In the 1990s, there was a great increase in the number of international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working in China, on everything from rural education and environmental protection to civil legal reform and socially-responsible small business development. My first experience with Chinese NGOs was interning with Handicap International in Beijing in 2003, teaching basic English to patients at a psychiatric hospital and editing English-language correspondences for the Chinese office staff. At the time, they were also working on sign language for deaf Tibetans.
Handicap International was typical of international NGOs and non-profit groups in China at the time, in that the office was staffed by Chinese people but, as one of many national branches, the organization and methods of the group were distinctly Western. In some groups like this, projects are chosen by an international committee or a group of “founding members” in the Western donor countries. This kind of arrangement can work on a host of issues, such as landmine removal, but the types of solutions that are needed to Save Tibet require a depth and sustainability that only local participant stakeholders can offer.
It was definitely a step up from initial efforts of early international nonprofit groups in China (and in other Third World nations), which focused primarily on the delivery of goods and services. In that arrangement, some key locals serve as upper-level contacts, but all decision-making takes place elsewhere by those footing the bill. The nonprofit that I worked for in Greater Tibet was quite a bit different than that. They had a single foreign director in the Beijing office to act as an international liaison for the group, but every other district office or program manager was Tibetan (except for those native-speakers like me teaching English classes).
A newer model is emerging for international development strategies, and it is the child of the kind of nonprofit that I taught for last year.
I had been told of a young Tibetan man that had set up a factory to build solar cookers. A solar cooker is a large mirrored dish that focus rays of the close Tibetan sun against a pot of water, which boils in about twenty minutes or so. The employees of the factory were Tibetan, and it was located near a common crossroads to be a model for other local entrepreneurs. I soon found out that the young Tibetan organizer had been taught grant writing by an organization similar to the on that I was teaching for.
He was exactly my age, and while he a student in an English language program in another province (at the time there were none in Sichuan) he was taught basic NGO skills. Even before graduation he and a couple of friends decided to create their own group. They started with a project to collect and redistribute used clothing. By the time I met them a few years later, they were finishing the installation of clean running water in a remote Tibetan farming village.
Fetching water each day is a time-consuming and laborious task that typically falls to girls and women. Streams and rivers are becoming more and more polluted in China and Tibet, and during the summer rains the water in the stream will often turn brown. Dehydration-related illness results, but the toll of people affected by carcinogens in the drinking supply is likely much larger.
Being from a similar area as the village, the young Tibetans were not only familiar with the basic problem of bad water, but the greater social system that reinforced it. In order to use the project as an opportunity for social empowerment, they required not only that a local project steering committee guide decision making, but that a certain number of them must be women. Moreover, the village had to contribute the labor to build the system. Their aim was to not only improve water quality in the village, but balance the number of boys and girls that had time to attend school.
We can see that Saving Tibet in present times means developing non-political methods that can address multiple problems at once. His group and others were also involved in providing libraries to Tibetan schools and preservation of traditional arts. They also held a workshop for area school principals to inform them that it was indeed legal in Sichuan to teach primary school subjects (other than Chinese class) using Tibetan instead of Chinese, a fact that many of them were skeptical to believe.
The purpose of my teaching English to those Tibetan students was so that they could gain enough points in the English sections of their exams to become English instructors and return to their hometowns, along with other newly educated Math, Chinese, Tibetan, and (much less commonly) Science teachers as a long-term strategy to improve the quality of life in Tibetan areas. Some of those teachers were hoped to break out to found nonprofits, lead schools (if they chose to join the Party—yes, there are a number of Tibetan members of the Chinese Communist Party), or become businessmen to raise the money necessary to uplift their communities.
The goal is for there to be less and less need for foreigners to run and manage development groups. That’s why when I get emails from adventurous young Americans asking me how to volunteer or get a job helping out in Tibet, I have been uncertain as how to respond. Most international groups can’t afford the time or resources to train unskilled (though unpaid) volunteers that are only interested in sticking around for the short-term.
[In fact, I completely lucked-out with my job. The original instructor that was to teach the class dropped out a few weeks before the term began, and I had happened to contact the organization when they had a real need. I had a decent handle on my Mandarin, had some experience tutoring, and most importantly had a college degree (so that I’d be eligible for a residence permit as a “foreign expert”). I squeaked in, and honestly it was pretty difficult at first. Like most Americans, I had never really thought about how to explain when you would use the Present Perfect instead of the Past Progressive tense, or teaching the difference in usage between the words “other” and “another.”]
