Thoughts on Machik’s TGAP Forum

The spectre of a Quebec-wide shutdown following news of the passing of Bill 78 loomed somewhat intriguingly as my girlfriend and I crept along Highway 40, waiting to enter Montreal on a sultry, late Friday afternoon. With the road packed for kilometres with drivers going away for the Victoria Day long-weekend, I managed to catch up on the controversy surrounding the Charest government’s decision to pass a law that makes it illegal for a group of ten or more people to gather on a street without prior notice to the police, among other things. In the face of this absurdity, it only seems logical for a province proudly steeped in a history of uprisings and protests to respond with hundreds of thousands of galvanized students and activists on the streets the following week.

But none of this had any bearing on why I was stuck in this rush-hour gridlock.

I had driven from Toronto to Montreal to attend an event called the “Tibet Governance and Practice Forum”. The Forum was, according to its website, “a unique five-day event that advances new knowledge and understanding of governance challenges in contemporary Tibet.” Dawa, my friend in Ottawa, had first alerted me to this about a week prior, and now here I was: idling in traffic, listening to outraged Quebecois on the radio, and watching the lady driving the convertible in front of me throw her hands up, shake her head and gesticulate in ever which way her displeasure with the situation surrounding her.

This all seemed rather ominous to me at the time.

The Forum was being organized by Machik, a Tibetan NGO based in the US. Founded by two Tibetan Canadian sisters, Machik works on projects that focus on education, conservation, women’s initiatives, and such, inside Tibet. They are one of the more prominent, non-political, Tibetan groups in the US, and their impressive pool of advisors in North America and Tibet speak to their competency and connections.

The term non-political may seem like it’s tacked on unnecessarily, but it’s important to establish this from the outset because it helps frame many of the discussions that take place later on.

From my time as an SFT activist, I have gleaned a measure of the tension that exists between the Tibetan political groups and the aid organizations that work in Tibet. This kind of rift is not unique to Tibet, and the crux of the argument basically boils down to this: the Tibetan political groups (with which I usually refer to the established trio of Tibetan Youth Congress, Tibetan Women’s Association and Students for a Free Tibet) are vehemently against the Chinese government’s presence in Tibet, and some of their more ardent activists believe that aid organizations that work in Tibet within that repressive system legitimize China’s rule over Tibet. On the other end, you have aid workers who insist that they simply want to help Tibetans inside Tibet, and that sometimes in order to build a classroom in a remote Tibetan village, they have to comply with China’s restrictions and requirements in that area.

I haven’t quite decided which end of the spectrum I lean towards. There are valid points from both ends, and in many cases, there are ideas and values shared between the two, with many allies and colleagues collaborating across this nebulous line.

But that tension is always there. You can sense it when an aid person rolls his eyes towards students chaining themselves to a Chinese embassy, or when an activist frowns skeptically at a university undergrad gleefully recounting her time helping set up a printer and laptop in a Tibetan nunnery. That tension seemed quite apparent to me upon reading the Forum’s list of speakers, or when interacting with the people who were there.

The Forum on the weekend was pretty much an academic conference with presentations from Tibetan, Chinese and Western scholars on a whole range of issues to do with language, identity, geopolitics and state policies. Perhaps it was the first, real summer-like day, or a reminder of why I hated my time as a university student upon sitting through a professor’s presentation—wherein he outlined the language laws practiced in Quebec which he thinks is very affirmative and should be adopted in parts by China viz. the Tibetan language; in any case, I spent most of Saturday with my buddy Arun and his infant son outside: hiking up and walking across the beautiful park of Mont Royal.

I almost missed the entire first half of the weekend conference. Having said that, I still got some idea on the nature of the presentations, and the flavour by which it was shared. Putting aside my apathy towards institutionalized learning, I nonetheless harboured a hint of misgiving at the presentation which I caught earlier. The next day during breakfast, as I recounted what happened the day before to my friend at whose place I was staying, he barely concealed his disdain upon hearing the presentation and pointed out the irony of Quebec as a model state when there are many unresolved past and present issues dealing with Aboriginal rights and languages in the province.

