I have always had a strong sense of community service growing up, and the feeling of wanting to give back to the community grew even larger once I started traveling around Asia. Seeing people live in real poverty stirred something inside of me. As I’ve traveled around I’ve often reflected on what my next step (career wise) should be. I can hardly imagine going back and working for some corporate company focused on consuming after seeing how so many people live without life basics in the world. I’ve always dreamed of working at a non-profit or even starting my own, but after considering how many problems there are in the world, I find it increasingly difficult to decide what “my cause” would be (so far I’ve narrowed it down to healthcare and education in developing countries). So while doing some research on McLeod Ganj, I read that Dharamsala has the most non-profit organizations in India. This sparked my interest even more. I get the Himalayas AND volunteer work? Sign me up! And this is how I came to arrive at Lha.
Lha is a grass-roots, non-government, non-profit organization focused on providing resources for Tibetan refugees in India. For over 13 years, Lha has provided long-term rehabilitation and education resources to help Tibetan refugees ease into life in the Indian community. I decided to spend some time with Lha because it is one of the very few organizations that allow volunteer opportunities on a short-term basis. As I looked into the organization more though, I wish I had found it much earlier in my travels, it was exactly what I was looking to get involved in. Unfortunately with only 10 days before my flight was to leave, I didn’t have much time. Once I arrived at McLeod Ganj, I was already regretting not having found this place earlier. Or more realistically, wishing I would have spent less money in London, giving me more money to stay long term in McLeod Ganj. Unfortunately as my budget for living abroad for a year comes to a close, I just couldn’t stay for much longer without having to sacrifice my savings that are meant for my return home, including making sure I have enough money to make it home!
So I faced the 10 days trying to make the best of it by giving what I could. In the end, I think that it was I who was greatly rewarded in more ways than one. The people i met through Lha, whether they were teachers or students, made a greater impression on my life than I had imagined they would. I mean people that do volutneer work don’t do it for the money (obviously), so everyone knows you get some sort of intrinsic value out of it. But I honestly never saw what they gave me coming.
I ended up getting involved tutoring and participating in the English conversation class. Teaching a class at Lha requires a minimum month commitment, and while I would’ve happily given them the time and work, I already had previously stated commitments. My first day, I met with Tsomo (28-years-old) and Domchay (30-years-old), two Tibetan cousins who were just beginning to learn English. Over the next few days, I learned as much as I could about their lives and what little English we could hand gesture and convey to each other. While we stuck with going over materials they learned in class, I also helped them practice conversational English and introduced new vocabulary to them.
Most of the time we spent laughing about misunderstandings and learning more about each other. The sentences they chose to practice writing always reflected their raw honesty. While they always started out with something basic like “Today, I went to school. Tonight I will watch television.”, but they always ended with something like “I want to see my family in Tibet. Last night I dreamed Tibet was free.” Within these girls (I keep saying girls even though they’re older than me, I don’t know why), I could see my parents and their struggle when they first came to the United States. This is when it all struck home for me. I learned about their difficult journeys coming to India. Tsomo literally hiked across the Himalayas to get here. Luckily for her, she was rewarded by a random encounter with the Dalai Lama during her journey. I guess if you’re going to run into him, the Himalayas would be the best place to be. Domchay came separately via car, leaving her family behind for the first time.
My parents have quite similar stories, having immigrated to the United States during the Vietnam war. They didn’t know each other back then so they have seperate journey stories. My dad’s family was well off in Vietnam so he was able to gain a sponsorship for his immigration. My mom on the other hand came from a small farm and had to escape on a overcrowded refugee boat. Unfortunately, her boat’s engine broke down while they were at sea and for seven miserable, terrifying days, they drifted in the sea. Luckily, they were rescued and brought to a refugee camp in Cambodia. From there, my mom was finally able to make arrangements to come to the States.
As I sat with Tsomo and Domchay, I felt like everything my parents have ever told me about their struggle to America came tumbling down on me all at once. I mean i’ve heard their stories a hundred times growing up and you know it’s bad, but I guess as a kid maybe you try to pretend it wasn’t so bad because your parents are fine and happy and healthy now. I realized how touched I was by these students. Here they are, all they want to do is to get a better education so they can provide a better life for themselves and hopefully see their families someday. And here I am, willingly (almost gladly) leaving my family behind just to “see the world”. It made me a bit shameful and embarrassed that I have been so selfishly pursuing my dreams around the world.
