I met Yangchen Wanmo while roaming the streets of Dharamsala in pursuit of earrings. We became instant best chums when we discovered we were born in the same year. " Twin sisters !" Laughing, we fell into each other's arms in a spontaneous embrace . Yangchen spoke very little Chinese or English, so we had to look to her cousin Ahmaduo, who spoke passable Chinese, for translation. Yangchen was a widow. A dozen years ago, after the death of her husband, she and her four children smuggled out of Tibet and they had been living in Dharamsala since. Ahmaduo and her husband came much later, also via smuggling, and her daughter, 4 years old, was born in Dharamsala . Yangchen raised her family single-handedly by selling trinkets by the roadside . "Are you really better off here than in Tibet ?" I took Yangchen's work-worn hands in mine. Both cousins looked away, and after a brief pause, Ahmaduo said " It's difficult to say . We were told we'd have a better life here , we didn't know ........." . I got it . If you've little education you'll have a hard life no matter where you go. With little education you'd also be more prone to trust false propagenda . At dusk Yangchen's youngest son turned up to help her pack up shop . He just finished high school in the summer and had problem finding a job ; in fact none of his siblings had found gainful employment since they left school . "Wouldn't you consider further education ?"There was a sense of wistfulness about this handsome boy. " I might," he said in fluent English," or I might try to find job in another city ."
Dharamsala, for all its fame as "Little Lhasa", is an Indian city. Of its population of 20,000 , 5000 were Tibetans inhabiting the Upper Dharamsala. I'm long familiar with the Indian greeting " Namaste", which I first learnt in Nepal , but was now eager to show off my newly acquired Tibetan greeting: " Tashi Delek ", which I threw at every Tibetan I met. Tenzin was very amused by my effort . He had a make-shift table at the very end of the row, the jewellery displayed on it caught my eye because most of them were hand-made by him . Tenzin was a single guy of 32 , born and bred in Dharamsala, and his biggest wish in life was to migrate to Singapore .
" Oh, I know Singapore very well ! A lot of my friends say it's boring, but I like it ." I enthused. " But why did you pick Singapore ?" " My sister was married then settled in Singaore. I want to join her but my father refuses to let me go . He came here with the first wave of refugees and still dreams of returning to Tibet . Me, I just want to make a better living . " He held up a few pairs of earrings. "You've been to Singapore, how much do you think I can sell these for over there ?" " Well, at least 5-6 times what you ask for here, but don't forget cost of living's quite different there."
I met quite a few Chinese Tibetan lamas in the Dharamsala Tibbetan temples , distinguishable by bilingual Chinese/ Tibetan language abilities but no English . All the ones I talked to were on legal visas from the Chinese Government to study in Dharamsala . Andre our German friend made a big case about their learning the Chinese language as a part of " cultural genocide ". In Tibet, instruction in primary school is universally in Tibetan, Chinese language classes are brought in from secondary school onward . This has been blamed as the reason much fewer of the students enter tertiary education institutes, because their command of Chinese after just a few years of learning cannot meet the university entry requirement, so this is a case of you're damned whatever you do. Recently in Lhasa about equal time is given to Chinese, Tibetan and English classes in secondary schools . But hang on ! In Dharamsala the Tibetan children start learning a second language from primary school on , except , I beg your pardon, because it's English so it's not " cultural genocide " ! In fact the Tibetan exile leaders in India used English as the sole language and only became bilingual in 1994 . Indian schools in ethnic Tibetan areas do little to promote the Tibetan language, e.g. in Ladakh, instruction in school is in Urdu with a high dropout rate from Tibetans, yet India is never accused of "cultural genocide" against Tibetans .
