Yesterday, I led my first post on the critical inquiry of what it means to “Save Tibet” with a photograph of the high school class I instructed last year. They were in their second year of the advanced English program, recruited from their middle schools by a few young Tibetan adults because of abilities in Math, Chinese, Tibetan, or English. English is a critical component to most government examinations for the civil service, teaching, or going to an associates college or university. My students knew they were at a disadvantage in testing due to language and experience, but most minorities in China are afforded a grading handicap. And there is an extensive “Minority University” system.
(Students rapt with attention)
All of my students were Tibetan, except for one girl who lived behind a snack shop on the small highway leading into Ganzi town. Her father was a Chinese Buddhist who died some years ago, and her Tibetan mother kept the shop with a Chinese sister-in-law. Sometimes, she would teach an evening Chinese class for the other students, as her Chinese was the best in the class. Non-nuclear family arrangements– from broken homes and unwed mothers to multiple wives and adopted children– are not particularly uncommon among Tibetans, particularly nomads.
I know my former students are extremely concerned about their exams, which they will take in June. I’m personally happy that they are so consumed with studying at the moment. Unquestionably, it is their old friends, classmates, and rivals—who are seventeen or eighteen and have relatively less education and fewer prospects—that are most at-risk for involvement in a conflict with Chinese authorities.
In spite of its importance, none of the English classes in Ganzi Prefecture have native English speakers as instructors. Rural education is still a huge difficulty in China. Most English teachers only a limited grasp of grammar and vocabulary, and it is extremely rare to find any high school instructors outside of large cities and pockets of affluence that can actually speak the language at all, due to their limited opportunities for practicing real conversational language.
I was impressed with amount of English most of the students learned from their previous instructor after only a year. The ones that had really applied themselves were outstanding. Generally, Tibetan men are more outgoing, and many of my boys (and a couple of girls) were very brave and would try to innovate with their limited speaking skills. The students also kept English journals to improve their writing, and some of the girls expressed their personal thoughts and fears with an openness and sincerity that moved me on more than once while grading papers in my empty Chinese flat.
Sometimes, they wrote about how Chinese students would tell them that the only reason they were good at English was because Tibetan and English sounded the same. It may be that some English consonants are easier to pronounce for Tibetans than Chinese people (just as I can’t for the life of me master the many Chinese “ch”-vowel combinations), but Tibetan students take those comments from ethnically Chinese kids to mean that their impressive English ability couldn’t be due to their own talents or diligence. Tibetan ability is often looked at as a fluke.
I like Chinese people. I spent a great deal of time learning the language, and have made unforgettable friends in that historic and intriguing nation. But many Chinese people are very proud, and like a lot of Americans are eager to embrace all that comes to their dining tables from the 5:00 CCTV-News. Often this leads them, like us, to rely on stereotypes when dealing with unfamiliar ideas and people. It can be harmless, like when Chinese or Tibetan children stare disbelievingly at someone like me, a white man without blue eyes.
Or it could be malevolent, as how Hollywood movie exports have many in Asia believing that all African-Americans are either basketball players or gang-bangers. Hip-hop’s growth in popularity among Asian youth has been astronomical, and the only time my boys were ever late to class was if an NBA game was on CCTV-Sports.
(Both Chinese and Tibetan students look to hip-hop and basketball culture)
And the same love-hate contradictions expressed in China (and everywhere really) about the outside world are repeated at a smaller scale within the country, nowhere more noticeably in the Tibetan youth of today.
My students did not wear traditional Tibetan clothes. They much prefer what they call “Chinese clothes,” which is to say jeans and tees or collared shirts. They also love Chinese pop music. Because they are from different villages and some of them are nomads, so they have to communicate with each other in Chinese mixed with Tibetan vocabulary. Many Tibetans cannot speak Chinese, and many more are illiterate in either language.
They would argue among themselves about whether it was more important to improve their Chinese in order to get jobs or to hang on to their eroding Tibetan language and other traditions. They wonder if the new trains and highways that are to “open Tibet” are more for bringing in migrant Chinese settlers and taking out industrial resources than actually improving the economic situation of the average Tibetan. Many of them criticized their ethnic peers for wanting to leave while secretly holding the same desire for themselves, escaping either to job opportunities in the East or a “new life” in the West.
I have heard that racism against Tibetans has increased recently in Chengdu. Chinese people have always warned me to stay away from the Wuhouci neighborhood there, where there are a number of Tibetan shops and restaurants. Chinese people are scared of the Tibetan penchant for carrying knives, and they consider Tibetan culture to be far inferior to the long Chinese traditions of art and letters. Wuhouci is close to the Southwest Minorities University (where many foreigners also study), and also happens to be the location of the most popular international hostels in Chengdu.
But Tibetans also hold racist and unfair and dangerous opinions about the Chinese. My students’ grandparents, some of whom I had the honor of visiting in their homes, still remember the protracted struggle that left over a million Tibetan dead. And my students, who only rarely observed vegetarianism, insisted on their own righteousness for only eating large animals, and not killing as many souls as the seafood and fowl-loving Chinese.
(With a student and her family. Many young Tibetans prefer “Chinese fashion.”)
A couple of semesters before I arrived at the school, there was a large fight over a few days that stemmed from a basketball rivalry between older students in the Tibetan Department and some Chinese boys in the Physical Education Department. Police were called out, and one student lost an arm after he was stabbed with a jagged beer bottle.
My students were well aware of the privileged opportunity that they’d been offered. They often spoke of their desire to repay the kindness of the nonprofit by returning home to “develop their hometowns,” thought they didn’t know exactly what that meant or how to do it. It’s funny in a way for me though; working for the nonprofit actually got me interested in development issues and capacity building for communities, which led me straight back to the Great State of Louisiana.
This weekend, I will discuss the integral role that nonprofits are striving to play in the larger effort to “Save Tibet,” and tomorrow, Lamar will cover the politics of Tibet.