Students discuss experiences, history of Tibet, China

Tibetan student Olive Baerde and Mongolian student Khaliun Narangerel pose together for a portrait in Tisch Library on Feb. 28. Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily

Disclaimer: Khaliun Narangerel is a graphics and layout editor at The Tufts Daily. She was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.

Recently, the annual Parade of Nations event organized by the International Club (I-Club) caused controversy among the Chinese and Tibetan student communities. According to a March 1 Daily article, a group of students raised concerns first about the inclusion of Tibet in Parade of Nations and about the implicit labeling of Tibet as a country in promotional emails sent out by I-Club, causing a bitter debate.

Over the past two weeks, the Daily interviewed several students who have responded to this controversy to find out more about how they understand the history of Tibet and China, as well as their personal experiences with the issue. While the views here are not representative of all Chinese and Tibetan students or the international student community at large, they reveal the misunderstandings and disagreements that exacerbated the controversy on campus.

Senior Xiaoyu Shi, a Chinese student, understood that Chinese sovereignty over Tibet dates back to an earlier period in history.

“The region of Tibet has been under the rule of the central government ever since the Qing dynasty in the 17th century,” Shi said.

Shi added that several Qing emperors had portraits done in costumes associated with different ethnic groups and regions in China, including Tibet, which confirms the history of Chinese rule in Tibet for her.

Tenzin Chokki (LA ’17), who identifies as Tibetan, was born and raised in northern India in a city called Dharamshala, which Chokki described as the hub for Tibetans in exile. Growing up, she learned a different story regarding the history of the relationship between Tibet and China.

“Before we learned about the Chinese occupation, we did a comprehensive review of Tibetan history, that starts before the first kings of Tibet. After the kingdoms, and a period of uncertainty, the Dalai Lama system was established,” Chokki said.

According to Chokki, when Tibet was incorporated into China in 1950, Tibetans did not have enough troops to defend themselves and were not able to compete economically with China.

“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] used to tell the common Tibetan people that they were going to liberate them because they were living under an aristocratic system where they had no power, and they were going to help them live better lives,” Chokki said. “However, that was never the intention of the PLA. That was just a tool they were using to divide the people and to create a scenario where they would come in, eliminate the pre-existing system and take over.”

However, Shi disagreed. She shared her belief that Tibet was indeed “liberated” from aristocratic rule that had caused “slavery and starvation,” prompting the ruling elite to move to other parts of the world like India and Nepal.

“They are looking to recover their prestige by restating their old system of hierarchy in China,Shi said. “If you overthrow a ruling class, it will result in people claiming their old status.”

Junior Shari Sun, who is from China, doesn’t believe that the incorporation of Tibet into China was an entirely peaceful process, but asserted that the general consensus among Chinese citizens is that they wanted the people in their country to be united.

Chinese history books roughly only mentioned how the Chinese Communist Party managed to liberalize the Tibet area. ‘Liberalize’ is the word that history books use,” Sun said.

Chokki described her understanding of the events that took place prior to the 1959 Tibetan uprising concerning the 14th Dalai Lama, who Tibetans regard as their political and religious leader.

“[Chinese] troops sent [the Dalai Lama] an invitation to a Chinese opera and asked him to be the special guest, on the condition that he went by himself,” Chokki said, describing this as a red flag for the safety of the Dalai Lama. “It was an invitation for him to get killed.”

Following the uprising, the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamshala, where Chokki was born.

“We learn that we lost our country because the Chinese government occupied it. They say they came in to liberate, but it did not happen,” Chokki said.

Tibetan sophomore Olive Baerde, who went to school in Chengdu, China until sixth grade, offered their perspective on present-day discrimination of Tibetan people in China.

“People think Tibetans are very uneducated, they are like savages that don’t know anything. So many times, I didn’t want people to know I am Tibetan,they said. “My parents wanted me to learn Tibetan [language] but I didn’t want to learn because in school I was taught it was inferior, and I didn’t want to be that.”

The Chinese government has taken steps to suppress the expression of Tibetan cultural identity, according to Baerde.

