An Unforgettable Experience
by Dan Brooklyn
I walked out of a day-long speech by the Dalai Lama feeling let down. Was I being punished for the hypocritical $5 Chinese radio I’d bought to listen to the live translation? The fucking thing was impossible to tune. Instead of the Dalai Lama, I mostly heard brain-melting static and Russian at irregular volumes. My eardrums hurt.
To summarize, the Dalai Lama’s message was:
1. Does God exist? Buddhism doesn’t give a shit.
2. Don’t hate. Meditate.
Afterward, 1,000 Dalai Lama groupies poured into the honking, cramped streets of Dharamsala at lunchtime. At the corner of a busy intersection, clearly the coolest Tibetan dude in the city approached me with a flyer. He had bug-eye shades covering half his face, big purple headphones around his neck, fire-red jeans, and a striped Adidas warm-up jacket. The flyer said:
SNOW LION DANCE
LIVE SHOW − AN UNFORGETTABLE
He said, “Hello, please come tonight.”
I shook his hand in the coolest way I could, and promised that I would.
I hid out in my hotel for a few hours, playing the most worthless game I could—seeing if I could count higher than “1” between the sound of honking traffic. I lost. I headed to the show.
The dude was still standing there when I walked up, and we shook hands in a cool way again.
“Hello! Good you come! Go down steps into school. I coming soon, thank you, okay!”
I gave him 250 rupees ($4) and pretended to ignore the 7 tourists milling around the school who were pretending to ignore me while we waited for the Snow Lion—if that was his real name—to come down.
A swarm of little schoolkids more or less pushed us into one of the concrete classrooms. We sat on foam pads in neat rows. The walls were hand-painted with flowers, mountains, and huge raindrops. A Tibetan flag hung next to a framed, smiling photo of the Dalai Lama.
“Welcome, everyone.” The man bowed formally. “This is traditional Tibet dance.”
He wrestled a vest and a skirt from a duffel bag, pulled them on over his clothes, lit a tall white candle, and fiddled with some buttons on his boombox until thin, overly loud music blared.
He did a slow, deliberate, seemingly culturally appropriate dance, where he turned halfway, bent slightly, turned the other way, and bent slightly again. If it hadn’t been so bizarre, it would have been boring as hell.
He snapped off the music after it seemed we had all gotten the point.
“Thank you. Next dance not traditional Tibet dance. Please be happy. Thank you.”
He clicked on the next track and started spinning. The music was quivering, high-pitched, and Indian-sounding. There’s a way that dancers spin where they whip around in a controlled way, keeping their eyes focused on one spot so they don’t get dizzy. He did not do that. He held his head in his hands like someone having bad thoughts and he spun the way you or I might, unprofessionally running in little circles, trying not to fall over. He was like a spinning top, catching tiny cracks in the sidewalk and jumping around.
But he did not fall over.
His wild, curly black hair was matted with sweat. The kids in the back of the class giggled. The 8 spectators glanced at each other, finally, to confirm that he had been spinning for an absurdly long time. Ten, 12, 15 minutes? Who can measure time?
He spun so long that I forgot where I was.
He tore off the vest, then his shirt. A long belt of red fabric appeared from somewhere and he began rudely tying it around his face, tighter and tighter, until his cheeks were red and his eyes were blindfolded. He was spinning more violently, getting closer to the wall. I frowned. A German woman covered her mouth. He slammed into the wall. The kids in the back laughed, so the rest of us let out our held breath. He rebounded, and, now knowing where the wall was, he spun faster and faster, then lunged at the wall, banging harshly into the solid cement. Again and again. Sweat sprang from his body. His skull hit the wall with a cracking sound. He left impressions of himself on the wall.
I took a few seconds of video to prove this was happening, and on the video I laughed nervously and said, “Jesus.”
Then, he casually slipped off the blindfold.
“Thank you. Everyone, please, be happy and be free. Everything will be all right. Thank you.”
On the boombox, he clicked through to the next track, which was the unearthly deep sounds of chanting monks. He knelt on the floor and put his hands in prayer, then crawled toward the Asian couple next to me. He grabbed the woman’s face and stared deeply into her eyes. He lunged forward and pressed his forehead forcefully into hers. Their third eyes were touching. He stared into her eyes unflinchingly. She smiled for a second, then her cheeks sank and became deadly serious. The kids in the back whispered, laughed, and went silent. He held her for an uncomfortably long time before he released her, did a short bow with his head and dove at me. He grabbed the back of my head so I couldn’t look away. His hair dripped sweat onto my face and shirt. His eyes were wild and circular inside his sharp Tibetan features. His forehead pressed heavy, sweaty.
I stopped being a tourist, then.
This is what it’s like, Dan. This is what it’s like to be me. To be a refugee. To be Tibetan. To have your home taken. To be lost.
LOOK AT ME.
I understood that his dance was a communication. He could use words and say that China destroyed multitudes of temples, and we might imagine it somehow and then feel the result of our own thoughts, but it’s not real. We’re just feeling our own assumption of feelings. But that face. Staring into that hungry, painful face until thoughts dissolve—is an understanding beyond language.
Sorry. I skipped ahead. I forgot the part where he told us about how he left Tibet with his family and snuck into India. How the border police jailed them and how they spent months suffering from dysentery and nearly starved in a wretched Indian prison. What it was like to watch his mother almost die of weakness and dehydration, helpless and angry, for freedom from the Chinese regime.
We nodded because we were from the United States, Canada, Germany, and Japan. We were good people who didn’t approve of stomping out cultures—we came here to see the Dalai Lama—we believed in human rights.
He crawled from one of us to the next, sweating, staring, breathing on us—he had to tackle the German woman—he straddled her and pinned her head down to the cold concrete floor with his forehead and we watched her mouth tighten to keep from drinking his sweat.
There was no escape.
“THIS IS WHAT IT’S LIKE,” his eyes screamed in a language that we all understood. The language of pain. The language of the human spirit’s desire to be free.
After he made his rounds through all 8 of us, he bowed politely.
“Thank you. This is my dance. When I dance, I am happy. Wish you all good friendship and health for you family and happy life.”
He turned and snapped off the chanting monks, sat on the floor, and collected himself. I crawled over to him.
I said, “Thank you. That was the best…dance… I’ve ever seen.”
He smiled and held out his hand. I opened my arms and I hugged him. He was totally sweaty and gross and I pretended not to care. I wanted to let him know that I was not afraid of him, not afraid to look at his pain, that I understood the plight of his people.
My eyes said, “I know what it’s like.”
And his said, “Nice try.”
More stories by Dan Brooklyn at wearefr.ee