Tourists and travelers may find unexpected foods in faraway places a challenge, but for Sarah Jacoby, it wasn't the cuisine she struggled with: it was simply eating in front of an audience surprised to see a foreigner in the nomadic regions of Eastern Tibet.
"I'd be slurping noodles while a whole crowd gathered outside, pressed up against the glass just watching me eat," Jacoby says.
The Assistant Professor of Religion has been making trips to Tibet since her undergraduate study at Yale University, where she spent a semester with a host family in Dharamsala, the center of Tibetan refugees in India.
“This was the first time I went to Tibet: I was 20 and from a standard American, middle-class upbringing,” says Jacoby. “It was an initial shock that everyone in this four-person family lived in one room with two twin beds and this little attached kitchen. It was so small that I remember that my hiker’s backpack didn’t fit in the room, so I had to keep it in a hotel room my teachers had and just bring a change of clothes with me.”
After the first trip "changed the course" of Jacoby's life, she returned to Tibet several more times during her graduate study and visited Tibetan refugee settlements in India and Nepal in order to study the language and learn more about the culture.
“I just remember being very shocked by the poverty,” she says. “You don’t have to just go to refugee camps to see poverty, because it’s everywhere. It really changed my perspective and rearranged my world view.”
Currently, Jacoby is in the process of turning her Ph.D. dissertation on Sera Khandro into a book. She first heard about the female Buddhist saint from Chatral Rinpoche, a famous Tibetan teacher who studied spiritual matters under Khandro. As one of the most prolific authors in Tibetan history, and one of very few female Tibetan writers, Khandro was known as a “treasure revealer,” or saint-like figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
Prior to Jacoby's dissertation, there were no studies of Khandro's life and writings in English - she is highly revered in Tibet as one of the few women to ever receive visions of various Buddhist deities. This means Jacoby has been the primary person translating Khandro’s work into English by wading through pages of her autobiography and various other writings.
According to Jacoby, though, the best part about her research was traveling into the mountains of Tibet, exploring the places mentioned in Khandro’s writings and interviewing the elders who knew Khandro in their youth. “That’s the fun part about doing projects on something from recent history,” she says. “You can see the places they talk about and interact with people who were there.”
However, her research doesn't always come so easy. “Spending another year in nomadic Tibet was still totally foreign to me,” says Jacoby. “They speak an entirely different dialect of Tibetan [in nomadic Eastern Tibet], so even after living for a year in Lhasa, which is quite modern with skyscrapers and elevators, it was difficult.”
She also didn't expect to use traditional ways to reach remote areas far beyond the roads. For example, Jacoby had ridden horses before, but wasn't comfortable riding one. Trying to use Tibetan commands to control the horses didn't help. “They brought me a horse and even though I learned how to ride when I was 10, they were using totally different commands,” she says. “The nomads thought it was hilarious that I could be so ignorant, but they tied my horse to theirs, like you would a child.”
It’s experiences like that which compel Jacoby to return soon, this time with her daughter in tow.
“I think I’ll wait another year or two for my daughter to get a little older and then drag her along to all of these high-altitude, rural communities,” Jacoby says, smiling again. “I’d love to go back soon and have her see it all too.”