Monday, July 26, 2010

Amritsar, Part I

We travelled to Amritsar for a week. Amritsar is the capitol of the state of Punjab and also the main pilgrimage site and “capitol” of the Sikh religion. The Sikh religion is a cross between Hinduism and Islam, but is very different than both. Sikhism came about around 500 years ago, and many Sikhs told us they are a “young religion” because of this. And compared to the other religions in India, they are young. For those of you that are LDS, there are surprisingly a lot of parallels between our religion and Sikhism. Someone once told me that the Sikhs are the “Mormons of the Middle East.” I’ll talk more about the religion in my next post, but for now I want to talk somewhat about the culture and people in Amritsar.

We stayed with a friend of a friend of one of the group members. He took us to his farm house, just outside of the city. It is a 250 year old fort, which is now a string of rooms (and nice rooms). We joked about how this building is older than our country. This “fortress” is a little outside of Amritsar, located in the middle of farm land. It was a beautiful place to be located! Surrounded by rice patties, fruit trees, and maize fields.

We spent part of a day following a local villager around the village. As we left the “fortress” area and walked down one of the dirt roads, suddenly a horde of people came out. The children ran to us and greeted us first, shaking all of our hands and saying “Hello, how are you?” As we got closer there was a large group of adults there as well. One man began playing a Punjabi drum and everyone started dancing. They pulled us in and got us a dance a little too. Welcome to Punjab!

Our village friend then took us to probably half a dozen different homes. Not many spoke English, but all welcomed us in, offered us drinks or food, and would communicate with us in whatever ways possible, usually just exchanging a few words. All the homes were simple- small, but clean, with beds, chairs, and usually a tv. Based on some other places I’ve seen in India, and based on the clothing of those in the village, this was a fairly well off village, though still a simple village.

The last house we visited had a couple English speakers. We stayed a bit longer there and learned more about the area and their family. The family was all smiles as we conversed. As we were leaving one of the young women said that her family was very happy we came. I couldn’t help but think really? Just from this motley crew? How different they must look at life, that when uninvited guests who can’t speak your language, show up at your house and you are able to find happiness in this? And I could tell she genuinely meant it, that her family really did enjoy our visit. It was a really neat experience and left me with a lot of thoughts.

My Tibetan Family

I woke up not feeling well at all one morning. After spending a little extra time in the bathroom and eating nothing at breakfast, my family knew I wasn’t feeling well. They gave me blankets and told me to rest. It sounded great to me. After sleeping a little I felt somewhat better and sat up. I realized the only ones left were my Tibetan sister (in her early 30s) and her daughter, age 11. I knew that the girl loved princess stories so I thought to myself, if I can’t go out now, how about watching a princess movie with the other two girls in the house? I couldn’t think of a better way for us to bond as we were stuck inside for the day. I whipped out Enchanted, which I had brought along for just this kind of moment.

After just a few minutes, I realized this was going to be so much fun! Both the mother and daughter laughed and laughed at certain parts. The mother no doubt could not understand much of the movie, but she laughed and laughed at moments and based on her facial expressions, had no problems understanding enough to enjoy it.

I also couldn’t help but think what a unique situation I am in. Here I am, with native nomads. This family I am sitting with and watching this Disney princess movie with, under other circumstances would never be in India, never live in this house, and would have probably never been around many Americans, if any. They would not have had a tv in their home (which would be a large tent), and there’s a good chance they would never have seen a Disney movie. But circumstances being what they are, this nomad family is now at least temporarily in India. If you had asked them 10 years ago, I’m sure none of them would have imagined this would have been their life. They probably would have never guessed that they’d later have an American girl living with them, nor that they would know enough English to be able to communicate with her. Life is certainly full of surprises.