The conversation that followed was something like this:

GELEK: OMG, dude. You are so right.

DEREK: Yeah, bro.

GELEK: (slaps head) I should’ve thought of that yesterday.

DEREK: It’s alright, man. Just know that even though we have laws in place to protect the bilingual institution of our country and this province, the same cannot be said for the Inuit or the Algonquins that lived in Quebec before the whites settled here. The government’s priorities towards Francophones and First Nations ain’t the same, nawmean?

GELEK: And when we have an almost parallel situation brewing in Tibet, it’s mad crazy to be ignorant of that.

DEREK: Exactly.

GELEK: Thanks, man. You dropped some much needed Real Talk.

DEREK: You know it, G.

So anyway, perhaps bolstered by this revelation, I attended the latter half of the conference with an extra bit of critical zeal. The morning sessions involved presentations by scholars in Tibet showing the many ways by which the Tibetan language was being marginalized by the Chinese colonization of Tibet, and how efforts to teach Tibetan were undermined by the status quo. Most of the high paying jobs, or even basic clerical jobs, were only available to those who were fluent in Mandarin, and those who spoke Tibetan were considered uncouth. Adding to this depressing vortex is the fact that many educational and technical institutes in China don’t recognize achievements in the Tibetan language, so if you have aspirations of attending a university in Beijing, you had to be really good in Mandarin only.

These presentations were solid, even if it only reaffirmed the depth of these issues. Add to this the fact that the ones speaking were actual Tibetans living and working in Tibet, you get an appreciation of not only the problems, but also of the resistance against this onslaught of Chinese colonization. They imparted a compelling edge to the proceedings, something which I feel can often be lost in the prosaic settings of academic conferences.

Another presentation that I found interesting was by Professor Hao from the University of Macao. His thesis was on the importance of a two-way assimilation within the context of China as a nation and Tibetans as minorities. He referred to this as “dynamic integration”, and showed examples in Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent Macao, where the inhabitants have drawn a clear line between their culture and that of mainland China. The locals in Hong Kong expect mainland Chinese to conform to their rules, official or otherwise, should they decide to settle in Hong Kong. Hao showed a clip in which a heated argument takes place between a Hong Konger who is irate at a mainlander for littering inside the subway car. He illustrates this as an example of an increasing undercurrent of resentment between the natives and the settlers. To be clear, a big part of these exchanges have a lot to do with plain, old-fashioned racism, and that point becomes abundantly clear when you follow the video suggestions on Youtube. That’s a time sink that is depressing and captivating at the same time.

Anyway, in Prof Hao’s mind, Tibetans need to assert their dominion over Tibet, and China would do well to steer their policies in that direction. Otherwise, an increasingly marginalized Tibetan populace will resort to explicit, sometimes violent, displays of aggression against the Han settlers, as evidenced by the 2008 protests in Lhasa and elsewhere.

The example of Hong Kong is a very compelling case study and, should we accept Tibetan autonomy within China, something that Tibetans could pivot around when dealing with the colonization of their lands. After all, Tibetans are not a minority inside Tibet, and this is one way in which we can assert that.

After Hao’s talk, a Tibetan academic assumed the podium. He was a research Fellow at the University of Virginia and his talk was primarily about how Chinese language policies and attitudes were building this surge of resentment and resistance among the Tibetans. He proposed that this was a “loose-loose situation”(sic) for both the people of Tibet and the Chinese government, and therefore, policy makers in China ought to be mindful about how they repress Tibetan identity on the plateau. He tried to end his talk on a positive note, stating that sometimes the doom-and-gloom arc that many Tibetan activists and thinkers portend to run counter to what he thinks is a renaissance of Tibetan language, culture and religion in Tibet and China. To this end, he mentioned how there is a growing surge of interest among the Chinese in learning about Tibetan Buddhism and our language and culture.

