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Essay: My Tibetan Students and I

April 30, 2009

Written by Nimrod
Fool's Mountain: Blogging for China
April 29, 2009

The following essay (translated below) written by
somebody named "Crystal" was posted to Woeser’s
blog. I am not sure that is the origin of the
article, as some attribute it to ???
(their version here
http://www.zaobao.com/forum/pages/forum_lx090425h.shtml).
But it has been slowly spreading since to other
sites like Anti-CNN, MITBBS, and Minkaohan
forums. I think it’s a very good essay,
informative and incisive. I will also post some
comments from those other sites. Feel free to chime in.

* * *

China’s mainland has many Tibetan programs. Those
in Tibetan areas can start applying to these
after graduating from elementary school. After
they finish middle school, they can test for high
school or vocational secondary school. After high
school, they can test for university. Those who
finish vocational secondary school go directly
back to Tibet to work. The Tibetan students who
study in the Tibetan programs of the mainland
must go back to Tibet to work, because all of
their tuition and stipends are paid by the government.

 From 1998-2000, I taught for two years at
Shanghai’s Administrative Management School.
Shanghai has two schools with Tibetan programs.
This is one of them. When I was allocated to be
the headmaster of a Tibetan program, I was really
excited at the novelty and my mind filled with
thoughts of the land of the snow, hatas, and
Potala Palace. The Principal and I took a few
senior Tibetan students to the train station to
pick up the new students. These senior students
have long adjusted to life in Shanghai. They were
quite capable and looked after each other well.
When they took the new students back to school, I
never had to worry because they took meticulous
care of them. And these of my own Tibetan
students would also have such a transformation in a short few years.

When I first met my Tibetan students, the shock
was still great. They were already students who
had studied for three years in a mainland middle
school, but some of them were still unusually
shy. Speak to them gently and they get
frightened, and would laugh uncomfortably. I
think it must be the normal reaction of people
who lived for a long time in a closed and pure
environment when they first enter an unfamiliar
and bustling metropolis. The days were still hot.
When they sweat, a strong disagreeable odor would
come from the Tibetan students, and Han students
and teachers would all find it hard to bear. But
showing any disgust would be highly offensive. To
get the new students into the habit of bathing
regularly was a difficult task. The girls
adjusted quickly and the boys took a bit more effort.

In all honesty, our ethnic policy has done a lot.
I see online the argument that the Communist
Party of China has the best ethnic policy in all
of China’s history. I don’t know about this, but
I can say what I’ve seen. The country shoulders
all the tuition, living costs, and medical care
costs, and all the life necessities and school
supplies are provided by the school. There are
even two enterprises that give out generous
scholarships. Every year during Tibetan New Year,
we give them money to buy decorations and
additional meals. Every year there is free
travel, movies, performances, and outings. There
is also really nothing that can be called thought
control. As headmaster, I never say anything
about cardinal principles. At the weekly
classwide meetings, all that we tell them
patiently are things like don’t smoke and don’t
get into relationships. But I do want to say some
problems from my observations.

 From what I know from my Tibetan students, I
think the rich-poor gap is very big in Tibetan
regions. Tibet is a place with a very harsh
environment. If you’re a common farmer or herder
and depend on your own labor, your income is very
low, and your life is very difficult. But the
country has invested enormously in Tibet, to the
point where as long as you are not a farmer or
herder, and have any kind of job at all, whether
it’s in the bureaucracy or a plain factory
worker, your income is very high. I’ve seen my
students’ school records, which have their family
background. Back when it was 1998, according to
one student, his father was an ordinary factory
worker with a monthly income as much as 6000
yuan. While the common situation in Shanghai at
the time was about 1000 or 2000 yuan. This caused
the large rich-poor gap. The students in my
class, if they came from a rural family, had no
money at all beside the stipends to cover living
costs given by the country. But if their parents
had jobs, then they would spend extravagantly,
clearly exceeding the standards of ordinary
Shanghai students. The most extravagant spender
in my class, also the one that gave me the
greatest headache, was said to be the son of the
principal of the TAR Party School. Later I saw
reports that the central government noticed the
problem and increased subsidy to farmers and
herders. But China is big, and subsidies won’t
ever make things fair and equal. My colleague
went to Qinghai last year representing the
Ministry of Education. Since China is a typical
place where the squeaky wheel gets greased, so
the country has invested heavily in Tibet and
Xinjiang, but neglected Qinghai. Life in Qinghai
is very hard. Also because in Qinghai, Gansu, and
Sichuan, Tibetans live in mixed quarters with
other ethnicities, so the country cannot just
subsidize Tibetans, so Tibetans outside the TAR
benefitted very little. If you watch the news,
frequent incidents happen mostly in places like
Qinghai and Sichuan, not inside the TAR.

