Upon arriving in McLeodganj, I was first introduced to the family that would be my surrogate family during my time volunteering here. I had arranged to stay in a homestay with Tibetan refugees and really had no idea what to expect. The two people I met were a man in his thirties and an older woman who shared a two-room house together.The house was tiny by western standards and basic by any measure. The two rooms, separated by a curtain, acted as bedrooms, living room and kitchen combined. After enquiring about the bathroom, I was shown to a concrete outhouse on the roof with a squat toilet. As for the shower; a bucket of water and a jug to pour, also on the highly exposed roof. If it was luxury I was after I would have gone somewhere else.
My host family wasn’t in fact a family at all, as there was no blood relation between the two. Although communication was made difficult by their poor English and my lack of Tibetan, we succeeded in conversing well enough and I got the opportunity to hear their story. Both of them had fled Tibet in the ‘90s, risking their lives and freedom by walking for over a month through the Himalayas to Nepal. During the journey they risked capture, torture and imprisonment by the Chinese authorities for trying to leave the country. They, like the vast majority of Tibetan refugees, left Tibet alone, bidding farewell to their families and friends in the knowledge that they would probably never meet again. Sadly, this story is the standard tale behind almost all of the Tibetans here. While they have in many ways flourished here, the underlying sadness that defines this existence is never far from the surface.
The reasons you come across for escaping Tibet are highly varied, but universally tragic. Many Tibetans left because they could no longer stand seeing their friends and family beaten and tortured by the Chinese police, accused of supporting the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan martyrs, the self-immolators. Many others wanted a chance to learn their Tibetan language, which is banned from all schools under Chinese rule, with corporate punishment awaiting any child who would dare speak a word.
A huge number come to McLeodganj to be near their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whose teachings are banned in Tibet. Even pictures of him are banned, and one of the Tibetan friends I made here told me about when he was imprisoned and tortured for having a secret locket around his neck baring the Dalai Lama’s image, vaguely accused of political crimes. The traditional Tibetan Buddhism is very important to the people, and the persecution of holy people and the systematic destruction of monasteries in Tibet have driven yet more people to escape here.
The majority of my voluntary work here comprises of teaching English classes. I have two full classes a day, along with two private tutoring sessions and I co-ordinate a daily conversation class for students who want to improve their spoken English. The students vary from young Tibetans clad in western clothing and listening to rap music to Buddhist monks and nuns. The teaching is hugely rewarding, although it was difficult in the beginning. It offers an unparalleled opportunity to get to know people, and I’ve made some great bonds through it.
One of my students, Tenzin, is hoping to become an English teacher and return to his Tibetan village to give something back. When he left Tibet first, he entered one of the Tibetan schools in northern India, which are run by the Tibetan government in exile. Because of the Chinese occupation, these schools offer the only chance that Tibetans have to gain an education through Tibetan, and to learn about Tibetan culture and history.
Tenzin explained to me how his best friend had the same goal as he did, and successfully got back into Tibet and started secretly teaching. He was recently caught by the Chinese and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. Despite this, Tenzin plans to follow through with his plans and continue his friend’s work in their village. Tenzin’s bravery blew me away and I was struck by the similarity between this story and the illegal hedge schools that operated in 18th century Ireland, which aimed to keep Irish culture alive despite terrible oppression.
Again and again, I’m struck by the similarities between the current treatment of the Tibetan people and how the Irish were treated under British rule during the penal laws. The population transfer of ethnic Chinese to Tibet, land confiscation, arbitrary imprisonment and cultural genocide occurring today in Tibet mirrors many of the policies that brutalised Catholic Ireland in Cromwell’s days, the darkest period in Irish history. Both policies have a common goal: the ultimate destruction of a unique culture and the assimilation of the native population.
The main difference, of course, is that those were times when conquest and colonisation were seen as acceptable goals for successful nations. The fact that the situation continues today in Tibet, with all our modern definitions of human rights and international law in place, is much worse. Time is running out for Tibet and Tibetan culture as it faces down the possibility of complete destruction. China’s continued emergence as the next superpower means that foreign governments are falling over themselves to foster good relations with the Chinese government, as opposed to tackling their deplorable human rights abuses in Tibet and other areas. Ireland is right up there, vying for a place at the top of the queue when it comes to China-pleasing, rather than showing any solidarity with the Tibetan people as a country which formerly suffered under similar conditions.
My time here so far has proven to be an eye-opening and rewarding experience, and I’m looking forward greatly to the next leg of my journey, when I’ll be leaving volunteering behind and doing some travelling in India and Nepal.