Saturday, May 12, 2018

Volunteering with the Tibetan Refugees in India

This globe sits on the table in the library at LHA Charitable Trust in Dharamsala:

Tibet was hand-drawn onto the globe.

This globe pretty much sums up the Tibetan situation.

Tibet is an autonomous region of China. It has been ever since the early 1950s when China annexed Tibet, claiming it was liberating Tibetans from its feudal system. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, a government-in-exile was established in Dharamsala, India. For all intents and purposes, Tibet, as it once was, no longer exists. You won't see it mentioned in any lists of the world's countries, and you won't see it printed in any modern-day maps or globes.

The modern history of Tibet is a sad yet powerful one. I've been deeply moved by the "Free Tibet" movement since I watched Seven Years in Tibet in 1997. I won't go into the history here, but I will say that if you're interested in learning about Tibet and the challenges it faces, I highly recommend watching the aforementioned movie and/or reading Tim Johnson's Tragedy in Crimson.

The primary reason I travelled to India for two months was to get closer to the Tibetan refugees; the yoga course and my meditation retreat were secondary. Not only did I want to better understand the Tibetan culture and the refugee community, but I also wanted to make a meaningful contribution. I would have loved to have visited Tibet proper, but I didn't have any interest in visiting a place so heavily influenced by Chinese masquerading as saviors. And so it was that before traveling to India, I arranged to lead English conversation classes with LHA Charitable Trust.

LHA is one of the largest Tibetan social work institutes in Dharamsala, providing resources for Tibetan refugees, local Indians, and other people from the Himalayan region. With the assistance of a full-time staff and hundreds of volunteers from all over the world, LHA focuses on six main areas:
  1. preserving and promoting the Tibetan language and cultural heritage, 
  2. creating awareness of the Tibetan issue, 
  3. social work initiatives, 
  4. educational resources, 
  5. volunteer opportunities, and
  6. cultural exchange programs. 
In focusing on these areas, LHA offers a wide range of services, such as language and vocational training, the collection and distribution of clothing and medications, a community newspaper, and clean water initiatives.

The English conversation classes at LHA aim to improve students' speaking abilities and confidence, all while providing a cordial environment for exchanging stories, experiences, and friendships. Classes are held every weekday afternoon from 4 to 5pm. Students divvy themselves among the available volunteers, with a typical ratio of one volunteer to every four to six students.

The conversation groups gathered in multiple rooms on the second floor of the LHA building. Students and volunteers crammed into the rooms, sitting Indian-style atop mats that were arranged in circles. With all the simultaneous conversations, the noise-levels in the room quickly elevated. As each session wore on, my students and I tightened our circles, leaned our ears in the circle's center to hear, and raised our voices even more to be heard. For later classes, I was fortunate to be able to move my groups onto the roof, where we sat in circles on stools. The challenge presented by the noise levels was replaced with the challenge presented by the intense Himalayan sun. As we conversed, we squinted our eyes and held notebooks up as makeshift shades.

The students were all refugees -- mostly young adults, with some monks and nuns in attendance as well. Many of the students were regulars at the conversation classes, but others were drifters. The same applied to the volunteers; some had been leading the conversation groups for awhile, while others would drop-in for a session or two. As such, the conversation groups were constantly in-flux from one day to the next.

One of my afternoon English conversation groups.
Notice my rosy cheeks.

Volunteers are at liberty to lead the conversation groups as they so chose, though it is recommend that volunteers prepare a topic and corresponding questions for each session. We began each session by briefly going around the circle, sharing our names, where we were born, and how long we had been in India. All the students had made the long and dangerous journey from Tibet. Most had fled to India directly, but some had begun their exiled life in neighboring Nepal or Bhutan. Some made the journey when they were young children -- often without their parents -- while others had arrived in India within the previous month or two.

Rather than specifying a particular location of birth while introducing himself, one student declared that he was born everywhere. He was, of course, referring to the various locations of each of his rebirths. Recognizing that Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, I said, "Ok, fair enough. Let me clarify: Where were you born in this life?" The student smiled and then let out a jolly laugh. "Ah, you're a Tibetan Buddhist!," he said to me. One of the female students pointed at my face and said, "Of course she's a Tibetan. She has rosy cheeks, just like us!" I was smitten.

One day, I focused the afternoon's conversation on the five senses. What is your favorite sense? If you had to give up one sense, what would it be? Do you think we have any other senses? Right off the bat I learned that Tibetans recognize six senses. Duh! In addition to sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch, the Tibetans also recognize that mindfulness is a sense. In fact, mindfulness is the most powerful of the senses. Just as the ear is to sound and the nose is to odor, the mind is to mental objects.

One of my most favorite discussions was the day we talked about beauty. What makes someone beautiful? Do you think beauty is the same for every person? Can science measure beauty? Every single Tibetan in my group stated that beauty is internal -- that external beauty is impermanent and that internal beauty is eternal. How marvelous it was to hear young men and women say this. How fortunate these folks are to exist in a culture that sees beauty in such a manner. I swooned! (Not surprisingly, the Tibetans were confused when I later asked them, "What does the phrase 'Beauty is only skin deep' mean to you?")

