Monday, October 1, 2012

Reality Bites

"Mami, zidang!" Our 10-year old exclaimed all of a sudden. I turned my head: "La nga'i norbu? Kharé dug?" The kid pointed to a photo of children in the school we visited in Tibet last summer. Together with pictures of Guilin and the Great Wall it hung under the header "China".

Continueing in Tibetan, our child said: "Why did they put the picture under China?"

"You should ask Joanna why she put it up under China", her dad chuckled back in Tibetan.

Joanna was a young, enormously energetic and talented colleague from work who had just returned from a six-month leave where she traveled several Asian countries. Among her destinations was the small Tibetan school we helped support. Joanna spent two weeks there working with the pupils and left an exemplarily positive impression on teachers and students alike. Now she was organising an "I'm back" party in the form of a fund-raising dinner to help the school. She had her travel pictures and memorabilia neatly arranged by travel country: Thailand, Indonesia, India and China.

On the whole, the time we spent at the event was worthwhile: At the end of the evening, there was a nice amount of money for the school and we also made one or two interesting contacts which could be useful for further projects.

After the kids went to sleep that night though, we parents had to come back to our 10-year old's "China incident". It pointed to a basic dilemma our children eventually had to learn to reconcile: To us Tibet was separate from China. It would never cross our minds to consider ourselves "Chinese". Tibet is Bod and China is Rgya. To us, the two are as separate – and as equal - as France and England. But how to cope with the external world for which there sometimes was no difference due to the political reality?

When my partner went to Tibet with his mother the first time in the early 1980s, China had just begun to open up. All his relatives came to meet them at the entry point. On their journey to the Tibetan areas, they had to cross Chinese territory in a multiple-day train ride during which he boycotted the food served leaving his mom amused and the relatives in Mao suits puzzled at the kid from abroad. They didn't understand that this was a political statement by a young, patriotic Tibetan: "I'd rather starve than eat Rgya-mi Khala – food from the enemy!"

He wasn’t keen on seeing places of worship razed to the ground, children indoctrinated, forests cut down, rivers diverted, mineral deposits exploited and his culture suffocated by swamps of reckless outsiders. Among his peers who went to Tibet, some returned so heart-broken they never recovered. But he was lucky to manage: He worked his way out of the initial shock and the aversion, got himself enrolled in a Chinese university and acquainted himself with their language and their culture to the extent where he was able to live and work in a country he called his own but that was controlled by the Chinese. Every day was full of challenges.

Though outwardly, he had arranged himself with the overlords to perfection, he never changed on the inside. By the time we met, he was a person with multiple identities. To a Tibetan born in the West like myself he appeared like "one of us". But at the same time when the situation required it, he maneuvered smoothly like a local Tibetan using the same speech, the same specific expressions complete with a personal network, seamlessly fitting in as if he had never lived anywhere else.

I'm thinking maybe the adaptation process he underwent was similarly as defining as the experience made by earlier Tibetans from the frontier like Gedun Choephel in the old days.

Gedun Choephel said Tibetans from border areas like his native Amdo, were more patriotic by nature than the ones in the central areas because the former lived face to face with "the other" whereas the latter in those days probably never had met a Chinese person to begin with.

According to Gedun Choephel, the sense of identity was more pronounced in frontier Tibetans because of daily interaction and confrontation with the other: You begin to think harder about your origins, your history and what sets you apart. It's probably not said for nothing that the motor for his famous book on Tibetan history was his nationalism. In any event, over the years it really appeared as if the more my partner adapted to Chinese customs on the outside, the stronger his Tibetan core became on the inside.

Once when we were queuing up at a fast-food chain for lunch, a lady asked him where he got his "really cool" shoulder bag from. Quick like a shot I heard him say: 

"From Delhi!"

"Why did you say Delhi?" I was there in Beijing when he got it.

"She may think we're Chinese," he said apologetically, adding with a chuckle: "I hate being mistaken for a Rgya-mi!"

Still the same kid on the inside refusing food from "the enemy":--)

Yeah, if we must choose between China and India, the latter seems like the lesser evil. The Dalai Lama even says: "India has more right to claim Tibet than China."

Doesn't that sound like servile flattery?