 From this there comes another problem of
corruption of officials. A senior girl student
with whom I have a personal friendship has told
me, she is a daughter of herders. They know that
testing into a Tibetan program in the mainland is
the opportunity to change their fate, so they try
the hardest they can. But if a region recruits
ten students, they almost need to be in the top
three to have a chance, because the other spots
will be taken by people with connections. In
Tibet’s bureaucracy, the CCP relies on Tibetan
cadres it has cultivated to administrate. Because
they are heavily relied upon, added to the
sensitivity when communicating with different
ethnicities, Tibetan cadres are under looser
discipline compared with those of other regions.
Clearly this leads to more serious corruption. At
the same time, corruption of officials brings
more serious and complicated consequences in
ethnic regions. Among my Tibetan students, some
don’t care one bit about studies because somebody
has got their back, because their parents or
relatives are cadres. On the other hand, some
very hardworking sons and daughters of rural
families know that no matter how outstanding they
are or how hard they try, they won’t have a great
future prospect. It’s not like in a big city like
Shanghai, where there are all sorts of job
opportunities, anybody can find a niche based on
ability, Tibet is heavily dependent on the
central government, and students get assigned for
any kind of job. So it becomes the hotbed of
corruption. The Tibetan girl I like scores first
every year, but after graduation she became an
accountant in a small restaurant in some remote
place. Another class leader who performed well
went to the countryside. That place doesn’t even
have electricity. He writes to me with some dark
humor saying he holds a candlelight party every
night. Another far less worthy student than her
enjoys a comfortable high-paying position as a
government worker in Lhasa. The social inequality
that I see in my students, when magnified to
every aspect of the region, makes me fear that
dark currents and submerged dangers run in TAR.
Official corruption and social inequality are
commonplace anywhere in China, but in an ethnic
autonomous region these conflicts can easily become acute.

Because of the heaven-and-earth difference in
fate that results from getting a good job or not,
some students from rural backgrounds demonstrate
an extraordinary intensity of trying to get
ahead. After I had just announced the class
leaders list, a student stayed after class to ask
me directly about being the class leader. He said
he could do all the work, that I wouldn’t need to
worry about anything. All he wanted to be was
class leader. Then another student told me the
same thing. Later I discovered that those who
spoke to teachers in insincere ways or who were
cold were mostly children of cadres, for they had
already entered the country’s ranks. And those
who were energetic and took initiative were rural
students, for they wanted to make their way in.
My class leader was highly capable. He took care
of everything and I had no place to lend a hand.
I tried to implement democracy in my class, and
let them cast votes to elect class leaders, but
even such a simple thing caused complicated
factional struggles. When I found my class leader
even snitched on me, I felt anger inside. At this
time, he picked up an IC card on the playfield.
Of course he knew this belonged to another
Tibetan student (the school gives Tibetan
students special IC cards and fills these every
month with a certain amount of cash, which they
can use in the cafeteria or school stores), but
he still went to a store and spent it all in one
go. But the Tibetan program just has 200-300
people, the store owner knew everybody. Someone
who ordinarily spent little suddenly spending a
huge amount would certainly have made a strong
impression. The owner of the card only needed to
make an inquiry to find out everything. And if
this kind of thing were reported to the school
his class leader position would be revoked. It is
said that my class leader kneeled down and begged
others not to let a Han teacher know about a
disgrace among Tibetans. They let him go. But his
own class did not let him go and told me. I
called him to my office and asked him. He didn’t
admit it at first, but shut up soon. I saw that
he was under enormous stress, so we talked about
other subjects, like his family situation. He
kept forcing his mouth into a smile and said how
difficult it was for Papa and Mama to make a
living planting back home, how they could do
little work when they got on in their years; how
something happened to one of his elder brothers,
and another one was washed away by a river and
drowned when cutting timber. He was a boy of 1.80
meters with a big and tanned face, and still he
kept his mouth open as if smiling, but big drops
of tears fell. He said, he was the only boy left
in his family. When he left, he promised his Mama
that he would do well and promised he would
overturn their fate. Other students more or less
had some spare money from home, but he got not
one cent from his family. When he saw classmates
buy this and that, he was envious so when he
found the card… I think I will never forget that
face with mouth smiling but big drops of tears falling.

An inequitable society can twist the psychology
of people. Many Tibetan student leaders can speak
bureaucratic language even better than Han, and
have beat the Han at their own game of mastering
the unhealthy parts of bureaucratic culture. I am
often amazed at the appeal of the Dalai Lama
among Tibetan people after fifty years. While the
power of religion is no doubt significant, it
likely has also to do with the lack of credibility of government officials.

Another problem I have sensed is the estrangement
between Han and Tibetans. At school, it is rare
to find personal friendship between Han and
Tibetan students. Because the country has a
protective policy toward minority ethnicities,
were any dispute to happen, the bias is
definitely toward minorities. The school and
teachers repeatedly educate the Han students to
take care not to cause any ethnic issues. This
fearful mentality meant people who wanted to
avoid any potential for trouble would interact as
little as possible. Without personal interaction,
their observation of a group often landed on
those individual cases of really superb or really
terrible members. I see a lot of online
commentary that says Tibetan students get drunk
and hack down Han students with knives. Our
school also had such situations, where a Tibetan
student got drunk and went out to town letting
loose, trashing windows and street lamps. The
whole town didn’t mutter a thing and let him
trash what he willed. But this is a very
individual case. If you don’t interact with the
group, all you see are the outliers. If you
interact with the group, you’ll find that most
people are good. Turning the table, we also see
Han people acting uncivilized abroad but they do not represent all Han people.