Paradoxically, because of the affirmative action programs now available for Minorities in China, children of mixed Tibetan and Han parentage flock to register themselves as Tibetans so that they can claim the benifits . The same is happening with the Manchus who changed their names to Chinese after the fall of Qing Dynasty ; many have gone back to the Forbidden City where their old family records are kept to prove their genealogy so that they and their children can qualify for the programs. Under affirmative action the Tibetans do not have to pay taxes, they receive tax-free leases on land, low interest loans and duty free imports from Nepal, there's no restriction on the number of childbirths ( the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa has 6 sisters and 3 brothers ), and their children are given preferences for university admission and government promotion. The Tibetan lamas are the only religious personnels in China to receive free medicare and wages from the Government ; they also enjoy more autonomy than any other religious group in China.
religious ceremony in Tibet
I tried to explain to Andre the biggest threat of " cultural genocide " is actually from the West. The day before I wandered into a wood-work shop to admire the handicraft, and instead of the calm Tibetan Buddhist chant I was bombarded with a blast of familiar rock music . " What's that music ?" I asked the several 20 year- olds who were working hard at the new pieces . One of them looked up." Aerosmith ! They're our favourite band " " Ah of course," I said, " the Bad Boys from Boston !" More and more young people are lured away from religious devotions as a way of life as they take on Western values for their own, and the social fabric's changing fast. An old lady in another jewellery shop I visited had other problems . Her daughter's away studying in the US for the past few years. " How does she like it there ?" I chatted with her while taking a rest." Maybe she'd meet a nice American boy and not come back " " No American boy !" She jumped up abruptly , index finger an inch from my nose. "Over my dead body, your hear ? Over my dead body ! " " OK !" I hastily took a step back " No American boy !" Tibetan mothers of girls in Dharamsala have much to worry about, for even if their daughters go with Tibetan boys there's no guarentee they would not be enticed to enter the annual Miss Tibet Pageant ( started in 2002) , which many elder Tibetans see as un-Tibetan. To them the body is the house of the conscience, modesty is a virtue and inner virtues cannot be tested and measured by a contest. When would they ever learn Modernization is not synonymous with Westernization ?!
Thanks to Dalai Lama Dharamsala has become a tourist magnet, boasting 400,000 foreign and an equal number of domestic tourists every year . Everywhere one looks, on lamp posts and on walls of small Tibetan run cafes, are adverstisements offering Natural Healing, Foot Reflexology,crash courses on Buddhism, Miracles and Instant Spirituality, many of them hand-painted signs in Hebrew . For 15 years Dharamsala welcomed the Israelis with open arms, evidenced by Israelic businesses in Mcleod Ganj and an exchange program between Jewish and Tibetan children. The downside of being a trendy tourist destination surfaced in recent years when the new visiting Israelis are mainly young soldiers looking to blow off steam after the army service, and bring with them their lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll to the young Tibetans . Guest houses, beer bars, Internet cafes and yoga studios mushroomed, unfortunately also tatto and piercing parlors that sell under-the-counter drug paraphernalia . It's no longer an uncommon sight to see youths pushing drugs to foreigners and locals in broad daylight , and the nightclub culture of "trance and drug parties" is fueling more trouble . Tourists are destroying the Tibetan culture they seek out , Dharamsala is fast becoming another Indian spiritual center devoid of spirituality, the once unique culture degenerating into wholesale markets of tourist- orientated junks .
The tourist economy has also taken its toll on the city. Dharamsala is ill-equipped to deal with the multifold problems of rapid commercial growth : imperishable garbage, a direct product of Western consumer goods, litters the streets and clogs up streams ; diesel fumes from hordes of tourist vehicles poison the local populace and the sanitation system's at breaking point under the weight of expansion .
Daila Lama's residence
What do the local Indians think about all these ? A Parsi family runs the oldest general store in Dharamsala which opened in 1860 . It once boasted of selling "everything from a pin to an elephant", but is now practically being squeezed out of the market. Parvez Nowrojee, the 5th generation proprietor of the store had this to say " We Indians got up and say, you better not call McLeodGanj " little Lhasa" because we don't want it to become a Lhasa only. This land belongs to us ". Ironically it was Nauzer Nowrojee, the founder of the store who persuaded Nehru to let Dalai Lama settle in McLeodGanj in the 1960s . Nonetheless Indians and Tibetans generally get on well as most Tibetans have begun assimilating with their Indian identity, and inter-marriage between Tibetans and Indians are becoming more common .
