Reflections on Tibet – Personal Space, Happiness, and the Best Years of our Lives

Greetings from my last day in a country that has zero concept of personal space; where best friends hold hands as they walk down the street; and where one college dorm room can sleep 10 students. As I make my way back today to the US, and as I start to synthesize everything we experienced here this summer, I am reflecting on the almost complete lack of elbow room that any visitor to China knows well.  Strangely, it makes me smile. Does that make me un-American?

Americans often point back to their college years as the “best years of our lives.” But why is that?  My time in Tibet in particular and China in general this summer has made me revisit memories of my college experience and wonder; what if the total lack of privacy and free space was actually the cornerstone of making college the best years of our lives?

Both at Machik‘s Tibet Social Business Conference and the Summer Enrichment Program, I have witnessed the incredible effect of shoving people with a shared purpose into a common living area, giving them minimal personal space, and then depriving them of electronic distractions and cars.  Outside of camping or traveling, most of our lives as adults in America do not approximate this kind of constant close proximity with others, and the last time in our lives we were even close was in college.

During both of these programs this summer, participants were thrown back into dorm life.  We ate together, walked together, got on each other’s nerves, gossiped, laughed, danced, sang, and all of the other things that people tend to do under these conditions.


Because of the venue for the Social Business Conference, we were forced to cram grown adults (who have real jobs and families and homes back home) for close to a week into what was effectively dorm life.  In addition, we were in an electronic communications black hole (these do still exist, in some places on earth) on a somewhat isolated Tibetan mountain.  I admired our participants’ good attitudes as they bared through the forced smart phone starvation, the gondola ride to the closest town for internet access, and having to turn the other way while others changed in their room.

But the bond these participants formed in less than a week was stronger than the average American will develop with their neighbor in a lifetime.  I credit a good deal of the bonding to the great spirit of the participants, the natural beauty of our location, and the common purpose that brought us together.  But I can’t help but think that the forced close quarters played a role.

What is stopping our cities and neighborhoods in America from being just as lively, social, and fulfilling as the college or Tibet Social Business Conference environment? I don’t mean that suburbs should become frat parties. I mean that if we value the social environment created by our college experience so much, it doesn’t take much work to look back with an eye trained toward what made it so fulfilling and replicate what worked in our college bubbles out in the “real world.”

The intentional effort to make a community in college goes a long way. Think about the things that make it work:

  • Shared dinning halls – quality of food aside, you and your friends are constantly bumping into each other over meals in college.  And you never have to think twice about having company for a meal.
  • Shared bathrooms and even shared rooms – you are rarely alone in college.  Sure, common living spaces come with the occasional embarrassment or frayed nerve, but these experiences often cements lifelong friendships.  How about now?  Do you even know your neighbors?
  • Activity Fairs – There is a constant call by student organizations at your college to get involved with their mentoring program, or audition for an A Cappella group, or join the crew team.  If your neighbor knocked on your door now and asked you to try out an art class with them, would you ask who else was going, or would you call the police?
  • Public Transportation – Transportation options are often good enough on campuses to encourage students to leave the wheels with mom and dad and opt out of the requisite one-car-per-American culture for a few years.  Walking or riding buses are a pain in the rain, or when you’re sick, but most of the time you are riding with friends.  Sure you were missing out on the private dashboard drumming session to Journey on your way to work (that’s our little secret), but at what cost?
  • Shared Schedule, Purpose, Traditions, and Celebrations – Remember the stress that hung in the air during exams?  Remember the excitement around football games or Bruce Springsteen coming to campus?  Remember what coming back to school after winter break was like?
  • Support Services – Resident advisers might have been a real party pooper on occasion, but- together with the dozen or so departments on any given University tasked with helping you out whenever you were in need, free of charge- they could be a real comfort.

Who is working on creating any part of that kind of environment in the community where you live now?  If you had access to half of those kinds of services now, would you join in?  Would you be willing to pay for them?

College doesn’t have to be the best years of our lives.

**Addendum from San Francisco International Airport: Thanks United!**


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4 Responses to “Reflections on Tibet – Personal Space, Happiness, and the Best Years of our Lives”

  • Lulu Says:

    Ah! Very interesting,Alan! I never expect you to write in this angle :)

  • Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy Says:

    Bravo, Alan, for this musing. As one of the grown adults thrown into the shared living space on the glorious mountain top, I have to say it was not only as easy as those college days, it was just as bonding. We made connections that will perhaps last a lifetime (or longer if you believe in the Tibetan way…) at little personal struggle due to the space we lived and worked in. It was a pleasure and and an honor to be there with all of you, my new and renewed friends for Tibet, China, the United States and beyond. But the close quarters, shared meals and common living were not the only foundation for my feelings of unity with this group. Your picture of the dancing around the fire, like the larger dances in the city square, also show what it means to really be in community and be with your culture (even if you did not come from that culture to begin with). This too was part of the ritual of togetherness we all lived and breathed for a short time, but look for so often. Let us spread that same sense of community in the work and lives we lead, wherever we are…

  • Alan Webb Says:

    Stewart, I loved your comment one evening in the hotel as the girls egged each other on to sing songs for us, and eventually goaded us into singing too. After the Tibetans had gone back and forth, song after song, it finally became our turn. We turned to each other and barely eeked out something like Country Roads or Wonderwall. When they asked us what our songs meant, we had a hard time coming up with any sort of compelling stories or morals embedded in the pop songs we all knew. When we asked them what their songs meant, they described cautionary tales for young couples, songs that reminded children to respect their mothers, etc.

    Watching the girls sing and describe their songs, in comparison to our amateur performance, you said “so this is what it is like to have a culture.”

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