Monday, December 18, 2006

People in Lhasa

Even though I stayed in Lhasa for nearly four weeks before I left, I didn’t spend nearly as much time talking with local people as I should have. Part of it was shyness and laziness on my part. Even in a (relatively) westernized, cosmopolitan city like Beijing I find it hard to get to know Chinese people, and after spending most of my first month traveling talking mostly with Chinese and Tibetans I was ready to spend more time with foreigners, who I could be more at ease with.
The majority in Lhasa was definitely Chinese, despite the Chinese government's claim that Tibetans make up three quarters of the city's population. It wasn’t as evident in the old town area, which seemed to be Tibetans dominated but which took up only a small portion of Lhasa’s area. The majority of Lhasa was Chinese-dominated.
What’s more, Chinese people clearly controlled the economy. I could not find a single store in Lhasa outside the stalls on the Barkhor that was not owned and mostly staffed by Chinese people, and most taxi drivers were Chinese as well. Most of the Chinese in Lhasa were from Sichuan, though there was also a large number from Qinghai. There were a lot of people from a variety of other places as well, including Zhejiang, Anhui, Jilin and Henan. All these Chinese shopkeepers and taxi drivers said they came to Lhasa because it was easier to do earn money there than in their home provinces. Most of them didn’t like living in Tibet and wanted to go back home at some point; in fact many of them said they left in the winter. Only one of them told me that he wanted to stay. Also, only one person- a taxi driver- told me that he had received such incentives for coming to Tibet. In addition to the Han Chinese in Lhasa there were also many Muslims, who usually ran restaurants or were butchers, and often came from Gansu.
Aside from poorer Chinese people who came to Lhasa for a better life there were also a number of middle-class Chinese who seemed to be there because they thought it was cool. Some of them ran bars or yuppie boutiques, and came from richer cities like Hangzhou, Chongqing and Beijing. They were more like me than most Chinese people- after all, I also wanted to live in Lhasa for similar reasons, though I would have liked a job that would have done more for Tibetans- and I spent a fair amount of time hanging out with them. A few of them seemed to be trying to escape their lives back home. When I asked one particularly awkward girl when she wanted to go home, she said “the later the better.”

Most of the Tibetans in Lhasa, especially the younger ones, spoke good Chinese and were pretty westernized (or I guess sinified). Most of them did low-paying jobs like street sweeping, housekeeping in hotels, and running small stands in the old town.
Tibetans often seemed a bit cooler than Chinese, especially younger, more urbane Tibetans. I think they are probably actually more different from Westerners than Chinese people, but there seemed to be something familiar in the way they carried themselves. In 2004 I had visited an English class for Tibetans in Xining, in Qinghai (Amdo) province, and felt closer to New York than I ever had in Beijing. The rowdy, loud class with students dressed in a vaguely hip-hop style felt a little like something out of the Bronx. Tibetan culture is basically nomadic, and they have always resisted being controlled, even by other Tibetans. I guess that makes them more rebellious and free-spirited as people- and perhaps more appealing as people than the straight-laced Chinese, who often can't make up their minds whether or not they actually like foreigners.
The Tibetan I got to know best was a girl who worked in the bar in the hotel I was staying at. She was about 20 and wanted me to teach English at her school. Her hometown was in Shigatse, to the southwest of Lhasa, and she had come to Lhasa against her parents’ wishes when she was around 16. Tibetans usually got married before their early twenties, but she didn’t want to start thinking about that yet. She wanted to go to school, but her family wasn’t able to afford it and in the end she decided to come to Lhasa because she could make more money there. At first, she worked for her older sister’s husband. Her older sister had married a Chinese man, which, she told me, was increasingly common- Tibetans saw Chinese people as being more attractive because they did not look as poor as Tibetans, who were often farmers or nomads. However, she did not like working for her brother in law. Her job was to accompany male patrons at his restaurant, which she didn’t enjoy at all- she was bookish and would much rather just study. So she changed jobs and started working at this hotel, which was generally not too difficult since there were never many customers at the bar. She wanted to read when she wasn’t busy but the bar’s owner told her she couldn’t. However, the job left her with enough free time to go to school, so she still felt that she was pretty well off.
Occasionally I went down to the bar to chat. She and the other bartender- also a Tibetan girl- were often calling their brothers or boyfriends, who they would sometimes sing to over the phone.
Sometimes they were watching television when I came down. There was only one TV station in Tibetan, so they mostly watched TV in Chinese. The shows consisted of the usual assortment of historical dramas, American Idol-like singing contests and documentaries that you find everywhere in China, but I found one show particularly interesting. It was a quiz game show, with competing groups of students from Tibet (I couldn't tell if they were actually Tibetan). They were asked questions about Tibet’s geography, culture and history, and their answers all reflected the Chinese government’s version of reality in Tibet. The final question was this: “What four revolutionary traditions do Tibetans have?” When the students heard the question they all looked at each other in confusion. The Tibetans watching the show with me all giggled. After discussing the question with their teammates the students were all able to come up with three of the “traditions” (unfortunately I don’t remember them) but were still stumped by the fourth. By this time the Tibetans were in stitches. In the end the MC had to tell them the answer- “the tradition of opposing the Dalai Lama.”
As in western Sichuan, I found that Tibetans in Lhasa were not as virulently anti-Chinese as Tibetans in Qinghai. I still never asked people outright what they thought about China, but Tibetans who I talked to did make it clear that they did not like speaking Chinese. Right after saying something to some people, they would often tell me “don’t speak Chinese!” If someone didn’t speak English we really had no choice, but if someone did speak English- and there were many people who did speak it, generally much better than the average Chinese person- they insisted that we use English.

