different country. Truly, we were unprepared for the stories from our friends and from others, as much of our time in the region was spent learning about the Tibet/China situation. Tibetans in Tibet live an oppressed life under Chinese rule and ask not for freedom, but for autonomy and cultural respect, which they're shown none of. Their temples have been destroyed, their language is banned, their cultural norms have become taboo, and they aren't even allowed to wear the traditional Tibetan clothing in some places. The Tibetan flag is banned, and the Chinese has even banned all photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Tibetans have no rights and can be arrested, imprisoned, and tortured without ever being charged with a crime. They are considered to be under Chinese rule, yet they are citizens of nowhere. They aren't allowed passports or to participate in their own politics. They live in fear of persecution and, like all Chinese, have no right to speak out against their government. Many choose to self-immolate rather than live one more moment without freedom and, while I certainly do not think this is a good tactic, my heart aches at the thought of how desperate these people must feel before they take such a drastic measure. Nearly 100 Tibetans have self-immolated in recent years. Others choose to make the trek across the Himalayas into Nepal. The trek usually takes 4-6 weeks, depending on the season and the weather. Refugees must carry everything they'll need for the trek, including all food. They can only travel in the cold nights, for fear of being captured or shot by the Chinese guards who patrol the mountain borders. They travel in fear of the wolves, and Dumdal and many others spoke of knowing people killed by wolves on their long trek. Once in Nepal, the Tibetans are arrested (without passports, they are illegally crossing the border) and must formally ask for asylum, which the Nepalese government usually grants. Most refugees then enter India and ask for asylum as well and make their way to McLeod Ganj, where they'll be helped by the many NGOs and their government. The refugees typically arrive with only the clothes on their backs. They have no money or possessions. The skills that served them in Tibet will do them little good in India and elsewhere. They don't speak Hindi or English. And they are rarely reunited with family or friends when they arrive. They are alone and the work of the NGOs in the area is their saving grace. These organizations provide housing, food, job training and education for the refugees. We also found it admirable that India, though dealing with a massive population and limited resources themselves, have not turned their backs on these people who are desperately in need.

One day, as I sat at a cafe writing, a long line of young Tibetans, dressed in black and with covered mouths walked past me. The line was several thousand people long. They didn't speak. They looked straight ahead. They carried Tibetan flags. They wore photos of self-immolators around their necks. It was somber and serious, and the cause was sudden very real to me as I watched these young people asking for something as basic as the right to their own culture. They passed out copies of letters they had written to the UN (see below), begging them to take action on their behalf. These young people were all students, and they were outraged and heartbroken that the developed world has forgotten about  them...Forgotten about Tibet. Below are some photos and a video of that event:

A photo of the letter from the students to the UN. Click on it to view larger.

In McLeod Ganj, we began working with a new NGO, Tibet World, which aims to offer a cross-cultural experience for international volunteers. Volunteers are needed to teach English and help with various training programs for the Tibetan refugees. In return, the Tibetans will share their culture with the volunteers through cooking classes, language courses, art lessons and dance training. Tibet World aims to introduce Tibetans to the world and to introduce the world to Tibet. For a people facing the destruction of their culture, these kinds of programs protect what is most sacred to the Tibetans. We found ourselves learning about the dire situation facing the Tibetans during a period of increased self-immolations and activism in the community. Of the nearly 100 self-immolations, 79 occurred in 2012, and 28 of those had happened in November alone. Clearly, Tibetans are reaching a breaking point. On December 10, we participated in Global Solidarity with Tibet Day by participating in a rally and a march, and by hosting a social media rally with Tibet World, asking people around the world to show support on that day.

Tibet World Volunteers on Global Solidarity with Tibet Day
On our last night in McLeod Ganj, we took Nawa and Dumdal to dinner and decided to skip our lesson in favor of just socializing. Tom and I had bought some new English study books for them and a few young adult books that we found used at a bookshop (Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson), and I was touched when Nawa brought me a book by the Dalai Lama about Buddhism and encouraged me to call and email him with questions or with topics to discuss. At the end of our dinner, they each put white silk scarves around our necks, a sign of respect a gratitude, and Nawa told us that, when we have children, we must tell him so that he can go to the temple and get a Tibetan name for our children that have been blessed by the Dalai Lama. We were, obviously, very touched. The other big surprise that night was when Dumdal announced that he had decided to join the monastery within the next few months. We offered him our support and hope he will find what he's looking for in his studies.

We'll both always remember our time in McLeod Ganj with a smile, and we'll continue to keep the Tibetan people in our hearts. Beyond our time in McLeod Ganj, we hope to continue to share the story of Tibet with our friends and family and are even eager to become involved with the Tibetan Association of Northern California. And, while freedom from China seems unlikely at this point when China holds enough power that no one will challenge them, I hope that, in some small way, we can help the Tibetans preserve their culture and identity.

If you want to get involved (a lot or a little) to support Tibetan human rights, here's what you can do!
You can check out all our pics from McLeod Ganj here. A few other favorites from our time with the Tibetans are below.

Tibetan monks at the rally

Traditional Tibetan song and dance performance

The littlest Tibetans performing traditional song and dance

Tibetan monks watching the performances

Monks at the rally

Steph and Dumdal at the rally

Can't stop laughing

Because Tibetan children are SO cute!
My good friend, Nawa

A hopeful message painted on a garage door

You can check out all our pics from McLeod Ganj here.

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