Calling another country HomeBy JENNY LANGENBACH '98
s I step off the 747 jet and enter the Delhi airport, my senses - dulled by a 24-hour flight - are jolted awake by exhaust fumes, honking cars and yelping dogs. After a quick scan of the terminal, I spot an internal frame backpack, bursting at the seams. Lugging my own overstuffed pack, I join a growing group of students, our fleece jackets and hiking boots contrasting sharply with the colorful collage of flowing saris that surround us. Our academic advisors, Andy Quitman and Hubert Decleer, effortlessly find us in the crowd.
For four months, the 20 of us enrolled in the School for International Training's Tibetan Studies Program will travel to India, Nepal and Bhutan. Andy and Hubert, both Tibetan scholars, have designed the program to educate students about Tibet's political situation.
After a day's rest in Delhi, we travel 12 hours by bus to Dharamsala, the location of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's government in exile. The next morning, language classes begin. In the afternoon, we attend lectures on Tibetan culture and political life. Our classroom is on the roof of the Hotel Tibet and, to our amusement, we discover we are not alone - monkeys reside there, nursing, fighting and grooming each other in the sunshine.
After sunset, we are free to roam. As I set out, Hubert's advice rings in my ears: be approachable and eat and explore alone. I reluctantly comply and sit down for dinner, feeling lonely and vulnerable. Within minutes, my fears vanish as Namkala, a 25-year-old Tibetan monk, joins my table. "Will you teach me English?" he inquires. Eagerly I agree.
Hubert's simple suggestion has helped me slowly gain access to the colorful and culturally rich Tibetan exile community. Looking back, I realize how easy it would have been to surround myself with American students and travel like a tourist, seeing the sights but missing the people.
After our five day adjustment period, the home stays begins. We travel with small bags in hand and new knowledge in our heads: feet are dirty and should never be pointed at people or Buddhist altars; written language in sacred and books should never be placed on the ground; tea cups will be forever refilled so learn to drink your butter tea slowly.
By mentioning only the essentials necessary to save face, our advisors let us develop our own instincts. Terry Tempest Williams, an acclaimed naturalist and writer, defines home as the range of one's instincts. The extent of one's range is dictated by the ability to read people and their landscapes. By venturing into the Tibetan community alone and by living with Tibetan families, our instincts develop in concert with our expanding range.
As I arrive at my new home, a chorus of giggling children greet me at the door. "Tashi delek Jennyla!" ("Hello Jenny!") I am introduced to my Omela and Pala (mom and dad), Momola (grandmother) and my four brothers and sisters. We live in a four-room home that includes a kitchen, two bedrooms and my Pala's silversmith shop. The public outhouse in four blocks away. During the day, we cover our beds with carpets woven by my Omela to create coaches. Every morning, I wake to my Momola's soft prayers and fragrant incense. After a hearty breakfast of eggs, Tibetan bread and butter tea, I am off to class. When I return, I play with the children. Not needing words, we wrestle, tickle and laugh, transcending language and cultural barriers.
For dinner, my Omela teaches me how to make steamed momos (dumplings) by filling dough with buff (water buffalo meat), spinach or potatoes. Afterwards, we gather in front of the TV and enjoy whatever the single station is broadcasting.
As night falls and my Omela softly snores, monkeys play on the corrugated aluminum roof and yelping dog packs roam the dark streets. Unable to sleep, I write in my worn journal by the glow of the altar light:
Traveling east is like turning a kaleidoscope 90 degrees. Miraculously, the same pieces create a new and beautiful cultural design. In Dharamsala, I am living another lifestyle. As a result, I have gained perspective on my own country, appreciating and questioning many things for the first time. Plumbing, heating, reliable electricity and garbage collection are luxuries I have always taken for granted. The Tibetans would have a higher living standard if these technological advances were accessible to them. At the same time, I appreciate the Tibetan style of daily living and aging. Weight problems, self help books and capitalistic materialism are unknowns here. Time and money is not spent on exercise regimes. Frequent trips to the community well and roadside market keep them healthy. They gracefully age and gray, with no need to hide their body's natural history.
I am realizing that there are many valuable approaches to life. Every country has its strengths and weaknesses. A cultural sharing is necessary in order to gain the tools for surviving in the new millennium.
Traveling abroad also enables me to gain perspective on myself. As a world citizen, I am responsible for how my decisions and consumerism affect the world. I need to be a thoughtful and moral consumer, taking myself, the environment and the world community into account when I make a purchase. The age-old proverb comes to mind: Live simply so others may simply live.
My life in Dharamsala draws to a close. Despite my polite pleading, the family insists on escorting me to the bus. As we enter the crowded town center, I am overwhelmed. It appears as if the entire community is there to bid us farewell. Families, friends and lepers who we economically befriended wave goodbye. I cry as I hug my Omela and Pala. They present me with two silky white katas (Tibetan farewell scarves) as they urge me to write and keep in touch. Back at Colorado College, I learn that eight of my nine housemates have also been living abroad. Together we have covered five out of the seven continents. Throughout the year, our conversations frequently return to our experiences abroad. For most of us, living abroad and gaining perspective on our own country, culture and lifestyle has been the most valuable experience of our lives. We have each called another country "home" and have developed the instincts to do so. A world has opened up for each of us and what is more, through the friends we have made, we are constantly learning and reminded of our world citizenship.
Jenny Langenbach is from Medina, Wash. In the fall of 1995, she was one of 11 CC students who attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, a trip made possible with venture grants, funds from the dean's office and the president's office, the Asian Pacific Studies program and WES. Currently, she is a senior majoring in Asian history/philosophy and minoring in women's studies. In November, for block 3, she will return to Kathmandu, Nepal, to begin researching her thesis on "Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism."
Jenny recommends the following books to get a better understanding of the Chinese invasion and the current situation in Tibet: Freedom in Exile by H.H. the Dalai Lama, Harper Collins, and In Exile in the Land of the Snows by John F. Avedon, distributed by Random House. She says these Internet sites are also worth exploring: Intl. Committee of Lawyers for a Free Tibet, firstname.lastname@example.org; Milarepa Fund, Milarepa@igc.apc.org; Students for a Free Tibet, email@example.com; and the Tibetan Women's Association, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back to index