Sunday, November 23, 2014

Help, Pubescent Teenager!

Our first-born has been noticeably moody lately, also impatient and – which worries me a bit – easily irritable. Not like the kid at all. Temper tantrums were alien. Neither as infant nor toddler were there outbreaks of anger or impatience, absolutely never in all the twelve plus years. We parents must have subconsciously got accustomed to it. We were never seriously challenged. The kid was always happy, balanced, obedient and naturally disciplined. Tibetans call such a person Lama Kunchog: good-natured and peaceful - but also somewhat innocent. It's not always used as a compliment.

The contrary of Lama Kunchog I would say is kha gyagpa or "thick-mouthed" – someone who is brazen, talks back and is difficult to control. With puberty setting in, things around our home were becoming a little different: A little louder sometimes; more explanations were necessary, more arguments and also more patience to handle the adolescent mood swings. Sometimes when our offspring would gravitate too heavily towards kha gyagpa we parents had a hard time not responding with anger. The kid had simply made it too easy on us all this time.

My colleagues from work with children in this age range say kids are simply testing how far they could go and that we needed to set boundaries. They said it's good as parents to air the anger so things can clear up and can calm down again. I am not sure that's a good idea at all. Setting boundaries, of course but the more one resorts to anger, the easier anger arises, that's my unholy feeling. It's contagious and pollutes the entire atmosphere. In a peaceful moment I tried to emphasize to my pubescent housemate what the Lama taught: One moment of anger can destroy all the wholesome karma accumulated over time. - Do we want to be the Tibetan Sisyphus creating our own Samsara over and over again?

When the local school invited parents to a lecture on "puberty"I decided to attend. Any clue on what could be going on in the mind and body of an adolescent was more than welcome for a perplexed mother and father. The lecture included an interesting section about biochemical processes in the body of the adolescent triggering unacceptable behavior and "not yet fully developed brain areas" accounting for extreme responses. That shouldn't serve as an excuse but it made us more aware of the things going on in their bodies which could cause behavioural outliers.

Then followed a question round: How did we parents remember our own puberty? One woman said she regularly fought with her mom until the latter cried. It was her goal to make her mother cry, the woman added. I would have been embarrassed to disclose something like that in front of a group of aliens. What could I report? When nothing came up I noticed on the way home that my own puberty or adolescence was a total non-event. I remember sitting in my room a lot because I wasn't allowed to hang out with friends in my free time. My dad disapproved of khyamdepa, the Tibetan equivalent of "roving about" and he didn't tolerate the faintest attempt of back talk. Moreover I, as the girl among the three children, had to be protected from what I guess could only have been an unwanted pregnancy. The best method, my working parents thought, was to restrict my mobility.

There were no computers when I was growing up, only typewriters; there were no games or smart phones and TV was restricted to certain hours and programmes. The highlight of my week was a trip to the library which became my temple and refuge. Reading about Tibet became a favourite pastime or about communism, socialism, revolutionaries, history, oceanography, palaeontology, archaeology, occultism, astronomy – I borrowed books from almost every topsy-turvy topic they had. One day when I borrowed a book about Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war chancellor of Germany, the librarian knitted his brows. Whether that is a suitable subject for a fifteen-year old? He didn't have the faintest idea: It couldn't be more boring than sitting in one's room doing nothing!

My dad kept me on this short leash between twelve and eighteen years. Same-aged friends used their freedom to spend time outside their home experimenting with alcohol, cigarettes and romantic liaisons. With my restriced radius, growing up took place mainly inside my room and more specifically inside my head. Of course my dad knew he couldn't uphold this situation of semi-house arrest forever. But when I was finally granted the freedom of spending the night away in a club or hang out in a bar, it turned out to be boring; dancing was okay for one hour or so but the whole night? And hanging out in a bar was plain torture if you weren't into alcohol. As for romantic liaisons, they just didn't "happen" - probably because all the reading had turned me into an opinionated egghead, who knows. My sobering conclusion after my newly found freedom:  I actually hadn't missed a thing the last five years because I didn't fit in to begin with.

Complete trust from my dad and freedom set in after the sometimes lonely years where books were my best friends. I was his oldest child and after I turned eighteen, my dad began to treat me on par with other adults, even listening to my views and engaging in a serious discussion. Before, discussions were mainly a paternal monologue with the children expected to listen. In post-puberty time however, he never played the Tibetan-father-authority-card again nor did he try to influence me. Certainly our views on many topics diverged more than they converged. With youthful fervor I would argue and he would sometimes exclaim in frustration, "You should become a professional critic! You must always have the last word!" But never again did he try to impose his wish.

He let me run free even if that gave him a hard time. It was the logical result of his education style: Shape their character as long as you can; when they are old enough to think for themselves, let go. To teach us how to think for ourselves was one of his prime parenting goals. When we couldn't explain why we had done something the way we did, our dad would unleash one of his notorious slogans on us. "The Tibetan people are like oxen," was one of his favourite phrases, "the farmer pulls them in this direction, they go in this direction; the farmer pulls them in that direction, they go in that direction." He said it with contempt and it used to make me angry. Among all his phrase-mongering this one was the most annoying because I found it disrespectful of the Tibetan people. As if he were something better. But as with many of his initially annoying comments, with time this one too was not without truth.

