San Rafael’s 9 3/4 Station
March 16, 2017
I powered down Fourth Street at 6:30 pm on a frigid, windy Thursday night. I looked across the street and a tiny orange storefront caught my eye. No longer than a wingspan wide, the Tibetan Culture House called to me as I crossed the street and slipped into the seemingly empty store.
Once inside, my vision was assaulted by a plethora of knick-knacks and objects of various bright colors and materials: dresses, scarves, rings, mini statues, jewelry. Mesmerized by the display before me, a quiet voice coming from the corner broke my trance. “Hello,” said Tashi. Tashi is a 22-year-old employee at Tibetan Culture House in downtown San Rafael.
“We sell Tibetan Buddhist stuff mostly. [My father] wanted to bring Tibetan Buddhism into San Rafael. He started [this store] 25 years ago when there wasn’t really any Tibetan stores. Now there’s a couple. He wanted to bring culture, Tibetan culture to San Rafael, mostly.”
Tashi’s father was born in Tibet and escaped to India once the Chinese government took over. He became a monk there for 30 years before he came to the U.S. where he met Tashi’s mom and started the store.
“We have some statues back there,” said Tashi as he gestured to the Buddha statues in the back as if the display of Buddha statues proved that the store represented Tibetan culture.
“We get a few customers, returning customers and stuff. We don’t get too many new customers nowadays. They usually buy incense; we have a lot of rings they like. I think incense is probably the most popular. Sales have definitely gone down over the years, but we’re still hanging in there.”
Tashi explained how his father left his life as a monk to find a way to help people in a different way, which he relates to his religion, Buddhism.
“[My dad] practices a lot more than I do. He prays every day, so we have altars at home and stuff. I find Buddhism is not too strict. I guess it’s a lot of interpretation kind of, so for me, I don’t practice very deeply, but I kind of follow. Well the Dalai Lama had one quote, he says ‘My religion is kindness.’ That’s kind of how I try to think about it. So that’s kind of what I follow.”
Tashi reflected on the influences of Buddhism growing up.
“I think when I was younger I took it for granted. As I’ve grown up I’ve been meeting a lot more people and hearing their stories. It seems like Tibetan culture and Buddhist culture, it’s a lot about giving to others, so growing up my dad always did what was best for us kids and I guess we didn’t appreciate it too much, but now I definitely appreciate it a lot more.”
Up until this point, Tashi has answered each question with no more than a few sentences. I knew there must be more to his personality underneath his quiet demeanor.
“Five words to describe me,” said Tashi as he took an extended pause. He selected each adjective extremely deliberately, as he took momentous pauses in between each word. “Quiet. Patient, I would say. I am very hardworking.” The next adjective took Tashi a very long time to get out. “Some people say I’m humble,” and I started laughing because I could feel how uncomfortable he was saying that he was humble, which just goes to show how truly humble he is. He also had a very hard time getting out the last word, “weird.”
It was evident that Tashi is not accustomed to talking about himself so much, but when the interview shifted to his studies at College of Marin (COM), he started opening up and talking a lot more. Although earlier Tashi had said he was unsure about his plans for the future, he went on to describe his computer programming projects at COM with great verve.
“I’m trying to study to become a game designer. I really like games that give you options that you can kind of choose what you want to do. There’s a genre in games called MMOs, which means open world, where you can do a lot of stuff. I played one galled Gild World II, and in that game, you’re trying to become stronger, your character, because it’s multiplayer online. I’m trying to become a UI designer and illustrator for games, so I like to do digital art, like in photoshop.”
I was slightly surprised at Tashi’s interest in computers and technology, as we sat in his family owned store filled with handmade wooden statues and antiquated symbols of an ancient culture. I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of his life between old culture and forward technology.
“I’ve made three games with some people, so the first game was a game where you’re stuck in a maze and you’re trying to find your way out. It was a sci-fi gam, so you have a laser gun, and you have to fight these robots. The second game I made, you played as a girl who had abilities, she was able to gain abilities based on animals so the first ability you’d get was the ability of the rabbit so you could jump higher and solve specific puzzles with that. The third game was more of an open world game, you could explore, and fight monsters and stuff like that.”
I recalled from the first interview that Tashi had said that he knew a bit of programming, but “not too much.” I verbally assumed that his role was the graphic designer for these three games that he has made, but he casually corrected me.
“Actually, I was the lead scripter for the second and third game, it’s not really my focus, but I was put into that role because of how small the group was,” said Tashi.
His matter of fact tone again made me laugh because he was so modest in how he casually stepped into the role of lead scripter just because that was what was needed at the time.
Because he struggled so much to answer my other questions, I told him that he could take his time answering this one because it is a big question, who is his biggest inspiration in his life. However, he answered it right away and his voice carried the most confidence I had heard yet.
“Honestly I think that would have to be my dad, I look up to him a lot. He’s always been a super hard worker, he always thinks about the future for his kids. I really admire that. When I have kids of my own I want to be like that.”
After the interview, I walked away only to realize I didn’t know the name of the store. In walking back in the freezing cold, I couldn’t find it. The hole in the wall Tibetan store had disappeared, reminiscent of the 9 ¾ train station in Harry Potter.
I thought back to when I left the store. As I had slipped out the door, he quietly wished me good luck, either for my project or in my life, I could not tell.