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Student Participant Reports

At Home in Dharamsala

On Becoming a World Citizen

As I stepped off the 747 and entered the Delhi airport my senses, dulled by a 24-hour flight, were jolted awake by exhaust fumes, honking cars, and yelping dogs. Lugging an overstuffed pack, I joined a group of American students whose fleece jackets and hiking boots contrasted sharply with the colorful collage of flowing saris that surrounded us.

For four months the 20 of us, enrolled in the School for International Training'¬ís Tibetan Studies Program, would travel to India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Our instructors, both Tibetan scholars, designed the program to teach foreign students about Tibet’s culture, language, and political situation.

After a day’s rest in Delhi, we traveled 12 hours by bus to Dharmsala, the location of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. The next morning language classes began. In the afternoon we attended lectures on Tibetan culture and political life. We shared our classroom on the roof of Hotel Tibet with a family of monkeys.

After sunset we were free to roam. As I set out, my instructor’s voice rang in my ears: Be approachable and explore alone. Feeling lonely and far from home, I reluctantly complied and sat down for dinner. Within minutes, my fears vanished as Namkala, a 25-year-old Tibetan monk, joined my table. "Will you teach me English?" he asked. I eagerly agreed.

With his help I slowly gained 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 5-day adjustment period, the homestays began. By mentioning only the essentials of decorum necessary to save face, our advisers let us follow our own instincts.

Terry Tempest Williams, the naturalist and writer, defined home as the range of one’s instincts, determined by the ability to read people and their landscapes. By venturing into the Tibetan community alone and by living with Tibetan families, our instincts developed in concert with our expanding range.

When I arrived at my new home, a chorus of giggling children greeted me at the door. “Tashi delek Jennyla!” (Hello Jenny!”). I met my omela and pala (mom and dad), momola (grandmother), and my four brothers and sisters. We would live in a 4-room home that included a kitchen, two bedrooms, and my pala’s silversmith shop. The public outhouse was four blocks away. During the day we covered our beds with carpets, woven by my omela, to create couches.

Every morning I woke up to my momola’s soft prayers and fragrant incense. After a hearty breakfast of eggs, Tibetan bread, and butter tea, I went off to class. When I returned, I played with the children. Not needing words, we wrestled, tickled, and laughed, transcending language and cultural barriers.

For dinner, my omela taught me how to make steamed momos (dumplings) by filling dough with buff (water buffalo meat), spinach, or potatoes. Afterwards, we gathered in front of the TV to enjoy what the single station was broadcasting.

As my life in Dharmsala drew to a close my family insisted on escorting me to the bus. As we entered the crowded town center I was overwhelmed. It appeared as if the entire community was there to bid us farewell. Families, friends, and lepers, who we had befriended, waved goodbye. I cried as I hugged my omela and pala. They presented me with two silky white katas (Tibetan farewell scarves) and urged me to write.

Back at college, I learned that eight of my nine housemates had also been living abroad. Together we covered five of the seven continents. Throughout the year our conversations frequently return to our varied experiences. For most of us, living abroad and gaining perspective on our country, culture, and lifestyle has been the most valuable experience of our lives. We have each called another country "home" and developed the instincts to do so. A world has opened up for each of us through the friends we have made, and we are constantly learning and aware of our world citizenship.