This post is by “Metak”, a western woman who'll be one of our regular contributors.
In my last year of university, I spent my winter break in Tibet. As a fluent speaker of Tibetan, I used it as a chance to learn more about the views of Tibetans inside Tibet.
Having spent my winter break in that way, I decided to spend my spring break meeting with potential universities about a graduate program. I knew I wanted to continue work on my Tibetan, but I was severely limited in my school choices, because I had decided to pursue non-Dharma Tibetan studies. Unfortunately, only a few schools have any Tibetan programs for non-Dharma students.
On March 14th 2008, I had a meeting with a highly respected (Westerner) professor in Tibetan studies at one of the top universities in the United States. I came into the meeting a bit more frazzled that usual. I had been woken at 3:30 that morning by a phone call from a friend, telling me that Lhasa was on fire. When I checked the news in the morning, I saw that the city I had just returned from was in the midst of massive protests. We were all holding our breath to see when the Chinese would begin shooting.
When I walked into the meeting, the professor asked me if I was alright, being that I looked haggard. I responded that I was fine, but the news from Lhasa was reported to me at 3 AM and I was very concerned about the outcome. I felt this had the potential to be something big, but I knew it would get ugly, no matter what happened.
The professor turned to me and said “Tibetans don’t realize what will happen if they actually get independence! Do you think they even consider the instability, human rights violations and collapse that would come with that?” His question caught me off guard, because it clearly told me that he had no close contact with Tibetans inside of Tibet.
“Actually,” I said, “I just got back from Tibet. They do consider it. They are willing to risk it in order to have their country back. And these problems would be their responsibility.”
“They don’t understand what that means, they are uneducated.” He responded.
“I wouldn’t say that.” I said, “I met several Tibetans with masters degrees, fluent in English, Tibetan and Chinese, who also expressed that exact sentiment. The Tibetans who I spoke to said that they understood this was a possibility, but at least these would be their problems, not anyone else’s. Every country has issues, at least these would be their own.”
“Well, do you really think they represent the majority of Tibetans?”
Had this not been a meeting in regards to my future education, I might have responded by asking “So, if they don’t have a college degree, they don’t know what’s right for them. If they do have a college degree, they don’t represent the population, so they don’t know what’s right for them. But foreign scholars like you, many of whom have never been to Tibet nor speak Tibetan, and have never lived under the constant oppression of the Chinese government, you know what’s best for them. What are you, baby sitters?”
Initially, it’s bad enough to say that a person does not have the right to make decisions for themselves, based on their own experience. We, in western society, value college degrees so highly that we believe that even if we have no direct experience, a series of letters after our name makes us more qualified to make decisions for fully competent adults than the adults themselves.
But, what bothered me even more was that this same person claiming that only the educated could make decisions, then completely disregarded the same decision made by the educated, because they did not represent the majority. In short, the message sent by this allegedly Tibet supporting scholar was clear, if you were a Tibetan, your opinion was worthless.
In the beginning, I felt like we had a new version of “White Man’s Burden,” the belief in colonial India that the British presence was necessary because the Indians were too childish and simple to take care of themselves. However, this does not cover the situation of university educated Tibetans. I feel instead that the people who express these sentiments are simply disregarding Tibetans as a whole. It makes me wonder why, if they don’t care what Tibetans in Tibet think or want, do they even claim to support Tibet at all? Any thoughts?