I also want to say that communicating with my family has become quite the adventure. Only one of the brothers speaks English fairly well. The other brother and his wife are just learning. They know quite a bit now, but sometimes we are totally guessing when we communicate. But we have come up with quite the system. When the brother who speaks English is not there, the three of us have become quite the communicating team. One evening, the brother who speaks English was gone and it was just the three of us, me and the two that are learning English. We were talking and the brother was trying to tell me the story of how he got the scar on his arm. His vocabularly is way too limited for this kind story so he got up and started acting it out. I then would make motions and facial expressions with a few random words to make sure I was understanding. The English speaking brother then got home and saw us and laughed and asked me if I understood the story. I could honestly say yes, I understood! We used hardly any language, but I knew we had communicated. The English brother laughed and said we had become quite the communicating team. He pointed out that the other brother, Lhamo would act things out and I would use body language and facial expressions. Tam Kho, the wife is great at reading all the cues and serves as the “middleman” and can tell when we understand and when we don’t. So between the acting, body language, facial expressions, and interpreting, we almost always find some way to communicate!

Obviously, I’ve learned that words are not the only way to communicate. And they are not the most important either. I realized the other day when I was with my family at a party that I truly adore this family. Sure, we’ve struggled to communicate, but I feel so close to them. We may have had less talking than a “normal family” would, but I still feel incredibly close to this family! I trust them completely and know that they would do anything to help me. They have been so giving, open, and welcoming. I’ve learned to read their body language and facial expressions (as they have mine) more than many people I’ve known for years. We can communicate so much without words! And we have communicated so much without words that I don’t feel like we’ve been at a loss because of the communication barrier. I don’t think I could have gotten any closer to them, had we been able to communicate with words.

The other night, while we were at a party, I sat across from Tam Kho, my Tibetan sister. We would catch each other’s eyes once in a while and make facial expressions, clearly exchanging thoughts. It was so much fun! And made me realize that they really have become my Tibetan family.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Miss Tibet

I’ve never had a real interest in the Miss America pageant. For those of you that know me, I’m sure that’s not too surprising. I did however find myself one weekend attending the Miss Tibet pageant. I’m not exactly sure why I was so intrigued with the idea and why I thought it would be interesting to attend. I do however know that when my family said they were going, it was incredibly easy for me to decide that I wanted to go along.

The Miss Tibet contest has been going on in India since 2002. This year there were four contestants. My Tibetan brother later told me that sometimes there is only one contestant. Not much of a competition, but they still go on with it because they want to make sure to have it every year. There has been a lot of controversy on the whole issue. Many Tibetans do not like the idea of it. Also not many girls are willing to compete in it.

Again, I’ve never seen the Miss America pageant- my only exposure would be Miss Congeniality or the short clip of the Miss South Carolina blooper from a few years ago, and I just don’t think that either counts. So I’m not really sure how different this is than the Miss America pageant. But here is what happened at Miss Tibet 2010.

There was a long introduction and then the girls came out, in jeans and t-shirts to introduce themselves (in English, except one who used a translator). Then there were three rounds, with “entertainment” (dancing, singing, etc) in between each round. The first round was the gown round. The girls came out in western style gowns. A little more modest than ones back in the states usually are, but nonetheless, still western style gowns. The second round was the traditional Tibetan costumes round, followed by a Q&A round.

As I sat there watching these Tibetan young women “strutting their stuff” down the walkway, I couldn’t help but think about how shy Tibetan girls and women usually are. I thought back to just the weekend before at the Amdo Party I attended and how each of the females struggled with their shyness to perform in front of everyone. Each and everyone one of them. How much harder would it be for a Tibetan young woman to wear “revealing” clothing and “strut” in front of hundreds (if not maybe thousands?) of people?

Anyway, here are a few other things that Miss America probably doesn’t have:

- English, Hindi and Tibetan languages being used

- A Tibetan man in a bright, metallically light blue suit, with long flowing hair, coming out and doing a jump-kick center stage (at least I’d never seen that before, that’s for sure)

- Monks in the audience

- The audience reciting the “Om Mani Padme Hum” prayer before we officially began

- Young Indian girls performing an interpretive dance of the story of Buddha’s life

- A dog making his way through the audience and reaching the front stage

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hiking in the Mountains

I so often wish I had the words to describe the scenes that I behold here. Some of them are so serene, so amazing that I just wish I had the ability to paint them, to capture the scene for a moment. But I am neither a poet nor a painter, so I suppose these feeble words will have to suffice.

