By Yen-pei Chen
On 24 August, twenty-one Tibetans from settlements in India and the Himalayan regions joined eight students and professionals from Cambridge, England at the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture in Auroville. Among the Tibetans were university finalists, teachers, journalists, a travel agent, a settlement camp leader, a hospital adminstrator and an artist. The Cambridge group included nationals from England, Ireland, Scotland, the United States and Taiwan, with academic backgrounds from Medicine to Italian Literature. The result – an intensive three-week workshop titled ‘English Communication and Enterprise Skills’ – was electric. For myself, a member of the Cambridge team, it would certainly be no exaggeration to call it life-changing.
This was the second workshop run for Tibetans in exile by the British charity ELST (English Language Scholarship for Tibetans). The Cambridge-based organisation aims to help young Tibetan professionals realise their potential and contribute to the community in exile through mastering English as a global communication tool. The Workshop 2003, with its emphasis on enterprise, was born out of the conviction that business is crucial not only to promote the status of Tibetans within India, but also to secure a voice for Tibet around the world.
Communication was at the core of the three weeks. As ‘resource persons’ – an amusingly pompous but accurate term for the role of the Cambridge team – we worked from the premise that the confidence to communicate was as important as, if not more so than, grammatical accuracy. Thus, a typical day included besides language classes a choice of ‘Focus Sessions’, discussion groups on topics within our field of expertise and interest and ranging from the American Dream to the Bible, terrorism, genetic modification and the postcolonial diaspora.
Presentations are crucial in many professions today, and they formed a central -- to many the most memorable -- part of the workshop. Through the three weeks the participants undertook five presentation projects, involving increasingly challenging tasks from directed interviews with local enterprises to independent planning and research. The culmination in the final week saw a participant-organised debate on the essence of Tibetan culture, presentations on environmental technology – for which Auroville is a major advocate in India – and five business plan presentations. The result of the intensive training was phenomenal. For many Tibetans, some of whom had no previous experience in public speaking, the greatest progress was their leap in confidence.
From the Cambridge team’s point of view, we certainly learnt as much as we taught. The workshop was a unique, intense opportunity for cultural exchange. In the classrooms, through the discussions and the presentations, we were introduced to Tibet’s geography, history and its rich spiritual heritage. But the most affective ‘learning’ took place outside: conversations over tea, reminiscences over dinner, riotous pilgrimages to nearby beaches, spontaneous singing through the lightning storms.
I came to respect the Tibetans as an admirably resilient and dedicated people: the personal stories of hardship and repression in Tibet and their continued political struggle in India, as well first-hand accounts of how individuals achieved success through sheer determination, will live long in my mind. I came to love the passion of the Tibetan songs and the warmth of the Tibean character. At the same time, I will always remember that wonderful sense of fun, and those memorable moments when dance, songs and games erased cultural and linguistic boundaries. Above everything, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the Tibetans, who welcomed me so unquestioningly to their midst and who so willingly shared their remarkable culture.
We have all grown in Workshop 2003. We have faced and overcome new challenges. Through interaction with other cultures, we have been made to reflect on the basis of our own identities. Like the Auroville parable of wasteland revitalised as thriving woodland, we return to our respective communities optimistic in the knowledge of new, and certainly attainable, possibilities.
The next ELST Workshop is being planned for 2005, incorporating experience and feedback from the two previous workshops. A major aim will be to recruit more women participants. For more information please refer to the ELST website on www.elstcam.org or write to email@example.com.