I love my Tibetan students very much. But my
romantic vision at the beginning gradually
disappeared. I feel that people everywhere are
the same. If they have some special
characteristics, these must be imprinted by their
environment. Usually we believe Tibetan people
are simple and warm, unmoved by materialism. But
I think this is caused by living a long time in a
closed and monotonous environment. In my
observation, my Tibetan students all adjust to
Shanghai very quickly. They go from nervous and
shy to fashionable and confident quickly. In a
matter of months, if they have the financial
resources, they become no different from the
young Shanghai boys and girls. They don’t get
assimilated into Han, but they get urbanized,
modernized. This is certainly not the deliberate doing of the government.

I don’t believe that Tibet was heaven fifty years
ago, because my students showed me her family
photos from the Fifties. They frightened me. The
people looked dark and skinny with lifeless
expressions, like woodcut. She too told me that
before Liberation people only lived to about
thirty. And there wasn’t really a marriage
system. Her two younger sisters don’t have the
same father as she, I think. Maybe many passersby
like to see the virgin culture, but for those
living in it, they have the right to a happier
life, rather than turning their lives into a
living fossil for others to observe. On the other
hand I want to remind my Han compatriots, don’t
pretend other people are too simple-minded. You
think you liberated them from a dark and horrible
feudal serf system so they ought to be forever
grateful. You think you spent so much money so
they ought to show they are happy and owe favors
to you. Yes, these facts are definitely not
false, but any person has dignity and independent
thought, an ethnic group more so.

A subject that the Vice Principal responsible for
Tibetan students never forgets to mention at
school meetings is to make Tibetan students
"recall bitterness and think of sweetness." One
time he said, you know you need to treasure the
educational and living conditions of Shanghai,
last year when I dropped off graduates to Tibet,
it wasn’t a far place, just a suburb outside
Lhasa, but what those farmers in the fields were
eating… Before he could finish, the senior
students started to jeer and whistle,
overpowering his voice. The teachers commented
among themselves that the Tibetan students were
different from before. The graduating class had a
chance to visit a big Shanghai enterprise like
BaoSteel. In the past, when you asked Tibetan
students where they wanted to go they were always
excited, but now when you ask them they are very
cold. They are not interested. Some Tibetan
students told me privately that “you just want to
tell us how advanced you are, how backward we
are; how much you gave us, and we all depend on
you.” Another time, I had my class leader come to
get his class schedule from my office. After he
looked over it he said, “Teacher, I will add a
word.” I was surprised because I didn’t know
where I made a mistake. He took a pen and wrote
“Han” before “Language Arts”, so it read “Han
Language Arts”. I said, “Isn’t this the same?” He
said sternly, “There is also Tibetan Language
Arts, so which language arts it is needs to be
specified clearly.” But the school doesn’t teach
Tibetan language arts, not because the school
doesn’t attach importance to it. At some point,
the school had employed a Tibetan teacher to
teach Tibetan language, but after a year he left
because he felt lonely. These little things have
made me aware of the Tibetan students’ attachment
to their native language and culture.

I often think, this generation of young people,
Han or Tibetan, is completely different from
before. They are well educated and live in a time
of abundant information. They are all people of
modernity. Yet the imprint of ethnicity is deep
in their blood. Han should not think of
minorities in such simple terms as I give you
lots of money and care for you so you need to
know what is good for you and behave yourselves.
We are all the same kind of people, all living in
an era of radical change, all bearing the brunt
of industrialized culture and urban living, and
we are bewildered and feel at a loss between
keeping our traditional heritage and becoming
modern citizens. We need to love each other, pay
attention to communicate, and start this new life together.

What I find the hardest to forget is the send-off
my Tibetan students gave me when I was leaving
the school after testing into a graduate program.
Those were the peak high-temperature days of the
summer of 2000. They said they must drink. The
school forbade drinking so I went to their dorms.
Most of the cramped room was taken up by
double-decker beds. Thirty-seven or thirty-eight
degrees celcius, a room stuffed with more than
thirty people, every one gave me a hata and sang
a drinking song with raised glass. I was piled
full of hatas sweating and tearing up and could
hardly breathe. How many times in life could you
find such uninhibited and unadulterated emotion?

I love my Tibetan students. I think Han is like
the elder brother in a big family, who needs to
look after the younger brothers and sisters. I’m
afraid what the elder brother needs to do now
isn’t to arrange everything, but to quietly
listen to the brothers and sisters speak their
minds. After all, the elder brother is maturing,
and brothers and sisters are growing up, too.
Nothing is like the past any more.

--Crystal
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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