"Should I save or savor the world?"

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world.

This makes it hard to plan the day.

E.B. White

Saturday, April 18, 2009

everything looks perfect from far away


I had a dream two nights ago that involved me waking up in the middle of the night, wandering outside, hijacking Dokgun's car, and navigating the bumpy streets of Darlag, desperate to find a Walmart so I coul
d buy popcorn. It was so vivid that I swear I could almost smell the musty plastic of American's favorite corporation (at least it's better than AIG) and I woke up wondering if any of it was true. I'm pretty sure that popcorn will be my first American purchase once I've stepped foot in JFK in a month. After I use a real sit-down toilet.

We are well-past the halfway mark of my stay in Tibet, and
time has flown. If time is tangible, then I'm blaming the wind for how quickly these weeks and days have gone. Since it is not tangible, then I blame the wonderful and unique personalities of the people here who have given time wings.

A big thanks to Lynn Hasselberger and I Count For my Earth, an organization dedicated to inspiring dialogue between kids and families about their environmental impact. Lynn has generously agreed to donate 10% of purchases from her website (
http://www.myearth360.com) to the home here in Tibet if the buyer enters code "Geneva" at check out.

Lynn's website has fantastic, earth-friendly home products and you can serve two great causes at the same time by shopping there! You can also follow Lynn on Twitter @icount4myearth.

I was sitting outside on the steps last week, enjoying the sun and the company of the girls at lunchtime, when I heard the most pathetic yelping and whining coming from the direction of the front gate. It was the sound of a puppy, and I looked around to see if anyone else was worried by how miserable this invisible little dog sounded. No one moved. I started in the direction of the gate, worried that I might find a puppy in pain, or maybe an angry older dog, but instead I rounded the side of the house to see several adult Tibetans standing and staring at a dirty bundle of fur who was tied on a 2 foot string to a heavy piece of debris. The puppy was tugging and pulling on his rope, trying desperately to escape the choke-hold of the ratty string while under the apathetic stares of his onlookers.

I went over and offered him my hand before loosening the string embedded in the puppy flesh around his neck, and he calmed down, finally sitting down next to me while I chatted the little guy up. Meanwhile, the Tibetans watching gave me the most incredulous look
s, akin to the response I would expect in America if I walked up to a raccoon and asked if he wanted to be friends. Whatever, the puppy and I get along so it's a match made in heaven as far as I'm concerned.

On Sunday, April 26, we hiked a nearby mountain to erect new prayer flags. This was quite an event for me and the girls to participate in, because the Tibetan culture never allows women to approach, much less erect, the prayer flags on the mountains. Because Dockpo's family owns this particular mountain (a gift to his father from a nomad family), Dockpo is able to bring the girls up the mountain as well. It was a beautiful, meaningful, and exhausting day. There are two full albums of pictures on Facebook and I encourage you to check them out!

The climb itself was fine; I am fully recovered from my illness, so I felt almost no effects of the altitude and was able to enjoy the ever-increasing view of Darlag, the mountains, and the Yellow River in the next valley as we drew closer and closer to the sky. Once at the summit, we enjoyed periods of intense, perfect sunlight, followed by harsh storm clouds and heavy hail. Rinse and repeat.

When the wind became so intense several hours later that the smaller girls were finding it hard to remain standing, I took them back down the mountain, supporting Niemkah
Dorma, one of the girls who was feeling the altitude and had fallen, hitting her head on a rock. We'll finish the prayer flags next week, and I cannot wait to go back up.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

we are more alike

It's time to answer the question: How do Americans and Tibetans differ? I've been wanting to create a list of similarities and differences for a while, but knew I needed to quietly contemplate and observe before jumping into this assignment. I think it became habit for people to walk into Shangbo's kitchen and see me randomly staring at the wall or a face, vaguely smiling while sketching characters into my Laurel Birch "Mediterranean Cats" notebook.

Dr. Maya Angelou wrote a poem, "Human Family", that is a p
erfect prologue to this post.

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

1.) Americans and Tibetans share the same ease and social skills that allow both people groups to laugh at themselves and at each other easily. There is rarely an awkward moment (ok, except when I mutilate words) and I have become something of a stand-up comedian because I enjoy imitating different characters who pass through the red gates of SGH... or maybe I'm the oblivious butt of the joke. Who knows. Who cares.

2.) Americans have this insatiable appetite for 24 hour noise, whether it's compulsory station-hopping in the car, verbal pauses during conversation, leaving the TV on while doing laundry, and most importantly, never allowing the "awkward pause" in casual conversation. We can't even let a speaker or musician pause for dramatic effect; if the music or words stop, we hasten to fill the void with applause, while the performer does a false-start and waits for the clap-happy crowd to shut up. Tibetans, conversely, are perfectly comfortable sitting in silence, listening to each other chew and swallow dinner (my pet peeve) while I squirm with the addictive need to volunteer some sort of relief to the silence. As the months have passed I've grown more at ease with the silence, and am appreciative of it; f you think about it, talking is an effort, while silence is natural.

3.) It is rare to see an American or Tibetan without a cellphone plugged into an ear, arm, or dangling from some other part of their body, and if it is not visible, then we are familiar with the cellphone grope in which the participant is patting down his jacket and pockets in attempt to find that elusive piece of technology (and despite this common problem, we continue to buy the latest models that become smaller and smaller with each production.) In a land where technology is slim to none, the Tibetans are cell-savvy, and since cellphone companies just started producing cellphones that have Tibetan script (rather than the former Mandarin), texting is in. Even the monks have a phone stashed away somewhere in the folds of earthy-red material swathing their bodies and they'll pull it out to feverishly respond to a text, thumbs moving over the keys at a pace to rival middle-school American girls.

