Monday, June 28, 2010

Let's Talk About Feet

Anyone who keeps up on Tibetan or Buddhist news probably saw the news about Keds, (or, as we later found out, selling "Tibetan Buddhist Shoes." It was reported on the popular Tibetan news site, Phayul as well as the very popular Buddhist magazine Tricycle's blog site[Editor's Note: Tricycle has changed it's blog site and the comments are no longer visible].

The shoes featured Tibetan flags, mantras, the face of HH Dalai Lama, and even a Thangka of a Buddha, among other designs.

The Tibetan community, and world Buddhist community as a whole, was deeply offended.

Fortunately, Keds acted quickly, not only removing the offending shoes, but also issuing an apology and explaining how the error had occurred. Apparently, although Keds accepts responsibility for their lack of oversight on this issue, the offense had been committed by a partner site, which allows customers to custom design and sell shoes. Keds, however, admirably immediately contacted the site, the shoes were removed, and accepted responsibility for their role and immediately started taking steps to prevent future problems.

What does that have to do with this blog? I'm getting to it, I promise. But first I want to look at why this is so offensive.

In most Asian cultures (and I'm not talking east Asian, I'm talking all of Asia) as well as cultures with a strong Asian influence (for example, many European Muslim countries) the feet are considered dirty. Stepping over things, pointing with the feet, or placing respected objects on or under the feet is a huge no-no.

This can be a bit confusing from a western standpoint, since we don't have that association. I think almost every westerner working with Tibetans (myself included) has nudged someone with their foot, pointed with a foot, stepped over a book, stepped over a sleeping child, or stepped over food during a picnic--something like that--and been greeted with looks of absolute offense and horror. This is one that we all learn the hard way. But while the food/child/book rules are a bit harder to grasp, the religion one is pretty obvious.

Does anyone remember the fiasco a few years back when Nike made a shoe with a design that looked like the Arabic word "Allah" and there were massive protests by Muslims? Or the international threats to boycott the film "Hollywood Buddha" because the poster featured a man sitting on a Buddha head?

In short, people should know by now that putting religious images on a shoe might be offensive, and you probably ought to check with a religious authority before doing so.

So and shoe designer? That was dumb. Straightforward dumb.

And I'm sure some people thought it was "honoring" Tibetan culture, and to those people, I'd like to direct you to this post from the blog Native Appropriations. Different context, but I think it's one of the best explanations of why you should be careful when wearing another culture's sacred symbols for fashion.

But this blog isn't about the general ignorance of the public towards Tibet and Tibetan culture. In fact, I originally argued that this was not a valid topic for a post.

That is until I saw the comments on the tricycle blog.

I want to break this down as best I can. I don't know 100% which bloggers are Tibetans and which aren't, but I'm going to assume that Tibetan name and Tibetan linguistic writing patterns imply Tibetan. And I'm not going to include my own comment, which I left because I was so pissed when I saw these.

Because this is Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, I think we can safely assume that all commenter consider themselves to be Buddhist.

Number of comments (minus my own): 27
Number of Tibetan commenters: 7
Number of Non-Tibetan commenters: 9

The Tibetan writers unanimously found the designs terribly offensive.

Of the non Tibetan writers: Two neutral, Two found the designs inappropriate, and the remaining five all thought that everyone should lighten up and shouldn't be offended.

Those remaining five defended the designs by pointing to "transcendence" clinging to "things" and "symbols," "Impermanence" how the "True Buddha is not an image" or how this should be used as a lesson in non-attachment.

Others just said that they thought it was funny or wanted a pair.

So apparently, cultural offenses are anti-Buddhist, because they are clinging to symbols. However, I doubt that one of these writers would walk into a temple wearing a shirt that says "F*ck you" on it, because I'm pretty sure they would recognize that as culturally offensive. And I'm even more sure that they wouldn't spray paint obscenities and upside down crosses on a catholic church in order to make a point about the inherent fallacy of symbols.

Why? Well, they would claim being respectful of others' cultures and beliefs, but then--wait--why aren't we being respectful of Tibetan culture and belief?

The real reason? I'm 99% sure it's because this isn't offensive to White Western culture.

So if it's offensive to westerners, we shouldn't do it. But if its horribly offensive to Tibetans? Well, come on. Just lighten up! It's funny. Anyway, you shouldn't be so attached to symbols. After all, there is no true holiness!