No country has any right to claim Tibet, full-stop.

During a Buddhist teaching to Indians earlier this year he also said: "India is the teacher, Tibet is the student." 

It's another statement that mentally subordinates our country.

Tibet owes India in many ways, that's true. As the Holy Land where the Buddha Dharma originated and by the kindness they have shown in granting safe asylum to our people in their hour of need, India will always be special to the Tibetans. But does that mean it's required to ingratiate ourselves with India? Where's our sense of national self-esteem? 

Maybe it's just me but I'm under the impression the Dalai Lama is saying more weird things lately. Like the other day, in front of a group of Chinese students, where said he is partly a "Marxist". In the past, he used to say he is a "Buddho-Marxist".

I have often wondered whether the Dalai Lama has advisors. Marxism and its practical outgrowth communism have social justice and the equal distribution of wealth as their goal, which is good. But the method to achieve this goal is rooted in animosity: Hate-filled "class struggle" killed millions and in Tibet today, the communists sometimes still act as red as they were in their reddest day under Mao. As a Tibetan, I find it disturbing to hear our leader happily label himself a Marxist when tens of thousands of our people were killed under the communist regime and many continue to suffer mistreatment.

The Dalai Lama flirting with Marxism is also troubling from a Buddhist perspective: The Buddhist ideal, and especially so the Mahayana form that Tibetans practice, is the peaceful Bodhisattva who works his way up to serve others based on improving oneself. The Communist ideal is an equal society created through violence based on destroying others. Superficially there are shared commonalities but fundamentally Buddhism and Communism are radically different. For a great Buddhist leader like the Dalai Lama, who is also revered as a Bodhisattva, to say he is partly a Marxist is extremely bizarre.

Now I don't know how the remark came across to those Chinese students and maybe all the Dalai Lama wanted was be on good terms with them - just like with the Indians. But again, it's unnecessary that the leader of the Tibetans cozies up to either Indians or Chinese. We do struggle with a lot of problems, homegrown as well as externally imposed, but there is no need to dpal las bshad anyone. We should just be ourselves.

Nobody wore Mao suits anymore by the time my siblings and I saw Tibet the first time in the early 1990s. But a bunch of Mafiosi-like United Front officials with dark sunglasses kept following us around wherever we went. In the end, they invited us for a meal. While our parents thought it would be wise to accept, we kids thought that's totally unworthy. We were not going to be "bought by the Chinese". When our parents insisted, we deliberately smoked throughout the whole meal so that we would not have to touch their rotten Rgyami Khala while these guys helped themselves to a free meal.

We were so angry at "the Chinese" that towards the end of the trip, we brought all our garbage carefully collected in order not to pollute the environment in Tibet, back to the entry-point in China where we stuffed it into one of the closets in our hotel room exclaiming: "Take this, shameless imperialists!"

Today I can relate to the experience as a funny anecdote but back then everything was serious and nobody laughed. I remember being angry most of the time: Angry at the Chinese for being there uninvited, angry at the Tibetans for mixing Chinese words into the Tibetan language, angry at the Tibetans working for the Chinese government - there was so much anger in me it overshadowed the entire experience putting me in a bad mood most of the time unable to appreciate much. When people back home asked whether I had a good time in Tibet, I didn't know what to say. If I said yes, people could think I was happy with Chinese rule. If I said no, people could think I was a spoilt kid estranged from her roots who couldn't handle the poverty there.

I was under shock, unable to gather a coherent thought. The Tibet picture in my head and the real Tibet I encountered were worlds apart. I went there thinking I was prepared for the worst but the reality was beyond my imagination.

After many months, I could somehow recollect myself: I had only been there for a few weeks as a visitor, I told myself. Tourists who visit a country for a short time don't return with the impression either that they now got a complete picture of the place. My impression had to be incomplete. The conclusion was that I needed to go back and live there for some time in order to get a better picture.

Call it the desperate human attempt not to lose hope in the face of hopelessness. Whatever the psychological explanation, the insight saved me from going into a depression and so I went back over the years with the new awareness that when I expect to see failure, destruction and despair, I would and more than I prefer. The way we regard something influences the way we feel about it, this much I know today.

