Volunteering in Lhasa, Tibet
“Just don’t talk to them about history, religion or politics”, was the only advice I received from the local teacher before being unleashed upon some twenty eager Tibetan students.
There was a moment’s silence while I stood in front of the class trying to recall my pre-rehearsed spiel about whom I was and where I came from.
Before I could utter a single word the questions started.
“Do you know the Dalai Lama?” asked one student.
“Are you Buddhist?” asked another
“What do you think of the Chinese?” asked a third.
Having been motivated by the kindness of the Tibetan people I had met over the years, first in India and Nepal, and then later in Tibet itself, I had wanted to give a little back to the country before I headed home to London the following week -- not an entirely altruistic gesture, I had volunteered in this way in the past in both India and Nepal, and had found the whole experience to be immensely fulfilling.
I had never found any shortage of voluntary teaching positions, and usually local schools were only too happy to invite me in to take a class, or at the very least practice conversation with the students. After all, what kind of employer wouldn’t be pleased if a capable individual showed up on their door step and offered to work for free? But with Tibet not being exactly what you can call a free country, nothing is that simple. I was amazed to learn that there are almost no volunteers in Lhasa, and in fact some told me the idea was impossible.
Until 1950 Tibet was one of the most isolated and remote kingdoms on the planet. A theocratic Buddhist nation unique in every sense, with a highly developed monastic system, where the highest monk of them all, the Dalai Lama ruled usually from late adolescence until death.
All that changed in 1949, when the Communist People’s Liberation army lead by Mao Zedong seized control of neighbouring China, and then turned their sights towards Tibet. The Chinese first invaded the region in October 1949 on an alleged mission to “liberate” the country from its feudal regime.
Initially the Chinese politicians came with smiles and promises of a better future. But unable to win the hearts of the Tibetan people they soon adopted a policy of political oppression, religious intolerance, and more recently, population transfer. In an attempt to shift the ethnic balance (that’s proving hugely successful), the Chinese government continues to promise tax breaks, cheap housing, and guaranteed jobs to Chinese citizens who migrate to Tibet, or what is now called the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Despite the name, this annexed province of ethnic Tibet (the pre 1950s land mass over which the Tibetan Government in Exile claims sovereignty) is far from autonomous, run by and for the benefit of the Chinese, and where in the region’s capital Lhasa the Han Chinese (China’s dominant ethnic group) greatly outnumber the Tibetan people.
Although today violence and uprisings are less common, the Chinese still control the region with an iron fist, and as I was to discover, use bureaucracy and red tape as a weapon against social change.
Volunteering Through a Charity or Placement Organization
Type "Volunteering in Tibet" into any one of your favourite search engines and you’ll quickly be presented with half a dozen or so supposedly pertinent pages and adverts. Under closer scrutiny you’ll discover that actually few of these links offer voluntary work placements in Tibet. Even of those that specifically match the searched criteria of "Volunteering in Tibet," most are actually referring to Ladakh, Dharamsala, Sikkim, or some other Tibetan fiefdom in Himalayan Asia.
While there’s an abundance of international volunteer agencies and charities organizing a variety of placements in neighbouring Nepal and India (see boxout below), nobody seems to want to touch Tibet. In fact, I could only find one agency operating in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The Lhasa Jatson Chumig Welfare Special School is an NGO which organizes placements caring for and teaching English to a range of orphaned, poor, destitute, and handicapped children. The school is located a short distance outside of the center of Lhasa and helps Tibetans with special needs to live, learn, and develop the vocational skills required to be self-sufficient. The school is funded by donations, and by the proceeds from the handicrafts made and sold by the students on site.
Just Show Up
If like myself you’re the kind of person who prefers to make things up as you go along, and save a few bucks in the process, you might consider simply showing up in Lhasa or any other town for that matter and visiting a few schools or other needy institutions. This is what I did in Nepal and India each with great success.
But in Tibet it’s a different story. No Tibetan institution will take on international volunteers for fear of attracting unwanted attention from the local Chinese authorities. If people volunteer the Chinese lose face, because it implies that they’re not doing everything in their power to aid and educate the Tibetan people. Life is already hard enough for Tibetan institutions without drawing even more aggravation.
It’s not strictly illegal, but if you are to volunteer this way, you would need to be extremely discreet and of course be able to find a school willing to take the risk.
Having spoken to no avail with various expatriates, schools, and Tibetans themselves about the opportunities for volunteering in Lhasa I was beginning to give up. That was when I met Tsering. I was strolling around the Barkhour (Lhasa’s old town and one of the few remaining Tibetan neighbourhoods in the city) when a young man asked if I could join him for a cup of Chai (sweet, milky Indian tea) and help him to practice his English. Anyone who’s ever spent more than five minutes in the neighbourhood would probably have been asked the same question.
I agreed, and over tea mentioned that I would be really keen to help out at a Tibetan school. That afternoon he took me along to his school where I finally got my wish. I spent the next week volunteering for a couple of hours per day teaching English, and in my spare time hanging out in cafés with Tsering and his friends helping them with conversation. It was a shame that it couldn’t last longer than a week, but the school, while grateful for my time, was keen not draw attention from the authorities. A week however was fine, and I left with a few new friends and an invitation to teach there in the future that I intend to accept.
So as long as it’s informal, short term and discreet, it seems it is possible to volunteer in Tibet. That is of course providing that you can steer well clear of the sensitive topics.
Tempted as I was to tell the class that I’d seen the Dalai Lama on a visit to India, that I’d read many of his books, and that I thought Buddhism was fascinating, I was compelled to stick to the safe subjects, myself, England, football and David Beckham. If word got out that I was talking about the government in exile, or showing screenings of Seven Years in Tibet on my laptop (one of many Hollywood flicks banned in China), ultimately it would not be me who got into trouble, but the very people I had wanted to help.