4.) Some people have blamed the recession in America on credit card debt, and I think all would agree that Americans have (at best) a slight issue with credit. A huge cultural difference: Tibetans don't use credit cards, they pay in RMB at the time of purchase. I asked Shangbo, "Well then how do you buy stuff online?" And she responded that people don't trust virtual purchases, and so it's not a problem. There are definitely economic benefits to using credit wisely, but in this culture, the absence of credit abuse can only be an asset.

5.) Both Tibetans and Americans are individualistic and expressive in appearance and manner. Whether that is displayed through bright jewelry, ornate hair designs, colorful and unique clothing, or the expressive use of hands and motion to supplement conversation, these people groups have a zest for life that is evident in how they live it.

6.) Tibetan men are much more physically affectionate with one another than straight American men could ever be. They hold hands at meals, sit very close to each other, will leave a hand resting on another man's knee, etc. It didn't throw me off; I could tell that this type of physical affection was the norm, but I did ask Dockpo how prevalent homosexuality is in the Tibetan culture, to which he responded, "We don't even have that word in our language." I don't know if the comfort with male physical affection exists because homosexuality does not, or if it's strictly a cultural characteristic.

I hope you've forgiven my wanna-be anthropological meanderings; I'll do my best to redeem myself in another post.

Akela and the Little Dog

The wind arrives once a week. Without warning, it comes crashing down the mountainside, seemingly gathering momentum, howling through the courtyard, whipping up clouds of dust and snow to toss in your face. It moans around corners and under eaves, finding the gaps between window and frame, slipping down the back of your shirt to empty pockets of warmth.

It's like the Provence Mistral, except multi-directional and much shorter in duration. The internet is the first to go; I can almost hear the wind streaming through my connection, halting busy electrons in their path. The lights tease on and off while I involuntarily count how many times they flicker, a knee-jerk reaction from growing up in Maine.

Sometimes I have a weird paranoia that the leaded glass window pane in my room is going to explode inwards with the force of the wind, knock me on the head, and I'll awake from my sepia-toned dream into a techni-colored world of munchkins and Glinda-the-good-witches.

As per the diligent work we put in on learning the "Crank That" dance by Soulja Boy, I have the following video clip to display the fruits of our labor. Anyone want to send it off to the hip-hop prince himself? I think it'd be a hit!

Not only do these girls have a natural talent for dancing, but they can all sing and draw! I feel like I've stepped into the Asian version of a Jane Austen (ok that's a little strange) and am surrounded by dynamic, aesthetically pleasing individuals. It would be a shame to allow the girls talents go to waste, so I have proposed the following plan to Dockpo, based on the model currently in place at the Pacific Ridge School. The girls will hand-decorate blank greeting cards, which I will bring back to the States and sell, with profit returning to the home. What we need: blank cards and envelopes! If you, or someone you know, would be interested in donating as many cards/envelopes as possible, we will be happy recipients. Just send me an email, gmwilgus@gmail.com

You will recall my bout with an unpleasant Tibetan cold/flu a few weeks back; I was pleased to report a quick return to strength at the end of that ordeal, fingers-crossed that my illness would render me immune to any accidents, natural disasters or Acts of God for the remainder of my time in Tibet... which it has thus far. What my illness doesn't protect against are the remnants of a ski accident four years passed, in the form of an overly-sensitive broken tooth lying in wait for me at the bottom of my mouth. Seriously, I'm about ready to do a Tom Hanks and knock the thing out of my mouth with a rock and a rusty ice-skate. I'll let you know if my desperation takes me that far.

Desperation, if harnessed appropriately, can be a catalyst for long-needed actions, like, doing my laundry for the first time in a month. I was thinking about leaving this story muted under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, but I got a laugh out of it, and figured you would too. Laundry is a task. Not the kind of task I'm used to; I can't just drag my loaded hamper down the stairs and hope that someone tosses the whites in separately with a scoop of Tide. No, here, it requires pulling out an antique of a washing machine, hand-loading it with water from the broken well, and pulling suds-sodden clothes out after an hour and a half of being the recipients of the Jackie Chan of washing machines. In the 33 degrees Fahrenheit water, I hand-wrung my clothes, pondered whether or not to rinse the excess soap out, decided that's WAY too much work (and, who knows, maybe a little extra soap means they stay cleaner, longer) and trudged my pile of hopefully-cleaner garments back upstairs to commence the drying process in front of my space heater.

That's not the funny part. While waiting for Jackie Chan to finish teaching my clothes a lesson, I was upstairs in my room, in front of the window that allows a view of the courtyard, complete with the sight and sound of the washing machine. I happened to glance out the window to see Thabeh, a 24 year old guy who lives here, opening up the washing machine lid to peer inside. You can guess that all of my multi-colored undergarments were swirling prominently around, and must have sparked a response in Thabeh because he called out to the several young men who have been working daily here on construction. They arrived on the scene within moments, while I watched helplessly a la Rapunzel from my tower window while the more delicate items of my wardrobe were examined and exclaimed over. Wow. I pretended ignorance when I made the walk of shame within 30 minutes to claim the aforementioned articles of clothing, and gave friendly smiles in response to the leering grins of the guys on construction. Punks.

