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Interview with Elliott Ubelhor

Elliott Ubelhor is a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Central Eurasian Studies with minors in Religious Studies, Art History, and Chinese. He is currently studying Tibetan through the Foreign Language and Area Studies scholarship offered by the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center.


In the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to travel to Beijing and Shanghai in China, as well as to Seoul in South Korea, as an ambassador and student orientation leader through Indiana University’s IU2U program. The program allowed undergraduate students to help facilitate pre-orientation workshops for international students from a variety of different countries. The purpose of these workshops was twofold; First and foremost, they were designed with the intent of helping international students get an idea of what life would be like here at Indiana University before they came for their own orientation in August, but it also gave domestic students from the United States a chance to visit countries of fellow Indiana University undergraduates and see the environment that these students were coming from to Indiana University.


While much of the time was spent helping facilitate and run these workshops, we were also allotted time to go sightseeing around each of the cities we visited, and while we were in Beijing I had time to visit Yonghe Temple (The Palace of Peace and Harmony), also more popularly known as the Yonghe Lamasery or, simply, Lama Temple. The biggest Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing, the Lamasery was constructed in 1694 as the residence of the Kangxi Emperor’s son, Prince Yong, who would later become the Yongzheng Emperor. The function of the palace and grounds changed when the Yongzheng Emperor’s son, Qianlong, took the throne, transforming it into the temple that is there today.


The temple itself is an amazing combination of Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian architecture. Each of the individual halls contain many different statues and thangkas attributed to different Buddhist deities and lamas of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. One of the pieces that struck me the most was a statue of Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa) inside a place called the Hall of the Wheel of Law (Falun dian). Tsongkhapa’s statue sits in the middle of the dimly lit room with a shaft of sunlight coming down from the ceiling window to illuminate the figure who seems to be watching everyone who steps into that room to gaze upon him.


I remember, quite vividly, sitting there in awe as I looked at the statue and attempting to take a picture of the impressive sight, only to have a nun quickly run over to me and tell me that it wasn’t allowed. Reflexively, I responded in Tibetan, quietly saying “Sorry” and then began to move onto the next room, not before seeing a moment of puzzlement cross her face and then a broad grin and a fit of laughter come over her as I did. I suppose to some degree it must have been surprising to see a foreigner speaking Chinese in Beijing but speaking Tibetan even more so, especially with someone who looked as much as a tourist as I did.


Unfortunately, I never got a chance to go back to the temple. My time in Beijing was only a brief five days and before I knew it I was leaving the city, but the people and culture there left an impression on me that won’t soon be forgotten. I am looking forward to going back one day to continue to explore and visit more of the places that I have learned about in class, all the while using the Tibetan language skills that were made possible by the generous funding of the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center.