Sunday, 13 April 2014

Bye Bye, Bylakuppe

(from February 13, 2014)

Although the weekly meetings with our advisor revolve around crafting multiple drafts of different versions of the same letter requesting permission into various types of schools, we are learning that the most efficient way to arrange a school visit is through personal connections. When such a relationship does not exist, one must be creative. Our journey into the SOS Tibetan Children’s School is one such example.

The bus voyage from Coorg back home to Mysore passes along the outskirts of the quaint Tibetan refugee settlement of Bylakuppe, which was established in response to the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. Although intended as a temporary encampment, the refugees have established a more permanent “little Tibet” within the village borders.

With curiosity, we maneuver our way off the crowded bus and through the prayer flag lined streets until we land on the front steps of the SOS Tibetan Children’s School. With a brief exchange of “entrance strategy,” we attempt to gain unannounced admittance. Confidently, we step inside the school and solicit directions to the Principal’s office. Bypassing all secretarial clerks, we hover at the threshold of the Principal’s door, until he – quite bewildered by our white, smiling faces – grants us entry into his office, which is adorned with a life-size Dali Lama poster and a massive fish tank, home to one very tiny fish. 

Before launching into our “why we are here” speech, Taylor, as planned on the school steps, drops the name of former DAT Fulbrighter, Ellen – who had visited the school the year prior – in hopes of establishing some common, affable ground. After a momentary, pensive pause, the principal utters an “ah” of remembrance as he points to Tiffany and asks, “Back?”

Tiffany attempts to clarify the misunderstanding, but she is met with only an affectionate head wobble and smile. Lacking persistence, Tiffany accepts her given guise, and, perhaps consequently, the Principal permits us to “interact” with the students during their lunch break. Not ideal, but can we really complain?

We manage to gather a group of eight secondary female students, but our deficiency in the vernacular makes communication challenging with six of them. Below highlights some of our notes with two of the English speaking students:

Student One: “I remember when we took a class trip to Mysore. We got off the bus, and all the locals were staring at us. A group of teenagers began shouting things like, “Chinky eyes.” They don’t understand that we are Indians, too. Yes, by blood I am Tibetan, but I was born in India, I go to school in India, and I will die in India.”

Student Two: “I see myself as first and foremost Tibetan. I am also Buddhist and Indian.”

Student Two: “When we study the Indian Nationalist Movement, we never learn about Buddhists. In fact, I’m not even sure if Buddhists were involved.”

Student One: “Learning about conflict is important. When we leave school, we have to face the world, and we have to know the mentality they have, even if it is ugly. It’s going to be difficult for us when we get out there.”

Eager to engage in more conversations, we request a more official (read: beyond the lunch break) follow-up visitation. Again, the principal responds with a sincere head wobble and smile, which we interpret as a “yes.”

Satisfied with our navigation of “the system,” we stroll out of the school’s front gate to begin our next adventure – the search for the best Tibetan food in Bylakuppe. Just as we solicit the culinary expertise of two locals, a scooter-riding police officer pulls up alongside us requesting – actually, demanding – our permits into the restricted Bylakuppe.

Permits? Oops. It seems we should have read the Bylakuppe section of The Lonely Planet after all, which clearly states that documented authorization into the village is required.  Although the officer expresses little care for our research interests in the Tibetan school, we convince him that lunch in the settlement is absolutely necessary. And he agrees.

Thus, our gastronomic intrigue was fulfilled, before we made the walk of shame . . . with a brief intermission at the Golden Temple.

Doesn’t look like we’ll be back to the Tibetan Children’s School anytime soon.

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