Thabeh lives here, with his wife, Mimi (23) and their two daughters, one of whom is The Monster, if you've followed recent Facebook photo albums. Mimi is a relative of Dockpo's family, and it's not uncommon for extended family to all remain nearby, or living together. Mimi and Thabeh are a lot of fun, and I enjoy the interaction with people closer to my age. My room is right over their central living area, the kitchen, and usually that isn't a problem, until Saturday night rolls around. I don't know why I should be surprised that a Saturday night has some universal meaning, but I quickly overcame that surprise as I listened to high-pitched Chinese opera and the sounds of rowdy excitement while trying to fall asleep during my first Saturday night here. Add to that the wails of over-tired 4 year-olds whose parents just want to party-hearty, and it's not the recommended wall of white noise supposedly optimal for REM. After two years in a college dorm (albeit a Cedarville college dorm) I think I can sleep through anything, and am more amused by the fact that a Saturday night is still a Saturday night, no matter where in the world.

On a typical night, and especially recently, I am joined by a Tibetan wolf, who I have christened Akela, from the Disney movie, "The Jungle Book." How do I know it's a wolf? I met him, face-to-face, on my way to the well the other night. Nothing scary, he just looked at me, started to follow me back inside until I shooed him away. Wikipedia confirmed it for me, as did the howling (as opposed to the common Tibetan dog's bark). It's become a nightly routine; Akela shows up under my window around 10:30pm and I listen to him howl and pace. Superstitious or not, it's like Akela is here for me in lieu of Ollie's recent departure, and I welcome his presence under my window.

I am constantly reminded of why I am here-- in this place of natural beauty, surrounded by the contrived beauty of a few good hearts who have dedicated their lives to the higher goals of being. Here's a quote from the short story "The Lady With The Little Dog," by Anton Chekhov, which, I think, expresses my sentiments much more capably than I ever could.

"Gurov reflected that, essentially, if you thought about it, everything was beautiful in this world, everything except for what we ourselves think and do when we forget the higher goals of being and our human dignity."

I wonder, does the altitude make my thoughts as clear as it does the mountain view?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

quoth the raven

"So, how do you think Tibet has changed you?"

The chat box in Gmail waited for my response. I was connecting with a friend a world away, and she put that question to me after listening to (watching?) me rave about my adventure here.

I began typing, "well.. I think floss more."

Yes, that's right. My poor, persistent dental hygienist back home never knew that it would take sending my occasionally-flossing self to Tibet to get me to ascribe to the recommended routine. But, there you have it.

Not to say that this experience hasn't changed me in ways more transcendental than dental cleanliness; as I told another friend, the perspective of viewing America from the outside looking in, and of being here, in Tibet, the media's new go-to for a solid oppression piece-- well, that perspective can't be bottled and sold. I am learning patience, ("learning it daily, learning it through pains to which I am grateful," RM Rilke). I have learned that connections to other humans, however improbable, are made through smiles, laughter, and a willingness to listen, regardless of language barriers. I am learning the universals of humanity.

On the topic of forming connections, I recently met Vicki Flaugher, of Smart Women Guides, via the social networking tool Twitter, and she has expressed interest in this project. As a result of our interactions, she invited me to interview on her radio show;

The interview with Vicki Flaugher on SmartWoman Radio aired Wednesday, April 15, 2pm Central Time. It was a great interview and I enjoyed meeting Vicki; the podcast is online and is a free download at: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/SmartWomanRadio/2009/04/15/SmartWoman-Radio

Thanks for listening!

Today we had 8 Chinese workers here to lay tile in the new dorm building, and I was assigned the task of making sure they didn't mess up the radiant heating cables. Why I was given this job when my Chinese consists of "how much is that" and "no, you're crazy," I'm still not sure. I did my best to look fierce (Tyra would be proud) and walked around holding a notebook and pen, like what, I was going to sketch them a Picasso if they messed up? They just ignored me. While looking fierce, I enjoyed observing their short, compact selves mix cement, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, ash falling into the soupy mixture. Seriously, every breath they took was filtered through their cheap, Chinese-Marlboro knock-offs and the smoke stirred with clouds of cement powder in the sharp air. So glad I was on-duty to receive a double dose of carcinogens. I was snotting cement from my nose afterwards.

Whenever a problem arose, as one seemed to every five minutes, there would be an interlude in the cigarette-cement process while voices rose and arms were flung about in gesticulation. Then someone would say something wise, and the arms are returned to the default resting place behind their back while they chew over the new information and an old stub.

Their technique works for them; the new tile looks decent. We just have to wait four days for the cement to set, thus forcing us to climb in and out of Shangbo's kitchen through a window.

There are 51 girls here and I know that I've referred to them as a conglomerate body in this blog, but that is not because I am not interacting with them or learning their individual personalities; it's because I can't, for the life of me, get their names straight. They all have dark hair, dark eyes and similar body builds. I told them apart, at first, by their clothes. Due to climate and lack of washing machines, you'll often wear the same articles of clothing several days in a row-- a blessing for me because I could be like "Oh, it's the crazy one wearing the purple scarf" or "the one with the Honda jacket is really sweet." Right. So that continues for a while and I'm feeling like I have a handle on their names, and then, in typical female fashion, they play a game of Musical Clothes on crack, and my feeble beginnings at associating names with apparel dies a swift, sudden death.

