School just started, but I still feel as though I haven’t completely moved in to my new life here in Rebgong. Part of it may be my temporarily minimal teaching schedule – the school has cut the number of weekly English classes for my third-years from ten to seven, and the students who form majority of my teaching load – the first years – will not arrive for another two weeks. At first I assumed that this delayed start was due to the military training period , which is mandatory for first-year students around the country. But I soon learned that the problem is more concrete. The prefectural bureau of education has demanded that the school take a freshman class of around 400 students – one-hundred to 150 more students than the school would normally enroll. As a result, the school (in which all students board) lacks dormitory space for its increased student population. A few days ago, a small construction crew belatedly broke ground for a new dormitory building, which they hope to finish within two weeks.
In addition to the teaching load, the process of my normalization to life in Rebgong (or my normalization of Rebgong life to fit my comfort levels – or most likely both, simultaneously) is slower than the parallel process of adjustment to Xining last year. Though only two hours apart by car, Rebgong is distinct enough from Xining that the two might as well be on their own separate continents (except for the similarity of their concrete apartment-block architecture, which is distinctly Chinese). In Xining, I had access to a wide variety of Chinese and foreign foods. If I needed a break, I could retreat to public parks or even western-style coffeeshops. And the dominant language, Chinese, was one I already, upon arriving, could understand and converse in.
At this early point, the most difficult part of living in Rebgong (for me) is the language. My Amdo Tibetan is so basic as to be nearly nonexistent, and the pronunciations I learned last spring are significantly different from what’s spoken here. People appreciate my sputtering attempts to speak their language, but things just work more easily when we switch into our mutual second (or third) language – Chinese. And while I really enjoy speaking Chinese, I feel bad when – as a shopkeeper turns to his friend or goes back to his family, chattering in Amdo, or a monk asks me a friendly question, or I am accosted by curious nomads on motorbikes – I have to answer that I’m sorry, I can’t speak Tibetan, I can only speak Chinese, but I’m trying to learn. I feel awful for not being able to speak these people’s language, but even more than that I hate not being able to communicate as fluently as I’d like with everyone I meet on the street – something I was able to do in Xining.
Enough whining, though – so far, despite the difficulties, I really do love life here in Rebgong. The town is culturally rich, the people are amazingly friendly (and greet my poor attempts to speak Amdo with beaming, radiant smiles), and the yak yogurt is delicious and sold everywhere. My apartment, formerly owned by Charlotte (the founder of the program at which I am teaching and an eight-year resident of Rebgong!) is beautiful and spacious. From my apartment windows, dark green mountains loom to the south above steeply terraced fields shimmering golden with ripened barley; from my bedroom, the golden roofs of the monastery, less than one hundred meters away, shine brilliantly in the sun.
The monastery constantly reminds me of its nearby presence; the smell of yak butter wafts through the windows, the sounds of horns, chanting, and debating occasionally permeate the classroom. I am constantly meeting monks on the stairs; a lama of high status, I am told, lives upstairs from me.
But unlike many Tibetan visitors to this town, the monastery is not at the center of my life: I am here to teach, and school – whether teaching, navigating (or fighting with) a byzantine bureaucracy to get answers to simple questions, or projects – is already the focus of nearly all of my activities. Since I arrived a week ago, Brooke and I have started thinking about ways to streamline the entire program so it can be run by complete idiots (or people who aren’t as willing as Charlotte was to stay a full eight years). So far, we’ve cataloged the library (a thankless process), have brainstormed project ideas, and have started thinking about codifying the entire curriculum – creating specific, achievable goals and standards for students in each grade, as well as solidifying and standardizing what it is that these students are actually supposed to learn during their time here. Brooke has led the way by starting work on some impressive documents this summer, and it will be interesting to be part of this process.
But everything is just beginning; I have barely arrived and the school year has only just started. Who only knows what the upcoming months may bring. And thank God I’ve chosen a path where I can say that about my life; despite the difficulties and challenges involved, I hope to stray away from the sedentarizing, mindnumbing tentacles of predictability and comprehensibility for as long as I’m able.
I’ll end this post with some pictures. I know I haven’t written anything about teaching; I’ll do that next time.