Guest Post: How Tibetan Culture Has Influenced Me

Today’s guest post is coming to you from fellow writer, Yeshi Dolma. She lives in McLeod Ganj, India and here she chronicles its presence in her life. The interesting name of the city comes from one of the founders of Punjab University, Donald Friell McLeod, and a Hindi-Urdu word for ‘neighborhood.’ In this piece, Yeshi talks about changes, family, and living within a different culture. I think it’s a great read and I hope you do, too.

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McLeod Ganj, © Yeshi Dolma 2016.

I live in McLeod Ganj, India with my teenage daughter. It’s a beautiful place; the town clings to a ridge that juts out from the southernmost part of the Himalayas. There are monkeys everywhere, jaguars in the mountains, cows wandering freely, and happy street dogs looking for pats and cuddles.

McLeod Ganj is also home to an ever-shrinking community of Tibetans. Many of them fled out of China with the Dalai Lama in 1959 during the Cultural Revolution. Thousands came later for the same reason—to be close to their spiritual and temporal king.

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Dhauladhars, © Yeshi Dolma 2015.

I first came here to learn the Tibetan language and immerse myself in its culture. That was in 2001, when I was just 23 years old. I had bought myself a Tibetan phrasebook the year before and watched all the movies about Tibet that I could lay my hands on.

When I arrived in McLeod Ganj, I was hopelessly in love with the cinematic portrayal of Tibetan culture and people. I believed that India was some sort of a holy land of enlightened yogis and yoginis who knew the secrets to eternal happiness. What I learned that first year was that I was a foolish foreigner.

I learned that I needed to boil the water, otherwise it gave me dysentery. I learned that I had to have iron-clad boundaries with men who viewed me as a stereotypical Western woman: loose and available. I learned that there were people out to cheat me because they thought I was rich. I would buy dried milk for women on the street who then sold it back to the shopkeeper. I was often charged double or triple local prices on produce.

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Street dogs, © Yeshi Dolma 2015.

I also learned there were far more people who were loving and kind. They taught me how to stay safe and which shopkeepers could be trusted. What I realized is that I could trust my intuition and perceptions about the people around me.

During that year in India, I grew as a person. I was no longer the scared child who feared the world around me; I embraced life and toughened up. I learned I could be strong, which I would need because I became a single mother. I returned to my mother’s home in the United States to give birth and raise my child.

When my daughter was five and a half, we returned to India. She and I quickly realized that mixed kids like her didn’t quite fit into Tibetan community. They had little experience with mixed kids like her.

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The main square in McLeod Ganj, © Yeshi Dolma 2015.

People didn’t believe that I was her mother; I have blonde hair and blue eyes. My daughter has dark brown hair and light brown eyes. She looks like her father. Others emphatically argued that my daughter was not American; she was Tibetan and her American heritage didn’t matter. Sometimes people would express their opinions to her directly, as if she had control over who her parents were. As a result, my daughter decided she didn’t want to be Tibetan. Luckily, two of our monk friends would encourage my daughter to embrace her Tibetan heritage.

During that first year in McLeod, we met Tinley the monk. Tinley was a godsend. He made sure we were fed and cared for. He introduced us to his roommate Leki. They listened to us, provided feedback, and eased our transition into their culture. We stayed two more years then left again—this time for Taiwan.

A year and a half ago we returned to McLeod. We were both nervous. My daughter had entered into puberty but she looked much older. I was concerned that she would face sexual harassment, and she did. For our first eight months here, Indian men would stare at her body and some would make comments as we passed. I became increasingly aggressive toward these men. I would curse at them or threaten them physically. Public shame seemed to be an effective way to deal with them, but I loathed who I had become. My daughter felt increasingly uncomfortable walking through town, so she cut off her hair. With her new haircut, she looked decidedly male and was treated as a young man.

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Triund, © Yeshi Dolma 2015.

The harassment eased for her, but not for me. I became acutely aware of how Indian tourists would stare at me. Families stare out of curiosity, which is fine. But when Indian males tried to take my picture without my permission, I felt threatened. On several occasions I have had sharp words with the cameramen. Once I physically defended myself. My daughter witnessed all of this and she has become angry at how often I am harassed and how poorly I have been treated. Even though we have been harassed, we do not hate Indian culture. We have Indian friends, both female and male, who love and respect us.

I recognize that women’s rights is a huge issue across the world; India isn’t the only one with this problem. Young Indian women and men are working to change old ideas about women’s roles and how men should treat women. It takes time. We know this, but we are not going to stay here much longer.

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Tibetan prayer flags on the path around the Dalai Lama’s complex, © Yeshi Dolma 2015.

The other reason we are leaving is that McLeod has changed dramatically over the years. When my daughter was small, the town used to be quiet; very few tourists would visit. Now during tourist season, thirty or forty thousand extra people flood into town causing traffic jams, extra garbage, intense noise pollution, and water shortages. Only a handful of foreigners live here now, the rest have moved to other places in the area. The Tibetan community is fading away too; many people have returned home to China or have gone abroad.

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The author in local attire, © Yeshi Dolma 2015.

McLeod has helped us to become stronger. My daughter has matured and become people savvy. I’ve become tougher, older, wiser, and realized I don’t want to live this way anymore. I’m grateful to McLeod, India, and the local Tibetan and Indian communities, but now it’s time for us to move on.

About the Author

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Yeshi’s literary interests include creative non-fiction, travel with children, women’s issues, and food preparation.  When she’s not writing, she can be found creating yarn on her spinning wheel, or curled up with her daughter playing video games. You can read more from her on her website.

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