I guess it keeps me on my toes. I dish it right back, though, in the daily war I wage on the mis-pronunciation of my name. I'm typically referred to as Dechan Wangmo, my Tibetan name, but when the odd, bold individual makes an attempt at my American name it always comes out "Genewa." There is no hard "v" sound in the Amdo language so the "v" is replaced with the closest sounding consonant, a "w." I carefully sound out my name, placing emphasis on the v, my upper teeth on my bottom lip when saying "geneVa." As a result, my name has evolved into a harsh ghost of the former, "joon-nee-VAH." At least it's progress.

To accompany that constant soundtrack, there is the guttural, old sound of giant ravens who frequent the town and sit on our buildings, casting ominous shadows over the ground. Their wingspan looks to be between 4 and 5 feet; they are enormous and every time I see them, I am reminded of the motif from Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain." If you are familiar with "Cold Mountain" you'll know that the raven is a symbol of freedom from worldly constraints and an emblem of independence to the ever-traveling protagonist, Inman. Unlike Poe's poem, in which the raven is a harbinger of death, I embrace the sight and sound of the huge birds and remember that I am here to abet the independence of these girls, and that through education, they can be free from the constraints of society's marginalization.

So quoth the raven.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

one month down

The days are becoming noticeably longer as we hurtle closer to the sun, and I am enjoying the look (if not feel) of spring.  

I'd like to give a shout-out to my fellow Omprakash volunteer, Vance Walstra, who is currently in Peru and is concluding his 90 day stay soon.  Vance has done some amazing things there, including overseeing the construction of a new school!  He is the Greg Mortenson of South America and I am proud to call him a friend.  

A big thank you to everyone who has continued to financially support this project; I am still receiving donations through the mail back home, and those are going directly to SGH.  I wish I could thank you all in person, but please accept my continued gratitude on behalf the girls.

And a special hello to the four schools currently involved in the project; Sue Townsend's class at Wiscasset Elementary has been following the blog and sending weekly questions for me to answer about the culture.  They are also preparing to start their alphabet book project, creating several books that will be a unique learning tool for the girls.

Susie Knowles's class at Longfellow Elementary did a lot of work before I left to write a book about an average America school day and they also gathered academic supplies to send over. Hello and thank you to Longfellow; the girls are using the pens and pencils and getting ready to start writing a reply book!

Brunswick High School students are currently involved in creating and shipping educational posters, as well as books and other educational materials.  Louis Connelly is on the hunt for a computer donor, and Rick Wilson and Mary Herman have also been instrumental in generating support as well as recently sending out Vitamin C for the girls.

Steve Le and the Pacific Ridge School completed a drive to send educational materials like posters, maps and globes to SGH, and I am looking forward to introducing the girls to those helpful and stimulating additions to class.

Thank you to those driven individuals and classes who have been so helpful to the project and I look forward to thanking all of you in person this summer and fall.

I have been busy like a bee these past couple days with renewed networking and fund-raising and have much to report on that front, so buckle in and get ready.  First and foremost, we need funds to finish the new dorm building and library.  This is imperative if Dockpo is to move forward with plans to double the current number of girls he is caring for (51, with 150 more on the list).

We are also on the verge of diving (or plummeting) into the building plans for the hotel Dockpo wishes to build here in Darlag to generate additional income for the home.  Not only will it be an asset in terms of revenue, but also as training grounds for the girls here to gain financial independence and move out of the typical masculine reliance.  To that end I am researching loans, grants, micro-financing and I was able to contact Karen Mills, the new president of the Small Business Association, for advice.  If you have any suggestions, contacts or links for me to pursue, please shoot me an email:  gmwilgus@gmail.com  I also downloaded Google SketchUp, and will pretend to know what I'm doing as we start the construction plans for the approximately 16 square meters plot.  Wish me luck; although I think Google is enough of a tech god to save us from architectural disaster.  

I'm also actively looking for a volunteer nurse who would be willing to come to the home for a month, minimum, to do some training on basic nutrition and sanitation as well as teach the basics on cough/cold/fever care, puberty, small wound treatment, etc.  One of my best friends, Alyson McDonough, is a nursing student at St. Anselm College in NH and has agreed to help me network through her program.  Big thank you to Al!  Best case scenario would be for Al to come back to Tibet with me... but I'll work on that.  

Katie Glockner, a student at PRS, will also be doing some work on potentially finding and sending much-needed medical supplies.  

The standard request remains for children's books, (early reader and picture) to supplement the growing library here, and we also need computers.  If you are willing to donate any of those items, money towards their purchase, or if you know of a friend/colleague who is interested, I am ready to talk with them.  If you are a student, this is a great way to bolster your resume by starting a book drive and finding donors to pay shipping/handling costs!  Remember that education is the answer to a truly free Tibet.  

To donate, please visit my link organization's website:  www.omprakash.org/donate to make a secure, online donation.  Importantly, send me an email (gmwilgus@gmail.com) telling me that you donated, and in what amount, so that I can earmark it for SGH. 

For an update on class; these girls are such rockstars.  I am beyond pleased with their progress and we are having so much fun learning body parts and numbers.  A couple nights ago, I pulled the girls out their seats and let them trace each other onto the wall with different colored chalk, which was obviously a hit and an energetic way to start class. It really does make a difference to grab their attention in the first few minutes; they stay interested.  I fully labeled one of the traced bodies with the basic names of body parts, concentrating on pronunciation and spelling.  I even heard some of the girls beginning to sound out the words before I pronounced them!   That might sound insignificant, but when they have an entirely new alphabet it is no small feat.  I then handed out chalk and let the whole class tackle the different body sketches and put up the correct labels, which I checked to make sure they aren't getting sloppy on spelling.  It worked; they walked around touching various body parts, calling out the name, and looking to me for approval even after class ended.

