by Hayoung Kim (CDI Scholar ’09; McDaniel College ’13)
In the West, it’s commonly believed that Tibet is oppressed by China. While studying abroad in China, I had a chance to visit the Tibetan Autonomous Region (Tibet) to research human rights issues as part of a class I was taking. This opportunity allowed me to see for myself if the stories were true. Before I landed in the world’s highest altitude airport, in the capital city of Lhasa, Tibet was a mystery to me, but I couldn’t hide my excitement. Standing in the thin air, I had a hard time breathing for the first couple of days. Some of my colleagues suffered from altitude sickness.
In Tibet, I was fascinated by the country’s religious culture and beautiful scenery, which remain unspoiled by humans. The streets of Lhasa were full of ascetic monks and Tibetans walking around with prayer wheels and mala, which are unique Tibetan religious tools used when reciting Buddhist scriptures from the Mahayana Sutras. The way of life was quite different than what I had observed in Beijing. Tibetans dressed differently, wearing their traditional clothing—thick and conservative dress—and ate Yak momo (the Tibetan version of dumpling) and Yak butter tea. They also spoke a different language than the commonly used Mandarin Chinese, Tibetan, and lived in huge houses known as “common.” Typically, 25 to 30 households live together in one common, forming an enormous community.
During my research, my professor, Dr. Kabir, took us to different villages to engage with local Tibetans. Interestingly, the Tibetans I spoke with seemed satisfied with the Chinese government, which they say was doing as much as it could to ameliorate the living conditions in Tibet, one of the poorest regions in China. At one of the villages that I visited, Drigung Village, people were very nice; they invited us into their homes so that we could charge our cell-phones and cameras, and offered us their traditional yak-butter tea. I didn’t like the bitter taste, which reminded me of salt water that I tasted during science class, but since it was their way of showing respect and hospitality, I had to drink every last drop. One of the children I met was a very timid but energetic and ambitious boy named Tsering Chodun. His mother informed us that his dream would come true one day because the Chinese government was increasing the education budget for minorities inorder to close the gap between Han Chinese and Tibetans.
I was in Tibet for two weeks. What I witnessed during that time may not represent Tibet as a whole—there is of course the possibility that the villagers and Tibetans with whom I spoke were scared of foreign contacts and did not speak openly during the interview—but they were confident and relaxed, and happy. They showed me their Chinese flag and Mao’s portrait, which hung in their house. One of my new Tibetan friends told me: “I feel free as a bird, as long as I do not care about politics.”
View more images from Hayoung’s trip: