Tuesday, March 17, 5:30pm Dogun, Dockpo, Ollie and I left for Darlag. We left Xining on a well-kept main highway, and I watched the craggy mountains of Xining give way to huge, rolling mountains setting the backdrop for vast, tundra-like plains that stretched on for miles. The straight and smooth highway changed to a more narrow road filled with hairpin turns through the mountainous landscape of southwestern China as we came into Tibet. The landscape in Tibet changed in sudden curves and peripheral glances. One minute, we would be driving into the sunset on an endless road reminiscent of the American mid-west (without the cornfields, of course) and then I would find myself looking straight over the edge of a ravine at the base of a mountain, feeling the car bend itself around a curve that would be impassable in even the slightest precipitation. As we drove further into Golok, we were accompanied on the road by herds of yaks, or a couple stray sheep wandering in the median. I also began to see prayer flags everywhere; they resemble a Native American teepee when the prayer flags are attached in strings to the top of a pole, and then brought down to the earth. Colorful and beautiful, they whisper prayers into the incessant wind on top of the mountains and hills, or spanning the highway.
And in the background of this vast, treeless territory, jagged mountains stand with snow on their peaks. My first response to the landscape was awe-filled. Because there are no trees, there is no ease in the transition of earth to sky, no organic blending of shades. It is harsh and it is beautiful. It's like seeing a black-and-white photo for the first time, after being used to a full spectrum of tones that distracts from the essence of the picture.
Then it was night, and I slept for the short periods of time that we had smooth road, intercepted often by stretches of brain-rattling dirt and stone road. We stopped for a brief moment in the night, and I saw the altitude-enhanced sky, with millions of stars I had never seen before, and a shooting star streaked across the lower-right hemisphere. The air was clean and sharp, and I felt refreshed from the sweaty dust of Xining. I felt fine at altitude; no different than skiing in Colorado.
As per the recent, important dates of early March, we did see one burned-out car along the side of the road.
We arrived around 4am in Darlag, and drove through the sleepy village through the red gates of the the Sengcham Drukmo Home. I fell into bed in an upstairs room of an ambiguous building, with a feeling of anticipation in my stomach for the beginning of the next chapter in the story. I was awoken a few hours later by the sound of 50 girls chanting Tibetan grammar in the early light of the morning. It was such a unique feeling, one I don't think will ever be replicated in my life, of hearing the voices of the girls I had only seen in pictures. I slept again, and woke up to Tibet around me. Darlag is in a valley, surrounded by the huge hills I had seen on the drive in, and I spent that day hazily meeting the other adult residents of the home (Dockpo's family), the 6 new girls who arrived during Dockpo's stay in the States, and then seeing the other girls at 4:30 when they returned from school. I talked with Dockpo about the plan for how I am to be used while here, and decided to start the first English lesson the following afternoon.
That night, I slept in a room adjacent to the large room that sleeps all 50 girls, and fell asleep listening to them chant their prayers before bed. It's a really awesome sound.
Before I describe teaching, I want to preface it with this quote from a new favorite book of mine: “Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities,” Mortenson explains. “But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they've learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate the girls.” -Greg Mortenson, Three Cups Of Tea.
My first class was great! I didn't prepare any material for teaching before I came; I just had an intuitive feeling of how to tackle the language barrier when I stepped into the classroom. The girls are the best students I have ever seen (sorry Longfellow) and enthusiastic almost to a fault. The classroom is also the room in which they eat their meals, and the girls arranged the tables and benches in a class style, with the coal/yak dung stove in the center. I began with basic greetings, and the alphabet, concentrating on perfect pronunciation. They immediately struggle with the long sound of “A” and the hard sound of “V.” But with much smiling and concentration, we are tackling these issues and they are getting it! Anyone who has ever taught knows the difficulty (and joy) of teaching, but add to it a total language barrier, and it becomes like a maze, with many stops and turns and “reverse directions.” But I couldn't be happier and the time flies while I'm in the classroom. I teach twice a day, after lunch and dinner, and the girls are calling me “the cute teacher” and want to keep going even when the time for class is over.
We have successfully managed the alphabet, with a slight variation on the tune, and we are working on vocab and total body response ie: “shut the door” “turn off the light” “please sit.” One of the games I've played with them is to say “please sit,” with different pronunciations of the word “sit,” ie “set” “sat” until they hear the correct one, and then sit. Obviously, there are only a few left standing for the proper pronunciation, but they like it and it's a fun way to learn! With total body response, I go around the room, touching different girls on the head and giving direct commands like “open the window,” “turn on the light,” so that they understand the vocab word, and have a practical application for it. I've also used a ball, having them toss it to each other while shouting a letter of the alphabet.
We begin every class with the vowel sounds of each consonant, “ba, be, bi, bo, bu” concentrating on the individual sounds of the vowels, which tend to become mushed into one generic short “e” sound, especially a, e, and i.
I have a lot more ideas for how to further our mutual learning experience, and I hope that I will be able to make some headway in this short amount of time. I hope that the success thus far is based on more than the novelty of my presence and that there is something sustainable in the lessons. I want to get us out of the classroom soon, going for walks and playing games that they can keep playing after I leave.
A huge thank you to every language teacher I have ever had; Mom, Senora Nolan, Ms. Tanahashi, and, of course, Magistra Lienau. And a big thank you (and hug) to Mrs. Susie Knowles and Mr. Rick Wilson, who have both had an enormous impact on my education philosophy.
To refer you back to the Mortenson quote, the truth of that precept is right here in the Sengcham Drukmo Home for Girls. There are 50 smart, happy girls here who have so much to teach me already, and who will become competent and educated women simply based on the fact that they are receiving this opportunity. And Dockpo has 150 more girls on his list, girls who deserve education because we all deserve education.
Beyond the education aspect, we spent the day on Sunday, March 22, cleaning up the yard and making it ready to grow grass. That night, the girls danced and sang, and drew beautiful art. (Pictures on Facebook!) There is much talent there, and I look forward to tapping it. I also read to them the story of Thumbelina, with Dockpo translating, and they loved it! Thank you to Janice Cooper for donating that and other childrens books. Stories are such a universal way to connect to people, as I hope I am demonstrating through this blog.
I hope this post finds you healthy and happy, thank you for reading!