In light of Carrie Shirley’s recent article about her mom going on a “date” with a young Dalai Lama, I asked my dad for insight on Shirley’s mom, with whom he had an uncomfortable encounter when he was 14 years old.
In a Broadly article earlier this week, Carrie Shirley shared an account of her mother allegedly spending an afternoon with a young Dalai Lama. Even though she had no evidence of this actually having taken place, Broadly published her post in full, along with a grainy picture of her mother with another woman and a random Asian guy in a sweater purportedly somewhere near Cambridge, UK. In spite of the many calls for withdrawal from people online, Broadly has not, as of this writing, retracted this defamatory piece from their website.
Reception to this article was fairly unanimous: almost everyone with any familiarity with the Dalai Lama and two functioning brain cells could see that this kind of journalism was problematic, to say the least. How could Broadly publish such a reductive, invective piece? Why didn’t any of their fact-checkers investigate the photograph to verify that it was indeed the Dalai Lama? Do they not see how this kind of condescending post marginalizes the plight of Tibetans and consequently diminishes genuine conversations about gender equity in Tibetan Buddhism? Was Broadly always this shitty, and we never noticed until today?
While social media affords us an intimate—if often one-sided—relationship with bloggers, figures like Carrie Shirley still prove impregnable despite their attempts at writing. It’s one thing to watch someone live-stream their colonic on Periscope; it’s another to simply pretend that what they write is sincere and meaningful. Forty years ago, my dad was witness to this. He went on a date with Carrie Shirley’s mom. *
At the time, my dad was studying at a Tibetan high school in Northern India; Shirley’s mom was passing by the area during her trip through Asia. She was in the midst of her hippie wanderlust which was common among her peers at the time.
When my dad and Shirley’s mom met, she had been travelling for fourteen weeks. There was a manic, pixie glint in her eyes and early clumps of dreadlocks at the tips of her hair. It was awful.
My dad was around thirteen. He was studying and living in the hostel, along with many other Tibetan students. Due to the limited food provisions, they had to sleep hungry, often making do with copious glasses of water. So, when one of their teachers notified them that an American visitor was interested in touring the hostel and could use a guide, my dad volunteered immediately. It was a quick way to possibly earn some cash to buy extra food for himself and his friends. It was worth a shot, considering the school was poor, he was broke, and the fledgling Tibetan community in diaspora was just coming together, having fled a violent Chinese occupation only a decade ago.
Even though my dad had zero inkling going in that this was a romantic endeavour of any kind, he was soon in for a rude awakening. “She started making these weird, physical gestures,” he recalled. “I had to keep distancing myself from her and smiling awkwardly because I didn’t know how to tell this adult woman to back off politely.”
In some ways, the tour was fairly ordinary: my dad showed Shirley’s mom around the school, the ramshackle library and the small cottage workshops dotting the periphery of the property. In other ways, it was less so—she introduced herself to him as “Shirley’s mom”. “I didn’t know how to address her, so I just waved when I wanted her attention,” my dad said.
In addition to the school tour, my dad took Shirley’s mom to a nearby Indian restaurant, hoping she would treat the emaciated young boy for his help in showing her around. “She was not offering, not at all,” he recalled. “Even though it was lunch time and we were seated in a restaurant, I had to actually point to the menu before she even got the hint.” My dad had smiled weakly at her and hoped he would at least get a piece of samosa. No dice.
“She was a little weird and hard to talk to,” my dad said, so Shirley’s recent Broadly article didn’t surprise him. And widespread shock seems a little late in the game, at this point. The truth is that Shirley’s article has been shared many times by Shugden devotees, a group of Buddhists that have been beefing with the Dalai Lama for decades now.
It’s also perhaps misleading to label this article a joke, since Shirley makes it a point to continually ascribe sexual motivations behind her mom’s alleged encounter with the Dalai Lama. Even in the absence of any such accounts from her own mom, Shirley alludes to a kind of lecherousness to the Dalai Lama, to make him seem like some kind of a predatory guru. Why would someone do that, unless they mean to gaslight a revered Buddhist leader, and play the White, Femi-Hipster MO of marginalizing the struggles of people of colour?
This kind of drive-by critique and analysis of the Tibetan movement and people from an outsider’s perspective is not new. There is a thriving cottage industry of Westerners reading a book on meditation, taking a deluxe retreat package in a Tibetan Buddhist school in Colorado or Nova Scotia, and then packaging this consumptive pathology as a kind of divine revelation. Some of them even integrate themselves into the exile Tibetan community, and pontificate further on the ills plaguing the people and the culture.
In many ways, this is a modern take on a centuries-old tradition: colonialism. Laced with just a trace hint of irony to show everyone that you’re invested in it insofar that it gives you a sense of meaning and notoriety in an otherwise vacuous, self-obsessed existence.
This entitled, privileged attitude is at odds with what anyone would call true feminism or journalism. One would think that in order to sincerely speak about gender equity in the Tibetan community, Shirley would engage with Tibetan women to understand their lived experience, their opinions and their aspirations. A female-focused publication like Broadly could even post an article from the many Tibetan female writers.
Again, no dice. Instead, a white woman claimed that her mom went on a “date” with a young Dalai Lama. She used that as a springboard from which to make her all-important assertions on gender imbalances within Tibetan Buddhism. White people, as always, get the megaphone. Even if it’s littered with facile observations and mediocre writing.
After their day together, my dad returned to his hostel. His friends asked him if he got any treats. “All I got was a bottle of coke,” he remembers. “I thought, I spent two hours taking this American lady all over the place, showing her shops and trying to translate for her, but nothing.”
And then the calls started. She came by his school more than three times, asking to “get together again.”
When I asked him why he didn’t take her up on her offer, my dad replied, “It was kind of like having a distant aunt call you to mow her lawn,” my dad said. “And you keep doing it, but she never thanks you in any meaningful way. And there was always this weird sexual vibe around it. It was peculiar.”
For someone with inherited centuries of privilege and decades of liberal education, Shirley’s article lacked one thing: She couldn’t speak to Tibetan women. Couldn’t make conversation with them, couldn’t relate to them, and certainly couldn’t write about them. As my dad said about her mom, “She was just a pest.”
Forty years later, not much has changed.
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