These are people who consider themselves Buddhist, take teachings from Tibetan lamas, should know better, DO know better, but don't care.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Incident at Gyuto

After my post about living in a Refugee camp, I ran into a few perfect examples of what I was talking about. Both from the side this being a refugee camp and from the side of inappropriate behavior from "Supporters." This also goes a bit into Pongu's post about doing everything in English.

Yesterday was His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa's birthday. Since I don't live far from Gyuto monastery, where he resides, I headed over to Gyuto for the day to take part in the celebrations. Overall, it was a wonderful day with prayers in the morning, a chance to meet HH Karmapa, free lunch, a talk in the afternoon, a "Cake" made out of Tsampa (Barley this case mixed with butter, sugar, cashews and raisins!), and a performance by the Tibetan Institute of Performing arts. It was hot, it was VERY crowded, but overall, it was a wonderful day and His Holiness seemed happy with the celebration as well.

But one incident really riled me up.

First I should note the demographic at Gyuto. I would say about 85% of people were Tibetan, the remaining 15% being westerners, Taiwanese, Chinese and Koreans with a small smattering of others. Of those Tibetans, the vast majority were new arrivals from Tibet. I met a lot of people from Sokor Loptra (TTS, the Tibetan Transit school) which is only for people who have arrived from Tibet within the past 5 years. I also saw a lot of people from the New Arrival Center, who had arrived from Tibet within the past 2 months. The Karmapa, as a younger Lama who only escaped from Tibet in 2000, has a much greater following among Tibetans inside of Tibet or immediately from Tibet than from Tibetans in India. So the vast majority of Tibetans present were new arrivals from Tibet and very obviously so. Please read Living in a Refugee Camp for a better understanding of the situation of New arrival Tibetans.

I was sitting with some of my friends outside of the Gyuto store. We were drinking soda and eating chips and just enjoying ourselves. At the next table over, an American Buddhist nun was doing the same as us. There were lots of people and definitely not enough chairs. She was holding a seat for a friend by placing her backpack on the seat next to her.

A young Tibetan man who had arrived from Amdo only a couple of years before and speaks mediocre English came over and asked if he could take the chair. The nun, with her mouth full, responded in English that she was holding the chair. Since she did not make any hand gestures, and since her speech was muffled, the young man assumed compliance and started to take the chair. The nun then started yelling at him.

Nun: "I told you, you can't take that chair!"

Man: "But, no one is sitting there!"

Nun: "No one is sitting there now, but my friend is coming!"

Man: "I didn't know"

Nun: "Well, I was telling you, but I was eating!"

The young man apologized and went away. The nun continued to, loudly, complain about how rude these young Tibetans were.

I was shocked. I almost went up and confronted her, and in retrospect, I should have and I am ashamed of myself for not doing it. Here she, a woman who has been living in India for nearly 10 years as a Buddhist nun, has made no effort whatsoever to learn spoken Tibetan, or apparently, even simple Tibetan cultural hand gestures. She clearly has no understanding of the fact that most of the people there were new arrivals who speak poor (if any) English and might not understand a muffled comment. And I suppose I should note that while she was complaining about his rudeness, she was the one talking with her mouth full!

Here she is, living as an ordained nun in Tibetan society in India, very publically promoting her own charitable activities for Tibetans, but clearly taking no time whatsoever to understand the situation of those around her or even, during the ten years of her residence, learning the language of her host society!

I wonder if she ever interacts with Tibetans, because I find it hard to believe that she never would have learned even the simple hand gestures that mean "wait a minute" or "No" if she had spent more than five minutes with Tibetan people.

The other incident was actually very beautiful, albeit very sad and I think illustrates the mindset of this place as a refugee camp.

A friend of mine, visiting from Sikkim, held a place for me inside the temple for His Holiness' afternoon talk. She is Tibetan, born and raised in India. She has never seen Tibet.

We love hanging out and gossiping with each other, just like girls anywhere in the world, and always try to sit together at teachings.

At the end of His Holiness' address (In Tibetan, English, Chinese and KOREAN!!! With no translators. Can I just note how impressed I am???) members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts stood up to sing a song for His Holiness. Their piece was a stunningly beautiful song with lyrics and music composed by His Holiness immediately prior to his escape from Tibet. It's one of my favorite traditional style songs. The style and words are beautiful and absolutely classical. When listening to this song it's very easy to imagine oneself back in Tibet

My friend leaned over, as the song started and said, "Whenever I hear this song, all I can think is 'here we are, in the presence of His Holiness Karmapa, in our Chupas [traditional dress] listening to our music, and we aren't in our country, we can't go to our country. We don't have a country'" And she just started repeating "We don't have a country, we don't have a country."

