« Rollin Holy | Main | musicology »

Red China in Tibet

I saw Kundun (the story of the Dalai Lama) for the second time in five years last night. It almost made me cry. My Tibetan friend, who arrived her from Amdo about ten years ago did cry. He has seen the movie at least five times.

There are no easy answers or summaries to this conflict, no time line, no idea how or when it is going to end. And of course due to time and language limitations I could only get the briefest view of how life is in Tibet today, under the Chinese.

First of all, I heard conflicting reports about how many Chinese versus how many Tibetans live Tibet, especially Lhasa. Some people said Tibetans were at risk of becoming a minority in their own country, others said that most of the Chinese had gone back to China by now. Having been there I still can not tell you which one of these rumors bears a closer resemblence to truth. As much as I want to believe that it is easy to tell Chinese and Tibetans a part, it isn't, at least not for me. Sure, there are a few distinct charactaristics - Tibetans tend to be taller and darker than Chinese with less round faces. They kind of look Native American at times, but those are just generalizations, in real life the lines are blurry. I know some Tibetans who look very Chinese and there are many people who look like they could either be Chinese looking Tibetans or vice versa. Also, in Lhasa Chinese sounds a lot like Tibetan (to my untrained ear) so I couldn't even tell people apart that way.

However, there is a Chinese part of town and a Tibetan quarter. The Tibetan quarter is small compared to the rest of the city. It is also more crowded, dirtier, with more beggars, street vendors, and poor people. There are no monks in the Chinese part of town.

Every one I met was pleasant, but I wasn't about to talk politics with anyone. One Canadian girl I met said a local woman asked her what she thought about the situation in Tibet. The girl replied that that was a tough question but after thinking a moment said she thought it was good. The woman approved of her answer but warned her, saying, "you must be careful!"

I got an impression, whether real or imagined I cannot say, that Lhasa was a city of foreigners, not westerners, but like it isn't any one's home town. All the Chinese were just there to make money, they don't really like it there and hope to return to mainland one day, there are many pilgrims who are visited for religious regions, many people move there from the country because of the opportunities but nobody really feels at home there because you constanty have to watch your back with the Chinese, making sure not to anger the wrong people, to say or do the wrong thing.

My western friends who lived there were my main sources and according to them the PSB (Public Security Bureau) is every where. I definitely got the feeling that Big Brother was watching, but maybe that was just me projecting.

The pilgrims didn't seem limited at all. There were tons of them doing prostrations on the koras (paths around holy sites), making offerings in the temples, chanting prayers. However a western friend said this is a new developement, only allowed with in the last five or ten years.

There were also many monks, and I was curious about the monasteries because I heard that monks aren't allowed to study. I didn't see much evidence of studying. The biggest monastery I went to, Tashi Lhunpo, had young monks in a circle learning prayers orally from an elder. Apparently there are debates at Sera monastery. Every one I entered had rows and rows of Tibetan style texts in locked shelves reaching up to high ceilings. I didn't see people learning and Tashi Lhunpo seemed to be the only place that had enough monks to actually create a class. Other wise they seemed to be more like curators and to be there to bless pilgrims who came by with offerings.

I saw lots of Tibetans working on roads, both men and woman. They seemed in good spirits, frequently smiling and waving at us as we passed them in a cloud of dust. But for all the Chinese claim to have done for Tibet, the road still sucked (and the construction they were doing was tearing it apart to make a new one) the labor didn't seem that organized, there were no trees (Chinese claim to have been replanting trees for the past thirty years), many small towns either didn't have electricity or had just enough for a dim bulb and a television (a favorite national past time). In door plumbing is pretty much unheard of (though fancy places have indoor out houses) and by that I mean running water and drains! The odd thing is that this is all on the "Friendship Highway." I could understand if I was exploring remote villages that rarely saw westerners and took days to reach, but most of these places were with in a day's drive from Shigatse or Lhasa (and with good roads it would have been a half a day) and were frequented by tourists. Granted I don't mind roughing it, but I just found it strange that from all I have studied of Tibetan history, outside of the cities very little seems to have changed within Tibet. Now maybe this is good, part of the conflict stemmed because Tibetans didn't want to change. But you would think that on major tourist routes, more modernization would have just happened as a result of the wealth coming from the tourists.

However, I think there is a bribe system that costs a lot there. One Tibetan person who I did manage to talk to had gotten a Chinese passport. It cost ten times the stated price, plus numerous dinners, cigarrettes, alcohol and other gifts from him to obtain this legal document allowing him to leave the country. And there is all the money fleeing Tibetans pay guides to lead them on the twenty-seven day hike across the Himalayas. I suspect bribes and taxes are the biggest effect of Chinese rulership these days. Although there is probably a lot of self censorship going on, author Isabel Allende once noted that when you have an authoritarian government (like there was in Chile, her homeland) the biggest effect is self-censorship. People don't want to get in trouble so they often censor themselves even more than the regime does, thus very little imformation gets exchanged. However, contrary to what the Lonely Planet wrote, you can get the BBC website there, as well as the NY Times, and lots of others. In fact the only one web site I couldn't get was Tibet.com, the official site of the Government in Exile. I suspect they are stricter about sites in Chinese and Tibetan, after all, those who speak English, never mind read it well enough to read online newspapers, are very few. My boyfriend heard they have made great leaps and bounds restricting access to porn sites but a fellow travelor laughed when I mentioned this. He said at the very popular Internet cafe downstairs, the home page was a porn site. This cafe frequently filled up with young boys who played interactive video games with each other for hours.

And for all the people that flee and chaffe under the Chinese rule, I am sure there are some Tibetans who love it and thrive. Nothing is ever cut and dried, we are too diverse an animal.

So in other words, it is all inconclusive - very inconclusive. I guess I just have to go back.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)