Teach English, Celebrate Diwali, and Drink Tea

Kinnaur monasteryby Hannah Etchison

Hannah Etchison, a graduating senior majoring in Religious Studies with a minor in Asian Studies, spent six weeks of this fall in India, staying primarily at a monastery where she learned from the women staying there and helped them with their English. This is her last post on her India trip (at least for now). Don’t miss her previous posts about her experiences (Hannah Goes to India 1Hannah Goes to India 2iPhones, Monks and the Images We ConstructImmediate Relativism, Bonding with a Himalayan Spider).

Besides the all-too-frequent visitations from (supposedly harmless) Himalayan spiders, I spent my days in roughly a schedule as follows:

6-8am: wake up, brush teeth, get dressed, make bed, exercise, prepare lesson. It’s really cold in the morning.

8-9am: Breakfast. Normally spicy ramen noodles with fresh chapatti, or dahl (bean or lentil soup), or vegetables. Served with sweet tea and therefore my favorite meal.

9-10am: Class with the level 2 students. We read, had conversation practice, and later learned some grammar. Hilarious and awesome kids, ages 12-16.

10-11am: Relax and prepare next lesson. It’s usually warm by now, and my room gets lots of sunshine.

11-noon: Class with level 3 students. We did a lot of reading and new vocabulary. They were hard to teach since their English was almost conversational but their reading was labored. I wish I knew how to teach better. Shy but smart girls, ages 17-24.

Noon-1pm: Lunch. Dahl, chapatti, and vegetables. Prepare next lessons.

1-2pm: Class with level 4 students. We read and discussed vocabulary and grammar. All these students could converse with me skillfully, but were eager to learn as much as I could teach them. The students in this class were my friends, too. Hilarious and outgoing, ages 25-29.

2-3pm: Class with level 1 students. Colors, shapes, simple phrases, phonics. The lowest level was fun but challenging since the three students were so different. The ages were 11, 23, and 40, and the skills were all beginner but still very different.

3:30pm: Tea time! I liked to read or nap or warm up in the sun during the afternoon.

3:30-5pm: I had this block to myself, but I liked to see what work the nuns were doing and if I could help with anything. They would teach me to cook, sort grain, shell beans, crack nuts, or do laundry. Sometimes I’d just take pictures or talk to the cows.

5-6pm: Puja. That’s when the nuns would go to their prayer hall to chant their prayers. I liked to join them and listen. One time a cat followed me up to the third floor, but apparently she thought it was boring and left.

6pm: Dinner. After a week, I started eating by the wood stove in the kitchen shed with the nuns. We always had fun talks over dinner.

Evening: I would usually show my best friend and the nunnery’s treasurer, Tenzin Dechen, how to do things on her computer. I would also access the internet when possible and contact family and friends. Sometimes I would just read, crochet, or talk with the nuns.

Class was frequently cancelled due to holidays or other goings-on. When this happened, or if I only had a couple classes a day because most of the nuns were visiting their home villages, I would spend a lot of time reading.

I got to celebrate Diwali (lunar new year, a very big holiday in India) with the youngest group of nuns and one 28 year old nun. The rest were visiting family, so we set off fireworks in the yard outside the puja hall. The palpable excitement of the nuns over a few small explosions and some special sweets was one of the most heart-warming holiday moments I will ever have in my life. We laughed and danced and took pictures and I felt like they were my little sisters. They even called me “didi” which means big sister. The older nuns called me “Hannah-bhana,” little sister.

The accommodations were modest, poverty by Western standards, but I’ve never felt more content or at home than I did there. The toilets didn’t flush and bathwater had to be boiled (limiting me to one bath a week). Almost all of the food was grown in the garden owned and worked by the nuns. It was cooked in a lean-to shack on a wood burning stove. The food was delicious. The trees were heavy with fruit (Kinnaur is famous for its apples) and whenever we walked to the village or up the mountain to explore, the young nuns would pick some for me.

I could talk forever about how wonderful it was, but I’ve run out of space. Feel free to ask questions in the comments!