Thursday, March 01, 2007

Last Week in Lhasa- an interesting conversation

The day after we did the prostration kora Rachel and John left for Nepal (they did the kora earlier on the same day that Kirk, Alex and I did it, like Rachel wanted to). Kirk left two days later, leaving just me and Alex. Alex and I hung out together over the next week, eating, enjoying Lhasa and resting. My muscles ached for days after the kora and even getting out of bed was painful. Also, a few days after doing the kora I came down with a bad cold and upset stomach that lasted for most of the rest of my time in Tibet.
Lhasa had changed a lot since I had arrived three weeks earlier. Not only was it emptying of foreigners, but Chinese tourists and residents were also leaving. At the same time Tibetans kept coming in. The Barkhor, dominated by Chinese tourists less than a month ago, was now filled with groups of nomads from all corners of the Tibetan world. Blackouts became more common, until every day alternating halves of the city were without electricity. A clerk at my hotel explained that because Lhasa was powered by hydroelectric dams there wasn’t enough electricity for the entire city when Tibetan rivers dried up during the winter.
A couple times that week I dropped by the store where I had tried to buy pot, and chatted with the owner’s wife. Her Chinese was so good because she had worked in Shenzhen, a factory city next to Hong Kong that is one of China’s richest cities and the destination of many of its migrants. She left Shenzhen because she was lonely there, went back to her hometown near Derge, got married and then set up a shop in Lhasa with her husband, selling relatively high-quality souvenirs. She used to sell tiger furs but had to switch after the Dalai Lama said wearing them was inhumane.
“It used to be a great business,” she explained. “Especially after the Chinese government banned them, then everyone wanted to wear tiger furs. But then when the Dalai Lama also said it was bad, everyone stopped buying them and I had to switch businesses.”
I asked her why people did the opposite of what the government told them.
“Because the government discriminates against Tibetans,” she said. I asked her for details.
“Well, they just do…” She thought for a second. “For example, if a Tibetan and a Chinese man are caught fighting, the police will always let the Chinese man go but arrest the Tibetan.”
“Aren’t there Tibetan cops though?” I asked.
“Yes, but they all have Chinese bosses. If they don’t listen to them, they’ll get fired.”
She then brought up the new train. She wasn’t very happy about it, and complained that prices had gone up while business wasn’t much better. A few other Tibetans had complained about the same things to me, though some also said it hadn’t affected their lives.
“All these people coming to Lhasa now, they have no idea what they’re doing,” she said. “They’ll buy anything. We sell quality goods here, but these people are easily cheated and tricked into buying junk. Tibetans used to be honest and pure. In the countryside people still are pure. But after moving to the city and doing business everyone gets corrupted. Even I’ve been corrupted,” she added, a little wistfully.
She went back to her original topic. “A lot of these new people coming to Lhasa on the train are ‘low quality (素质不好的)’ people,” she said. “Lhasa has gotten more dangerous. There’s been more fights and more robberies. This summer I saw a foreigner who got pick pocketed on the street… she was crying and yelling in the street. Later someone told me she was saying that she didn’t want her money, that if she just got her passport back she’d be happy. I felt bad, seeing her there, and wished I could help her. But since I can’t speak English I could only watch.”
“Before it was very safe,” she went on. “When I was little we could go out and play and no one had to worry, no one would bother us. Now, even though we’re richer, you can’t trust anyone anymore. Our China will always be that way, I guess. Grasp one, let go of the other.” I’m still not sure how literally to take the phrase “我们中国,” if it’s just a meaningless phrase, or if people mean it when they say it.
I was a little bugged by her view of China when she was little, which was probably during the Cultural Revolution. There are endless accounts of the chaos, cruelty and lawlessness of that time, even of virtual civil war breaking out in some provinces. It was certainly not a calm time in Tibet, with even collaborationist Tibetans being jailed and all of Tibet’s major religious sights being attacked. But some younger Chinese people, and apparently a few Tibetans, seem to look back on it as a peaceful, simpler time.

No comments: