On weekdays, I would take a nice walk through town before stepping into a building I came to call ‘The Post'. The Tibet Post International (TPI) publishes news about politics inside Tibet, in Dharamshala and other news relating to the Tibetan community. Its headquarters consists of a humble two rooms and five computers.
My assignment, which I undertook with fellow student Kyle Hanson, differed from TPI's usual activities. The newspaper's project manager, Matthew Singh Toor, who is mixed race Punjabi-British, asked us to interview ordinary, local Tibetans.
"The point of the assignment," he said, "is to try to convey to the Chinese government, which we know monitors our output, and to our Chinese civilian readership, that Tibetans living in exile are ordinary people with the same day-to-day needs and concerns as anyone else."
This gave me cause to reflect. It is true that, in America, news coverage of Tibet focuses on the Dalai Lama, politics, human rights abuses and the ‘Free Tibet' movement. But what about local, grass-roots Tibetans in exile. What do they do?
Kyle and I found ourselves interviewing cafe workers, a clothing retailer, a hotel worker, students, Thangka painters, and basically getting to know the locals. Our stories examined how they came to live in Dharamsala, their present situation and their hopes for the future.
Our questions were uncomplicated, and our remit was to try to make a difference by representing the lives of ‘common folk'.
Initially, I expected many of the locals to be radical ‘Free Tibet' proponents. On the contrary, I found them to be the most calm, passive people, who simply want to wake up the next day and be able to say, "I am alive!" - that all you really need in life is to live! And that's easier said than done, given the difficult financial and social circumstances in which many Tibetans in exile find themselves.
My time in Dharamshala gave me a wonderful opportunity to get away from the tourist circuit and to join in with the community. When I re-encountered our interviewees around town, they always smiled, waved and greeted me with "Tashi Delek". I was grateful to sit down and connect with them as human beings.
If you ever visit Dharmshala and have the opportunity to volunteer for ‘The Post', you'll discover a great way to get first-person perspectives on Tibetan life in exile, and gain a deeper understanding of the Tibetan community there.