In one session, I asked, "Who is your favorite person, other than the Dalai Lama, and why?" Had I not clarified "other than the Dalai Lama," I'm certain that everyone in the group would have answered that the Dalai Lama was their favorite person. Tibetans are crazy about His Holiness! One student said that his favorite person (aside from the Dalai Lama) is a Tibetan author/poet whose work beautifully captured the essence of Tibetan life. Sadly, the author/poet was imprisoned by the Chinese and no one knows for sure whether he is still alive. Another student said that his favorite person (aside from the Dalai Lama) is Obama. I asked the student to clarify who he meant by Obama, and he said, "President Obama, from the United States." I was surprised Obama was this person's favorite, and so I asked why. The President had visited the Dalai Lama a handful of times during his presidency. The Tibetans were impressed by Obama's courage to meet with the leader of the Tibetans, despite disapproval by the Chinese government. The students agreed that Obama is the embodiment of compassion, a trait very much held in high esteem among the Tibetans.

On my final day volunteering at LHA, we had a free-for all during which we discussed the students' experiences living in exile in Tibet.
  • I asked the students what they thought about the future of Tibet. This question brought with it a lot of discussion. Some students weren't terribly hopeful. Others, citing the fall of the Berlin Wall, were hopeful that China might have a change-of-heart sometime in the next twenty or thirty years and return Tibet to the Tibetans. I asked what might bring about a change-of-heart. Some students anticipate the change will come from the Chinese population (as opposed to the Chinese government officials), who wants democracy for the country. Others think perhaps pressure from other countries, such as the United States, will force China to return Tibet. Another student answered the question with a riddle of sorts: "How does an ant kill an elephant?" Clearly, the Tibetans aren't in a position to forcefully rid their country of the Chinese. But, if like ants, the Tibetans were to peacefully congregate and crawl up the trunk of the elephant, their annoyance would indeed cause quite an irritation.
  • I asked the Tibetans whether it was possible to escape from Tibet unseen. The Tibetans said no; the Chinese are frequently making house visits, making sure to account for the whereabouts of all Tibetans.
  • I asked the Tibetans whether they prefer living in India or whether they'd rather be living in Tibet. To my surprise, all the students preferred to live in India, where they can speak openly and freely honor the Dalai Lama.
  • Lastly, though unrelated to living in exile, I asked the Tibetans what they thought about President Trump. They all agreed that while he might be a good businessman, he is not a compassionate person.

Some of the students asked me questions:
  • One student asked whether I had seen a Tibetan before. I explained that there is a strong Tibetan community where I live in Seattle. In fact, the first weekend after I moved to Seattle in 2006, I attended the annual Tibet Festival at the Seattle Center.
  • Another student asked why I cared about the situation in Tibet. I explained that I was drawn to the "Free Tibet" movement long ago. I am appalled by the human rights violations and the cultural genocide that has been taking place in Tibet. I told the students I wanted to meet the Tibetan people to better understand the Tibetan culture, but not while under the influence of China.

Each day, I left the English conversation classes on a "teacher's high." This was a familiar high to me, as I loved teaching accounting and tax classes in my years immediately following grad school. It was so nice when the Tibetans asked me whether I would be returning the following day. And then when I arrived the next day, I was touched to see that my students had saved me a seat; they were anxiously patting the mat wanting for me to lead their conversation group. That teacher's high rushed revisited me every time I saw one of my students out-and-about around town. How fun!

While I'm grateful to live in a developed country, I often struggle with many of my country's priorities. We are a materialistic society that is consumed very much by appearances and very little by the workings of our inner selves. The Tibetans, on the other hand, have their priorities in the right places; people, connections, and mindfulness are of highest importance. I want nothing more than for the Tibetans and their beautiful culture to be preserved. On my last day of class, I asked the students to stand in a circle. Each of us put one hand in the center of the circle. Together we said, "1-2-3, Free Tibet" and then raised our hands into the air. Maybe someday Tibet will exist once again.

I don't feel as though I had enough time volunteering with the Tibetans. I was just starting to scratch the surface of seeing, first-hand, just how beautiful the Tibetan people are when it was time for me to return to The States. I have a strong desire to return to India. While volunteering with the English conversation classes was great, I would absolutely love to teach English at LHA. Different than the conversation classes, teaching is a more full-time volunteer position, as teachers are required to make a minimum two-month commitment. Teachers are responsible for designing lesson plans, creating and grading homework, and administering exams. Teachers have the same group of students every day in one of five language levels, ranging from beginning to advanced. Hmmm, this option is certainly on active simmer in the back of my mind.

While it's not certain whether I'll return to Dharamsala to volunteer again with the Tibetan refugees, one thing is certain: Even though I'm a native English speaker, I learned a heck of a lot from my English conversation classes.


  1. Once again I a, so proud of you! The concept of honoring ones compass has SO many facets, and you prove that they all can be made to happen. Inspirational Burch i like to think of you!

    And as normally happens, I liked the book 7 years in Tibet more than the movie. I might have to read it again soon!

    1. Multi-Faceted Burch, that's what they call me. 😀 As it turns out, I plan to re-watch the movie this evening! If you say the book is even better, I should definitely give a read to the book some time.

    2. I stumbled on it after the movie came out. It made me want to watch it, but yep! Gives you more insight and detail


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