Disputed Territory

“There is a place in China I would like to teach, but it’s a very poor part of our country.”
“What’s it called?”
“Tibet.”


I have always been fascinated by the country of Tibet, ever since reading Tintin comics as a kid.* Several years ago, on a whim, I bought a book to keep me company on a night shift: Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer.** Since then I’ve had a fairly powerful interest in Tibet and the people who live there.

In my first week here, I was surprised when I came across a Tintin in Tibet t-shirt at Yashow market, not only because it brought back childhood memories but because there’s a misconception in the west that Tibetan culture is suppressed in China. Not true. In fact, it is celebrated. Throughout Beijing there are lots of shops and stalls, a big bookstore and the ultimate Beijing status symbol – a trendy hutong bar in Yonghegong – all devoted to Tibet. But the reason there is so much pride in Tibet is because it’s considered a part of China.

Throughout Beijing there are lots of shops and stalls, a big bookstore and the ultimate Beijing status symbol – a trendy hutong bar in Yonghegong – all devoted to Tibet. But the reason there is so much pride in Tibet is because it’s considered a part of China.

I learned enough from Star Trek: The Next Generation to know that you can’t impose your own beliefs onto another culture without dire consequences, so when I found myself having the conversation that begins this entry, I simply said “Ah. The rest of the world doesn’t actually see Tibet as part of China. We see it as a country that China has invaded.”

It’s worth noting that the Tibetan bar, where you can buy Tibetan wheat beer and look at High Definition photographs of Tibetan landscapes and people, is not run by a Tibetan. It’s run by a Beijing hipster with a tidy little beard. When I asked him if he’s been to Tibet, he just shrugged and said “not for a long time.”

I’ve never been to Tibet. Ironically, it’s easier for me to go now than at any other time, because I have a Chinese travel visa.

As I’ve stated in a previous entry, there is something of a generational gap appearing in China. A lot of young people are starting to question things, and to wonder why they don’t have access to the same information that the rest of the world has. I met a young man who is livid because he only found out about the 1989  Tian’an’men Square uprising on a recent trip to America. A couple of days ago, I was wandering with a Chinese friend of mine through Beijing Zoo. We came to the paddock of a Tibetan yak and my friend said, in a way that struck me as sad, “Tibet is a country, isn’t it?”

I just said “yes.”

The world is not perfect. It’s full of Star Trek types who want to force their way of life on other people. Let me return once again to the conversation that opened this entry. When I explained my own view to the woman I was talking to, she simply cocked her head in a way that I often do when I’m trying to access the right information somewhere in my brain. Then she said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Ah. Like the North of Ireland, yes?”


*Actually, Tintin has been a pretty big influence on my life, because he always made me want to travel. Also, I have his mad wavy hair.

**If you’ve seen the film version with Brad Pitt, please don’t let that stop you reading this eye-opening book! It’s like Howard the Duck: brilliant source material turned into Hollywood uber-shite

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