Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The People of Tibet

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the fourth in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Before I went to Tibet, my stereotypical image of Tibetans was that they were sun-baked brown with leathery and wrinkled skin that made them look much older than their actual age. Now, having been to Tibet, I come to realize that Tibetans can have a complexion as fine and fair as any other ethnic Asians. This was particularly true of young Tibetans living in the cities and made a practice of avoiding the sun.
A charming roadside vendor with gold teeth

While it is not possible to develop a deep understanding of the Tibetan psyche in a short visit, I can offer some of the vignettes of our encounters with the people in Tibet that suggest a kind of innocence that is second nature to the Tibetans.

While leading a bus load of American tourists to the next attraction, our Tibetan tour guide was asked the question, “Where would you like to go as your first trip abroad?” His quick reply was Nepal and India because being a devout Buddhist, he would like to visit places where the religion originated--just quick candor and no hesitation not even some tactful passing reference about America.

At the lookout for the Yamdrok Lake, a Tibetan woman selling trinkets and souvenirs walked up to my daughter saying to her, “You are beautiful. I want to give you a necklace because I want to be your friend.” The Tibetan woman did not want anything in return and did not ask my daughter to buy anything from her. She settled for seeing a digital photo taken of the two of them. Everybody in our group agreed that it was a real positive experience.

At a roadside stop, my sister and a seller of souvenirs started negotiations for a bunch of Tibetan necklaces. The negotiations were interrupted by lunch being served and my sister paid the agreed price for nine of them, but she really wanted ten. Later as lunch was winding down, the Tibetan woman vendor came back and gave my sister one more necklace as a gesture of goodwill.

We stopped at a village by the highway to take pictures of typical Tibetan homes. These homes consisted of a courtyard, full of their domesticated animals, next to the first floor, used as the barn for those animals and the second floor, brightly trimmed in green and orange, as their own living quarters. The dogs in the village did not like us and barked unceasingly but the villagers smiled, beckoned to us and invited us to step in for a closer look.

Of course, I am not suggesting that the Tibetan people are naïve and being taken advantage of by the rapacious tourists. Far from it. The Tibetan vendors at Barkhor district and roadside stands were skilled negotiators and quite capable of getting their price while at the same time letting the tourist feel that she has gotten the best possible deal.

At the lookout for Yamdrok Lake, young Tibetan men were aggressively pushing tourists away from the stone tablet marker with the name of the lake and the elevation. This was the kind of location where tourists love to take a souvenir photo. Here they weren’t allowed to unless they agreed to pay the young men 5 RMB for a photo fee. Since the stone tablet look official and not apparently privately owned, the young men’s bullying tactics dampened the appeal of that scenic stop.

Will increasing contact with outside visitors from all over the world alter the gentle nature of the Tibetan personality? I suspect most likely not. I believe the Tibetan personality is deeply rooted in their devotion to Buddhism and that is unlikely to change much in the foreseeable future.

Worshippers visiting Tashilunpo in Xigaze

1 comment:

charles said...

I like your last two paragraphs as I also had the same experience on my last visit (June 24).
"Will increasing contact with outside visitors from all over the world alter the gentle nature of the Tibetan personality?"
My comment is "yes", but in my deepest heart, I sincerely wish TIBET VIVA FOREVER.
Thanks for writing such a great blog.
I'd like to share my photos in Tibet at