MCLEOD GANJ, India // Have you ever had a bad day? The train is late. You sit in bumper to bumper traffic for hours on the interstate and are late for an important meeting at work. It's raining and you don’t have an umbrella. You go to the grocery store and forget a bag at the checkout and have to go back. You know how it ruins your mood? Hold onto that thought and those emotions for one minute.
I met a man who walked from Tibet to India over a span of 10 years. 896 miles as the crow flies. Do you know what is between Lhasa, Tibet and McLeod Ganj, India? It’s the tallest mountain range in the world called the Himalayan Mountains, making this a most difficult journey. He traveled mostly at night near the borders to avoid Chinese patrols. This man left with just the clothes on his back and left behind his parents and siblings in hopes of a better life. A life away from the cultural genocide that is happening within China. Tibetans are not allowed to display images of the Dalai Lama or the old Tibetan flag since 1959 when China coerced Tibet into surrendering its independence over to China. Tibetans are mainly Buddhist and became such peaceful people that the idea of war was not a solution, even now when monasteries are being demolished. Monks are imprisoned and tortured for protesting in silent peaceful sit ins or by lighting themselves on fire. News is censored and people are held without a cause and are sentenced in closed door trials. They are still looking for a peaceful solution. They no longer even use the “Free Tibet” slogan. Now they are willing to live autonomously under China as a compromise, but China will not budge. But those Tibetans who live in constant fear of China try to escape and live in exile, Nepal or McLeod Ganj, India where the Dalai Lama now calls home along with thousands of Tibetan refugees.
I met a man who overcame all odds and 10 years of travel and ended up in my English conversation group. With a smile on his face, love in his heart, and a contagious laughter, he forms sentences in English. He talks of wanting world peace, he speaks of the environment, and wants His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet.
We volunteered at LHA in McLeod Ganj, India which helps Tibetan refugees learn languages and practical skills needed to find jobs. Every weekday from 4-5 PM is English conversation practice. Anywhere from 30-40 adult students cram into two small classrooms on cushions and 5-10 volunteers like us end up sitting with a group of students in a small circle of the room. I had between 3-4 students each time we went, and I had the privilege of having the same set of students all three days we volunteered. They think they are getting English conversation, but I’m getting a historical and cultural education. I don'y think they realize I get way more out of our sessions then they do.
First, I have no teacher training. So the first day was rather elementary because even though I know English I am in charge of coming up with topics and keeping the conversation going. What is your name? Where are you from? What part of Tibet is that in? How long have you been here? Tell me about your family. What do you have in your home? What do you eat for lunch? What do you watch on TV? My group was all Tibetan refugees from an area near Lhasa, Tibet. Google it, the large building that pops up is where the Dalai Lama used to live. They are full time students at LHA and come from large families. One is a twin, one has 7 brothers and sisters. All of them have lost a sibling. All of them have met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. None of their parents are here. They miss their families and parents in Tibet. They live in group living conditions and share rooms. I realize only 15 minutes has passed and they are just answering my questions, but I’m not sparking a discussion.
These are not children and so I decide to ask real questions. If you could tell the world one thing what would you say? One girl says, “Im sorry for hurting you.” Even with all her hardships she is concerned with mother nature. Deforestation, water pollution, abusing the natural resources. Another boy who is probably in his early twenties says, “We are one. I would tell the world we are one. One people. One peace. One Earth. No matter our religion or our cultures we are the same" Profound. This guy with a black NY Yankees hat turned backwards and a puma t-shirt.
Do you watch the news? They knew about the elections in America and wanted to know who I was voting for? Trump or Clinton? No one likes Trump. If you aren’t registered to vote do it. Its important. It's important to Tibetan refugees half a world away so it should be important to you in the US. They are worried if Trump wins, Tibet in exile and the Dalai Lama will lose an advocate in the US. They ask about the discrimination of black people in the US as they have been reading about the police and black lives matter movement. They get little news from Tibet and everything they send home is monitored and censored by China.
Why do you want to learn English? So I can become an English teacher and go back to Tibet and help others. I want to become a nurse so I can help people. One buddhist monk who has been here in McLeod Ganj for 23 years says, “English is the language of science and science is the key to religion.” We discuss 5 year plans and dreams; obstacles they face in accomplishing their dreams and steps they can take now to reach their goals.
One girl says her dream is to have world peace and to “not fat”. I repeat, “You don’t want to get fat?” and make a gesture of global scale while puffing out my cheeks. They all laugh and roll on the ground. “No! No! I don’t want fight!”. Oh the joys of translating broken English is a game in itself. One guy said his favorite movie was, “Spodcast”. I wrote it down and looked it up later. I couldn’t find it. The next day I ask for the name again. He spells out “Sparcas” and says its the guys name. I still can’t find it. Then, this weekend Im drinking my ginger, honey, lemon tea and it hits me, “Spartacus”. I can’t wait to discuss with him Monday in class.
The best part of having the same students each time is that I never got to ask the same questions, and I got to build on their previous days answers and what I had already learned. The last day I told them we were going to "role play”. They didn’t understand. So I said, “You know, pretend.” They still didn’t understand and we had to use an online translator. They got it but were reluctant at first to play. I decided to make it practical for each of them. I made the nurse take care of the other three members of the group. What questions would you ask a patient? How do you feel? Where does it hurt? How much does it hurt on a scale of 1-10? She says she would check our pulse, but then isn’t sure where to find it. We talk about the heart and blood circulating through the body and how you can find your pulse in your wrist or neck. I make them all find their own pulses. They seem really pleased with this lesson. They make me write down the new vocabulary words: pulse, circulate, wrist. They are excited. She pretend heals us all of the diseases we had. Next, I make the girl who wants to be a teacher teach us a lesson in English. She has trouble but the others help. What would you start teaching first? The alphabet? What words start with letter A? What about numbers? Colors? This gives me the idea of playing a quick game of categories to show this girl a great way to run through vocabulary words that can be grouped together. We play, “Things that can be found in a classroom.” “Words that start with letter P”. This actually works extremely well.
I find towards the end of class I’m not even talking, and they are talking with each other in English discussing and correcting each other. Im happy and listen to the music. They make me appreciate and be gracious for all that I have and all that I no longer want or need in life. Next time you have a bad day, just remember to always be kind whenever possible. Its always possible. We all have so much to be thankful for.