As we listened to this elegant melody, she kept reaching up and wiping away tears. And trying to laugh off how embarrassed she was to cry in public. She continued silently crying throughout the whole song.

This is really what it means to live in a refugee camp.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Living in a Refugee Camp

I've been spending a lot of time in India recently, specifically living near Dharamsala. As a result, I spend a lot of my free time in Mcleod Ganj, considered the center of Tibetan society in exile, and also a big tourism spot.

Like any tourist attraction, it has its fair share of hotels, cheap hostels, coffee shops (my caffeine addiction is pleased with this), and lots of shops.

Many tourists come here with a "Shangrila" idea of Tibet and India, and the tourist industry does cater to that to a certain extent with courses on 'Tantra,' dozens, if not hundreds, of yoga courses (a few of which are genuine), astrology, hypnosis, past life regressions, and tarot. The last three are almost exclusively offered by westerners spending time in India.

And, like any tourist attraction, people come with a sense of entitlement, a belief that their every whim should be catered to. The customer is always right, and in the case of tourism, the entire locale is the "shop."

I've always found this attitude sickening, in any location. Like the American tourist in France who believes that yelling slowly in English will make them understood, and then acts as if its the fault of the French fruit seller on the street for not speaking English in France.

Are there times when it's okay to be demanding? Yes. You sign into your hotel room and find out that the promised AC is broken and the sheets are dirty, feel free to complain. But I'm sure you can see the difference.

However, here in Dharamsala and other Tibetan settlements, there is a much bigger problem. Most tourists here, and even many supporters who are well meaning, polite and well educated, forget what this place is.

This is a refugee camp. This is where people fleeing their country, arriving with nothing, settle because they have no where else to go. This is a refugee camp.

I cannot count the number of times I've seen a tourist screaming at a Tibetan shop keeper or waiter for misunderstanding English, not taking a moment to think that this person might be a newly arrived refugee from Tibet, who had little to no access to education. Most adult arrivals get less than 5 years of a meager, amateur English education and come out with limited functional English at best.

Most Tibetans are not in Dharamsala for Business. They did not come to Dharamsala to learn English, to open a shop, to open a restaurant, or open a hotel. They came here because of the lack of rights in their homeland, fear of arrest, fear of torture, a desire to live in freedom, the hope to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the chance to learn in a Tibetan supportive environment.

They have to learn some English to survive here. They have to work in a shop or a hotel or whatever in order to pay their rent (since owning land is nearly impossible for a refugee.)

Dharamsala does not overtly look like a refugee camp for a couple of reasons.

1) It's been around long enough that you have long established buildings and institutions instead of the imagined 'tent city' refugee camp. However, if you look at other long standing refugee camps and settlements (Palestinian ones come to mind) you are bound to see a lot more concrete apartment buildings than tents. It's how things go if you've been around for a while.

2) Problems are not easily viewable from the main street level, where most tourists confine themselves.

Not only is this by definition a refugee camp, but also the problems that are not easy to see are the same as those faced by refugees anywhere.

-Newly arrived Tibetans usually don't speak either Hindi or English.
-They usually arrive with little or no money or possessions
-They usually have no paperwork, aside from a refugee document issued in Kathmandu
-Many are severely traumatized due to experiences in Tibet or a difficult escape, some are suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result
-Many are suffering physical ailments as a result of starvation during the escape, frostbite, and also illnesses due to the new environment, low altitude, and dirty water
-Upon arrival in India, many must wait months, and some even years, to get an RC (Identification card for non-Indian residents) and even longer to get an IC (travel documents)
-Without an RC, Tibetans can be detained by Indian police,who have been known to abuse detainees.
-Tibetans may be subject to official curfews, and unofficial curfews are self imposed due to the lack of RCs. Many Tibetans are afraid to go out after dark if they do not have their RC
-Tibetans face extreme difficulties getting permission to own businesses
-It is nearly impossible for Tibetans to own land
-It is nearly impossible for Tibetans to get Indian citizenship
-Many 2nd and 3rd generation exiles suffer from issues of identity and displacement, resulting in unemployment, and high levels of drug and alcohol abuse.
-Clashes occur not uncommonly between local Indians who feel displaced by the Tibetan community, and the Tibetan refugees. These are often very violent.
-Tibetans can be financially abused by landlords and so on, because they feel as if they have no legal recourse.
-Extremely high numbers of parentless children

What does this sound like to you? It sure sounds like a refugee camp to me. All of us need to remember that.