4 am is an interesting time to be up. I have to admit right away that I had never seen McLeod at this hour before. The sky was full of stars, the moon casting a low, glowing light upon the road before me and the sky had cleared up from the storm the night before. Once again I was embarking on a journey, unsure of exactly where I was going. All I knew was that my family said we were going to a beautiful place and we had to leave at 4 in the morning.

After about a 5 hour trek I wondered where in the world we were going. There was nine of us (my two brothers, sister, the three kids, a cousin and a monk) and we’d been slowing climbing and climbing the whole time. We could see the buildings of McLeod, Dharamsala, and Bhagsu in the distance. I remember thinking, man this better be worth it. And as the pictures will hopefully show, it totally was.

Not only was the green, green land and rock around us just stunning, but the glorious, thundering mountains still covered in snow just a short distance away really made the sight worth it. The not so distant mountains are so high that clouds would often pass by and cover them for a time.

When we arrived, my family immediately began setting up a fire. It really is amazing how we as kids will try to learn how to build fires. My family did it with such ease and so quickly… Our ways of life have produced such different abilities. As the fire was going I whipped out my Frisbee. The young 10 year old boy immediately jumped up, as well as several other members of the family and we began to toss it around. Now I’ve played Frisbee I don’t know how many times, but I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed just so much. Watching a grown man in monk’s clothing try to learn how to throw the Frisbee, watching the 10 year old just laugh and laugh as he made fun of the older guys. We tossed it around, trying to avoid the sheep and goats parading around. How unique and enjoyable these simple moments are- the collision of our two cultures, our two very differing worlds!

Amdo Party

So I often don’t really know what I’m getting myself into when I agree to go to something with someone, particularly when I agree to go to some event with a Tibetan who only speaks limited English. Often I think I know what I am agreeing to, but I am learning quickly that I often really don’t. However, it has so far always been not only an adventure, but a fun adventure to have such “miscommunications.”

So I knew I was going to an “Amdo Party,” but I really had no idea what that meant. I knew that it was down the mountain a ways, but had no idea how far or where. So I really had no idea what else either of those details meant. After an interesting taxi ride, we ended up in a “valley” of sorts that looked like the pictures of the Amdo region of Tibet (which was fitting for the “Amdo Party”). As we get closer I could see a huge tent and I assumed that’s where we were going. As we got closer the whole thing collapsed from the wind and rain. We quickly joined the huddle of people under rocks and blankets. People were shouting woohoo! Yippee! And all other kinds of encouraging phrases at the rain, including one particular man who shouted, “Come on! Is that all you’ve got?!” People were just laughing and having a great time huddled together, a few even running through the rain shouting praises. As the rain died down I realized there were still people in the tent. A small child, who looked Tibetan from where I sat, popped out and said, “Mummy, do you think it’s going to stop now?” with a perfect English accent I might add. When all of this occurred within the first ten minutes and I knew I was in for a treat.

So let’s start at the beginning with what an “Amdo Party” entailed, at least an “Amdo Party” in India, which included a few other guests not from Amdo. This party was almost all Tibetans from the Amdo region. The only exceptions seemed to be myself, an English woman (who married a Tibetan man more than 15 years ago, whom she had met in McLeod Ganj, India), and her two sons who were born in England (although they have half Amdo blood, so even they could in some ways). The place was chosen because it could at least remind them of aspects of Amdo. The party consisted of things we would often find at parties at home: tons of food, some alcohol, games being played, swimming, and lots and lots of chatting. But two particular moments were quite different, at least for me.

