Sunday, February 28, 2010

People Watching

Sometimes I know I should do things, but against my better judgment I don't. I think it comes down to a lack of foresight, which is surprising considering what a responsible and thorough planner I usually am.

Today I attended a talk given by the Dalai Lama, which was naturally given in his native tongue, Tibetan. Everything I read about attending event suggested I bring a radio and earphones since an English translation of the talk was transmitted via radio. I failed to pick one up, thinking there would be some available at the temple where the talk was held. I was mistaken.

My first year in China involved countless dinners and events that required listening without the slightest comprehension of what was going on around me or even directed at me. I was the champ of smiling politely and looking like an idiot. Can anything be gained by this? What is the point of listening without understanding the words being spoken?

I think it teaches me a lot about the people around me. Much can be missed when focusing primarily on spoken language. Body language, behavior, personal hygiene, and fashion sense are aspects of an individual I may overlook when fully engaged in a conversation or speech. There is certainly something to be learned by watching people.

The audience at the talk was mostly monks, with a mix of ordinary Tibetans, Indians, and a sprinkling of foreigners. The monks sitting in front of me were a mix--to the left, a group of young boys not more than 11-years-old. To the right was what appeared to be a group of nuns--it's hard to tell with their layered robes and shaved heads. The boys were chatting amongst each other, even giggling, and occasionally popping crackers into their mouthes. The nuns listened attentively, their eyes on His Holiness, who was seated at the front high upon a stack of cushions.

A laugh rippled through the crowd. Few things in life are more awkward than being the only one in the room who doesn't get a joke--it's just as uncomfortable when that joke is coming from the Dalai Lama. Despite my discomfort, my inability to understand even one word of Tibetan, I kept my ears and (mostly) my eyes open. It was great to be a part of something, to witness something that is so culturally and spiritually significant to Tibetans. To watch them and be with them was intriguing and I hope to get to know them and their struggle at least a little better.

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