“You are not supposed to sing Tibetan songs. If you do, they send you to jail. People had to write down the lyrics to remember their culture, and hid them in cigarettes,” they said.

Cheng Li, a sophomore from China, asserted that it is warranted for the Chinese government to curb the spread of Tibetan culture, including Tibetan Buddhism.

“The fact that the Chinese government goes against Buddhism in Tibet is because Tibetans associate Buddhism with the image of independence. For example, the Dalai Lama, who was the religious leader, advocated for separation,” he said.

Baerde believed that their experiences form part of a broader pattern of what life is like in China for its ethnic minorities, who may possess different physical traits from the majority Han Chinese.

“In China, people like to treat others based on their skin color,” they said. “Many job descriptions include physical characteristics and something that translates to ‘look nice’ which is basically not having a dark skin color and being of a certain height.”

For instance, members of ethnic Mongolian communities living in China face cultural erasure, as explained by sophomore Khaliun Narangerel, who is from Mongolia.

“Younger generations don’t realize the importance of preserving their culture because they have grown up in a society that teaches them that who they are and where they come from is wrong. They are trained to believe that if they speak Mandarin well and act as a Chinese person, maybe they will live as well as the Han Chinese do,” she said.

However, Li said that he has never felt discriminated against in his use of the Hakka and Cantonese regional dialects.

“Discrimination was mainly based on rhetoric on how the Western media wants to portray us,” he said. “For the sake of mutual understanding, we should not speak our regional dialects because it doesn’t make sense. You can’t study anything if they teach it in a minority language.”

In fact, minority languages and religions are promoted by the government, according to Shi.

“Even in the national college entrance examination, we have a whole set of tests on the Tibetan language, offered by the official government. It is nowhere forbidden,” she said.

Shi believed that there was no systemic discrimination against Tibetans in spaces like schools, and compared it to bullying in other parts of the world.

“These problems are beyond the issue between Tibet and China. This does not happen simply because of the ethnicity or the fact that the student is a minority,” she said.

Countering this, Chokki questioned the extent to which Chinese students learn about the struggles of the Tibetan population.

“The Chinese government says that Tibet is part of China, and they live in the context of ‘We are part of the Chinese nation, we are all equal.’ Then why don’t Chinese students know anything about Tibet? Shouldn’t there be an equal basis for acknowledging that we are all part of this nation?” she said.

Tensions between both sides came to a head during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, according to Shi.

“During the torch relay, there were several incidents of people trying to snatch the torch from the torch bearer. That is considered a dominating, discriminating and terrorizing move of these people on behalf of the Tibetan flag,” she said.

Baerde described how their friends in school turned against them as these events unfolded.

“They told me I must be a bad person because I am Tibetan. I didn’t understand why yesterday they treated me as a classmate and today as a terrorist,” they said.

That summer, Baerde traveled to Tibet, as was customary for their family to do every year.

“In every stop arriving there, there were soldiers checking if there were any tourists on the bus. Foreigners are not allowed to go to Tibet because the government was scared that foreigners will spread what happens in Tibet to the Western world,” Baerde said. “In Tibet, you see police cars and tanks, and they have a curfew at 12:00, with a penalty of being sent to jail if violated.”

Living as a Tibetan outside of China gave Chokki a different perspective on the issue, as well as different hardships to endure. For example, when she was applying for a visa to study abroad, her place of birth was listed as India but her nationality was listed as Chinese, even though Chokki has never lived in China and doesn’t identify as Chinese in any form.

“I live through the daily experiences of being a Tibetan, with small things like speaking Tibetan at home, a language that is being wiped out. For me, there is no option of whether I can or cannot be political about the issue because I live as a Tibetan person in the context where being Tibetan means being erased,” she said.

Chokki noted the complexity of the situation and recognized that the probability of Tibet becoming an independent nation is still small. Regardless, all she needs is to be able to practice her culture and her language and to celebrate her Tibetan identity.

“Whatever work [the Dalai Lama] does, he doesn’t expect to see the result of it. That’s why if I invest and do the work in society that I think needs to be done now, I might live to see results,” Chokki said.