"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Friday, December 31, 2010

The China Journals, Chapter Seven: Incandesence in Tibet

More than a hundred and thirty years ago, the incandescent light bulb was introduced to the world. Now it is in danger of becoming obsolete, replaced by more energy efficient lighting.

But I suspect the figurative language that arose from the incandescent bulb will continue for a long, long time. “Shine a light on it,” and “light bulb moments,” and “not the brightest bulb” are a few examples.

At this time of year when we look back at the past year and beyond that, and wonder what the future will bring, I am thinking about those figures of speech. If ever there is a need for a light to be shown, it is on China’s enforcement of the “one child” policy.

China’s notorious “one child” policy to control population growth ostensibly does not extend to ethnic Tibetans. In theory, the policy is meant to cover only the ethnic majority Han people of greater China.

Yet, the Internet is replete with reports of Draconian and inhumane enforcement of the policy, not only on Han Chinese sent to populate Tibet, but on ethnic Tibetans. Numerous on-line articles accuse the Chinese government of forced late-term abortions and sterilizations, infanticides, and eugenics.

We tourists with the Road Scholar program were not told of these things by our guides, though we certainly had not been oblivious to the claims before making this trip. We were at times, however, surprised that our guides seemed to be quite open in discussing certain subjects. Our principal guide was a Han. In Tibet, she was accompanied by a local guide who was an ethnic Tibetan, and a guide in training who was from a Tibetan nomad family.

So with these things in my mind, we were taken to visit a Tibetan school whose student body was comprised only of Tibetan orphans who resided at the site. We had been in the countryside during the day, and this was our last stop on the way back to Lhasa.

Our bus pulled off the two-lane highway and parked on a wide dirt shoulder. We were led across an unevenly paved yard, complete with basketball hoop, and into a classroom in a small, nondescript one-story building constructed of concrete blocks. A dozen or so children were working diligently at their desks.

Once we were all inside, lining the walls of the room, the children looked up. Some spoke basic conversational English phrases, such as “I want to be your friend.” The speaker would then select one of us from our group, and offer to shake hands.

I was astonished at the lack of accents, unlike the English-speaking Chinese I’d met. We could ask questions and the children would answer, all translated by our Tibetan guide. While they seemed to range in age from kindergarten through about fourth grade age, they were learning not only reading and writing in the Tibetan language, but also Chinese and English.

We visited a second classroom where most of the children appeared to be slightly older, yet still ten and under.

One child said, and I’m paraphrasing, “We don’t have parents but we have our teachers and we love them.” Many of the children asked if we had children, and where we were from.

Some of these children were true orphans,. lacking both parents, and some were children of parents who were unable to care for them. Some may have been there because of the “one child” policy, wherein a farming or nomadic family might choose to give up a daughter in favor of a boy who can help provide for the family unit with labor.

They were happy, confident, and enthusiastic in communicating with us. They sang to us, and asked us to sing for them. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat, sung round-style, was our choice.

And then, as we left each of the classrooms, we gave each child the candy we had brought with us from China. Sweets are a rare treat.

Some sources suggest that within a century there will be no more ethnic Tibetans, principally as a result of the “one child” policy enforcement.

The ride back to the hotel was quiet. Cameras were put away, in adherence to the strict warnings about not photographing the armed Chinese soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the streets of Lhasa. Taking pictures of them was forbidden, we were told, because “they are not there.” There was an incident with one of her groups, she said, when soldiers chased down the bus and almost seized a camera from a tourist who had taken pictures and had not seen the soldiers.

I almost made the same mistake one day when we passed a tall white monolith, beautifully landscaped with multi-colored flowers. I raised my camera, and just in time saw with an armed Chinese soldier standing guard at its base. This monument was built by the Chinese to commemorate the “peaceful liberation of Tibet.”

(NOTE: Tibetan orphans are not allowed to be taken from Tibet. Otherwise, that little imp at the very top of this post might have found her way to Alaska in my extra large suitcase.)

1 comment:

  1. The one child policy is certainly heart-breaking. To be amidst the evidence of it must have been hard.

    I'm so glad you get out there are see the world and then share it with your readers. I'm looking forward to more in 2011.

    My heart especially goes out to the little girl with pigtails in the green and pink outfit. The look on her face! I want to talk to her and then hug her.

    Thanks my friend for another look at life elsewhere.

    I hope you're enjoying this New Year's Day.