We will be moving on to the head and shoulders song, as well as playing Flyswatter with the labeled body drawings on the wall.  Can't wait.  

The girls are now fluent in numbers 1-20, which was surprisingly difficult.  It took a lot of sessions of jump-rope counting to get to that point, and I made up a game for them to play the other night which finally helped.  I created a set of cards, numbered 1-20, with a matching set of cards labeled with the English spelling, ie "one" through "twenty."  I mixed them up and handed them out, one to each girl, and then instructed them to stand up, move around, and find their number match using only English and then stand with their match, organized in line from least to greatest.  It was so fun and the girls were excited to move quickly to find their number match before others.

We'll play that game again, and I've already created cards to play that game with colors, ie, I drew with red marker on one card and put the word "red" on its matching card.  It will be great fun.  Here's a point of interest in cultural dichotomy that I have found; the girls are loud, happy, talkative and, well, normal pre-teen and teenage girls in class.  They have no problem grabbing my hand and dragging me over to their drawing or calling my name to come check their spelling and, of course, the louder the better.  It's much easier to interact and focus on real issues if we have no social barrier.  

Take these brazen beauties and put them in the kitchen with a couple local men hanging out on the carpet-covered bench and their personality vanishes a la Houdini.  With a bowed head and muted, one-word responses, they quietly move around, re-filling the aforementioned men's bowls and generally catering to the men who won't move a few feet to do it themselves.

I noticed this as a trend after observing several different girls acting identically and asked Dockpo if this was typical behavior.  As assumed, Dockpo affirmed that this was indeed the norm and suggested that I can help teach confidence.  I immediately told Mimtso (Dockpo translating) to show off her pretty face and keep her head up!  We all laughed, and Mimtso blushed, but I noticed that she looked around a little more during the rest of the night.

Dockpo and the other men who live at the home certainly do not cater to an idea that women are lesser, if anything, Dockpo is constantly talking to the girls and involving himself with them so as to highlight, and familiarize them with, their inherent gender equality.  

Another cultural dichotomy that is, perhaps, less socially relevant but interesting nonetheless is the "gilded cage" dilemma.  The Tibetan society is decorative, colorful and sequined to the point of resembling St. George's scaly dragon.  Well, maybe not that bad.  But it is decorative and colorful, evidenced by their beautiful, detailed architecture, their lovely jewelry and beading and huge amounts of decor and applique on every article of clothing.  The overall effect is multi-faceted, rich, and exudes a flavor for life that is unique to this people group.  Not to discredit the Tibetan's artistic expression, but beyond the hand-painted trim-line or the exquisitely detailed picture window there are shoddy construction materials, crumbling and improperly mixed concrete, perilously slanted flights of stairs, and a general lack of attention to detail for, what Americans would consider, the important stuff.  The same deal with clothing; the pretty papilio glaucus stitched onto a jean leg distracts from thin fabric and loose basting. Socks fall apart at a record pace, hats become unraveled at the seam, and jackets lose their poly-down stuffing.  I am not criticizing nor am I disapproving; there is a happiness derived from beauty that is indispensable, and there are plenty of less-than-happy people in America with quality GoreTex products on their backs.  

As a combination of the Tibetan's awareness of beauty and their no-shame scrutiny of your person, I have been accosted on several occasions for having the typical facial blemish of a person removed from their normal health, fitness and cleanliness regime:  a pimple.  I'll walk into a room, not aware that the volcano on my forehead is screaming "look at me" and will be immediately accosted by concerned glances and pointing fingers with accompanying looks of questioning as if to ask, "do you know that your house is on fire and your children are missing and I'm pretty sure your husband swallowed arsenic?"  Since it's clearly a grave matter, I spend a few respectful moments in silence, give a couple sincere head nods, before responding with a shoulder shrug and stoic smile.   Like, I'm sorry I don't have flawless skin... leave me alone with my zit!

On another, humorous note, I got up this morning to walk down to the outhouse and was greeted by Shangbo and a locked door; she informed me that "lots of other people" have been using the outhouse and thus, the locked door.  Okay, so, granted, there is a wall around the hole in the ground but it's just a hole in the ground -- let's not get overly protective here.  As a result, I had to pop a squat right out in the open, fingers crossed that no commode-stealing derelict would wander over in search of evacuative relief.  No one did, and the outhouse should be unlocked soon, because, well the alternative is just plain dirty. More to come on that front... or back, pun intended.

Happy Easter to you and your family; please continue to send me the odd newsy email or facebook message as I do love to read and respond.  Take care, and chew on this quote from Aristotle, "We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Monday, April 6, 2009

created for the common good

After the hiatus of illness and the sadness of Ollie's departure, I am looking forward to my remaining time in Tibet with the readiness of stoicism and with anticipation for the stories untold.

