International Club’s Parade of Nations stirs controversy

Sophomore Olive Baerde, a Tibetan student at Tufts, poses for a portrait outside of Tisch Library on Feb 27, 2018. Kirt Thorne / The Tufts Daily

Promotional materials for the annual Parade of Nations event hosted by the International Club (I-Club) and International Center (I-Center) have sparked controversy among some in the Chinese community at Tufts, according to junior Shari Sun and  sophomore Cheng Li.

Sun and Li said that promotional emails from I-Club stoked their concerns, including an email sent on Feb. 5 which featured a photograph of a student holding a Tibetan flag. 

“The specific controversy stemmed from concerns that were raised by a group of Chinese students at our GIM, regarding an email that we sent out that contained a picture [from] a previous Parade of Nations show that portrayed a student holding the Tibetan flag,” Nidhi Rao, the president of I-Club, told the Daily in an email.

Sun and Li said they called for more clarification from I-Club regarding Tibet’s inclusion in the Parade of Nations, focusing on an email the I-Club had sent on Feb. 8 to promote the event.

The Feb. 8 email began by outlining the mission of the I-Club.

“We would also like to clarify that the I-Club defines nation as: ‘a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government.’ … If you self-identify with a nation according to this definition, this is a space for you to represent yourself,” the email said.

Though the first part of the email emphasized the I-Club’s care for “cultures and nations,” the bottom portion of the message used the word “country.”

“We’d like to represent as [many] countries as possible so tell your friends!!” the email said.

The Chinese students said they saw an implicit recognition of Tibet as a country in the I-Club’s use of the word “country” in the email.

“We’re not talking about if Tibet should be a country. We’re talking about if Tibet is a country, which it’s not by common acknowledgment,” Sun said. “And that’s something we wanted [to clarify with] the International Center.”

Jane Etish-Andrews, director of the International Center (I-Center), said that the I-Center became aware of the discomfort caused by their Parade of Nations advertisements when Chinese students raised concerns.

“I understood that the group of Chinese students were not concerned with whether or not Tibetan students would hold a flag during the show, but rather were raising a concern about the unintentional political statement that I-Club was making through its email advertising,” Etish-Andrews told the Daily in an email.

Rao, a sophomore, explained the clarification in similar terms.

“We found that the group of Chinese students weren’t actually concerned with whether or not Tibetan students would hold a flag during the show, but rather were raising a concern about the unintentional political statement that we … were making through our email advertising,” Rao wrote. “We sent a clarifying email to our E-list, apologizing for our oversight and also to clarify the definition of nation we choose to follow for our show.”

Sun said that when the group of Chinese students called for an apology for the inclusion of Tibet as a country, they received an emailed explanation from the I-Club.

“We understood that by asking for an apology that would put the I-Club under criticism. Because if you apologize to Chinese students now you’re leaning toward them,” Sun described. “That’s why later we said, ‘You don’t have to apologize … but you have to clarify.’”

Olive Baerde, a sophomore from Tibet, offered an alternative perspective and agreed that clarification was beneficial.

I was super surprised about this controversy because I never thought this was a problem. Many of the Chinese students who organized this protest are my friends and suitemates,” Baerde told the Daily in an email. “A nation is different from a sovereign state, and I think this is just a common language misunderstanding between Chinese and English translation.”

Last week, the I-Center sent out a second clarifying email.

“It has been brought to our attention that our previous email … contained a potentially confusing message,” the email said. “We unwittingly used the word ‘country’ in the portion … about signing up for the flag show. We would like to again clarify that the Parade of Nations event is … a celebration of cultures and nations.”

Although they feel that the conflict has been resolved, it has had a continuing impact, according to Li. In the days following an initial protest of the use of the Tibetan flag at the Flag Show GIM on Feb. 6, the situation spiraled into a bitter online debate, Li said.

“It’s kind of funny how people buy into rhetoric instead of knowing what’s going on,” Li said. “And then the fact that people are posting this rhetoric toward us … I started to question if my actions were too aggressive or not.”

Sun and Li said the transition to an online debate has become exacerbated, and what was initially a small conflict has turned into a larger issue. They consider the brief controversy as little more than a misunderstanding between the I-Club and students.

“Before I came to the United States, the Tibet area felt nothing different to me than any other provinces in China. Personally, between the people, whether its Chinese or Tibetan people, I think we’re mutually very friendly,” Sun said. “The reason I wanted to stand up and say something was that I just wanted some clarification on this issue.”