By Catherine Hardie
On Sunday June 7th, my friend drove me from D.C. to Charlottesville, and we passed through stunning countryside quite unlike that which I’ve seen in other places. I particularly liked the old wooden fences and gates that edged much of the farm land. We arrived in Charlottesville late in the afternoon and I checked into the beautiful old house which usually serves as “La Maison Francais” during the school semester but which had been allocated for use by the Tibetan students over the summer. It emerged that there would be fourteen students in our class (eleven of whom were staying in the Tibet House) and that we would be taught by three teachers: Gen. Tseten Chanjore, Gen. Tenzin Tinley Lama, and Gen. Sonam Dekyi. Gen. Tseten la and Gen. Tinley la were both born in central Tibet but moved to Nepal during their youth. Gen. Dekyi la was from Lhasa and had been married to an American Tibetologist.
We had eight hours of instruction each day which, particularly for the first few weeks, was exhausting. The students in our class came from a variety of backgrounds with diverse motivations. Some were Buddhist Studies and Tibetan history students and had already studied classical Tibetan, needing modern Tibetan to complete course requirements. A couple of students were followers of Tibetan Buddhism and wanted to learn Tibetan language to enhance their practice. Three students were Tibetans who had grown up in the West, and did not learn to speak Tibetan at home. One of these students was the daughter of the former Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, and another the Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet, who wanted to improve her Tibetan to assist in her activist work. Another student was commencing an anthropology PhD focusing on marginalised Muslim Tibetans in Ladakh in India. It was an interesting group, and we became firm friends.
For a relatively small town, Charlottesville’s Tibetan population is quite large – and growing. At present, there are some seventy Tibetans living there. They went out of their way to welcome us over our stay by inviting us to picnics at nearby scenic spots, ceremonies at their local dharma center, and by coming to the Tibet House to help us out with conversational practice. Not having had much to do with Tibetan exiles before, it was really interesting to come to understand their experiences living in America after typically having spent numerous years in India or Nepal. I also observed with interest the manner in which they strove to maintain a sense of community and preserve their culture in this foreign context. Having such a friendly and willing Tibetan community on hand certainly enhanced our language-learning and cultural experience greatly.
The month of July meant more hard, but rewarding work. By this stage, it really felt that we were eating, sleeping and breathing Tibetan, and I was in fact beginning to dream in Tibetan! In addition to our class hours, we probably had around three hours of homework to complete each day. This meant that we really had no spare time (not even to go to the supermarket) until the weekends. However, the students and teachers had established an excellent rapport, and both were really investing a tremendous amount of energy and commitment in the learning process. Each weekend we went to a different teachers’ house for a meal and festivities. We also celebrated the Dalai Lama’s birthday with the local Tibetan community at a nearby dharma center with prayers and well-wishings, and then went on a large group picnic to the Shenandoah reserve. This same weekend I also went to D.C again to attend the annual Folkways Festival, which this year was hosting a big Welsh exhibition, as well as Latin American music and an African American spoken work exhibition.
By the end of July, it was amazing the progress we had made in Tibetan. In addition to being able to express some relatively complex thoughts in conversation, we were now able to write complex several-page essays on topics ranging from Tibetan politics to American race relations. I must say it was a credit to our main teacher’s linguistic pedagogy, which developed structures, vocabulary and themes in meticulously crafted cumulative teaching materials. Having been both a teacher and student of language myself, I was very impressed with the control, consistency and overall design of his course. Gen. Tseten la is also an amazingly gracious, patient teacher, and I think everyone felt very privileged to have been able to take classes with him this summer.
Another memorable feature of the course was the guest lecturers who addressed our class each week. Over the duration of the program, various Tibetan studies experts, and political and religious figures presented lectures on topics including Tibetan development work, classical religious translation, the indigenous Bon religion in contemporary America and “hot” political issues in the Tibet debate. Since UVA is such a key center for Tibetan studies in the US, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to meet and network with so many people with diverse interests and involvements in greater Tibet.
The first week of August was the last week of the Tibetan course, which involved an early Losar (Tibetan New Year celebrations), our final exams, a graduation ceremony, and many tearful goodbyes. By the end of the course, I really felt that I had had such an enriching experience on so many levels. Not only did I feel that I’d fulfilled my linguistic objective in attending the course, I felt that in so doing I had also gained deeper cultural insights into Tibet and Tibetans both inside and, especially, outside Tibet. And, of course, good times were had, many stories told, and lasting friendships made.
I am deeply thankful for the solid foundational work I was able to lay in place this summer. I am extremely grateful for the East West Center and the East West Center Alumni’s generosity in supporting me to undertake the course. I feel that I have embarked on an exciting and compelling trajectory of language study that will be of much enduring benefit to my academic, professional and personal objectives.