Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Tibetans

I'm so swamped with work in Hangzhou that I've been almost oblivious to the heated media war between China and the West over the reporting of the recent riot in Lhasa. Only through reading my friends' blogs did I realize that it's actually a BIG deal out there. (Of the few I read, Rebecca's post here I found most close to how I feel.)

Honestly though, I don't understand what the big deal is--don't we know already that media, Chinese or Western, tend to write stories to fit their editorial bias? That the Western media tend to find some particular "Chinese" angles in their reporting? And that our beloved country tends to gloss over, intentionally or unintentionally, the historical wrongs done to ethnic minorities?

My first memory of meeting Tibetans was during a train ride at the beginning of the 1990s. I was in college then and they were highschool students coming home to Sichuan from Beijing. They were chatty sunny-looking kids who genuinely appreciated the chance attending better schools in the big Han cities--there's an entire program of that sponsored by the government. They said that they did not want to go back to their hometowns after schooling. They were eager, like most other people in China, for big-city life ("cultural genocide" was obviously not in their consciousness).

My second encounter with anyone Tibetan was in the mid 1990s in Boston. I was hanging out at Harvard Square. My Chinese friends were excitedly waving little Chinese national flags, waiting for the then-President Jiang Zemin to show up visiting Harvard. Exile Tibetans and Taiwanese were staging protests. Someone pushed a flag into my hand. I wandered by a protest stage. A couple of young Tibetans jumped at me. They yelled--Stupid Chinese, Don't You Ever Show That Stupid Flag of Yours at My Face! I yelled back--This Is America!

For many years after I could not forgive the Tibetans. Perhaps because of that close encounter. Or perhaps because I had an ex who's a Tibetan Buddhist Scholar absolutely loving everything Tibetan. I considered that too--as Lisa Simpson once famously said-- alternative in a mainstream sort of way.

Anyway, after my ex's constant brainwash over a few years, I stopped arguing that there's no ethnic bias towards the Tibetans because Chinese suffered harsh fate as well in the Cultural Revolution. I stopped getting into a fit each time my ex criticized China over Tibetan issues even though I was still pissed.

In the Spring 2004, I ran back to China. In Gansu I visited Xiahe, a big Tibetan town. I met a great Tibetan guy there who took me to visit his wife and his new-born baby girl in the hospital, and then his uncle who's a lama at the Labrang Monastery. They made me sweet Tibetan cakes in the lama's residence.

For a few years afterwards I cherished that sweet memory of Tibetan cakes in Labrang. Like all new-agey Chinese, I woo'ed and ahh'ed at everything spiritually Tibetan.

Then in the Spring of 2006, I met this young armed police guard of Mongolian ethnicity who came from Tianshui, another big Tibetan autonomous region in the Gansu province. He told me rough stories of growing up in that rough outpost region where the only high school in town was divided into two halves--Han and Tibetan. He studied with the Han Chinese who were constantly bullied and robbed by the knife-carrying Tibetan students.

The two sides constantly fought in school yards and in dorm rooms. One night during a particular nasty fight, the biggest Tibetan bully stabbed a broken beer bottle into the waist of a Han friend of the Mongolian kid. The Han kid spent months in the hospital. His friends, including my young Mongolian guard, sought revenge and ambushed the Tibetan bully one night. They beat the shit of him, and then they ran out of town.

The Mongolian guard said that before then, he had excelled in school and he had a beautiful sweetheart in the same class. That incident changed his life--he labored at an airport in Lanzhou before being dragged home by his uncle. The family sent him to the armed police to get him out of trouble. There went his dream of attending university with his beautiful sweetheart.

He told me that his raison-d'etre was to go back and to kill that Tibetan bully one day. His life had been completely ruined in that fateful night, by a swift thrust of a beer bottle held in the hands of a Tibetan. At my repeated requests not to kill, he would reply that he had his Mongolian pride to keep.

The moral of my drawn-out story? That people are stupid and we are all messed up.

So once again, I don't understand how the media and the media consumers can get so worked up over something--the Tibetan-Han relationship--that defies the line between black and white. I find myself again blaming both sides, which ends up feeling like hopelessly defending both sides.

It's complex. So... Am I being too indecisive?

Then at 5pm this afternoon, we got a mass email from the company HR: "Due to the upcoming Olympics, CAAC has decreased the number of flights to Beijing in order to cut down on traffic to the Capital. Please book your flight 4-5 days in advance if you need to travel to Beijing for business."

Ok, here's something so idiotic that there's no defending for it--at least not in my rush to feel decisively opinionated at something.

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