Class with the girls has been going well; some days are better than others, but hopefully I'm providing something salvageable in each lesson. The issue of language barrier is almost non-existent and I've adapted into different forms of communication which sets the stage for different kinds of learning. We do a lot of game-playing; using the "Simon Says" philosophy I divide the girls into two teams, giving a command to the two girls who represent each team, like, "open the door," "write 'teacher,'" "walk to the stove," "look at the clock," and so on, awarding the team a point whose representative has the first accurate response. The girls love it! We also play a game I played in my Spanish class in high school called "Flyswatter." I write all of their vocabulary words on the wall in different colored chalk, pull up two girls, hand them each a badminton racket and call out a word, which they then must touch with their racket. The hope here is that not only must they learn the correct pronunciation, they're also learning the way the word looks.

We started learning numbers during my first lessons back after being sick, and I've been using jump-ropes to help them learn numbers (ie counting skips), and will teach them a couple rhymes like "one, two, buckle my shoe" to make it fun. Next step? I think we're going to tackle questions with "who, what, when, where and why." Wish me luck. Beyond that, I think we're going to move into stories so that they have imaginative context for their new vocab words. A craft is in order as well, probably to learn colors.

Fingers crossed that I'm not shooting in the dark with my techniques; I guess Steve Sclar (the next US volunteer) will be the judge of that!

The background to class has been noisy construction. We've had a slew of Tibetan workers here every day pouring concrete and prepping the yard for grass-planting. The new building has a deep red coat of paint and should have floors put in soon.

The snow is a daily occurrence, it usually falls in the late afternoon or early evening, continuing into the night. It's a clean and fresh awakening, and inspires deep breaths and appreciation for nature... until it melts by 2pm, revealing the Ramen wrappers and odd pieces of debris stuck in the mildewy mud. And the fresh awakening gives way to a rude awakening. We have got to work on the littering thing.

Sunday, April 5 we celebrated International Women's Day. It is traditionally celebrated on March 8, but Dockpo was still en route, US to China.

Me, wearing a traditional chuba, and Shangbo

The girls emptied their large bedroom and turned it into seating and tables for all of us and our guests (pics on facebook). I wore a traditional chuba and enjoyed how warm and comfortable it is! Our guests were the honored second-highest llama in Tibet and his accompanying high-ranked monks, as well as some other businessmen who are important friends of the home. The event was steeped in tradition, with the girls lined up along the walkway, arms extended, holding welcome scarves and chanting as the guests arrived. We sat at the long, low tables that were covered in bottled beverages and sweet things as Tsoreh (second highest llama) led the group in chanting. He was about 60 years old, wrinkled and sage-like, with a kind face. Dawa Hamal, a female reincarnated Buddha and resident here at SGH, sat to his immediate left at the head table, with the other monks and myself seated further down at the head table facing the rest of the room.

Tsoreh made a short speech, addressing women's equality and saying that there is no place in Buddhism for gender discrimination and highlighted me as an excellent example of women as equal and powerful. Three girls then gave short song performances, each beautiful and distinct, and then we presented Tsoreh with gifts. I was handed a $100 bill (GO USA!!) and a pure white welcome scarf to lay across his old hands. The meal ended, and the guests left, Tsoreh placing his hands on my head and blessing me as he was escorted to the car. As soon as the car doors shut, the girls made a mad dash for the barely touched food (it was a pretty stilted event) and we spent the remaining afternoon playing and eating and singing.


As is their custom on Sunday nights, the girls set up a dance floor in the classroom and spend hours shimmying and shaking (Tibetan style) to their latest pop music. Since the moment I arrived I have been beseeched to teach some American dance and last night I finally made a CD with a few swift iTunes purchases and taught the girls the American club staple, "Soulja Boy" dance. If you're familiar with the dance, you know that it is in the hip-hop/R&B style, with loose movement and casual appendage placement (I can't believe I just analyzed Soulja Boy), and the girls are used to British Raj-type movement with careful and controlled movements. So, the improv "lean wit it" style will take some time. But they liked the dance and I can't wait to teach them others like "Cotton-Eyed Joe," "Cha Cha Slide" and "Nut Bush City Limits." I included some other American hits and girl-power songs (Miss Independent by Kelly Clarkson) and it was fun to hear familiar music.

On a different note (pun intended), I had a conversation a while back with Dockpo about the philosophy behind the home, and wanted to put it in my own words here. Education is fundamental; it is the point at which; it is the catalyst; it is the beginning. By providing education (and an education-friendly environment) these girls are provided the opportunity to create themselves out of material new and strange when discovered in the annals of information access. With their uniqueness and their knowledge, the hope is that they use their platforms to generate compassion and care for others. It becomes an obligation to put Self last and to prevent harm to your Fellow Human. Why is education necessary to achieve such an internal goal? The reasons are superficial; with education comes affluence, problem-solving, networking and communication abilities to enlighten others.

I was pleased to hear Dockpo's thoughts and enjoyed the opportunity to put mine into a more cohesive format. I stumbled upon this quote a while ago, and it seems fitting. At the opening of Bowdoin College in 1802, President Joseph McKeen declared that "literary institutions are funded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no man should live to himself, we may safely assert, that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education, and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Oliver Jiam Tso

My new friend and constant companion, Ollie, died on Saturday, April 4, 2009 at 3:00pm.  He was a 7 week old, red-and-white Siberian Husky.  I bought him in Xining during my first week in China when I saw his baby-blues peering out at me from a cage on the street in the Remin Gong Yuan.  Ollie weighed about 6lbs when I brought him home, bathed him, and curled up with him on my bed to keep him warm during his first night with me.  

