Hindu Vivek Kendra
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Inside China's Tibet: How Tibetans Make A Statement

Inside China's Tibet: How Tibetans Make A Statement

Author: Vijay Kranti
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: August 20, 2002

In China's Tibet today one thing which is at premium is the knowledge and fluency in English. A Radio Jockey on Lhasa's Radio China International is a dream position that a young Chinese girl or a Tibetan boy would love to reach - irrespective of the trash or pidgin that some of the RJs roll out. Young girls and boys, working as tourist guides in Potala palace or in the government controlled tourist circuits are another lot who are a target of envy among the youths living in today's Lhasa. But there are situations when being young, educated and English speaking does not guarantee any convenience and advantage. More, if one is a Tibetan and sitting among inquisitive foreigners in a restaurant or another public place. I learnt this lesson in a sudden meeting with a young Tibetan in a Lhasa restaurant. The ease with which he answered my quarries in English about a place was tempting enough for me to ask him if I could share his table.

He was a graduate from a Chinese university and works in Lhasa. Soon I realized that he was waiting for his girl friend to have dinner in that restaurant. After exchange of formal niceties I placed order for cold drinks for both of us and kept asking him elementary questions about the social life in Lhasa. In the beginning he looked enthusiastic but as our meeting crossed five minutes I could see his discomfort and restlessness. From the sides of his eyes he was looking at people on tables around us to ensure that he was not being watched for talking to a foreigner.The last straw came when I asked him about his assessment of how acceptable was the Chinese sponsored Panchen Lama boy to the Tibetan people as against the one recognized by the Dalai Lama in exile. By that time his girl friend had also joined us and he had already explained to her about me. I too had waved for a third drink to the Tibetan waiter girl for the lady. My question had an electrifying effect on him. He looked down on the table for a moment, held his girl friend's hand and signaled her to stand up.

In a soft and friendly voice he said, "You are asking very difficult questions. I am afraid my wrong answer will not satisfy you." And before I could absorb what he had said, he stretched his hand for a good bye and said, "I am sorry, we have to reach a friend's place for dinner." He nearly pulled his girl friend out of her seat, went to the cash desk, paid for all the drinks and walked out with a light good-bye nod to me. His statement was far clearer than I had expected.

I got the real answer to this question in Shigatse, the second largest city of Chinese occupied Tibet. The town is home to Tashi Lhumpo monastery, the seat of Panchen Lamas. In 1995 China arrested the six year old Gedhun Choeky Nyima, the boy recognized by the exiled Dalai Lama as the 11th incarnation of Panchen Lama, and installed its own hand picked boy Gyaltsen Norbu as the 'real' incarnate. Tibetans are fond of displaying the pictures of their incarnate lamas at any and every available place in the house or place of work.

While no Tibetan would dare display a photo of Dalai Lama or Gedhun Choeky Nyima, the photos of the Chinese sponsored Gyaltsen Norbu too are conspicuously absent from shops, small bakeries, restaurants and even poster shops that dot each street in Tibetan cities. People, instead, display big portraits of the late 10th Panchen Lama - a too clear statement to be misunderstood.

The only place where I could see the Chinese sponsored Panchen Lama's picture during my 8-day and 750 km. long encounter with today's Tibet, was inside Tashi Lhumpto monastery. Here too, one can not miss how the Tibetan devotees quietly bypass his seat and picture. In sharp contrast one can recognize the vacant seats of Dalai Lama in every big or small monastery just by the large heap of Khatas (ceremonial scarves), and currency notes offered by the devotees. One also can't miss long scarves tied around wooden pillars of Norbulingka, Dalai Lama's summer palace from where he escaped to India in 1959. Yet another statement of an occupied people?

There are occasions when Tibetans make loud political statements too. But after the 1987 public demonstrations and the ruthless Martial Law that followed, the frequency of open public demonstration of anger has gone down drastically. It is only once in a few months when a couple of monks, nuns or lay Tibetans would surprise the PSB agents and the bystanders in Barkhor with a Tibetan flag, flying pamphlets and shouting slogans. It is a public knowledge that this kind of act is bound to result in severe physical torture plus 8 years in jail, if not 25 or 40 years. There are more than 400 of them languishing in the dreaded Drapchi prison of Lhasa alone.

In past 50 years Tibetans have had enough lessons on how to live with their Chinese masters. They have been through testing periods when anything Tibetan was the focus of Chinese destruction. Not only the temples and the omnipresent Chorten (Stupa) were destroyed, even the 'Dhongmo', bamboo tea mixer used for making Tibetan salt-and-butter tea was banned for decades. It was not uncommon to face public ridicule, even public spitting and kicking, in a 'Thamzing' (community conducted public trials) for crimes as serious as holding a prayer wheel 'Mani' in public or for making tea in Dhongmo which makes gurgling sound that is audible a street away in quiet morning hours.

No wonder Lhasa looks peaceful and Tibetans appear to be content with the Chinese rule to a visiting tourist who is overwhelmed by massive buildings, ultra-modern shopping arcades and, off course, by Tibetans going around the Jokhang temple with their rotating prayer wheels and clicking rosaries. But if you are one of the kind who would not get swayed by this glitter, then you are surely not going to miss the statements people make even at an as impossible place as a discotheque. Unlike the Chinese Karaoke bars that offer every kind of music and sex escapades through an ever increasing population of Chinese prostitutes from the mainland, the Tibetan 'Nangma' is a different kind of experience in beer, dance and social life. These discotheques have come to stay practically as the only public place where 10,  50 or even a hundred Tibetan youths can meet under one roof.A Nangma would come to life after 11pm when Tibetan girls and boys in the age range of 13 to 30 suddenly start pouring in groups of twos, fours and even a dozen at a time. All dressed in jeans and T-shirts sip Coke, beer or just mineral water and swing on hard Chinese Rock amidst a flood of laser beams, crystal lights, dry ice fog and nauseating cigarette smoke. Dance sessions take intermittent breaks when live singers take to the floor.

The evening when I witnessed the show started with a 'Tashi Delek!' song by a young male singer. Sung in Tibetan, the good-luck wishing song attracted a long scarf from the management and many cheers from the crowd. Next song was a politically correct one praising Beijing for whatever it does to Tibet. Not a single clap. No cheering. No scarves. The real hero was another young Tibetan who presented a traditional love song that filled the hall with a bursting applause and two scarves from the crowd in addition to the one from management. But anyone hardly listened to him when he presented a politically correct song in Chinese that showered praise on Tibetans for improving the environment of the country. But the real stealer of the hearts was 'Madhuri Dixit', a young Tibetan girl dressed in an Indian Saree and over done make up. Though a poor imitation of the famous Indian cinema heroin from whom she borrows her nick-name, yet her Hindi song 'Chal Jhhoothi.' pulled all the plugs and drowned the hall in claps, cheers, whistles and - five scarves from the audience.

Among the Tibetan society at large too, there are many innocent looking songs like 'Agu Pema' (Uncle Pema) which quickly do rounds in the community and disappear before the Chinese authorities realize that the song had a political message behind it. This particular song which looks like one sung in the memory of a lost dear uncle is actually dedicated to the exiled Dalai Lama who is also revered as 'Pema' (meaning 'Lotus') among the Tibetans. This song is already out of circulation inside China 's Tibet but it is still a hot number among the exiled Tibetans who are always eager to hear any political statement that emanates occasionally from their colonized motherland.

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