The Educated Bookworm
We step into the streets of Shiqu, and at first glance, it’s about as unremarkable as small towns come. Wide, dirty streets overrun by stray dogs the size of motorcycles. Streets lined with dingy noodle stalls and fabric stores. Monks work on their motorcycles with grease covered hands outside of autobody shops. Our holy man, who has finally stopped chanting, gives each of us a Draxi Delei and a handshake, and then starts walking off, white gunnysack slung over his shoulder.
As we’re walking around looking for a place to sleep, a girl in a white Adidas hoodie and blue plastic earrings comes bounding up to us. “What are you looking for?” She asks us in English with a faint Indian accent. “Maybe I can help you.” This is how we met Yang Ga.
She takes us to a hotel run by monks and helps check in, alternating between Tibetan and English between one of the monks and us, and then volunteers herself as our tour guide. “I will take you to Bodhimani,” she tells us, smiling like she’s letting us in on a secret. It is so many wonderful there.”
Yang Ga is singing along to the stereo as we bump along the dirt road to Bohdimani. The driver is a dangerous looking young Tibetan man with sharp eyes and a tiny son he’s brought with him. The kid is sitting on Jacks lap in shotgun, asleep, his soft hair matted into dreadlocks over a face turned chocolate brown by the sun.
We drive through wide open fields dwarfed by clouds so big it’s as if they’ve sunk down to earth for a visit. We arrive at Bodhimani, a long mani wall of meticulously stacked flat stones stretching from a small temple by the road to it to the foothills half a kilometer away, which are covered in circles of bright prayer flags.
“Oh!” Says Yang Ga suddenly. “Today is 15! Lucky lucky for Tibetans. It is a very good day to walk around the wall. That is why there are so many people here today!” I look around. There’s maybe five other people here. 15, I find out later, means full moon.
We set off, Yang Ga and I ahead of the boys, who have made friends with an old man who is letting them spin his prayer wheel. She’s dressed modern Chinese style, down to her jewelry and hairstyle. She stands out from the other wall walkers, who are all wearing the traditional Tibetan heavy black robe. “The jackets,” she tells me, pointing to them, “are too much troublesome.” She doesn’t own one. On first glace, the only thing that points to her heritage are her features and her cheeks, which are weathered red from years of exposure.
“I went to India to get an education,” Yang Ga says proudly when I ask how she learned English. By the end of my trip, I will realize how special this is. Yong Ga is one of the only Tibetan girls I will meet in these tiny rural towns who has received any formal education.
Yang Ga grew up in a tiny town outside Shiqu. “It is just horrible there,” she says, which is the first negative thing she’s said all day. “When I was 19, I went to visit Lhasa for a short trip,” Yangga tells me. “I realized then how small my life is. I didn’t know how to spend money,” she says quietly. “If I should use it to buy food, or clothes, or how much they should cost.” Yang Ga realized she needed to leave home. Her father had died in a car accident when she was a child, and as the oldest of four children, Yang Ga had spent her entire young life at home, helping her mother raise a family. “Your mother never remarried?” I asked. “No. My mother, she is an educated woman,” Yangga says, as if that explains it.
“I came home and I said to my mother, I feel like an animal! Every day, only doing housework, this is not a life! I said to my mother: I need an education.” Yang Ga is smiling but looking down, kicking stones as she talks, clearing the path. “My mother, she say how sorry she is to me, that she could not give me an education. That now, maybe, I can try to find one.” With her siblings grown up, Yang Ga was now free to leave home. She called her father’s younger sister, who lives in Dharamasala, for help. Her aunt helped her get a Nepali passport, and enrolled her in a free school for Tibetans there set up by the Dalai Lama. Yangga boarded a bus for Dharamasala and attended the school for two years.
With over 2,000 students, the school is so overcrowded, Yongga tells me, each student only gets one day of class a week – the rest of the time is spent studying. Yang Ga learned to speak several different dialects of Tibetan from her classmates, she learned to speak English, she learned about her culture, she learned to do math and handle her own finances, and she learned to read and write in her native tongue.
She wants to work as a translator – and more importantly, she says, she wants to help teach other Tibetans the importance of education. Many Tibetans don’t sent their kids to school, especially the girls. There is one school run by a Tibetan monastery, in Tibetan, nearby Shiqu, that teaches elementary education as well as vocational training. It cannot accommodate even half of the children who want to attend – and lacking a formal certification, the local government is trying to shut it down. Often, the only option available is a Chinese run school – an option many parents won’t consider. “So many people, so many Tibetan people, they don’t want to learn,” says Yang Ga sadly. “They don’t understand how important it is for life.”
Jack and Joseph catch up with us as we round the wall, and all six of us all head into the tiny temple. The driver gives a ten kuai note for a blessing, and the other monks drop down into a squat as the senior monk begins to chant, a line of yak butter candles flickering across his face. The driver, who is squatting next to his son in front of me, reaches back and adjusts the heavy wrench he keeps tucked in the small of his back.
The monk murmurs in prayer for several minutes, then blows a low hoot into a white conch shell lined with gold. He folds up a piece of paper and holds it out to the child who is standing beside him, silently clutching his father. The kid, tiny as he is, knows the paper is for him: he teeters forward and takes it from the monk, studying it quietly. Finally the monk toots on the conch shell a final time, and the blessing is over.
As we head back to town, Jack and Joseph are whispering back and forth, and then finally, Joseph turns to Yang Ga. “Yang Ga,” he says with that tone that precedes an awkward question, “Why do a lot of the men here carry such incredibly large spanners?”
Joseph motions. “For fixing cars with. Like our driver had in the back of his pants today. We’ve noticed quite a few men carry them. Why not just keep it in the car? Is it really for fixing the car with?”
Yang Ga laughs at us. “Maybe not,” she says decisively. Tibet has this two-sided identity, a national religion that embraces peace that exists alongside a history of fearless and notorious warriors. But this was a little different.
“I think maybe it is for fighting. A lot of Tibetan have very short temper,” she says. “Maybe they have to argue and cannot solve it, it is very easy just to use this. But it is not all of them,” she says quickly. “Maybe it is just the ones with no education.”
That night we end up at a restaurant Yang Ga takes us to with a huge picture menu that fills the entire wall of the restaurant. “Can you ask for some beer?” Asks Jack. Yang Ga addresses the waiter in Chinese, and I realize everyone working here is Chinese. No beers. “The owners are Chinese?” I ask her. She nods. “Didn’t you notice in this town, almost all the restaurants and shops are owned by Chinese?”
“Why?” Joseph asks brazenly. Yang Ga is quiet for a minute, thinking of how to respond, picking at pieces of the dark grey yak meat that’s just been put in front of us. “Maybe because they are very clever, more cleverer than us,” she says. “But that’s not true,” Jack says simply. “Why don’t Tibetans run the shops? It’s a Tibetan town, they must know better what people want.”
Yang Ga is at a loss, doesn’t know why we are so taken aback by what she’s just said. For her, it seems, it’s like explaining why it’s cold out, and she looks at us like we’re small children as she tries to dumb it down. “Maybe the Tibetan way of life, it does not need much money. For them it is not important. Mostly they are not people who run businesses.” The skill sets of a nomadic yak herder and a small private business owner, after all, do not have much overlap. Many of the Chinese shop owners that I’ve talked to are from southern China, and to them, being a travelling merchant is just as familiar as pitching a tent on the side of a mountain is to a Tibetan nomad. But there is another glaring difference that sets the shop owners here apart. All of them have gone to school.