Seeking closure for my six-week, summer trip to Tibet, I decided to sit on the roof of our hotel, contemplating the significance of the trip for me. Overlooking the skyline of Lhasa, I could see the whole city: the Barkor shops closing up for the night, the humble residences in the distance, and the Potala palace – its spotlights in sharp contrast with the bland modern architecture of the Chinese monument to the so-called “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.” I thought of the irony that I could see all of these wondrous things around me, but not what made the trip important to me on the inside. Until that moment, I was afraid that I had failed my purpose in going to Tibet. I had sought “a life-changing experience,” but the only thing that seemed to have changed was that I’d lost about ten pounds. I’ve never been much for meditation; I’m the sort of person who would wonder if I had left the stove on rather than contemplate the enlightenment of my soul. However, as I sat on the uncomfortable tiles of the roof and thought about what I had seen and done in Tibet, I realized that the trip had made a difference in my life.
I had not been a complete stranger to the plight and misery of the world. I wrote letters for Amnesty International and participated in Model UN for almost four years. I was aware that there were terrible abuses against human rights all over the planet, but this suffering had never seemed more than words or pictures on a page. I had always hated this part of me, but it was the part that changed in Tibet.
My transformation in Tibet began when I visited a theological debate at Drepung Monastery. While I was in the audience, a small orphan boy approached me and begged for money. Our counselors warded him off, but on the long way back down the side of the mountain, I still remembered the boy’s tattered clothes and request for money. First, I thought, “What’s China doing to help this boy?” Then, I asked myself, “What can I do to help this boy?”
The memory of that boy was still with me later when I worked at a Tibetan Orphanage in the Kham region. While I was there, I tried to make the best of my time. I installed passive solar panels to heat the children’s rooms during the cold winters , and taught the children games like “Duck-Duck Goose” and “The Hokey Pokey,” some basic English phrases , and a little geography. I did my fair share of learning as well.
Sitting up on the roof, I realized that I had, in fact, experienced a change, just not the one I was expecting. My trip to Tibet allowed me to become genuinely compassionate. By seeing human suffering not as pictures and words, but as real people, suffering what they have no just reason to endure. Before going to Tibet, I had joined Amnesty International only because I thought the things they stood for were right. Now when I work as a volunteer for these types of organizations, I experience an emotional, as well as an intellectual, commitment to my efforts to aid those who suffer unjustly.
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