This is chapter 33 from my Tibetan memoir, in which I manage to avoid the law (and the backpackers) and stay with local Tibetans…
Although the Import Export people didn’t give me a job everything started happening at once. Life seems to work this way; once inside the magic circle you’ll find anything is possible, but getting inside it often seems impossible. The key is coming across the right people and impressing them, but quite how one goes about that is something of a mystery.
Things really started moving after meeting Asheya, whom I was introduced to at the new Kailash restaurant – the first place in town that played music. Asheya was extremely small, but he was solidly built and had a round face and warm, beaming eyes. He was middle-aged, lived in Kathmandu where he dealt in carpets and antiques and spoke fluent English. His family was from Lhasa and, for the first time in decades, he was able to visit them. He was much warmer than the other exiled Tibetans I had come across and was from a different generation to the disco-dancing crowd I had met thus far. Initially I was suspicious of his interest in me, although taking full advantage of it, and wondered what his ulterior motives were. Did he want something? If so, I never found out what it was.
He listened to my plea – I want to stay in Lhasa but I need cash, a job, and also a place to stay so I can get away from some annoying Americans. Although my demands were simple enough most people I spoke to seemed to have a problem understanding me. Maybe they didn’t want to? Perhaps helping a foreigner was too risky? Asheya got it in one go, thought about it for some time and told me to come back to this same restaurant the following evening.
When I returned the next evening I wasn’t expecting anything and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he hadn’t turned up at all. Not only did Asheya show up, he came into the restaurant with two young ladies. These lovely ladies, he announced grandly, are your new students. They were Tibetan nurses from the big Chinese hospital on the north side of the city, both wanted to learn English and were willing to pay seven yuan an hour fee – each. I couldn’t understand why these two could pay me when Elliot’s whole class had refused. This was a real break; I knew that the big hospital had at least one English teacher and maybe this was a way in. Maybe I could get hired there? I thanked Asheya, spoke to the ladies and arranged to meet up with them three times a week.
The second amazing thing that Asheya did that day was to arrange my accommodation at his sister’s place. This was going beyond kindness as I knew it was illegal for Tibetans to accommodate foreigners and I had never heard of it happening in the city. He assured me that it was no problem, nothing special and wasn’t a risk. It was with a sense of glee that I went back to the Cheese Factory that evening and met Diane and Frenchy:
– Guess what? I’m moving out!
– Moving out? You can’t move out. You’ve just got your own room.
– I’m sick of it here. I’m sick of you guys.
– Hey, we like it here. We like this Little America.
– Well, I’m outta here.
– You Limeys are crazy. Where the hell ya’ going anyway?
– I can’t tell you.
– Why the hell not?
Asheya’s sister was called Joga and she lived down a stinking alley not far from the Cheese Factory. The following day he led me down the narrow alley and we followed the open sewer which led into an earth-covered courtyard which had a ramshackle well in the middle. Asheya cheerfully pointed to the well and told me it was the only source of water. Did the sewage water leak into it? There were four low, shack-like houses around the yard and Joga lived in the smallest of them. We went into a tiny room with a mud floor, two small benches and a dresser. It was so low that I had to bend almost double. We sat on one of the benches and Joga served us drinks.
Joga was much smaller than Asheya. Although he never talked about it I could see that she was disabled: her spine was only about six inches long and twisted. She had a kind face and served us drinks with no trace of self pity. She could walk around with a strange gait and she managed perfectly, walking with her own particular gait. She spoke no English but seemed happy enough to have me to stay. She pointed to the narrow bench that we were sitting on and said that would be my bed. I was delighted. Even though the place was a dive – even my Tibetan friends said so when I invited them over – and the smell from the sewer was appalling at times, I was so glad to get in with a Tibetan family that I would have put up with anything. I had been hoping to get a job but had never even thought that I would also be able to live with Tibetan people.
Joga and Asheya were Khampas, he explained, from the Kham region of Tibet which used to stretch far into the Chinese province of Sichuan. The curious thing was that the Kham people tend to be huge, and they make themselves seem bigger by their bulky cloaks, their big hats, their big mouths and their swaggering walk. When I first turned up with my rucksack I was introduced to three burly Kham warriors who were sitting on the benches drinking chang. They all had big grins on their faces and insisted I share a drink with them.
A constant stream of Kham visitors came to Joga’s place and even though they were a noisy, drunken rabble they always treated her – and me – with the utmost respect. They would shout and curse at each other constantly, sometimes even strike each other to emphasise a point; but for them Joga was a princess. Every evening the room was full of chattering Khampas who had no intention of leaving. Not only was my bed inaccessible but when they sat on it they lifted up the blankets and sat directly on the sheet which, as a result, was always grimy. There were usually about six people in the room every evening, a mixture of big Khampas and Joga’s local women friends. Their main activity was telling jokes, none of which I could understand but I got into the atmosphere and appreciated the burst of laughter and applause at the punch line. The murky white drink they call chang was being poured constantly and every time I would take a sip of the sour brew my cup would be immediately refilled, even if I refused insistently. I learned that if you didn’t want to drink you simply don’t touch the stuff.
Joga’s place was always dark – the room had only one tiny window and it was usually blocked by a huge Khampa. This was a sharp contrast with the Chinese hospital where I would teach English in a room full of light. The nurses’ room had features I had never appreciated so much before — big windows, a clean concrete floor, running water and a kitchenette. There was only one student when I got there, the other one was apparently busy with her new boyfriend. No problem, this one was friendly, attentive to my basic lessons and would always make me a delicious lunch. She was pretty in a natural way but she ruined her appeal by applying too much make-up. I wondered if she fancied me? Did she put make-up on for my benefit? What was I supposed to do? The idea of sex with a local scared me, I had never heard of a foreigner doing it and hated to think what the consequences would be. The suppressed sexual tension between us contributed to a good atmosphere in our series of lessons-cum-lunches.
The next thing that happened was that Isabella gave me a job, as if by magic. She had a new evening student, a Chinese tailor called Sir Woo, but she didn’t have time to teach him because every evening she was running the Travellers’ Co-op. Would you be an angel and teach him for me? she had asked.
Without hesitation I accepted, delighted to have added another student to my slowly growing list. Sir Woo was small and lively and came from the great city of Shanghai, my eventual destination. He lived and worked in a small box that had been knocked together in the Chinese part of town. It was a space about the size of an entrance hall, enough to have an opening to the street and do his tailoring work. His bed consisted of a board that had been tacked under the ceiling. This space doubled up as our teaching room and the only way in was through the hatch that opened up towards the street; I had to climb in, which was fine by me. Despite the miniscule scale of his operation Sir Woo seemed to make plenty of money, most of which he sent home, and he always paid my fee on time. He later told me that he made 30,000 yuan a year which was ten times what the average Tibetan earned.
Teaching Sir Woo was fun because he was desperate to learn and animated in his responses, even though his pronunciation was appalling. It was also an opportunity to get an insight into the Chinese side of the city and learn some more of their language. His hatch was open to the street and, during our lessons, his friends from Shanghai would crowd round and watch us in awed silence, trying to hold back their giggles. As soon as we took a short break there would be an explosion of humorous chatter. The idea of Sir Woo learning English made them crack up with laughter. I learned about the textile business in Lhasa and how it is monopolised by people from China’s east coast, Shanghai in particular, and I understood that the hopeful traders and exiles who had come up from Nepal and India to trade clothes really didn’t have a chance.
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.