Gender & Identity, Race, Life, Inequality

How exploring Tibetan history helped connect me to my heritage

Learning about Tibet's history of rebellion has been an eye-opening experience.

While lazily scrolling through Facebook, I see a picture on my feed of a woman squatting among debris that, on closer inspection, appears to be her belongings. The soft rolling hills and scrubby plants frame her small figure wearing a magenta sweater, as brightly colored as the blue sky, as she gazes into the distance looking sad.

The picture has been posted by an old high school teacher who lives in Nepal. I learn that she is a Tibetan refugee who fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet over 40 years ago and now lives under a tarp beside a road, making tea for travelers who pass by. As she told them her story, she cried. As my teacher says, “she is a living reminder of what happened to Tibet.”

I have been brought up with an awareness of the long history of political conflict in Tibet and my own personal family connection. However, I’ve never been faced with the actual reality like encountering a refugee on the side of the road. It’s a story that many are unfamiliar with and those who are aware worry for the country’s future because of China’s hold.

Tibet is an ancient country but was invaded by Britain in 1903 to establish trade and prevent Russia from seizing control. This invasion made it easier for China to later invade Tibet themselves and in 1949-1950, the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China invaded the eastern provinces. One year later, Tibet, succumbing to pressure, handed over the political reins to the Chinese government, on the condition that Tibet’s spiritual leader, His Holiness The Dalai Lama would control domestic affairs. This continued until 1959 when, due to growing resistance, an uprising took place in Lhasa. The current Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India where he took up residence in Dharamshala. The Chinese government proceeded to destroy many sacred monasteries, killed thousands of people, and executed the Dalai Lama’s guards.

Since then the area has been renamed the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China or Xizang. According to Save Tibet, researchers have noted “severe restrictions” for Tibetan Buddhists in and outside the TAR region, explaining “They are not free to venerate the Dalai Lama openly, to proselytize in public or meet in unregistered places of worship.” It’s clear that by destroying Tibetan religion, language, and removing its native citizens that China is trying to wipe Tibet and its culture from the map.

Exiled Tibetans now live all over the globe. Though I have always been aware of my Tibetan heritage, all I know is through stories. I know my grandmother grew up in Darjeeling, India. My mother – despite having some awareness of her own background through visits to her grandparents in India – had a mostly English upbringing and attended a British boarding school. Of late, we are learning more and more about that side of our family. My mother has decorated our home with Tibetan artifacts passed down by my grandmother, photographs of her grandparents, and thangkas (or Tibetan Buddhist paintings).

I was curious how Tibetans were working to preserve their culture amid the cultural repression that still occurs today. I reached out to John James, the Campaigns and Advocacy Manager at Free Tibet, a United Kingdom-based non-profit, non-governmental organization that campaigns to end China’s occupation of Tibet.

When I asked how he thought Tibetans are striving to preserve their culture, John’s response was that because life in Tibet has become increasingly repressive, Tibetans now have to be creative in how they preserve their culture. “This has included holding community language classes to compensate for the declining use of Tibetan as a language of instruction in schools…solo protests against the occupation by Tibetans, who know they will be arrested…and other forms of nonviolent resistance. [T]he objective of these protests is to push back against the damage being done to their culture, and sometimes they are successful against the odds,” he said, citing a May 2016 case, where locals protested a mining operation which was polluting the water. Luckily by peacefully appealing to local authorities, citizens were able to halt operations until both sides reached an agreement.

When asked whether he had any sense of how the next generation of young adults was keeping Tibetan traditions alive in their own lives, John said that he wouldn’t want to speak for Tibetans but did see a blending of Tibetan traditions with modern lifestyles. In the UK, despite leading typical British lives, inside their homes are pictures of the Dalai Lama and traditional thangkas. On March 10th, many celebrate the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. “I suspect that this will be echoed in Tibetans communities in other countries, in the community in exile in India and inside Tibet itself, despite the risks that doing so may entail.”

For further insight, I turned to my mother’s cousin Ann Slater, an author, and professor of comparative literature in Japan. She has published many beautifully written essays and stories focused on Tibet and our family which have also helped open that world to me. Like my mother, Ann was raised with some awareness of her background, but it was minimal aside from family visits. In her essay Teatime in Darjeeling, she explores how her own mother put aside Tibetan culture for the most part and welcomed an American, modern lifestyle, but as Ann explains, she wanted to find out more about who she was so she returned to the source – Darjeeling. For Ann, tea is a ritual that helps her feel connected to our family and the Himalayas, especially the “28,000-foot Mount Kanchenjunga, soaring over the town; sacred Observatory Hill, where our family feasted at Losar New Year; the dusky waters of the Teesta River, where my grandparents’ ashes were scattered.”

Learning more about Tibet and my family in recent years has made me yearn to feel more connected to that part of my life, an effort which if I’m being honest, I wish I had begun earlier on. In some ways, I already am, such as with my love of loose leaf tea. But in other ways, I want to dig deeper. I would like to celebrate holidays, learn to cook Tibetan momos (dumplings) and learn as much as I can about my family history. Whatever traditions I develop, like me it will be a blending of my cultural background, where I came from and where I’m going.