I felt so lucky to have been asked to look after Roger and Isabella’s flat and I was determined to take this responsibility seriously. The flat had two rooms, a huge bedroom-cum-living room, with a wide array of windows, and a kitchen. Tibetans tend to decorate with loud, home-made colours and the wooden pillars in the main room were painted red and blue while the roof timbers were yellow. I recognised the floor as it was similar to the one that I had seen Diane working on for a few hours in the Jokhang – mud and gravel that had been thumped down by women wielding small tree trunks. Not only are these floors warmer than concrete but all the feet that gently rub them makes them shiny and beautiful. There were only two stoves and the one in the main room was too small to heat up the space, so I spent most of my time in the kitchen, where Roger had thoughtfully wired up a set of speakers.
Even though I only had three hours of teaching a day I continued to find the work exhausting. I wasn’t sure if this was due to the illness or, as I suspected, because teaching is a very tiring job. It felt more exhausting than carrying heavy furniture up and down staircases in Edinburgh or working on a building site. By lunchtime I would be shattered, but also feeling satisfied. I needed to conserve energy, and it was freezing outside, so I stopped teaching the nurse and cut back on teaching Sir Woo. After a few days I invited Je Yang round and we would spend the evenings talking and listening to Roger’s huge collection of tapes. Then I ran into Diane and Frenchy who told me about the police raid at the Cheese Factory: everyone had been thrown out and the manager was carried off to the police station for under-charging foreigners. The Americans had moved to the Plateau Hotel which they hated because it was modern, concrete, cold and expensive. Diane had fallen out with Frenchy and they argued incessantly except, curiously, when I invited them round to my new flat. Both of them were sick with the illnesses that bedevilled foreigners in Tibet: giardia and bronchitis.
When I saw what a rotten teacher Big Jack was I realised that there had been no point in the job test as they obviously chose their replacement teachers on a whim. Big Jack was always late and he’d never prepare his lessons. I found myself helping him out, filling the gaps and trying to cover up for him. He reciprocated by offering me advice on diet, another of his areas of expertise, and he explained the different qualities that vegetables have and how steaming is better than boiling. This was all news to me. I had no idea that tomatoes are full of acid, peanuts are full of fat and milk creates phlegm in the throat. I didn’t invite him round to the flat, telling him that I wasn’t allowed to have visitors, hoping he wouldn’t see Je Yang, Diane and Frenchy coming round most evenings. We would sit round the yak-dung stove cooking a pot of soup and explain to Je Yang that life in the west isn’t as idyllic as he’d been led to believe. Je Yang didn’t believe the anti-American propaganda he’d been taught; he believed that once you made it to the west money and happiness inevitably followed. I was keen to destroy that image and Diane and Frenchy were the ideal means of doing so. They would talk for hours about racism, corruption, inequality and, most extensively, about AIDS.
Je Yang had a morbid fascination with AIDS and Diane and Frenchy’s doom-laden prophecies set his mind spinning. On the one hand the disease appalled him but on the other he couldn’t help feeling that this was some kind of divine retribution for all the bad things the western world had done. We would furiously debate the AIDS issue every evening, each one of us strongly defending our positions, and the only thing that we all agreed upon was that mashed potatoes taste great.
The sickness I was recovering from must have lowered my immunity – by the end of that week I had both giardia and bronchitis. These illnesses were nothing compared to hepatitis but I had to get rid of my chesty cough and the appalling stomach. Diane described how giardia had made her stomach swell up to the size of a basketball, she would rush to the toilet and then piss and fart down the hole. They would both explain these gruesome details endlessly. Giardia, I was told, is a type of bacteria that forms cysts in your duodenum (the bit just below your stomach) and when these burst they produce sulphuric gases. The Tibetan medical cure was said to be effective, but time consuming, and the modern cure was two grammes of a powerful antibiotic called Tiniba, a drug that Diane swore by.
– But you gotta remember, she said, to take a second dose a week later in case you’ve missed some of those fuckers the first time round. They lay eggs you know and you gotta nuke those fuckers before they can get you again.
