Bata: My Teacher of Life
Tenzin Choden is a Tibetan refugee born in India. In 2009, Tenzin Choden, her younger sister and her classmates were transferred far from their hometown to a Central School in Shimla. They were issued brand new black leather, Bata school shoes and uniforms. She didn’t know that those shiny Bata shoes were the beginning of the hardest time of her life. She faced many hardships living in school, yet she has no regrets. She considers her Bata shoes to be her greatest teachers.
I am a Tibetan refugee born in India. I spent most of my life attending Tibetan boarding schools in India. From the first day of kindergarten until my grade 12 graduation, I only wore one type of shoes to school: black leather Bata shoes.
Grade 6 was the first time I attended “CST” Central School for Tibetans. CST is a franchise of schools spread all over India for Tibetan refugees. Attending CST is vital for Tibetans. It is the means through which we have preserved our language, culture and religion during nearly six decades in exile. The schools are funded by the Indian Government, and the education is free. I attended many CST schools all over India.
In 2009, in grade 9, my classmates and I were transferred to CST in Shimla, a beautiful hill station in Northern India, because the CST we were attending in Tezu only went up to grade 8. It took around five days to travel one way, by land, to Shimla from my hometown of Bomdila. Two adults took the responsibility of getting us to the school. My younger sister also came with us. It was her first time leaving home. Our dad joined us on our train journey to the nearest city from my town. When we arrived there, he got off the train and bought us some snacks from a stall on the platform and passed them to us through the train window. My sister and I held the iron bars of the window, and, like in the movies, as our dad was giving his parting message, his voice started shaking, and tears rolled down his eyes. It was the first time I saw my dad cry.
We arrived in Shimla on a dark, chilly morning. When the sun came up, we saw monkeys all around the campus. We were assigned our uniforms, including brand new Bata shoes. It marked the beginning of a new hard life. We were fed, but it was never enough. Every single day, for two years. For breakfast, we got one plain steamed bun with tea; for lunch, we got rice and lentil soup; for dinner, we got one steamed bun and watery potato curry. We didn’t have clean drinking water. There was no running water on our floor, which also meant no clean toilets. Several times a day, we carried two buckets of water, one in each hand, and climbed the stairs to our third floor. We had many chores. Our clothes became too big for us.
Our Bata shoes were often stolen or taken accidentally because they all looked the same. There was a smelly locker full of old worn-out Bata shoes where we could find a pair that somewhat fit us until the next time they were lost or stolen. We got used to being beaten up every day by teachers and senior students. Our teachers used to say, “Tibetan kids have their ears on their butt,” which meant Tibetan kids only listen when they are beaten. It was the norm. We never questioned anything. I didn’t realize the issues in our schools until I came to Canada in 2015 through the Tibetan Resettlement Program.
You might think that I resent my treatment in those years, but I don’t regret my Bata shoes or my school experience. While wearing those Batas, I made friends of my age who had horrific stories of escape from Tibet, leaving their families behind, knowing that they would never see them again. While wearing Batas, I discovered my identity as a Tibetan. My time in Bata shoes taught me to appreciate my family, food, water, clean toilets and every little thing that I would otherwise take for granted. In my Bata shoes, I walked on mud, dust, concrete and snow (yes, there is snow in Shimla), and they made me the person I am today.
Tenzin Choden is from Bomdila in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. She grew up as a Tibetan refugee in the contested region claimed by China as “southern Tibet.” She is a permanent resident living in Calgary, and before moving in 2015 with her parents and sister, she completed high school. She is pursuing a degree in business administration at Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.