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February 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 5

Special Topic / Voices in Exile

Living far from their native land, Tibetan students learn to write poems that both express their individuality and preserve their cultural identity.

They were seated in rows, all the students in uniforms of green vests and jackets, gray pants and skirts, all with dark hair and dark eyes. They stood up when I walked in the room, and they called me "Madam." When they handed me their poems, they offered them as they would a gift: the paper rested on two upturned palms, their arms extended, their heads slightly bowed.
Just a week before, I had been in my university office in Maryland, advising students on course selections, answering voice mails, and reading the poetry manuscripts of my advanced creative writing students. Now I was in a small classroom in a concrete building; outside the window, the foothills of the Himalayas rose against a blue sky. While Buddhist prayer flags fluttered on a nearby hill, I frantically reviewed the writing exercises that I'd used successfully in so many settings—colleges, elementary schools, elder hostels, prisons, camps—and tried to figure out why none of the exercises worked here.
The students, 10th graders, waited politely. Some smiled shyly. Some students had been at the Tibetan Homes Foundation (THF) School in Mussoorie, India, for years; some were new arrivals. Some were second-generation Tibetan refugees, their parents having fled Tibet years ago. Some recently left their parents in Tibet to make the harrowing trek over the Himalayas by foot. Many were orphans.

Praise the Gentle

Praise the Gentle
Praise things that are gentle: the advice of H.H. Dalai Lama, the respect of students, talking of some people, and the nature of the mind, the gong of gentle clouds, a full-of-sky gentle, the worship of God, words of a monk. I love things which are gentle. —Kunsang Lhamo, Class 9B, Age 15

Living in Exile

Since 1959, when Chinese oppression in Tibet forced the Dalai Lama's exile to India, hundreds of thousands of Tibetan refugees also fled their homeland, following the Dalai Lama to northern India to establish refugee villages like the one in Mussoorie. Because the Dalai Lama was concerned about the education of the children living in these villages, the Tibetan Homes Foundation established its first school in 1962. The school in Mussoorie currently has 1,800 children under its care. The school is committed to children's physical and spiritual needs—to help them develop basic skills and an understanding of the traditional Tibetan culture, including the values of compassion and nonviolence.
And because the school also values interaction with the Western world, I was welcomed for a five-week poetry residency, funded by the Sprenger-Lang Foundation of Washington, D.C. The general secretary, the headmasters, the teachers, and I all agreed: Writing poems can help refugee children adjust to the potentially disorienting environment of exile and make meaning out of their cultural displacement. Writing stories about Tibet, their sense of community and dislocation, and their heritage and its evolution would help students and readers make sense out of what might otherwise feel utterly chaotic.
I traveled to India in fall 1999 with bags full of carefully chosen writing exercises, sample poems, and photo- graphs of other refugee communities—all the resources that I thought I could possibly need. I also took poems written by Maryland middle and high school students—poems about horses and soccer, the escape into music. Next to each Maryland student's poem, I taped a color photo of the writer. The Tibetan students pored over these photos and poems, studying the clothing and the haircuts, reading how Emily "picked at the blue carpet / beneath her scabby knee," how Karla loves "jade jewelry and hunter green cars."
For almost a week, I watched the students, their heads bent over their papers. They were cooperative, polite, eager to do well. But their first poems were pale and limp. Too often, I saw the same word choices, repeated emotions, identical stories. Lots of rage, lots of missing families, lots of gratitude, but not much sense of voice. What was wrong? Why so little impression of individual experience?

Creativity and Cultural Differences

I had expected to encounter two problems—differences in language and in pedagogy. The children spoke Tibetan, some Hindi, and English. Although English is the language of instruction in the school, many students understandably don't have the rich, nuanced vocabulary or the joyful sense of English language play that makes a poem work. Differences in teaching and learning styles was the second anticipated challenge. I'm used to free-wheeling class discussions, all of our chairs in a circle, but my total ignorance of the Tibetan language, the students' weak conversational English, and their shyness meant uninspiring classroom discussions. In addition, I'm accustomed to prodding my students into unfamiliar territory, praising the risk-taker and the messy draft full of surprises. They're used to lecture and recitation, aiming for perfect papers.
More confounding than the language or pedagogical concerns, however, were the broader questions of what we mean by teaching creativity in cultures that are so different from ours. I have long believed in the power of creativity—the importance of originality, the value of the writer's vision and the writer's questioning, probing, praising voice—that I had not seriously considered the role of original art in the context in which I was teaching. In the United States, we value the artist who experiments with new techniques, new language, new compositions. We rely on the artistic fringe to forge new perceptions and new ways of seeing. We teach our students to express themselves, to develop vision and voice.
But Tibetan refugees, in exile from their homeland, are a people whose ancient monasteries, traditional artwork, dance, crafts, and wisdom are being ruthlessly destroyed. Their leader fled to India decades ago, not out of fear but out of the belief that establishing a government in exile was the only way to preserve those ancient ways, to keep them vibrant and alive, and to pass them on to the next generations. Tibetan schools, for example, include classes in thangka painting, in which the most praised student artists are those whose paintings most closely resemble the old masters' paintings. The emphasis isn't on mastering traditional forms so that one has a strong foundation from which to launch into unexplored territory. The emphasis, rather, is on carrying on the traditional work. Someone has to produce the thangkas, the traditional dances, the music—and most often, given the Chinese oppression in Tibet, the students in exile shoulder the responsibility.
Further, Tibetan culture does not promote individuality for its own sake. The group is crucial; it's the foundation of life in exile. The school promotes group life, the value of community, the importance of helping one another. If one distinguishes oneself or stands out in some way, one does so with a high degree of modesty.
I realize now that to walk into a classroom and expect to hear, immediately, the students' individual stories, their private loneliness, and their personal loss was unrealistic. What I saw in those initial poems was collective rage, communal loss, the community's gratitude, the shared wish to return to the homeland. I came to understand that if the poem-story is to provide one more brick in the community's bulwark against forgetting, then the poem needs to reiterate the old stories, not to create new ones.
To them, how Karma's story differs from Sonam's seems irrelevant. Uniqueness means not individual uniqueness but Tibetan uniqueness. Poems gather weight by weaving in familiar language, recognizable imagery, and agreed-upon symbols. The writers of such poems feel the group narrative bolstered; they feel solidarity, not individuality; they feel the heft of the familiar against the fear of loss. They believe that a whole collection of such poems can throw its emotional weight against the "organized forgetting" of Chinese oppression.
But I was fairly sure that a whole collection of such poems, heartfelt as they were, would never capture the imagination of Western readers, and that's what I wanted: a collection of individuals' stories, told with precision and detail, enlivened by image and the unexpected—a collection that would make Western readers sit up and hear what has happened to these kids.