The leaders of the diaspora community have carefully cultivated an idealized image of Tibetans as religiously devout, non-violent people , this imge has been pivotal to its success in raising millions of dollars from foreign governments , private doners and celebrities the past 50 years . This has worked well because of Western ignorance of the fact that the "elite religious tradition" is essentially cultivated by the aristocracy which constitutes only a small % of the Tibetan population . The Tibetan general public is mainly secular and falls prey to the same evils of modern urban living as the rest of us, this is evidenced by an appeal I came across posted by a Mr Sumtsul in the Office of Tibet last year about crimes committed by Tibetan teenagers in New York . The news never hit the wider community because they only rob Tibetan families, sometimes in broad daylight . Poor parenting, long hours at work, women in the work force and divorces are blamed for the high drop-out rates of Tibetan students and subsequent delinquency in inner city USA .
Though the Tibetans in Dharamsala are one of the world's wealthiest refugee communities, sadly this is not reflected in their health status. In 2009 a dental survey found only 20% of 15 year olds were caries-free in the permanent dentition; child vaccination program covered less than 50% of the population , Choice HIV Institution reported around 200 HIV infected Tibetans in that year and Tibetans in exile suffer one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world : while in the United States the rate of TB is 4 per 100,000 people, in India it is 130 per 100,000, but exiled Tibetans experience a TB rate of more than 800 per 100,000 . Though TB is not the biggest killer for the community - cancer is, in particular stomach cancer, it's nevertheless a public health hazard . Overcrowded housing and poor sanitation facilities are partly to blame . Tenpa C Samkhar, Health Secretary of government-in-exile, added, " With little employment available in the hills, 60-65 per cent of Tibetans travel to metros and bigger cities to sell sweaters for a living in early winter. They set up shop in the most congested parts of town, where air pollution and dust concentration are very high. To cut costs, they skip meals and work all hours, making them vulnerable," Maybe it's time more resources are spent on health care than propaganda .
money lama , an American lama only interested in extracting donations
A few years ago I went on a tour in Tibet . The Head Guide was born in Tibet but left to live in Dharamsala when he was a teenager ; he returned to work in China because of the money. He spoke Tibetan with the local Tibetan guide but would only speak English to us , which became a sort of status symbol to him as the local guide could only speak Chinese . " Do you think Tibet should become independent ?" I asked him . " Of course !" He said . I glanced at the local guide and was surprised to see disagreement in his face. It dawned on me that the local guide was already unhappy with the savvy superior manner of the foreign returnee towards him , and mass return of these people would likely make him second- class Tibetans among Tibetans, just like the East Germans after German re-unification . A recent study in Germany showed significant differences in perception between the two Germans even at 20 years after re-unification . Afterall the 2 Tibetans had 60 years of different life experiences . The SIL Ethnologue estimates as of 2009, about 230,00 Tibetans are dispersed worldwide outside China : 100,000 in India, 50,000 in Nepal, 2,000 in Bhutan and 80,000 in the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Taiwan and Australia . Most of these Tibatans have presumably assimilated with the culture and customs of their respective host country .
Tibetan Head guide from Dharamsala
Tibetan local guide and cousin , it's considered an honour to have a lama
in the family
Through the years I've visited many Tibetan monasteries in Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu, and have never personally witnessed any religious restrictions. I struck up a conversation with Da Hai ( Big Sea ) , an industrious young lama in the middle of his PhD in Buddhism . " What's your thesis on ?" I asked. " On Death " He said . " I'd be most interested to read it, can you send it to me when it's done ?" " Well, I can but it's in Tibetan " Buddhism has a long history in China with a large number of followers , and in recent years Han Chinese patrons ( mainly from China but also from Taiwan , Hong Kong and Singapore ) are an important and growing source of financial support for Tibetan Buddhist temples and sacred sites .