Meanwhile all kinds of crazy ideas had got into my head from the indiscriminate reading during my years under "house arrest". I boycotted bananas from big colonialistic and exploitative fruit companies, only eating politically correct "Nica bananas" from Nicaragua which was economically suffering at the time because of what I thought was an unfair trade embargo. I carried my school books in a scratchy bag that had "jute not plastic" written over it to protect the environment and alert others to do the same. And I wore clothes as unfashionable as possible: My friends from school and I were fully behind the women's movement and according to our teenage understanding, fashion was a sign of non-emancipated, brain-dead bimbos.

The other day I saw an article about Emily Lao, a prominent Hong Kong politician of the Democratic Party, who was confronted by students for going to the hairdresser while the youths were holding out in the streets demonstrating for more democracy. How come she had time for a decadent haircut in the face of such anguish? It could have been me asking this uncomfortable question. That's exactly how I ticked as an adolescent. My teenage years were a period of extremes; extreme rejection of situations and views deemed wrong (unfair trade policies, environmental pollution) and extreme acceptance of things deemed right (Nica bananas, jute bags). 

A father at the lecture pleaded, "What rights do I have? Am I allowed to also watch my own TV programme and not always them?" A mother asked, "What can I do if they don't want to join us for a hike on Sunday? What about family time? Am I allowed to make them come?" – And another mother lamented rather helplessly, "My son is gaming every free minute refusing to communicate or interact; when I pull the plug, he gets aggressive, once he destroyed the door!" Whereupon the two teachers went on to explain the physical changes that were going on in adolescents and that certain parts of the brain that were not yet fully developed, could account for some of the erratic behaviours of youngsters such as aggression, apathy, inconsideration, egoism and so on. That only meant parents had to suffer through this, always showing concern but not too much to avoid stressing the youngsters. Withdrawing interest from an adolescent, they warned us, has resulted in suicide in some cases. And if your kid shows signs of an addiction such as excessive gaming, parents should seek professional help. They had all the addresses ready too. The presenters then showed us a slide with a quote that I found enormously telling:

"Today's youngsters are sleazy and dissolute. Young people don't listen to their parents any longer… The end of the world is near."

To what time does this quote possibly date back? We all took our guesses but none of us got anywhere near. It was discovered in Chaldean cuneiform in Ur, a place name I vaguely associated with Mesopotamia, and it was dated to around 2000 ante Christum natum – the quote was 4,000 years old - greetings from prehistory! More quotes followed: One from antiquity by Sokrates, another from the Renaissance and the last one from a family in the 18th century and all had the same tenor: People through the ages thought their younger generations are the worst. But when even prehistoric parents complained about "today's youth", maybe our youngsters were not as hopeless as parents sometimes thought? I guess that was the intended bottom line of the teachers.

I shared my insights from the puberty lecture at the dinner table the following day. My mom dryly replied parents in the West were too lax on their children and that in Tibet you just had to fulfill your duties. Paying attention to a problem caused by something called "puberty" was kyiptrabä kedscha or "talk that arises because one's situation is too pleasant" - a luxury problem in her view. Children in the West only had school as their duty and were spared from helping around the house or farming and looking after animals. Parents here tended to overdo it sometimes, she said. Too accommodating, too understanding, too egalitarian. My husband then jokingly produced a curious Tibetan gtam dpe or saying in response to my update from the puberty presentation. He solemnly recited it in the earthy Kham dialect spoken by the elders in our Tibetan hometown, sounding almost as archaic as Chaldean. I try to reproduce it as phonetically accurate as possible in the Latin Alphabet:

Phuro song de dheoring guo, drung Kessur shering guo
Phutha song de dheoring guo, thratong thongtong shering guo.

"Three good kids walking along discuss the Gesar story
"Three bad kids walking along discuss food and drink."

You definitely want your kid in the company of the first trio: It is exemplary because these youngsters study. You don't want your kid to hang out with the second group: These guys only think of how to have fun instead of working on themselves – bad company.

And here's another funny saying which I have used on my pubescent child-housemate a lot lately:

Putshaa makyó, threemba kyó!
The kid doesn't grow, instead the liver grows!"

Americans call it guts, we call it liver. It means youngsters get cheeky on you long before they can fend for themselves. It's actually a miracle my dad hasn't used it on me. Oh my, I sound so funny when I hurl this at my teenager. I almost forget I am mad!

The other day, just before going out the door to school, the youngster got checky on me again with my mom witnessing it. Spontaneously I realised it must all be déjâ vu for her: I did the same to her when I was growing up and all of a sudden I felt very guilty. I hugged her and apologized. dgongs tag Amala. Only now as a parent of an adolescent do I understand how hard it must have been for my mom back then. My Amala only gave me a warm smile: All forgiven and forgotten.

Later that day the kid didn't even remember what had happened in the morning. I received a hug and was told "best mom ever". Relief. There is still hope that it's only the hormones playing crazy and no one is walking away with a permanent damage from this age-old ordeal called puberty.

Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

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