I was surprised how many foreigners there were in Lhasa when I first got there. I was not used to seeing so many foreigners, especially white people, after traveling through the backwaters of Sichuan for so long. I wasn’t eager to spend too much of what little time I had in Tibet hanging out with non-Tibetans, but I did feel the need to do some socializing with other westerners, and I ended up spending most of my time with other tourists. A lot of people I met were very interesting, though most people seemed a little eccentric. One French man I met had hitchhiked across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia to Tibet, and claimed to have been on the road for 6 years. He said that he had only spent $25 between Xinjiang and Lhasa. When he needed money he would teach French, and had most recently taught in Urumqi in Xinjiang for a couple months. Zoe thought he was a little weird, I told her he was nowhere near as crazy as I would have thought someone who had traveled for six years should be.
I spent much of my second week in Lhasa hanging out with Kamal, the Iranian who had gone to the night market with me, Zoë, Jasmine and the Xinjiangese man. He had biked to Tibet from Xinjiang, through a region claimed by India and over four passes that were over 5000 meters high. However, he had injured his arm partway through the trip, and had to go the rest of the way by bus.
He had one of the more interesting life stories I have ever heard, and though I don’t remember the details it’s still worth giving a basic outline. He was in the Iranian army after the revolution, which he claimed involved more pot smoking than training. “That’s why Iraq was so successful when they first attacked us,” he explained. Despite having been in the army he was opposed to the current government, and had abandoned Islam for Zoroastrianism, though he would still pretend to be Muslim when he had to deal with Muslims in Lhasa. After the Iran-Iraq war broke out he went to Paris, where he lived as a petty thief, before moving to Canada, where delivered pizza to get by. Eventually he managed to get citizenship. He met his wife- a Chinese woman of the Bai minority- on a trip to Yunnan, and spent two years there teaching English. After going back to North America he somehow ended up owning a lot of real estate in Nevada, where he also manages a satellite communications company.
Kamal was an extreme shopaholic. Every day he would show us the things he had bought that day. It seemed like he had bought every item available in Lhasa’s old town, and claimed that he wanted to make a “Tibetan room” in his house. When he left he had to buy two large metal trunks to put all of his stuff in. His buying spree made him famous among the shopkeepers of Lhasa, and on his last day there he got five khatas (silk scarves Tibetans give to people setting out on a journey). He was very friendly- when he found out that he could make calls on his cell phone without getting charged he started lending it to everyone he knew in Lhasa, including me (I made an hour-long call to my family in the States). He also lent me his mp-3 player, which provided a much-needed break from Chinese pop. Several times I went with him on his shopping rounds and acted as translator. Perhaps his most impressive buy was a board painted by a furniture maker according to a design that Kamal himself came up with, which incorporated Tibetan and Zoroastrian symbols and style.

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