Letting my anger overtake my whole being hasn't change the Chinese after all while it totally harmed myself: Subconsciously looking for a confirmation of Chinese suppression wherever I went and the chronic complaining made me sick. The negativity spread inside me like a cancer and disrupted any learning, attention or judgment.

I still can't stand the Chinese in Tibet, no use to pretend. The aversion sits so deep it will take a whole lot of well-intended Tonglen "exchanging-self-for-others" meditation sessions to even start changing that. But with time I also realised that my resentment is entirely my problem because the Chinese couldn't care less!

When I gradually managed to broaden my focus, I began to notice that there were a few groups and individuals in Tibet who, operating under the same constraints as everyone else somehow prevailed. I was beginning to see something like light at the end of the tunnel.

There were people who did not succumb to the widespread gambling and drinking, cheating, corrupting and chasing after quick money. A small group was doing things differently and better. They protected their positive outlook, their enthusiasm for good work, their respectful manners and their faith in the Dharma no matter what was going on around them. They raised their children based on these values. They are teachers, farmers, sales people, nomads, clerics and even government workers. Their strength was the determination to accept the challenge, play by the rules of the Chinese, beat them at their game without compromising their Tibetan core, and in the course, reinvent themselves. Those were the people who became our role models. On an individual level, the way these people led their lives to us appeared like the ultimate symbol of Tibetan defiance.

We grew up in the politicized environment of exiles and had this inflated view that you sometimes have when you learn about something only from hearsay. With no direct contact to Tibet, it was psychologically enormously important to gain some sort of certainty about where we were headed. For us, the Tibetan community abroad and Dharamsala provided that certainty and the only dimension we were able to perceive was political.

But when you live in Lhasa or Chamdo, you have to cooperate with the Chinese-dominated system out of tactical necessity. People's views were coined by pragmatism and their decisions based upon what would bring a direct advantage to their daily lives: Issues of primary concern were decent housing, satisfactory jobs and a good education for their children – things which the Tibetans abroad were unable to influence. The latter exposed real problems in Tibet which was important, but there was little they could do about them. Seeing the impotence now was deeply unsatisfactory and going back to our old lives felt awkward. The expat gatherings that functioned as Tibet surrogate during our youth began to feel alien and contentwise stuck in time.

It was just as unpleasant for us parents to see the Tibetan school listed under "China" at that fundraising dinner, but while we adults had learned from experience to do the difficult balancing act and bear the tension, the children stood at the beginning. They had to learn to deal with the reality.

So we have been careful when speaking about China and the Chinese around them. We explain to them that the Chinese believe Tibet is a part of their country and that they believe they helped the Tibetans out of poverty. It doesn't mean we accept the Chinese position, but it's crucial not to deny it.

The children know very well from their visits to Tibet that the Chinese are forcing themselves on the Tibetans who have to put up with the situation because they are weaker. The children also know it's not right without us needing to tell them a whole lot about how the Chinese stole our country and chased away its rightful ruler. The kids know.

They are learning at home and in school to help each other out, that the stronger ones should help the weaker ones, the older guide the younger, they have things like "peacemaker days" in school where they learn to solve their disagreements via dialogue and mediation. So it's brutal on kids to discover that the political reality in the world of the grownups can be the pure contrary: not the rule of law but the rule of force with the mightier controlling reality.

But at the same time, might is not automatically right: We know Tibet was an independent country. We should have done more to protect our sovereignty while we had the chance, true. Now we are faced with the bitter reality that we lost control. But we deal with the situation outwardly while knowing inwardly that a lie does not become truer even when repeated a million times.

In this regard, the physical encounters with Tibet and the people there seem to have given our kids an unprecedented boost. During a parents-teacher meeting once, the kindergarten teacher told us that our child made a huge step in development after the summer holidays. The kid seemed more at ease, more assertive and outgoing than before. The teacher's observation came as a confirmation that the carefully orchestrated exposure to Tibet was good for the children.

Tibet makes you become grounded, makes you take up your natural space by giving you all its power where you become confident, forward-looking and certain that opportunities will come your way. It is very powerful. It's not like life is without problems all of a sudden but you begin to take control rather than feeling powerless.

It kind of works on us parents, so we hope it will somehow work on the kids too.

Mountain Phoenix

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