I lived in Western Sichuan Province (think Szechwan hot cuisine—all dry chili and spicy peppercorn; nothing compared to the cayennes, tabascos, jalapeños and other peppers of Louisiana). It borders the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” to the east, and the western portion of the province is designated the “Ganzi Autonomous Prefecture,” which roughly encompasses an old Tibetan area called Kham. It is one of a number of large ethnically and culturally Tibetan prefectures that border and limit the size of the TAR, artificial lines drawn by the Chinese government, to some end.
I was on the eastern edge of Ganzi Prefecture, the area closest to the provincial Chinese capital of Sichuan, where the only institute of higher learning has been established in the entire prefecture (many Tibetan and other minority prefectures have no education higher than a couple of high schools). My students spoke dialects of Tibetan (a language that developed from a Burmese group; Chinese innovations appeared much later), cooked Tibetan-style noodles and dumplings, and received what religious advice is allowed from the small, regulated monasteries of their hometowns.
I used to believe there was no limit to the things people could learn and what they could do. I imagined that among so many cultures and nations the world citizen could test his or her range of personal knowledge and experience, and that attending a good college and studying abroad would be the culmination of such a lofty ideal. In 2003 I was able to study in China for a semester and travel the summer afterward, which profoundly altered my view of Asian religion and culture.
A couple of years later the reality of post-flood Louisiana catalyzed the ennui of post-graduation life and I found myself living with my brothers and working in New Orleans. The following summer, my twin brother offered me to meet him and a number of graduate students from the Tulane School of Social Work in India, to attend an open teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was there that I was able to arrange employment for myself back in China with a nonprofit. It was “lucky.”
I missed New Orleans and Alexandria a lot when I was there. A year turned out to be longer than I had expected. I first began reading local blogs as a way to feel like I was still connected, that I wouldn’t get left behind by the time I decided to return home.
This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy living and working with the other teachers at the school, the townspeople, or my educational project managers at the nonprofit. And of course I quickly grew to love teaching my amazing students. At fifteen and sixteen these kids left their rural villages or nomad hamlets on scholarships to the Normal College to get early training as grade school and middle school teachers back home. Soon they will graduate. Many of them lived too far away to visit home, even on weeklong vacations. Although they were the crème de la crème of their region, the best they were told they could achieve was to be an “educational seed generation,” unless they scored unpredictably well on University Entrance Exams. Their students, perhaps, could be given the opportunity to see the world or attain higher education, dreams towards which I had once so innocently striven.
They are Tibetan, but I was not in Tibet. Frankly, I don’t even know what Tibet is.
Some people in Kham will tell you they are not Tibetan. They are Khampas in fact, celebrating even their cultural distinctiveness from Lhasa in Central Tibet, which controlled relatively loosely federated regions that paid homage to the Potala Palace. Over the centuries delegations from Lhasa and Beijing (or other Chinese capitols) would send tributaries to each others’ royal court. Anyone claiming Tibet to have always been a part of China is being grossly and offensively revisionist about the history of East, South, and Central Asia.
The Sichuan staff of the nonprofit were mostly Khampas—all Tibetan aside from the English teachers–in their twenties and thirties. They are the first generation, my age and slightly older, to take the reigns of building nonprofit capacity and the resources of grassroots Tibetan social organizations, all well within the purview of Chinese regulations and modern international development practices.
In 1913, Frank Kingdon Ward, a British flower hunter, referred to the area where I taught and lived as “Chinese Tibet” in order to emphasize its role as a border region between China and Tibet proper. It was a place where tea came up from Yunnan, bricks of which would eventually work their way to the Everest region and beyond. I don’t understand why he would see it that way if Tibet was always a part of China.
The new name the Chinese gave the area in the 20th Century even means “the submission of Kham.” I imagine they believe the ethnically Uigyer (and other Muslim) northwestern Xinjiang region of China, which in Chinese is literally named “the New Frontier,” has and always has been a part of the Greater China destined to be ruled by the Socialist regime.
I have been told that Mao was personally left with nightmares of the fierce fighting with the Khampas. Stories of this kind abound. The Red Army did not take the area on the first try, though by the time they did, they left no question that they intended to wield complete control over the region, or that the resources of Kham—be it timber, minerals, or the silver coins sewn into the lining of their oversized Tibetan coats—belonged to the new government in Beijing.
But I digress. My intent was not to argue for a Free and Independent Tibet. I no longer have the vision or audacity to imagine such a thing. All I see are dead teenage monks from the same villages and primary schools and extended families as the kids in my class.
Our purpose here is merely to explore what it means to Save Tibet. That conversation begins and ends with the children of Tibet—my students, and the students they will teach.