Tibetan Students Enjoy A New England Thanksgiving

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

From left, Lobzang Gyalsen, Sasha Rivers and Kalsang Lhano. COURTESY PHOTO


CHATHAM – Sasha Rivers, a senior at Emory University in Atlanta, is excited to have two of her college friends join the Rivers family for Thanksgiving in Chatham. Having company for Thanksgiving is not unusual, but this year Lobzang Gyalsen and Kalsang Lhano, Tibetan Buddhist monastics who are also studying at Emory University, will join the family to experience their first New England Thanksgiving.

Kalsang, a nun, and Lobzang, a monk, are studying at Emory as part of the Emory-Tibet Science initiative.  The program came about as a result of the school's relationship with the Dalai Lama, who is a Distinguished Professor at Emory.

Kalsang and Lobzang are two of seven indigenous Tibetan monastic students studying science and medicine for two years in this country, with the goal of incorporating what they have learned with their Buddhist teachings. In June the group will return to their monasteries and nunneries in India to teach the concepts they have learned. 

When the group arrived, a year and a half ago, Sasha signed up to be part of Conversation Partners, volunteers who help the Tibetan students acclimate to the campus and find their way around. Sasha and a friend were assigned to Lobzang and Kalsang and they hit it off right away.

Lobzang recalled the first text he sent to Sasha, asking about a dubious credit card offer he saw while trying to make an online purchase. She explained how credit cards worked and reassured him he didn't need one. "From the first moment she was a very good friend," he said.

Coffee and lunch chats followed and the group are now fast friends, going on excursions to Atlanta and cooking together.

"It started out academic," Sasha said with a smile, "but now we just do what normal friends do."

Becoming a monk is a decision often made at a very early age, Lobzang said. With a deep interest in religion and philosophy, he made his decision at the age of 10 and became a monk along with his younger brother, who was six and on the same path. 

Kalsang recalls being asked by her father if she wanted to become a nun at the age of 13 and she happily said yes. She had five uncles who were monks and "I cherished them," she said. "I wanted to be like them since I was 8 or 9."  

Becoming a monk or a nun at a young age is normal in their culture, Kalsang said. "No one is forced. The elder monks are like parents."

With a life devoted to service, their mission is serious, but the visit to Chatham for Thanksgiving is focused on fun and family.

"They are my friends," Sasha said with a smile. "I wanted them to come meet my family!"

There will be a lot to experience in a few days. The beach will be one of the first sites on their list. Lobzang has been looking online and is intrigued by Monomoy Island. "It looks so beautiful!" he said. A trip to the Orpheum Theater may be on the schedule ("we love the movies!") and a day trip to Boston is a must for their first time in New England, Sasha said. "My family likes Trivial Pursuit and board games,” she added, “and we may take a trip to Provincetown."

Kalsang is looking forward to the visit as well. "I like to go outside, see new things and new people," she said. They are especially excited to meet Sasha's grandfather Christopher Olson, Sasha said. "They place a high value on honoring the older members of the family."

The Thanksgiving menu will include vegetarian dishes and Kalsang hopes to make Tibetan food, especially the treats called momo which are bite-size dumplings made with a spoonful of vegetable stuffing wrapped in dough. 

"It is such a blessing to have them come," Sasha said.

Due to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, monastics like Lobzang and Kalsang live in exile in India, along with the Dalai Lama. When they return there in the spring, Lobzang will need to complete his monastic studies and Kalsang will return to teaching. Sasha will graduate this spring with a double major in Jewish studies and Arabic and plans two years in the Peace Corps, followed possibly by law school.

Although they do not celebrate Thanksgiving in India, Kalsang and Lobzang see the holiday as special for families.

"They are everything to us," Lobzang stressed. "That is the real Thanksgiving."