Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In Love wih a Tibetan Exile

www.stuff.co.nz : 22 March 2006 -- Vanessa Walker went off to write a book about Tibetan exiles in India. She ended up with a baby too.

By Marina Skinner

Journalist Vanessa Walker describes the calm presence emanating from the Buddhist leaders she met during her year living in an Indi an town of Tibetan exiles.

I don't doubt her sincerity but my agnostic hackles rise slightly as I read the more didactic Buddhist sections of her just-published book, Mantras & Misdemeanours: An accidental love story.

As I start my interview with Walker, I feel a sense of calm loveliness straightaway – even down the phone line from Auckland. Is she nice because she's a Buddhist, I wonder, or is she a Buddhist because she's nice?

In 2004, New Zealand-born Walker, then 34, left her job as a reporter at The Australian newspaper in Sydney to live in McLeod Ganj, a small town in northern India that's home to Tibetans' spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and about 9,000 others. Most are exiles from Tibet who have made the heroic journey across the Himalayas since the Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1950s. (McLeod Ganj was once a British hill station, and was named after a British military man; "ganj" means small town.)

Walker captures the contradictions of a Buddhist town – former monks embracing Western consumerism and female tourists with equal fervour; a Buddhist nun who calculatedly gets Westerners to pay for her food; the Miss Tibet beauty pageant celebrating physical beauty over spiritual virtues.

During her visit, she interviewed monks and members of Tibet's government-in-exile for her book. She also fell in love with a former Tibetan monk, who she calls Choying in her book, and much of Mantras & Misdemeanours is the story of their relationship and her pregnancy.

Walker became interested in Buddhism more than a decade ago after travelling in Asia, and found a teacher when she returned to live in Australia. "It's insightful and sensible," she says of her religion. "It's not a dogma. It's about being happy and training your mind in happiness. You need to analyse it qu ite rigorously, you're not expected to follow anything, you use your mind. It's made me happier – that's the litmus test, isn't it?"

She visited Tibet, Nepal and India over the years, and became concerned that Westerners don't really understand what the Dalai Lama is seeking for his Tibetan homeland. The idea of writing a book emerged.

"I realised that McLeod Ganj was a story waiting to happen – so many characters in a very small space and a very complex political situation – so it became: 'I've got to write it,' " she says.

A book on Tibetan politics would have had a limited readership so, despite being protective of her privacy, it became a very personal story.

Soon after arriving in McLeod Ganj, Walker met Choying. They followed a common path in McLeod Ganj, where many Tibetan men hook up with visiting Western women, whether for casual sex or something more long term. The reverse does not apply, with few Tibetan women, who are very shy, pairing up with Western men. "It's slightly frowned upon for Tibetan women to go out with Western men," says Walker.

She and Choying could compile etiquette guides for each other's cultures. Choying was often shocked by Walker's cultural gaffes. "In McLeod Ganj, it was things like politeness," says Walker. "I would say 'tashi delek'," she says animatedly, "to older people, which is Tibetan for 'hello' or `good luck'. Choying would be really embarrassed because, to show respect, you say 'tashi delek' really quietly and slow.

"Here (in New Zealand), the tables are turned. The challenge is more that he doesn't know how things work in the West. I'm always explaining things, silly things. We have jasmine tea, and he drinks it out of a jar with the lid on because it brews really nicely with a lid. But we had friends for dinner the other day, and I said: 'Please don't drink your tea out of a jar with a blue plastic lid.'

"They're little oddities that I'm trying to iron out. It doesn't matter – but it does."

Walker returned to live with her parents in Auckland when she was seven months pregnant after deciding India's hospitals wouldn't do much for her or her baby's health. Baby Tsering was five months old before he saw Choying, who had to jump through many bureaucratic hoops to get an identity certificate allowing him to travel to New Zealand.

He must wait longer for New Zealand citizenship and a passport that would let him accomplish his dream of visiting Tibet again.

"Choying" is not his real name. Walker decided on a pseudonym to protect his chances of entering Tibet, which is an autonomous region of China. "We don't know how the Chinese Government will react to the publicity (of the book)," says Walker.

The book may be subtitled "An accidental love story", but Walker would rather that Tibet, not a New Zealand journalist, was the focus.

"The book's a narrative and, hopefully, it's a good, interesting, enjoyable read, but it's about a real situation, a real people that don't have their country, and that's what's important, not about me and the pregnancy. Ultimately, the really important stuff is Tibet should be free."

:: Mantras & Misdemeanours: An accidental love story by Vanessa Walker (Allen and Unwin, pb $29.99)