I didn’t have the energy to deal with the Tibetan hospital again so when the basketball belly hit I downed a couple of tabs of Tiniba which promptly wiped out the infection. Frenchy then gave me two tabs of Bactrim which, he swore, would get rid of the bronchitis. It worked.
Even among the foreign oddballs and eccentrics who would turn up in Lhasa every week, Big Jack stood out. His thick woollen clothes, big beard and Mujahedeen hat made him the butt of all jokes, at least in my circle. But he was so big and fierce-looking that nobody had the courage to say anything mocking to his face. He had latched on to the cheesecake women and was one of their salesmen. He was good at this because he was pushy and intimidating and people thought they would get thumped if they didn’t cough up. I knew where he hung out so I was able to avoid him but we came into contact at class time.
One morning I went to Roger’s class and was surprised to find some officials from the Tibetan Political Consultative Conference there. These were the people who had set up the class but this was the first time I’d actually seen more than one of them. They nervously informed me that Tibetan TV wanted to come and film us for their news show, was that okay? Until that moment I had no idea that there was a TV station in Tibet and if they wanted to film us that was fine by me. They left and I started teaching. Twenty minutes later another bunch of officials came in, but this lot burst in the door arrogantly, set up their cameras and started filming. I carried on as normal. When they moved next door to film Big Jack we could hear his voice becoming louder and louder; I stopped teaching to go and look and all the students followed. We peered into the next room and there was Big Jack, shouting at the top of his voice as if he was giving the Sermon on the Mount to a gathering of thousands. That evening I went to Sir Woo’s place as he was the only person I knew who had a TV set. He was happy to let me in but there was a power failure, so we missed the chance of seeing Big Jack look ridiculous on TV.
Every Saturday we would teach a song. It was simple, fun and they would learn new expressions and improve their listening skills. Isabella would play the Beatles and Bob Marley, and other favourites from the sixties, but I thought Flower Power might be a bit over their heads so I started using jazz songs. The problem was Big Jack; he never prepared for his classes and without preparation you just can’t use a song for teaching purposes. I offered to help him and he seemed willing, so I prepared a Fats Waller song for him and explained the technique that I had learned during my English teaching course in England:
– Write the lyrics on a piece of paper, identify any difficult words in the lyrics that they might not know – and teach these words before you play the song. Then write the lyrics on the board with some easy words missing, and write an underscore where the words are missing. Then play the song a few times and tell them to fill in the missing words. It’s easy and they usually enjoy it.
When Saturday came round Big Jack was late again. When he did show up, looking hung-over, the class were making a hell of a din and they greeted him with a slightly mocking tone as they had obviously come to realise that he was something of a joke figure. This was the rowdiest class that we had and it contained several tearaway monks, all teenagers, as well as some wild girls. I could hear them joking about his beard and hat and hoped he didn’t understand (his grasp of Tibetan was worse than mine). Gruffly, he began writing the lyrics up on the board in a handwriting style that was illegible, even to me. The song starts like this:
– Dina, Dina, is there anyone finer?
– In the state of Carolina
– If there is, show her to me.
I could hear the class growing more restive and I put my head through the door. He was in the process of explaining the meaning of Dixie eyes blazing and I could see some of the students laughing openly in front of him.
– Everything okay? I asked.
– Yeah, he hissed, with eyes of fury, I can handle the little bastards.
I went back to my class, not knowing what was best to do. I heard a crashing sound, shouting, a murmur of voices and then total silence. I went in and found Big Jack on his own, all the students had walked out. He was red-faced and furious, stomping up and down the room.
– What happened?
– Those little fuckers! Nobody fucks with me! Next time I’ll really beat the shit out of him! You gotta be tough with these guys.
Then he grabbed his stuff and, without another word, threw open the door and marched off in disgust. I went back to my class and carried on teaching the difficult words associated with my song. I later found out that he had grabbed one of the monks, thrown him against the wall and threatened him with his fists. On the following Monday morning the leaders were waiting for him. They told him not to come back.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article). To see feedback to the paperback edition, click here.