Tenzin T is an ex-political prisoner. He was my “volunteer” subject. My job was to help him practise English. He had entered a monastery when he was 7 in his native Tibet. One day he joined 2 older monks in a freedom demonstration. He was put into jail for 2 years. He was 12 years old at the time. When he got out of jail, he tried to escape to India across the Himalayas, as life became unbearable for him and his family. He was caught. He ate his identity papers because he had already a record. They beat him up and let him go.
At 16, he gathered money and tried again. This time he succeeded. Now 21, he looked like he was in his 30s. He had been living in India for 6 years, first at the Tibetan Children’s village, then when he turned 18, he ordained as a monk. He left after 2 years because he wanted to be more socially engaged. He wanted to campaign actively for his country. So he came to the Gu-Chu-Sum, an NGO that provides support to political prisoners and organises campaigns for their release. He’s only allowed to live here for a year. During this time he takes computer, Tibetan and English courses. On Sundays, his off-days, he shows videos of the life of Gandhi to school kids and monasteries. When his year is up, he needs to move out and get a job. Money will become an issue. Jobs are scarce for Tibetans. He is also waiting to move to a western country on their refugee program.
Tenzin shares a small room with another young man who smiled a lot but didn’t talk much. One day he offered me some plain boiled potatoes. I didn’t feel right having any, and I didn’t ask him about his story. They each had a single bed and a desk. A door curtain ensured privacy and without shutting out the world.
Tenzin spoke of the instruments used in prison, and his injuries from being beaten up. He suffered electric rods, belts, whips that break your ribs. He said facing racial prejudice in the US or Australia would be peanuts after his prison experience. In all his conversations having his country back is the only and most important thing. There was no anger, no animosity in his manner or speech. “All this is past” he said with a shrug and a smile. His is not the worst story, probabaly becuase he was only 12 years old at that time. And he never saw or heard of the other two monks who were arrested with him.
The night before my departure, Tenzin presented me with a white khata. It was a very nice way to wish someone well. I had nothing for him in return, except my Swatch watch. He had talked a lot about snow mountains so I decided to give him my Zermatt Swatch. He refused, and grabbed my wrist to stop me. I felt his quiet strength and singularity of purpose. His face was completely relaxed and his eyes were clear. There was a glow about him. In the end we exchanged watches so now I have a casio watch with the Tibetan flag on the the face.
On parting, he asked that I support the Tibetan cause by talking to people about it. From his manner, he is still very much a monk, and much wiser than he ought to be at 21. In the end he helped me much more than I helped him. I’m seeing that there are many different ways to be. I’m noticing the emergence of my “I”, “my”, “me”, and “mine”.
At 7.45pm, I’m standing in Lung Ta Restaurant with a khata around my neck and tears running down my face. Luckily neither Liz or Thomas thought it weird.