In the weeks that followed, I watched Ollie turn from a wobbling, weak puppy into a playful and aggressive little dog who proved a fortuitous friend when he allowed me to meet the Mathis family in Xining, or when he opened up lines of contact for some of the more shy girls here at the Sengcham Drukmo Home.  

Ollie was well-loved, well-cared for, and was an inseparable part of my daily (and nightly) routine.   I usually woke up around 2am to take him outside (puppy bladders are very little) and he would antagonize me into feeding him at 7am.  Whether he was chewing on my fingers, or hanging out inside one of the girls coats, Ollie was an adorable addition to my experience here, and I was looking forward to bringing him home with me as the best souvenir a girl's ever had.  

On Saturday, he woke up around 3am whining as though in pain, and I held him for a a few minutes and put him back in his kennel.  When I woke up in daylight, he was very sick, and his condition worsened hourly while I frantically googled his symptoms and tried to figure out how to help him.  There was no vet in town, and Ollie was gone by 3pm.  It was not an easy death, and I not only feel acutely his absence but the pain of his departure.  

I am thankful that I was able to be with this puppy for a month, and will remember him as a special part of my journey and as a furry and friendly chapter in my life.  

Thursday, April 2, 2009


To inspire laughter and appreciation for my new mundanes and universals; a few re-occurring themes with slim chances of re-occurrence in the States.  

1.)  Got evaporation?  Even leaving my Sigg water bottle open for an hour will deplete my clean water supply by an inch.  I have to re-fill Ollie's water dish on an hourly basis, not because he's guzzling down his H2O, but because the air is as dry as sandpaper, and I wake in the morning to an edge in the back of my throat like a new continental shelf... minus the underwater feel.  

2.)  The nightly chorale of dogs.  This would never fly at home; the calls and complaints to your local authorities for "disturbance of the peace" would have the phone lines tied up from here to.. well, wherever.  It's so weird; all day long you don't hear so much as whimper from these huge canines, and then night falls and on cue they start doggie-telegraphing.  It ends around 3:30-4:00am, and the silence sleeps over the town for a couple still hours.

3.)  COVER YOUR MOUTH (and the never-ending story of the loud and proud coughing society at SGH).

4.)  Monks, monks everywhere and not a seat to spare.  It is normal to walk into Shangbo's kitchen at any time and find a couple monks in robes of varying ochre and red hues lounging on the long, carpet-covered bench, drinking milk tea and thumbing their prayer beads.  There is no distinction between the "holy men" and the lay-person; we interact as peers and their garb seems no more unusual than the average blue or white collar.  

5.)  The hunt.. for red october.  I mean, toilet paper.  This might be distasteful, but I have to laugh about it to you because there is really no avenue for appreciation here.  The toilet, as I have mentioned before, is a hole in the ground above a large cesspool of waste.  It is enclosed by four low walls, no roof and is thus completely exposed to the weather and to the average passer-by when you stand up from the obligatory squat.  (You just nod and say hi).  But all of that is off-topic; because the bathroom is outdoors, there is no Cottonelle hanging from a brushed nickel toilet-paper holder and I actually haven't seen evidence of toilet paper being used for anything other than facial napkins, fire-starter, or tissues.  So, I grab a roll whenever I can and hoard it like it's my last high ace in a game of Holdem.  

6.)  To bathe or not to bathe.  It's a choice between the lesser of two stages of unhealth; try and sponge-bathe while not moving into no-man's land outside the 1 square foot of heat thrown by my space heater, or say screw it and curl into a fetal position under my covers and let that extra layer of grime do its best to preserve precious body heat.  I'll let you choose.  

7.)  Tsampa thing.  There's no need for a 12 step program here; tsampa is pure nutrition and there is the satisfying, five-year-old fingers playing with food allowance that makes it taste that much better.  Admit it, we all like to squish stuff.  

8.)  Om Mani Padme Hum; Chanting.  The sounds of fifty girls intonations fill the hallway and drift out into the cold-air courtyard to mingle and shiver with the snow.  Every morning they wrap still-sleepy voices around the syllables of Tibetan grammar, ending with a chorus from their favorite Tibetan opera.  At night, kneeling on their sleeping pads, palms pressed together, they resonate and harmonize, weaving vocal temperatures into a soothing stimulation.  

9.)  Now Hiring:  Chiropracter, Position To Be Filled Immediately.  The problem is that everyone (females especially) bend at the waist and put all of their weight on the lumbar region, placing huge strain on those lower back muscles, thus creating a perpetual 45 degree angle tilt in older women.  I'm noticing the same tendency in myself, whether it's stooping to wash my face at night, or leaning to the table to sip an over-full cup of milk tea.  I consciously remind myself to bend at the knees, using my legs to support my weight, but somehow the culture caters to the sore back I find myself with at night.  

10.)  lots of locks of love.  I probably could have furnished enough hair from my head to supply a wig that would make even Beyonce jealous.  It's probably a combination of diet/sleep/basic culture changes, but it's getting a little unnerving.  Hopefully I'll still have something left on my head in a couple months.  

11.)  Hellogoodbye.  No, not "Here In Your Arms," this is the motif of walking past the individual girls or groups of their chattering selves, and being aurally assaulted with "Hello Teacher!" and then closely followed by "Goodbye Teacher!"  

12.)  stop staring, it's impolite.  You know that's a social rule followed to a fault in America; we are all masters at the discreet backward glance, the faux elbow cough, the dark sunglasses.. two words to describe my new cultural interactions:  NO SHAME.  