Dai Hai Lama
Tibetans-in-exile have always accused China of " population Transfer ". The truth is as of 2000, 92.8% of the total population in Tibet are ethnic Tibetans, while Han Chinese comprise 6.1% . In big cities the % of Han is higher, e.g. in Lhasa Han made up 17% of the population . This is in contrast to the native Alaskans who made up over half of the population of Alaska in the 1940s, now they are just 15% as a result of migration of people from the lower 48 States .There has never been government- organised resettlement program in Tibet , only liberated labour migration policy. The harsh climate and high altitude of Tibet are natural deterrents . In the 1950s and '60s Chinese officials and technicians were put to work in Tibet , but all returned home after retirement ; they have since been replaced by well-educated and qualified Tibetans according to the new policy in early 1980s . The multiple huge infra-structure projects inevitably attract workers from all over the country, but almost all leave after the contract ends . Unlike some Western countries, there is no systematic discrimination of employees according to ethnicity, the labour market operates according to market principles and the most skilled people get the job , moreover employment packages are not origin-sensitive ( unlike Hong Kong under the British when pay and benefits differed according to origin ): all local Tibetans employees enjoy exactly the same pay and benefits as their non-Tibetan colleaques, e.g. Tibetans whose ancestors lived on the plateau of Tibet for generations are equally eligible for the "high-altitude allowance " . In fact Tibetans are accorded preferential treatment in State jobs -Tibetans make up about 2/3 of the government employees in Tibet, though the important adminstration positions are held by Han Chinese . The population of Tibetans has doubled since the 1950s , as has life expectancy. So much for the alledged genocide in Tibet, maybe these people got them confused with the Sioux, the Apache and the Cherokee.........
Distributing T-shirts to Tibetan school children for the YMCA
It is true there are still much problems in Tibet, some of which are no different from those affecting Hans in impoverished areas , others unique to its climate and locality . Tibetans are mostly subsistence farmers and herders, the highland economy is much less diversified than other parts of rural China , and the distance and isolation makes it a poor choice for industrial development . Tibetans are left behind possibly also because of culturtal and language differences , something hopefully education can eliminate by and by. In most Tibetan cities and towns, Chinese and Tibetan inhabitants live in separate quarters . This was not unlike how it was in Hong Kong under British rule, while the British and the HK Chinese might work side by side they basically led seperate lives, almost as if they lived in parallel universe . In the same way I sensed certain distrust between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese . While in Tibet I visited a local hospital. The Han doctor I talked to was from Shnaghai ; because of a shortage of doctors in Tibet he was rotated to work there for 2 years as a condition for promotion when he returned to Shanghai . He made a face when I talked to him about healthcare work for the Tibetans . He was disdainful about the Tibetans because they often didnn't pay the fees due, and he was scornful about their hygiene habits . My driver, Mr Pearl, was a Tibetan in his 30s ( therefore born under the Red Flag) , but when I asked him whether he had any Chinese friends he said no. I was so upset I threw my arms around him and told him I'd be his first Han Chinese friend , and he beamed with pleasure . I wrote him after I got back to Hong Kong but he never replied. Pearl was illeterate in both written Chinese and English.
I might be a trifle grandiose in calling myself Han so readily, for not too long ago, Hakka , my father's ancestry, was not accepted as Han Chinese. Even today many northern Chinese still have no idea where to put us as an ethnicity. It's fair to say Han is a concept that resonates more with the West than the Chinese . Han is not a particular race. After Han Dynasty was established all the people under its rule were referred to as Han ren ( Han people ) regardless of their nationalities / ethnicities ; it was just a way to unite a large number of different peoples over a wide area with the idea of a common culture. But in Han Dynasty, Guang Dong was a fiefdom of its own right and ruled by its own lord , and only until Tang Dynasty that the people in Guang Dong, Hakka as well as Tanka , were assimilated enough with the rest of Middle Kingdom to identified themselves as Tang ren ( Tang people) . Therefore Southern Chinese are more Tang than Han, and as most immigrants to the West are Southern Chinese, so overseas Chinese restaurants are always called Tang Zan Koon and never Han Zan Koon .