The first was the “talent game?” I’m not really sure what to call it, but the point of it was that eventually everyone had to embarrass themselves in front of everyone else. One man started by putting a kahta (white scarf, stole, shawl… whatever you choose to call it) around his neck and then he began to sing a traditional Tibetan song. After he finished he said a few things in Tibetan and then put the kahta around someone else’s neck. That person got a little shy and everyone clapped, cheered and seemed to be giving this new “kahta wearing” the encouragement (or pressure, depending on the way you look at it) to do as the previous man had and perform. It was quite a fun game to watch. Most people sang, and some for quite a bit, a few played instruments or danced, etc, but pretty much everyone sang. Many people, especially the women were very hesitant to go. The normal “name cheer,” or yelling the person’s name over and over (Tashi, Tashi, Tashi!), happened often, and persisted until the person finally got up the courage to go. Eventually, even I had to… and don’t ask how long it took to coax me into singing a song in front of everyone…

The second part was the water part. It’s normal to have swimming at parties right? And it’s even normal to have people thrown into the water. But what about EVERY single person at the party? And even if they had to chase them down through fields to get them in the water? Literally, and I mean literally, every single person at the party (and we’re talking probably at least… 50 people?) was caught, dragged, and thrown into the small body of water we had (which by the way, was some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen in India). It was an absolute ball watching grown men sneak around to capture those who were dry. They would get this sly smile on their face and they were running around just like the little kids. They even got the monk, who avoided them for quite a long time, into the water.

After they dunked the “inji” (foreigner in Tibetan) a Tibetan laughed and said, “Now you’ve been Christened!” I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but I almost felt like I could feel like I’d been “Christened a Tibetan partier” after these two party events took place.

Oh, and just in case we forgot we were in India, there was the giant water container? with Hindi script on it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My name is Khan, my name is Rita, my name is Tenzin

I sit on my balcony looking out over the town with my brother and sister with a soap opera in the background, as I realize how content I am with my day, which consisted of teaching, reading, writing, studying, eating at a restaurant, going to class, and watching a movie at a cinema. Sounds like a fairly typical day. But when the finer details are filled in, a much different picture comes into view.

I sit on a tiled balcony looking out over the town (that we share with our neighbors, which overlooks the mountains of McLeod Ganj and the Kangra Valley) with my Tibetan brother and sister with a Chinese soap opera dubbed in Tibetan in the background, as I realize how content I am with my day, which consisted of teaching English to my Tibetan brother and sister, reading, writing, studying, eating at a Tibetan restaurant playing American pop music, going to a Hindi language class taught by a native speaker, and watching a Hindi movie (about a Hindu woman who marries a Muslim man and the problems they have in post 9/11 America) at a homemade cinema which consisted of about 20 elevated chairs and a projector on a wall. Maybe this sounds a little less typical, but it really isn’t that uncommon to have such a day in my current place of residence, McLeod Ganj, India.

The US has been called a multicultural melting pot. I would not disagree and I’m very proud to come from that multicultural melting pot. But McLeod Ganj is also a multicultural melting pot, though one that is so different than what most people think of as a “melting pot.” I wish I could describe just how multicultural this place is. But no matter how hard I tried, I know I could never do the description justice.

By first glance, you’ll notice there are three “major groups” of people- Indian, Tibetan, and Western. But upon further investigation you find out that these are not the only “groups” that live in this community. You find native Indians and displaced Indians (many coming from other regions of India where droughts and famines have hit the people hard); you’ll also find 2nd generation Indian-born Tibetans and Tibetans freshly arrived from the Himalayas just mere weeks ago; throw some western tourists, backpackers, yoga instructors, Buddhist practitioners, and yes, even a few students, and you may be able to have a small vision of what McLeod looks like. While walking down one of the roads you could hear a Bob Marley song coming from one of the restaurants, walk a bit further ahead and hear a Bollywood soundtrack, to which a young Indian and/or Tibetan may be singing along to; and walk just a bit further and you may hear the monks performing a pooja ceremony down at the temple, or an elderly Tibetan chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum.” You can see the prayer beads of a praying Buddhist, the cap of a devout Muslim, the bindi on the forehead of a devote Hindu, or the cross of a Christian, all within minutes of each other.

