Tales From Tibet 1: The Journey to the West
Here I am in Lhasa, in southwestern China’s Tibet Autonomous Region — a long, long way from my city of residence — Shanghai, the country’s most populous metropolis.
Last month I graduated from East China Normal University and became the first Shanghai free admission student — a policy whereby a student has their tuition waived if they pledge to teach for a set period after they graduate — to choose employment in Tibet. Many were puzzled by my decision to move to an area so far removed from the city I was used to, but it’s something I had made my mind up to do a long time ago.
When I was in middle school, I had seen on TV the horrible conditions students had to endure in China’s remotest areas. The quality of education there was awful, and I felt a lot of sympathy for the poor children.
After entering college, I made good friends with my Tibetan roommate Pasang Dolma, and she introduced me to the Ganglamedo Tibetan Cultural Society — a group that organized volunteering trips to Tibet every summer to teach local students. To me, it seemed too good to be true, and in the summer of my sophomore year, I packed my bags, and set off on my journey to the west.
But upon arrival my excitement turned to dismay. I was assigned to teach at the Changzhu Elementary School in Shannan, but one of the first things I noticed was how backwards the education system was here compared to what I had been used to in Shanghai.
The problem wasn’t so much the facilities as it was the teaching methods I encountered. Teachers would have their students memorize questions and answers without studying any of the theory behind the problems. When it came time for exams, the students would all fail. China has a system in which spots are set aside at top education institutions across the country for high-achieving ethnic minorities, but none of my students that year made the quota for Tibet.
Most of the teachers’ aims weren’t to guide the students down a fulfilling and enriching path — they just showed up to work because it paid the bills. As a result, they would ask for time off whenever the fancy took them, and shuffle classes around liberally to better suit their own schedules. On one occasion the students had to take only math classes for an entire week because all of the other teachers had asked for time off.
This wasn’t a proper way to teach children. I felt like I was witnessing firsthand the unbalanced development of my country — reflected not only in the economy, but in all other aspects of society. Those children deserved the same right to education as their peers in the richer provinces.
I know that now coming after graduation to teach in Tibet won’t change the education system here, nor will it make a big impact. I just hope that my students will enjoy my teaching style, gain wider horizons from their experiences with me, expand their critical thinking, and increase their problem-solving abilities. Furthermore, I hope that through my teaching I can instill in them a desire to learn and to be successful.
But to be honest, I also have my own selfish reasons for wanting to come to Tibet. It was never my dream to pack up and move to an impoverished, remote village solely in the name of making contributions to my country’s education system.
I have always had a sense of adventure. I spent my childhood bouncing between several villages in eastern China’s Jiangxi province, and later moved to Shanghai. As a result, I’ve never really felt like I have roots anywhere. I’ve never cherished the sentimentality “there’s no place like home” precisely because I don’t feel I have a defined home. This has always given me a sense of freedom.
I’ve never felt the need to settle down in one spot. I can find joy and peace of mind anywhere. Shanghai has its appeal as a prosperous international metropolis, but I’m ready to move on. I’m getting tired of the fast-paced city life. That’s why even if I don’t end up teaching in Tibet long-term, it’s not likely I’ll move back to Shanghai.
I fell in love with Lhasa during my three months there as a volunteer teacher. I am drawn to the city, its culture, scenery, and its people. Lhasa may not be prosperous, but neither is it impoverished.
I plan to lead a well-balanced life. I want to enjoy life, and if I can at the same time work in a meaningful job where I can really help people, why wouldn’t I pursue it?
We are living in an era where the definition of success is less rigorously defined. Success to me is more than a decent job in a prosperous city. I am in Tibet to contribute, but not to sacrifice. I am not a saint, but someone who has the courage to make her own way, and choose her own path in life.
To be continued.
(Header image: Zhang Min and her students pose for a photo at the Changzhu Elementary School in Shannan, Tibet Autonomous Region, July 2014. Courtesy of Zhang Min)