In any other setting, this may be a harmless, albeit naive, conjecture. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentions this on occasion as a sign of strength for the Tibetan culture during his public talks around the world. But His Holiness also makes it explicitly clear, time and again to his supporters and world leaders, that China is leading the way towards systemic, cultural genocide in Tibet. On that point, His Holiness is absolutely unwavering.

So when you have a Tibetan academic who’s written papers and received degrees as a testament to his work and expertise, you hope that such a person would be mindful about betraying this cavalier notion that Tibetans ought to be secure about the future of their language because a few million Chinese (being very generous here) are interested in Buddhism or fancy our art and culture. I mean, I’m sure being the object of fascination to some privileged and probably unrepresentative segment of China’s population is a positive attribute to this Fellow, but to me it just reeks of exoticism and of being reduced to museum pieces—something interesting, and most likely harmless.

What is especially galling for a Tibet expert is the part where he ignores the fact that more than thirty Tibetans have self-immolated since last year, in large part because of their loss of culture and identity in their homeland. I can’t comment on whether that was intentional or not, but he should have thought of that before standing in front of a room full of people who have come to learn about the situation inside Tibet. I felt this smug, self-satisfied sense of originality—which I’m more than familiar with myself—exuding from him, while failing to display the kind of iridescent wisdom that shakes the foundation of neophytes like me. It just wasn’t there.

Earlier in the day, during lunch break, I was trying to pull aside Pema, a scholar from Tibet, to speak with him about the language policies of China and how it compares to India and Canada. He had given his talk before we broke for lunch, and I liked the enthusiasm in his presentation. He had made it a point to speak in Tibetan, even though the Tibetan interpreter had a hard time keeping up with his energetic pace—the interpretation was simultaneous, and we had headsets so that we could keep up with the presentations as it was going on. An organizer had tried in vain to make him speak more slowly. There were a pair of professional Chinese interpreters who were more up to the task at hand, but Pema had insisted on speaking in Tibetan. Eventually, the Tibetan interpreter had to stand beside Pema, and made sure he stopped in places so that he could interpret more thoroughly.

Back to the lunch break: I made sure to wait until Pema was free, and asked him to grab some food so that we can go to a corner of the lobby and have a quick conversation. We were about to sit down for our chat when the aforementioned Fellow—this was before he’d given his talk—joined in abruptly and started having a tête-à-tête with him as I stood by, ignored. I didn’t know what they were talking about since this Fellow was speaking Mandarin with Pema. Now, before I go further, I want to make one thing clear: I speak OK Tibetan. I can converse easily with Tibetans like myself, i.e. those who have grown outside of Tibet. I have a more difficult time following Tibetans who speak with strong, regional dialects from areas like Kham or Amdo. Pema, even though he was an Amdowa, spoke in a more understandable Tibetan. I understood about sixty percent of what he said, and the parts that I didn’t he clarified into simpler Tibetan. So this exile boy had little to no difficulty conversing with Pema in Tibetan.

Now the Fellow, who was born in Tibet and studied there, is a Tibetan scholar. He even worked at Voice of America and I’ve seen some of the clips in which he speaks Tibetan clearly and scholar-like. He is good, is what I’m trying to say. He should have no problem speaking with Pema in Tibetan. But he didn’t. So not only does he not check to see if it’s okay to interrupt our conversation, he proceeds to exclude me from the discussion by speaking in a language that I don’t understand, at a conference where we’d just seen slides upon slides of China’s colonization efforts that were eroding our language and identity in Tibet.

