Small Moments, Big Lessons - Reflecting on My 10 Years at CERS

Tsering Drolma, January 2022, Zhongdian


It was beautiful yesterday, like a fairy land, after a big snow fall two days ago just after the start of the New Year. But this morning the temperature dropped to -15 degree Celsius and all the roads would soon turn icy and slippery for both people and cars. Last year, one colleague slipped while walking on the icy path at our CERS Zhongdian Center after a snow fall. He brought all medical expense receipts to me and asked for compensation because he fell while he was at work. I argued that it was difficult to call it a work injury, because he was just walking around. That was an awkward situation. Since I was present this time, I organized the staff to clean up all the major paths inside the Center. I told them we should all get to work and sweep all the snow off the paths.

Most of the time, preventions can be taken to avoid unfortunate consequences, but people are too busy or too distracted to do so. This time I meant to demonstrate to the staff that the snow could be swept away before it turned into ice, thus, nobody would have to take the fall and break a rib.



Zhongdian Center after a night of big snow fall


This is my 10th year working at CERS, and every day now is about making deposits in the savings of small tactics in my mental bank of management. Having learned about management in a prestigious American university did not really help, because managing people involves the most complicated lessons to be learned, piece by piece, on a daily basis. Many sleepless nights accompanied me for the first couple of years since I became the deputy director of the Center in 2014. Nothing worked as I expected. It was difficult for the staff to listen to me, because most of them were my senior in age and work experience. When I set up new rules, they immediately complained to my superior. My superior in turn questioned me, and I spent hours offering explanations. However, business carried on as usual, and it was just me learning to let it be, as long as there were no consequences involved. Time is magical, because some things just disappear with it. What staff members needed was time to digest the reality that a young Tibetan woman was put in charge of them. And I needed time to expand my patience and tolerance.



The center is so beautiful covered in snow!   Snow turns into ice when the temperature drops.


Being the deputy director of Zhongdian Center also meant dealing with external matters.  One day, the second year after I was put in charge of the center, the village chief called me to a meeting. I showed up without any hesitation and thought a representative from our neighbor, the Yunnan Sub-alpine Botanical Garden, would also be there. When I got to the village playground, however, the village chief was standing in the middle and talking to the whole village, which had more than 70 households. He called me to join him in the middle and started to pepper me with accusations about all the “misdeeds” our CERS Center had done. I was totally shocked, but nevertheless started to respond to each accusation. After a couple of minutes, the village chief said I spoke very strange Tibetan and told me to repeat everything in Chinese. I stood there and talked for at least half an hour, which seemed forever. I was not sentenced to jail or anything for the “misdeeds”, but was so embarrassed that I thought I might have a heart attack. I soon learned I would never be free of this kind of embarrassment.



Black-necked Cranes at Napa Lake dancing in snow.


The reality of what was involved in managing this Center suddenly hit me hard in the face in that dark night.  After a long night, I made countless phone calls the next day to solve the problem, and eventually the village chief agreed to step in to ask the power company to approve the application and inform the villagers that their actions were against the law. After this incident, I learned to take an active role in external relations. I could get plenty of advice on such matters from superiors, family and friends, but eventually I was the one who had to face everything on the ground.



Our neighbor village during a snowy day.


It was through many encounters like these that I made myself known to the village and relevant government offices as the new leader of the Center. I suppose at the beginning, they thought I was new, young and inexperienced, so they could bully me, or give me some hard times at least. As for me, I just assumed everything should happen according to reason, or more seriously speaking, according to legal orders. If there were conflicts, officials would come and resolve them. I was wrong. Officials were always busy taking care of “worse situations.” Their best advice of all time to me was to deal with it on my own, through negotiations. Thus, I learned to negotiate with senior male figures. (In all these years I never had the experience of having to negotiate with a woman in a position of authority.) It was never pleasant.  Sometimes I just wanted to run away and never face them again. However, it was not a choice for an adult, let alone for somebody who was in a managerial position. So, I just learned to stand firm in front of them even if I could not speak filthy language like they did. Through that, my confidence in facing conflicts and confrontations with calmness also built up bit by bit.