People in the West used to think of Chinese as a mono-ethnicity, but when they found out about minorities in China they instantly draw on their own history of ethno-religious conflicts and see China as a colonial state of Han lording over all of its minorities , a fact utilised by the Dalai Lama to propagate his independence rhetoric as well as revisionist history to appeal to the West . But racism has to be understood in a different way in China, for unlike the West which had colonized pretty much the whole planet for a few hundred years, there is no similar history of slavery, colonialism and ethnic genocide in China . In the whole of Chinese history, even when expansions were precipitated by military conquests , almost all were inevitably followed by granting full Chinese citizenship to the conquered of whatever ethnicity . The idea is not to exterminate peoples but to bring them under one rule . China has managed its ethnic minorities in a more enlightened manner than most developed countries . During the years of the Big Starvation Muslims were given rations of beef instead of pork ; minority tribes that do not have a written language have their music and customs mediculously documented and preserved . Though the Republic of China adopted Pu-tong hua as the official language in the 1940s, many minority languages are also spoken and none is in danger of extinction . Unlike the US, minority languages ( including Mongolian, Tibetan ) are actually printed on the yan . What is peculiarly Chinese is the way Chinese people habitually identify themselves with the province or city they come from, e.g. Guang Dong ren, Shanghai ren , and almost never by ethnicity and race . Han, like Anglo-Saxon, are ancient terms that has little meaning in the modern world.
Sun Yat-Sen, after 3 centuries of " foreign" rule of the Qing Dynasty, preached unity and peace under the Zhong hua ming zu . Sun did not want to create a "Han" Republic, but a multicultural one, with power vested in all its people . Upon its founding, the Republic of China recognized five major ethnic groups : the Han, Hui, Mongols, Manchus, and Tibetans ; but it was only after the Chinese Communist party took over and following the USSR model, that the different minzus-including the Han- were given any kind of official status . Today the People's Republic of China recognizes 57 ethnic groups
The large ethnic minority groups in terms of population include the Zhang at 16 million, the Manchus at 10 million, the Hui at 9 million, the Miao at 8 million, the Uyghur at 7 million, the Yi at 7 million, the Tujia at 5.75 million, the Mongols at 5 million, the Tibetans at 5 million, the Buyei at 3 million, and the Koreans at 2 million . Even then categorization of people as Han or various minorities was not based on ethnicity or genetics ( recent DNA studies has shown much differences between Han Chinese from the South and the North), and can be fairly muddled. Han was often used to include anyone who didn't fit into any of the artificially defined minority groups , with the result the definition of Han identity has varied throughout history. Prior to the 20th century, some Chinese-speaking ethnic groups like the Hakka and the Tanka ( except there're so many different dialects in the provinces it's difficult to know which can be called the definitive Chinese language ) were not universally accepted as Han Chinese, while some non-Chinese speaking peoples like the Zhuang ( linguistic classification , Zhuang is a series of dialects related to Thai ), were considered Han . Zhuang is the second most numerous ethnic group in China , it outnumbers all the 4 minorities in the "Wuzu gonghe " list but in actuality were made up of many tribes that had almost no cohesion before they were lumped together and classified as a "Zhuang " ethnicity in the 1940s . Today Hui Chinese are considered a seperate ethnic group, but aside from their practice of Islam, little distinguishes them from the Han; two Hans from different regions might differ more in language, customs and culture than a neighboring Han and Hui. During the Qing Dynasty, Han Chinese who had entered the Eight Banners military system were considered Manchu, while minority tribes seeking to overthrow the Qing stressed Han identity in contrast to the Manchu rulers . Few people realises this but true to the Daolist holistic principle of inclusiveness, the 57th minority group is actually the white 4th generation descendents of missionaries who could be of Scottish , English, Spanish, Portuguese or some other European origin .