The world has often looked to the US to see a multicultural society in action. But after seeing Tibetan and Indian children playing on the road together, after hearing Hindi, Tibetan, and English all being used for one market transaction, after hearing Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian prayers all come from the same small area, I can’t help but wonder if there are other places to look to understand multicultural societies.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The beginning of a new adventure in McLeod

We officially made it back to mountains early Monday (17th) morning. We moved in with families that morning, each with a different family and a different set-up. Last time I was in a well off family- I even had my own room and bathroom upstairs. The family had four generations in the house- a grandmother, the parents, three kids, and two grandkids. This time, I am in a smaller house with only two generations, two brothers, one’s wife, and their five year old son. The family is so welcoming and are constantly saying, “Melissa, this is your house, anything you need, you ask brother or sister.” They are SO quick to laugh and it’s been so much fun. The five year old has so much energy and although he and I can’t communicate verbally he uses his hands, arms, and whole body to make movements and many times I think I understand what he is saying.

It’s been fascinating to me to be in a small house. The front room is used as the entertainment room (with the tv), the reading room, the dining room, the bedroom, the conversation room, and even a classroom. It is a universal room and I never realized just how much use can come from such a small area. It makes sense that so many Tibetans find this easy, as many were nomads who lived in large tents. My family has shown me pictures of their land and village in Amdo (north east region of Tibet). You can see forever! They said it’s nice to be able to look and look and only see nature, not houses and people all over.

Some of my favorite moments so far with my family have been working on their English. One of the brothers speaks English really well and the first day he was translating back and forth for the other two and me. He told me they were learning English. One of the mornings the wife was practicing quietly to herself and I said, “Practicing English? Sounds very good.” She motioned for me to come over and when I did she sat right next to me and we started reading her book together. Her pronunciation was fantastic! I realized that even though they had said their English was not good, it was actually quite good, they were just too shy to speak. We started practicing and now every morning the husband, wife and I practice every morning. It has been so much fun, as even when we can’t understand we just end up laughing.

It has been really fascinating for me to read along in their book, see what phrases and words have been deemed “most important” for Tibetans to learn in English. There are three phrases that one of the brothers has been practicing that I think reveal not only a lot about him, but about Tibetan culture in general. For those of you back home, if you had to learn important phrases in another language, what ones would you find most important, or most useful? What phrases do you use most often in English? Now, I am not saying that these particular phrases are the most important phrases in Tibetan, nor that every Tibetan would find these phrases to be the most important. But I think they do say something about the situation I am currently living in. The three phrases my brother has been practicing: “It’s up to you.” “I don’t mind.” “I’m just kidding.” Very interesting, at least to me with my experiences with Tibetans. Their hospitality, their emphasis on others, and their easiness to laugh are three of the traits that have stuck out the most to me and each is embedded in one of these phrases.

This week I also couldn’t help but think about the simplicity of life. I never have to set an alarm here. I go to bed earlier (around ten) and then as the sun comes up I just wake up on my own. People here live more naturally and by default I think it’s more natural to go to bed earlier and wake up with the sun. No need for alarm clocks. Also, with simpler, smaller houses, there just isn’t much clutter, if any at all. It seems like it is a symbol not only for their material, physical lives, but also for their personal, inside lives. They just don’t seem to let as many things clutter their lives. They do not get as bothered. The idea of a gym has always made me think about how silly this concept would have seemed to our ancestors. “You mean you have to go here to push iron and run in place? Why would you do that?” Hard, manual labor used to be the way things were done. Man sowed and man reaped in the fields. Nowadays, this is not the case, so we have to create seemingly “unnatural” things, such as gyms, in order to stay in shape. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I do not like going to the gym, or that I am not attached to my material possessions, nor am I saying that I have the intention of giving them up. But it just makes sense that the more natural and simple you live, the easier and simpler life can be.

Well, that sums up a few of my thoughts for this week. Hopefully I’ll get some pictures for the next one.