Had I only visited this town on the edges of the Tibetan plateau and not lived there for almost two years, I would remember Pang Didi (“fat little brother”) as one of the most sinicised biological Tibetans I had ever come across.
He was working as a chauffeur for a hotel and, although he knew I was from abroad, always spoke to me in Chinese with the utmost presumption. The few times he switched the language, probably because my reactions always came in Tibetan, it would be so heavily peppered with Chinese, you would call that “Chinetan” or “Tibnese”.
Although it’s such a cliché, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Pang Didi ate dog meat. Some local Tibetans apparently found nothing wrong with that.
There was generally no air of Tibetanness around him, except perhaps his height and facial features. If he had a Tibetan name at all, he did not use it. Historically, most town folks here have had a Chinese surname.
In my eyes, Pang Didi seemed the epitome of a Tibetan “made in China”: No trace of Buddhist values in his behaviour, no awareness of Tibetan culture, no idea of Tibetan history.
Only later, I made an observation which got me thinking.
We happened to hang out with the same crowd in the “Black-Neck Crane”, a favourite Karaoke bar at the time. In came a group of tourists from Shanghai. They started singing English songs taking over the whole place. Suddenly Pang Didi said to me: “C’mon sis, pick an English song, let’s show these Chinese chickens that we Tibetans are much better at singing English songs!”
It may sound like an insignificant statement, but to me, that was the moment when I was able to catch a glimpse of his Tibetan identity. I only saw it because I had been around long enough. I don’t think he would have said that to me if we had just known each other.
That moment I realised, it’s not the language, not the religion, nor anything else that is superficially visible; it’s the spirit, stupid!
I found unexpected traces of this spirit in others too who, by expat-Tibetan standards, would be considered Chinese.
Once I went to the monastery with Teacher Wang. His father, a soldier from somewhere in China proper, had been left behind wounded, when the army marched through this town on their Long March.
Nick-named xiao gongchan (“little communist”) by the town’s people, his dad married a local Tibetan woman and settled here. Teacher Wang grew up with the local Tibetan kids and, as the head of a research institute, became one of the few learned people in this area. He also had a very kosher Tibetan name printed on the reverse of his business card.
Teacher Wang probably had more than one identity but to me he was a Tibetan. He knew our customs and habits, and whether he considered himself a Buddhist or not, seemed to respect our Lamas. Unlike some of the pure-bred local Tibetans, I never saw him smoke in their presence.
He spoke the local Tibetan well, and also understood high Tibetan spoken in the central areas. Some said he had a staccato accent and strange intonation, which when I think of it, is true. But I learned later that it was common for Tibetans from areas with strong Chinese influence to have an accent. They never really grow up with Tibetan as their mother tongue, only acquire it later, which then is noticeable in their adult speech.
In my eyes, Teacher Wang deserved respect for this effort. We all know too well what it takes.
Then we stood before the monastery gate, where visitors had to buy tickets. I told him I find it inappropriate to have to buy tickets to enter the monastery. He smiled and said, that the Tibetans only charge the Chinese, but not the others.
“For all the pressure there is from the top and the sides, the monks are very clever when it comes to circumventing instructions they disapprove of.”
According to Teacher Wang, this is what the monks say to Chinese visitors:
”Dear friends, it would be impious to ask the Tibetans to buy entry tickets because they come here to worship, it would be very inappropriate, we are sure you understand this: as for the Westerners, they have already spent so much money to come all the way to Tibet, would it not be impertinent if we asked them for even more money to visit our monastery? But you, the Han, have not come from so far like the Westerners, and you have not come to worship either like the Tibetans, so therefore, please understand that you should buy a ticket.”
He told that with a huge grin that said “that’s how we pay them back!”
I’ve learned from my encounters with people like Teacher Wang and Pang Didi that externally noticeable assimilation isn’t a reliable indicator for felt identity. Even a name isn’t.
But actually I should have known.
There are plenty of us living abroad in freedom, but still don’t bother to learn proper Tibetan, still don’t study our history. I have never thought of us as less Tibetan because of that.
A prominent example is the late Taktser Rinpoche’s family. When he passed away a few months ago, none of the sons, or the wife, Kunyang-la, seemed to feel confident enough to deliver the public statement in Tibetan. Instead, they spoke in English which was awkward because it felt like the main target of the message were the Americans.
For if members of Yabshey, Tibet’s top family, cannot speak Tibetan coherently enough, a Pang Didi in some remote border town surrounded and permeated by Chinese influence, hardly could.
Yet he and many others have maintained some sort of a Tibetan identity on a deeper level. Imagine how people in the central areas feel about it!
Our cause is not lost. Our hope is not lost.
Between those ugly concrete blocks, among those Chinese-speaking Tibetans in grey suits, the spirit is alive. When the time is right, it will work wonders.
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