All of this underscores the fact that the generation of educated, empowered Tibetans who know the effective and global methods that are necessary for sustainable development is just now emerging. But their independence and intimacy comes with a cost: organizations of this kind suffer the greatest risk of falling under suspicion by the government. To some of us on the ground, the Western students that unfurled a Free Tibet banner near Mt. Everest made our jobs that much more difficult. On the other hand, the international community should not turn their heads when local protests break out across an area and are met with a violent and shrouded crackdown.
I also appreciate the importance of what Tibetans in exile have done to preserve traditional Tibetan institutions, art, music, dancing and more. Their passionate advocacy for the cause of saving Tibet is pressing the entire world to acknowledge the political side of this struggle, and I believe that in the end Tibetan Buddhism and language will survive this trying historical period on both sides of the Himalayas. But in a land where many stable Tibetans keep a picture of Chairman Mao in the living room and His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the shrine room, it will take more than that alone to Save Tibet.
Interesting fact from my Chinese prep course today – There is no geographically defined area known as Tibet today. Those who are Tibetan speak the language. The Chinese define themselves as Tibetan by their language and their culture, not by geographic lines drawn on a map. The recognized border lies along the Himalyas, but covers Xizan, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces. Tibetans are nomadic people who live where they can graze their animals.
So what you’re actually saving is a people, a culture, a way of life, not a piece of land. That makes the effort even more important. In the US we have lost many of our Native American Indian Tribes. They were totally wiped out by wars, the Army and disease. They were assimilated into other tribes or into American culture. These tribes, their language and customs are gone forever.
The same has occurred in other countries with other indigenous persons. The Tibet movement is a chance to save this culture.
I am happy to see your interest in this subject. I thought that you felt that this is an issue that we shouldn’t be covering, given the pressing issues we face in our City and State. Lamar and I have had this discussion before: Does it make sense for passionate Louisianans to use their talents abroad, considering the amount of work that must be done at home?
I agree with your comment, but of course want to build on your thoughts. Xizang is a Chinese word that means Tibet, and these days pretty much refers to the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”. Tibetan cultural areas extend to even more provinces than you mentioned, namely northern Yunnan and southern Gansu.
It’s very true that “Saving Tibet” means looking at culture and language, beyond just land. This is why the “Free Tibet” movement has been generally replaced by efforts to “Save Tibet.” Not all Tibetans are nomadic, in fact: the majority of my students were from farming families. Farming Tibetans would trade their barley for yak meat and dairy products from the nomads.
You’re right that the Himalayas were traditionally the border between the old Hindu Kingdom of Nepal and the looser Buddhist Tibetan federation. Sherpas are a famous Nepali group, but they are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally more Tibetan than Nepali (There are over 50 language groups in Nepal, a very diverse nation for being the size of Tennessee). That’s why you see Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags in the Everest area. In fact, when the King of Nepal stepped down a couple of years ago there were a number of Nepali communities to come forward and claim that they were in fact Buddhist, not Hindu as the King had always claimed. All of this is of course not nearly so black and white an issue.
Since you point out that now Tibet is more than just the land (though geography defined their civilization, as with any indigenous group), it’s important not to forget the large numbers of Tibetan communities now in Nepal, India, and even parts of the West. They are doing a lot of the important work to save their own culture, though many young Tibetans don’t see the point because they don’t think it can help them get jobs.
It’s true this story has played out time and time again, not just in the modern world. Tibetans are somewhat fortunate that Tibetan Buddhism has become a cause celebre all over the world. They are blessed with such a visible leader as the Dalai Lama. Other cultures (Muslim Uigyers in Northwest China come to mind) experience the same threats but don’t have the same international appeal as Tibetans.
Daniel – didn’t say you shouldn’t cover it. Just suggested you might want to do a new series based on what’s going on at home.
I am quite fortunate in that I get to travel often and travel abroad. The only way to prevent some of the ignorance that exists in some of our society which leads to racism and prejudice is to experience other cultures first hand and to learn about them. By becoming educated about what other people are about, their culture, their religious beliefs, their thoughts, their basic concepts of how they live their life, only then can we begin to appreciate how truly close we all are.
I visited the World Cultural Forum last year in Monterrey Mexico. On exhibit was a show of artifacts and art on the topic of migration. Not only did the show present information on how animals migrated from one area of the globe to another, but also people and how we all had evolved over the many ages of our planet. To see the connections presented in a visible form were truly eye-opening.
This actually is for all posts – can someone explain your “timestamps”? What time is actually appearing when someone posts? I noticed the time next to some comments I made on Friday appears much later than when I actually posted them and just wondered what time zone your timestamp was reflecting.
WordPress forces us to use GMT. Anything posted after 7PM appears as if were posted the next day.