The part about barging in uninvited was bad enough, but the offence that he committed afterwards was one too many. I asked him, point blank, why he was speaking in Chinese with Pema. Since the two of them could converse in Tibetan, why didn’t they do so? This caught him by surprise; he stammered in Chinese for a bit and finished in Tibetan. Before he went away though, he approached me and reproached me for challenging his tack. By that point I wanted nothing to do with the Fellow and to just resume speaking with Pema, so I blurted something about “Chinese imperialization” and how he was playing into it. Not wanting to concede, he kept repeating indignantly that he knew what I was getting at, and that he’d studied this issue for a long time, and that he was only speaking in Mandarin with Pema because it was more convenient for him to do so. I shrugged, as if to say, “well, that just seems like a textbook case of cognitive dissonance to me”.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill. I have witnessed this sort of exchange between Tibetans before, and usually it’s at a social event and I don’t let it bother me as much as it did during that lunch break. Part of me also acknowledges the hypocrisy that I indulge in when I speak English to young Tibetans who aren’t comfortable speaking the language their parents spoke.

What I think makes this situation different is that it happened at a Forum whose main agenda was to analyze and explore ways to correct this course in Tibet. When you hear about how it’s almost taken for granted in Tibet when a group of Tibetans from different parts of the plateau get together and their common language is Chinese—that sort of thing bothers me. We do that in Canada too, by all means, but at least I don’t go around telling people how I am friends with influential Chinese thinkers (“I’m kind of a big deal, y’know”) while at the same time disagreeing with their patronizing attitude towards Tibetans.

Keeping this in mind, it seemed a bit predictable afterwards when the Fellow mentioned, towards the end of his presentation, that it’ll take over a hundred years for the Tibetan language to disappear. As if to say that we should just chill sometimes and not be so apoplectic about these things.

If that’s his specialty as a Tibetan research Fellow at the University of Virginia, then all the power to him. I’d rather not be in the business of speculating when and how our language vanishes, as if it’s some software company stock and we’re NASDAQ analysts; and instead work diligently, with complete awareness each and every step, to not let our language and identity slide into extinction.

Those are lofty words coming from someone who hasn’t studied Tibetan in over a decade, but it’s a start.

The conference was, by all accounts, a straightforward series of observations and critiques on the obtuse educational and administrative policies of the Chinese government in Tibet, and its effect on the Tibetans. You could say it was staid, and there certainly weren’t any of the passionate exhortations for human rights and freedom that you normally hear in many other Tibetan events. Maybe the organizers and participants think that that’s for some other group to deal with, or that it’s not their place to approach the problems in Tibet through the lens of oppression, revolutions and things like that.

The weekend was loud for me then on the silence around the settlement projects forcibly imposed on Tibetan nomads. Or the many recent self-immolations. Or the burgeoning Lhakar movement inside Tibet. It’s enough to make someone like me raise my hands, shake my head and honk a horn if I could.

But that was just a part of it, and not all forums are created the same, nor are they perfect for everyone.

The Forum, in the end, presented an opportunity for me to meet with passionate Tibetans working behind the scenes on some of the pressing educational and economic realities of Tibet. It also reaffirmed my resolve to speak the language more often and more clearly, even when it’s inconvenient.

The weekend conference concluded with a crescendo of congratulations and gratitude from many of the attendants towards the organizers and volunteers. One of them was moved to tears, remarking on how Tashi Rabgay, the chief organizer, volunteered her time and efforts planning and orchestrating this logistically complicated event.

Outside again, the young volunteers milled in groups, taking pictures and glad that the day had come to a close. We all gathered at a Korean bar later in the night. Some of them joked around, some engaged in a quasi-serious discussion about the state of Indigenous people in Canada. Most of the Tibetans spoke in English.

Montreal was alive and restless that Sunday night. Tomorrow, the Tibetan entourage would visit Quebec City and meet some of the Quebec parliamentarians. Later that week, 400,000 Quebecois would gather in downtown Montreal to demand their rights for affordable education in what would be the largest demonstration that Canada has ever seen. The next weekend, His Holiness would land in Vienna, Austria as thousands of Tibetan supporters called upon the European nation and her neighbours to “Stand up for Tibet”.

Like I said: ominous stuff.


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