A special moment captured at Mt. Genyi     


During the summer of 2019, a group of officials from the prefectural and county police departments showed up one day without informing me in advance. They said they had come just to pay their annual visit (a relatively big group usually came whenever there were new leaders). They asked me questions that I must have answered a hundred times over all these years. After the questioning, they said they would take a walk inside the Center. I had to agree and led them in, but inside, I was worried. There were two artists in residence from Myanmar staying at the Center. Their mere presence and appearance might alarm the visitors, not to mention the contents of the artists’ painting. They had their visas and had been registered with the local police, but that did not mean the officials on site were aware. Therefore, no one asked, and I did not tell.



Posing in CERS uniform!


Our Center has more than 10 buildings with many displays and exhibitions. I showed them all and provided explanations, taking at least half an hour. The Artist’s Residence was at the top of the hill, and I intentionally left it to last. The path was steep and it was slippery from the rainfall the night before. Our guard dog at the top started barking. The officials were panting. I took the chance and said, “All the houses are the same wooden style and there is no exhibition in that house; the path is slippery, so maybe we should go back down.” They agreed. Perfect! If I had not had the past few years of interactions with such officials, I would not have been able to stay so calm and face the situation at hand. Experience is the best teacher indeed!



The village during summer time.


These couple of years the Center has been really quiet because of the CoViD-19 pandemic. All education programs, which I am also in charge of and especially love, were canceled, because overseas students and groups were no longer allowed to travel. Our mother-in-law organization, the Zhongdian Cultural Bureau, had a new leader who questioned the legal status of our center. It took several months of back and forth communications and visits to their office to pass our annual inspection. The new leader never gave me clear reasons for questioning our legal status. On my last visit to the leader’s office, I handed him the report I prepared on our work. He was very indifferent as usual and refused to take the report. I put it down on his desk and said please take some minutes to learn about our work. He finally looked into my face and said, “Why are you so shameless?” (不要脸,I don’t think the English word is sufficient to describe the insulting meaning behind it). Oh well, that was not my first time to experience rudeness from someone in authority.



Cutting hay at Zhongdian Center



The windows show better reflections after they are cleaned!


Since I was put in charge of Zhongdian Center in 2014, the greater part of me was in denial of the worthiness of my time spent dealing with HR-related headaches. I thought my time should be invested in more “valuable” matters. However, after more than two years of not being preoccupied by education programs and so able to focus on the management side, I found the payback in leading by example. I was able to participate in activities at the Center which I normally could not get involved in the past. I learned to cook and to clean windows  in the face of staff shortage. My hands got really dirty from cutting hay and fixing the roof of one of our buildings, but I found satisfaction and joy in it. When colleagues saw me participating, they had no complaints in whatever they had to do. For me it was one stone killing two birds. I got work done and my physical exercise at the same time.



Plants tagged at Zhongdian Center.


During the winter of 2016 most of the air conditioners burned out because of a major problem with the transformer. I asked one of the staff members to get somebody to fix them. He told me the price for repair was too high and we had better buy new ones. We got by with what we had. Then last year our refrigerator started malfunctioning. I got the same answer from the same staff. Since I had free time at hand I decided to look up the service number of that specific brand. Two days later somebody showed up at the center and fixed the fridge within 10 minutes at a very reasonable price, especially considering he had to drive half an hour to get to the Center. I showed him all the broken air conditioners. He came back another day and fixed six of them within an hour. I praised the mechanic; how he was so efficient and capable. He replied, “for me it’s not a question of whether things can be fixed or not, it’s about whether I am willing to fix them or not.” I had the sudden realization that a lingering problem can involve somebody’s unwillingness to address it, not that it is unsolvable.



With a group of officials at the Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey Nature Reserve in July 2021.


Looking back, 2012 feels like yesterday and a long time ago at the same time. I saw this quote online a while ago “if you don’t feel like you were an idiot yesterday, then it means you have learned nothing today.” I am not sure this realization can happen in such a short time, but I surely feel that I was an idiot in 2012. I am grateful that I was thrown into this position which offered the best opportunity for growth and development. Daily hiccups aside, the urgency of utilizing the CERS Zhongdian Center to its fullest value for education and research is my New Year’s resolution for 2022!