When a country becomes large enough, it always becomes multi-national/ethnical / racial/ cultural , e.g. the Roman / British / America Empire . The definition of " Chinese " for today's world is therefore not culture but citizenship . Under Zhong Quo, all the people within its boundary should be referred to as Zhong Guo Ren ( Chinese ), regardless of ethnicity. The modern sense of Chineseness is one that comprehensively incorporates the histories and experiences of all its peoples , Han and minorities , each of these component cultures are embraced and celebrated as inclusively " Chinese" , but without denying the ethnic identityof individual people. In West Sichuan, young Tibetans marry Hans , go to university in Chengdu and otherwise being completely integrated in modern China, but all the while sticking to their identity and proud of being Zangzu ( 藏族 Tibetan tribe ) . On the other hand, two of my friends are Manchu but I wear Cheongshan ( a legacy of Qing Dynasty which is now regarded as Chinese National dress ) a lot , while neither of them would be caught dead in one !
I strayed from our tour group one day in Dharamsala and was immediately accosted by Norbu, a pony-tailed youth who claimed to be a "student " and offered to show me around. Norbu regurgitated the usual hard luck story of persecution and escape from China, and I had to patiently educate him the ways of the real world. To claim Tibetans are singled out for persecution because of ethnicity is a complete fallacy. Unlike the West, suppression from the Chinese Communist Government is almost always class- and ideology-based, and almost never along ethnic/ racial/ gender lines . In 1989, at about the same time theTinanmon Student Demonstration was brutally put down , some Chinese Muslims also staged a protest against a book they said defamed them. The Chinese Authority responded not by crushing the demonstration but by arresting the author and banning the book, as the Muslims were demanding not democracy but suppression of another viewpoint . The arrest and imprisonment of Han democratic reform advocates , including Liu Xiaobo, are cases in point. But how are things in supposedly democratic countries who proclaim to be campaigners of human rights and freedom of speech ? The FBI harasses and raids anti-war organisations and their leaders inside the USA because their viewpoint differed from the reigning US Government ; the CIA kidnaps foreign citizens ( including German and British ) in a third country and the US Government puts them in American prison for years without trial ; the secret service of USA , Britain and Germany spies on their own journalists and citizens, albeit in the name of Anti-terrorism . No different from China . All countries have skeletons in their closets but there are just too many double standards being thrashed about . Anti-riot Police put down riot in Los Angelos and Paris the same way riot in Lhasa was put down, but without the criticism China was heaped with .
top of the world
The Chinese Empire has waxed and waned from dynasty to dynasty over the past 2000 years , borders and treaties are at times so imprecise one can make it to mean whichever one wants . Even the Dalai Lama has said that the Hans and Tibetans have historically been like "brothers", which explains why Tibetans never bothered to demarcate their territory with the Hans . By far the only indisputable fact is China has more of a claim on Tibet than America has on much of the United States . While it would be wrong to blame all tension from minority groups in China on foreign incitement, it is nevertheless true some part of it can be traced to outside manipulations . Zhuangs at 16 million and Mongolians at 5 million are politically quiet because there's no advantage to any particular country to arouse them ( as yet ) . The Uyghur Independence Group is supported by the global Islamist movement which incidentally was initually created in reaction to Western Imperialism ; though it's rumoured the Uyghurs also receive part of their fundings from the CIA . On the other hand, the militant Tibetan Youth Congress , a rising Terrorist Organisation of violent extremists , definitely has close ties with the US , so much so their members are issued US citizenship under a special dispensation of the US Immigration Department.
At this point in time China-bashing is still centered on the 3Ts - Taiwan, Trade, Tibet . Andre, who's friendly with the Dalai Lama, told me with certainty Tibet will gain independence in 10 years, because the Oracle said so . Not to appear disrespectful of the Oracle but it's hard for me to conceive 5 million Tibetans ( less than the population of Hong Kong ) taking over one quarter of the whole of China's territory , which is what the Tibetan Youth Congress demands . It is inevitable the importance of the Tibetan issue shrinks in direct proportion to the rise in importance of China in the International arena .
China's time bomb lies elsewhere : unemployed rural migrants have been behind some of the worst violence of protests .