Tibet in 3D

Losang Rabgey grew up as a Tibetan refugee in Canada. Her childhood included countless demonstrations in the cold streets outside of empty Chinese embassies. She remembers being stopped by an Anglophone Canadian at one demonstration who asked, “Why are a bunch of Asians asking for a Free Quebec?” She realized that there’s a long way to go in terms of education about Tibet.

Tibet’s in an odd place in terms of global perception. It’s simultaneously the (fading?) darling of Hollywood, an imagined spirital wonderland. And it’s also a new and emerging nation, looking towards education to engage with the wider world.

She and her sister run an NGO called Machik, which works on education in Tibet. Their work focuses on the “rural majority” and has a strong gender equality focus. They work in close cooperation with Chinese institutions, including universities and libraries – she sees this not just as possible, but as a neccesary step.

One major Machik project is a boarding school, which houses 270 children and 30 students. Over 50% of the students are girls – and are required to be, by charter. Salary bonuses for teachers are tied to student performance, and parents are required to be involved with PTA meetings. The performance of these students – the children of goatherders – was the best on the annual exams. Education supervisors were so amazed, they demanded the students take the exams again – in an amazing “Stand and Deliver” moment, they did even better the second time.

Other projects include a community greenhouse, efforts to support Tibetan women in universities, a Tibetan women’s press and journal. She argues that Tibetans have a strong desire to know about the rest of the world, and to be a part of it… but on their own terms.

Machik is working on an amazing set of online projects that bring information about Tibet online through text, photos and GIS information, creating a wealth of knowledge about Tibet that’s a document for Tibetans to preserve their culture and for eithers to learn about it.

One project is the Lhasa Neighborhood project – it overlays the boundaries of traditional neighborhoods over the contemporary map, neighborhoods that remain only in stories and memories. People can explore these neighborhoods via map and and 360 degree photo panoramas. This means that students in rural villages can see sites like the Parkour Plaza, the plaza outside the most holy of temples.

These “cultural meaning maps” combine the knowledge in the heads of elders with knowlege collected with cameras and GIS devices. The information online includes interactive blueprints, which are sync’d with 360 panoramas of the inside of temples and buildings. The virtual spaces are layered with high-resolution scans of the artwork. The sites are tri-lungual: Tibetan, Chinese and English.

Some of the most exciting experimentation involves video. Losang shows us a video of two teenagers chatting about a dream. They’re speaking in the Lhasa dialect, one of three different spoken dialects of Tibetan. Students in small towns can follow along on a transcript, reading familiar words but hearing how Tibetan speakers in another part of the land pronounce the words. Another video project encouraged young Tibetans to make a film. Losang expected the filmmakers to make a documentary about their school; instead, they made a moving film about alcoholism.

Clearly Machik is pioneering an exciting model for cultural preservation. The government of Bhutan has recently agreed to start a similar documentation project with Machik’s help.

A question is posed to Losang: why are the Chinese allowing this activity to take place? She explains that they’re giving the government what they want – education and high technology. By understanding what the government values most highly, they’re able to provide education that also focuses on cultural preservation, advancing the agendas of the Chinese government and the Tibetans simultaneously.

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