My Tibetan Students and I
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 would place 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 individual 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.
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