On my recent trip to Amdo, Tibet, I spent most of my time in Ngawa Prefecture, (Chinese: Aba) This trip was a bit different than the last time as I would be able to experience, Losar, Tibetan Lunar New Year, and I also would get the chance to teach English to Tibetan Students.
I normally stay away from volunteering on trips, as they are sometimes setups fir travelers and aren’t authentic. I also like to help out locals, rather than something run with corporate sponsorship. When my friend asked if I would be interested in teaching local kids from Nomadic families, I jumped at the chance. I realized it was a rare opportunity for me to experience something new, see another part of Amdo, and help out the local community.
When I first arrived we spent two days acclimatizing to the altitude slowly before we headed to Ngawa. We drove far out to a small monastery to say hello to his Uncle, who organized the volunteer work. His Uncle, Jamyang, then took us to his parents house where we would stay for the time while we were teaching. The farmhouse we were staying in was stunning. I have only seen the outside of the farmhouses so to actually see the inside of one was awesome. I always wondered how it was built inside.
We had dinner and then we were told we would be picked up the next morning. First thing in the morning after breakfast we were whisked away to the monastery where we had some tea before classes started at 10:30am. I went down to greet the students and most of them were very shy. A few knew my friend as he has volunteered for a few years. So I introduced myself and we started with basic introductions. Then it was lunch time where we ate together on the floor. I have to tell you each day the food was delicious.
We would then continue to study English until 5 pm everyday. The students were very energetic. I was surprised at the age range, as some students were in elementary school and quite a few were in college. The levels were varied too, but the effort they all put in was outstanding.
My friend was telling me that these lessons are very useful, because normally when they learn English it is through Chinese. However, Chinese is not their first language so it makes learning English more difficult. These lessons are in English and taught through Tibetan, their native language which helps them to better understand grammar and vocabulary. If you don’t know, Chinese and English have a similar grammar structure SVO, whereas Tibetan is SOV. We spent each day reviewing and learning new useful English Expressions.
One night I taught an alphabet lesson to the young monks under Monk Jamyang’s care. The littlest one had to be know more than 5 or 6 and the older ones had to be in their early teens. They were so enthusiastic when they learned the alphabet! Each letter was yelled loudly and clearly, but when it was wrong I would correct their pronunciation which sometimes ended in laughter. Sometimes we can’t hear the pronunciation differences in other languages, so if you are corrected over and over by an expressive teacher it gets rather funny.
The last day we had a graduation ceremony for the students and we were thanked for volunteering our time. I was surprised when I was given a little cash and beautiful mala beads as a thank you. Next, the students came up one by one and put a khata over our necks as a blessing and token of thanks. I have never had that many khatas on me before it was quite heavy!
The experience left a lasting impression on me as we posed for pictures with each other and hugged goodbye. I miss the students a lot, many of them still keep in touch via wechat and say hello from time to time. Volunteering made me realize I really do want to work in a Tibetan area I just need to figure out how I can do so and where I want to work.
I’m glad I started my trip off with volunteering and then ended it celebrating Losar. I hope one day I can meet all of my students again!