It all happened before the time of the burning monks. I escaped to the roof at night with a cigarette hidden up my sleeve—quietly climbed the stairs, pushed the large metal door open and then shut to sit on the stone steps with my back against it. It didn’t matter how quietly I climbed, the door inevitably emitted a prolonged sigh. Under the cover of darkness, balancing the cigarette between my lips, I finally inhaled a gratifying sense of solitude.
The roof was the one place I could feel truly alone, where I didn’t feel like someone was watching, or listening in, or recording keystrokes. The paranoia would subside enough for me to think reasonably, as I drank in the deep purple mountains and the effervescent stars that attempted to puncture the light pollution poisoning the night. I was surrounded by the mountains, enveloped.
The whirr of electric currents ran through cables that snaked down the side of the dormitory building; the sound of solar water heaters in the night, occasionally dripping, but mostly frozen; cars and their inexperienced drivers racing up and down Jiangsu Lu; the laughter of students; the bone chilling chants of the military performing drills; the bass heartbeat of a song; the shrieking of speakers. I felt the sounds of the city under my skin, they drifted up from below and melted together like a contemporary symphony.
Blinking lights flickered at the far end of the roof: indicators of electricity or internet or surveillance or something. The new six-story, five-star St. Regis Lhasa Resort loomed a few blocks away, brightly lit, despite the fact that construction was not yet complete. Day and night, people worked on the grounds. Sparks flew from welding irons like miniature fireworks; earlier I had watched them as my classmates and I marched wearily back from a karaoke bar in the middle of the night. Bits of fire and light flew like blood spurting from the skeleton of the unfinished building.
I held the stump of the extinguished cigarette between frozen fingers and thought about returning to the karaoke after-party on the first floor. I ran the scene through my head: I’d wearily sit with my back up against the wall, curl my legs up into my chest, sip a cup of hot water and watch while everyone continued to get shitfaced—this group of misfits, sitting cross-legged on pillows and rugs and drinking cheap Chinese wine like we were in some sick, twisted version of a Kerouac novel.
In the corner, timid Martina tried to become a fly on the wall, situated beside plain Amy. Obviously American, Amy donned a baggy t-shirt and unflattering jeans, the type to wear a baseball cap with the ponytail shooting through the hole above the adjustable strap in the back.
There were four other Americans: Natasha, a young academic blonde who couldn’t retain eye contact and had a tendency to throw out off-color remarks regarding the most intimate details of her sex life that no one had asked about; Samantha, who looked like the cliché art school dropout, usually hanging around the front door with a cigarette in hand; and John and Kati, the inseparable vegan couple from New York City who seemed to live in their own little bubble within our bubble, in our world but not of it.
Near the doorway sat Eric, a frail Parisian linguistics student and the self-appointed translator, unofficial tour guide, and point person for any and all transactions, especially when it came to ordering meals. Then, Anders, a Norweigan man with a severely short haircut who drank beer like it was water, and finally, Glenn, the Australian who had ridden his bicycle from Southeast Asia to the border of Tibet.
And it all seemed like a happy occasion but the truth was I looked around the room at each and every one of them, my fellow students, and didn’t know who to trust. There was a tangible futility in the life we led in Tibet—foreign students in an occupied nation, studying a dying language, filling our evenings with cheap Chinese wine and watered-down beer.
I tore myself away from the dark sky, the shadows of mountains, and walked back downstairs, to bed, alone. As I drifted off to the sounds of revelers beneath me, a monk somewhere in eastern Tibet laid awake. In five days, he’d douse himself in oil, strike a match, and die.
I finished this piece at the NHIA MFA Creative Writing residency in June, and it was featured on the school’s blog: http://mfanhia2013.tumblr.com
If you’re searching for MFA programs, I highly recommend this one.