And as if that experience wasn’t enough, my first conversation class was so much more profound than expected. Standing in an overcrowded dark hallway, as one class ended, we all were shuffled into the small room. Many of the students were already seated on the floor pillows, eagerly awaiting a teacher to converse with. I must have stood out as a new teacher because as soon as I walked in a group of students offered me a seat next to them. I sat down nervously, and said in my own awkward way, “So…this is my first class. Do you know what we’re supposed to do?” They laughed and all said, “Just talk!” Soon the room erupted into several conversations happening all at once. My group was quite large (about 10 students) and a challenge to manage given that the students had a wide range of English proficiency. They also ranged in backgrounds, some were Indian, some were Tibetan, some were monks, and some were from Nepal ranging anywhere between 10 and 29 years old). Trying to engage everyone for a fair amount of time was chaotic, exciting, and hilarious all at the same time. They all were quite eager to learn about me, and even though I tried to ask questions to learn about them, I never got too far before they wanted to learn more about my life. The moment that stuck with me for the next 24 hours was when a student asked me, “What is the most difficult challenge in your life right now?” I gave a small laugh at the weight of the question, but suddenly realized how surprisingly strange my answer would be. As I looked into their eager and inquisitive eyes, I thought about all of the daily struggles I’ve seen people face during my travels, and wondered what kind of challenges these students faced on a daily basis. I felt like I could only honestly reply, “I have nothing to complain about in my life. I feel very fortunate.” What an amazing moment that was. To recognize out loud how blessed my life is, and to recognize how I greatly wished I could share such fortune and happiness with them. I knew in that moment that I felt truly inspired to do something more meaningful with my life when I returned home. A non-profit organization is a must for my next career move.
From these days forward I became quite attached to two students in particular who sat with me everyday in conversation class (the students move around quite a bit by choice, probably because they like to learn about the new teachers). A 29-year-old Tibetan monk, Kunsang, and a 10-year-old Tibetan refugee, Sangay Kyi always made my heart smile every time they walked into class. Conversation class quickly became my favorite part of my day and I looked forward to seeing my students and talking about various this. Everything from the details of Sangay’s day to my life goals, to the debates of religion. We covered them all.
It’s amazing how quickly you can bond with people over an hour or two a day in such a short amount of time. Tsomo taught me how to make momos one day and even had me and a friend over for dinner in her wonderfully adorable flat. Meeting other Lha teachers and random people around town was an incredible experience as well. Everyone has such a unique story to share with such magnetic personalities. I spent many nights staying up till the wee hours of the morning learn about these fascinating people. When you know you have a short amount of time to meet and learn about people, you learn how to cut out the BS conversation starters, and how to engage in more meaningful conversation (that is in my opinion at least).
Ridiculously cute note above I received from Sangay Kyi on my last day of class.
My last day of class was a bit somber..I was exhausted (too many late nights of conversation) and we were too busy exchanging information to really engage in any further conversation. Some of my students even came to have chai with me after class and to walk me to the bus station! It was so sweet of them! Tsomo and Domchay came to see me off as well, bearing a wonderful and very special gift for me.
Domchay had made a special little sign (for lack of better word) that is commonly used for Tibetan New Year, as a good luck send off. Both of them brought me a Khata, which is a silk prayer scarf, which symbolizes purity and compassion. Justin told me that its also given before people go on journeys to bring them luck and to keep them safe. He said it was an incredible gesture in their culture and was quite surprised given that I spent such a short amount of time with them. I felt so blessed by everyone that came to see me off. I was so touched that the students came to see me off because over the last week, I spent a couple evenings saying goodbye to other Lha teachers, we would all gather and see them off at their bus, but none of these goodbyes involved students at all. I’m not saying I’m super special or anything (those teachers had been here for months and given so much more than I have to Lha and their students), but it did make my heart swell with happiness to have such special people with me. How more blessed could you possibly feel when a monk comes to see you off and sends you his blessings? Kunsang is so sweet, I already foresee a future visit to his monastery in Bier. We both promised to keep in touch (it’s funny to think that monks have e-mail addresses), and I could feel it in my heart that I knew I would see him again someday. He has such a smiling peaceful presence about him. I am so very looking forward to when that day comes.
I haven’t felt so loved since my going-away bonfire with some of my closest friends. As the bus drove down the mountainside and I gazed at the sunset over Dharmasala valley, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I know I’ll be returning someday. I have no idea when that will be, but I know I will. I’m so thankful for my teaching experience at Lha, I hope I can return again soon for a much longer commitment and teach a proper class. Until then…I’ll keep on truckin’ along.