Like appetizers, these anecdotal morsels make the reason I'm here even more satisfying.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Yes, I have been sick. Thank you so much to everyone who sent encouraging emails; there were some uplifting comments as well as some golden pieces of advice. Before I describe the past few days, let me say that I am on the mend and today I have been up and about for the first time since Sunday.

Prior to Sunday (March 29, 2009) I had been on the verge of catching the universal cough/cold that everyone seems happily in possession of here in Darlag... although I was doing my best to keep healthy through my vitamins and basic sanitation. Sunday afternoon I started feeling major altitude effects (difficulty breathing, light-headedness, general malaise) even though I had been fine with the altitude up to that point. The next couple days passed with me in bed or tottering over to Shangbo's kitchen to play with (and not eat) my food. Tuesday evening, a local Chinese doctor came to see me and asked me to come into the clinic that night so he could administer IV and meds, while keeping a closer eye on me. At that point, Dockpo had already given me several oxygen pillows to help with the feeling of an elephant on my chest, but I was developing other flu-like symptoms which warranted some help on the nutrition end of things.

Picture the calm rush of a typical American clinic or medical facility; things are balanced, efficient, maybe the receptionist is talking a little too loudly about last night, but other than that things seem under control. The carpet is a neutral, don't-freak-out color and there is that calming nautical print on the wall to remind you of smooth aquatic movement.

I was escorted into a dingy, low-ceilinged room, around a yak-dung stove belching smoke onto the discolored walls and seated on a bench just next to a ring of drunk poker-players crowded around a table, underneath a cloud of the aforementioned smoke. After being seated, my right wrist was grabbed, flipped over, and a needle was inserted into my wrist vein (sorry, no medical terms from me). I had no idea what the needle was for, if it had been cleaned (the doctor, in a dingy white medical coat, had carried the needle in his hand over to my seat, no sterilized tray/bag) and the place where I had been jabbed immediately began forming a hard, white lump under my skin. Fortunately, Dockpo came over and told me that it was a test for allergies before administering the IV meds, but I was still disconcerted.

From my prime viewing location of the raucous poker game, I was moved to a bed in the room with the leaky stove, surrounded by crying babies and some sketchy looking characters, all hooked up to IV's which were hanging from a network of ceiling hooks that reminded me of scenes from the slaughter-house. No happy Grey's Anatomy atmosphere here. As the lump on my wrist subsided, I was hooked up to the IV through a line in my left hand. When I asked why I wasn't being connected via the typical crook-of-the-elbow location, I was given a weird look and informed in Chinese (Dockpo translating) that even babies could handle the needle. I didn't feel the need to explain my extensive background in receiving injections/IV's, so did my best to handle the needle prick like a tough little Asian infant.

When the medicine started flowing, I had more difficulty breathing and was attached to a powerful oxygen pump that allowed me to calm down and let my body relax for an hour or so. At the end of my first IV, I was accosted by the very drunk clinic owner who thought that if he spoke Chinese to me veerrryyy sllloowwwllyyy that somehow I would understand. Everyone present got a kick out of him, and he brought the first laugh out of me that I'd had in days. We were sent home with two more bottles of IV medicine that I had to self-administer that night while keeping myself awake so as not to bleed back into the IV tube.

The next few days were more of the same, with the dingy white medical coat coming to my bed to attach more lines of the same three-course IV, while I groggily watched Season 7 of Seinfeld (a GODSEND that Dockpo happened to bring back from the States.) On Wednesday, however, the needle in my right hand bent and the glucose began running under the skin of my hand, swelling my hand to three times its normal size before anyone noticed and pulled out the offending needle. Because my normal doctor was busy, an ex-nurse was called in to put in a new needle and allow me to continue receiving meds/fluids through my un-glucose-swollen left hand.

He arrived, and my red flags went up. Barely able to walk steadily, breathing noisily, and peering myopically through thick lenses (that still had the price tag on them) he sat down on my bed and proceeded to stick my left hand four times, with no success in picking up a vein. In between sticking, he set the needle down on the nearest surface and tried to pick it back up to re-stick. I was petrified, and had to keep pushing his dirty hands away and telling him to clean the needle before trying to get the line in. And every time, I felt his sweaty breath on my hand as his old sausage fingers wavered around my veins, unsuccessful, painful, and ultimately he was sent away, leaving his last attempt stuck half-way into my hand.

My swollen hands sat on top of my covers, waiting for the real doctor, and I resigned myself to the next two days of painful IV, examining the row of 8 holes in my left hand, and the big baseball mitt my right hand had become. Yesterday, (Thursday) I finished my last IV, ate dinner like I hadn't eaten in a week, and woke up to a more normal level of energy this Friday morning. My hands are returning to their petite size, and I can type without wincing. I will most likely resume English class tonight, and look forward to enjoying my next two months here with minimal incompetency from scary "ex-nurses."

Dockpo, Shangbo, Zoba, Willho (Drokri) and all the girls, passing monks and visitors were wonderful nurses and made me feel as comfortable as possible. On Sunday night, when the asthma feelings started, Shangbo said "Don't be sad; we're your family now," and made sure that I felt well-cared for. Although unavoidable, it was not a terrible experience, and I am coming out healthy on the other side with some good blogging material for your reading enjoyment.

Again, thank you for your well-wishes, prayers, emails and encouragement! I am looking forward to seeing many of you soon. Happy April!