Himalayan Poppy

Himalayan Poppy
Blue poppy, so beautiful and blue, looking very nice, how I love to see you. Sweets and sweet I smell. When I see your beauty, what can I say to you? Sometimes I watch you and your colors make me crazy. How can I describe you? You are in the garden, most beautiful in the world. What you look like when the sun rises: blue sky. When the night comes, I feel lonely. —Tenzin Khando, Class 8B, Age 14

Importance of Human Rights

Importance of Human Rights
Without food and water, we're still happy with mothers. Without wearing any clothes, we're still happy under love and care. Without earning any money, we're still happy getting family's help. Without any money in pocket, we're still happy with human rights. Without human rights, it is worse in this world. Without human rights, we're treated like animals. —Kalsang Ladoe, Class 11, Age 17

Developing Voice

How, then, to reconcile my Western impulse toward originality and experimentation with the Tibetan emphasis on the group and the need to preserve traditional arts? How to encourage students to write their own poems? I finally abandoned the useless warm-up exercises and the tepid class discussions, and I settled into assigning students to write something, anything, so that the real work could begin: the one-on-one interaction, heads bent, theirs and mine, over their drafts.
"We escaped at night," writes Jigme. "How?" I ask. "How did you do that?" Jigme looks to Sonam for help. It is almost as if the details that make a story different from everyone else's aren't important. But to the poem, and to me, they are. Though I know about loss and anger and hope, I do not have the same context as they do. I feel left out, I tell them. I can't picture their experiences. They understand this. I tell them that poems need the details of Tibetan life, that if they write "my country," I and most Westerners will see only the predictable snow-covered peaks.
They begin to understand. They add in poppies and monks, "fields lapped with flowers." "I miss my homeland" becomes "I miss my little watchman / barking all night." Dawa writes, at first, that her escape from Tibet was "scary." "Tell me more," I urge, and she goes on to describe how in the middle of the night, they came to a stream they had to cross, balancing on an icy log that spanned the gully: We took out our tsampa which is coarse, like sand, and spread it on the tree. We sacrificed our food.
At first baffled by my desire for more and more details, by my incessant urgings to "show me your uncle, describe the forest, help me to see what a yak looks like," many students grew shyly pleased with the amount of individual attention that their poems received. By the end of the month, they were slipping me poems between classes, bringing them to my hotel, and promising to mail me more. I even received a couple of pages from a student at a different school who had heard that I was a visiting poet.
The initial paradox of trying to cultivate originality in a setting where the impulse is to maintain the group and to preserve the past was eased, inadvertently perhaps, by making that impulse work for, rather than against, the writing process. I encouraged students to help one another with details, to brainstorm in their small, huddled groups, so that the resulting poems, although not collaborative, certainly were strengthened by group consultation. And I demonstrated, through my own ignorance of their lives, how the vivid details of their experiences, past and present, made their identities as Tibetan children clear, unforgettable, and therefore more likely to be preserved.
What did the students gain? A number of students were quite explicit about what they had learned: "I am very thankful to you as you gave me the opportunity to describe my feelings through poems," Sonam wrote. Tenzing agreed: "Poetry is important because we can describe our feelings." Some students learned more about Maryland teenagers through the poetry pen-pal exchange that I set up with my summer writing students.
Most important, the students gained a better understanding of what enlivens a poem: the sensory detail that helps a reader enter the experience with the writer. Their work moved away from collective abstractions and toward the particular. Writing poems that use the rich details of Tibetan life—their landscape of the Himalayas and yaks, their homes and foods, their ancestors and symbols—makes real, almost tangible, the value of their culture and the extent of their loss. "In the poems," Sonam wrote in a letter to me near the end of my visit, "I remind my race of being in exile. And I try to spread the message of universal brotherhood." The writing becomes, at last, a way of both solidifying and celebrating the Tibetan identity and connecting to a global community.

Ice Water

Ice Water
When I left Tibet for India, it was early in the cold morning. We had to cross a lake, but I was small and had to be carried on the back of my mother. In the middle of the lake, my legs touched the water. Cold, like ice. On the other bank, all the people rested, looking at their legs all scraped, as if by cats' claws. Then we walked again. —Ngawang Yangchen, Class 9, Age 14

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