The first night in Lhasa, I felt like I was dying. I lied in bed in a cheap hostel, condemning myself of coming to Tibet. I threw up twice and waked all girls in room with the noise and acidic odor. The energy and excitement brewed on the 48-hour train trip from Shanghai to Lhasa vaporized when I cleaned my own vomit. My head was almost going to explode, my heart paced like I was running a marathon, I stared at the cracked ceiling the whole night, couldn’t get to sleep. Apart from the on and off snores from next door, it was quiet. I felt I was abandoned by the whole world.
The world became pleasant again next morning. I had butter tea over a greasy little food stand for breakfast. Headache and breathing problem suddenly all vanished. I wasn’t even sure that I really had altitude sickness and felt like dying the night before. On a retrospect, my feelings to novel things I encountered in Tibet during the five weeks I lived there were quite similar. Shock and indisposition always got quickly replaced by matters of common practice.
In June 2012, I went to Konka, Tibet for a five-week voluntary teaching at a government funded local primary school. I was the only Han people on a team formed by Tibetan students studying in Shanghai. Throughout the five weeks, I lived like a foreigner in a strange country. Right after we got off the train, my teammates switched their conversation into Tibetan language, which I don’t understand at all.
I taught Mandarin but my students all have limited ability understanding what I said. Lacking verbal communication in that way, everything I felt and memorized were from more primary senses.
I’ve used only two flushable toilets in Tibet. The first one was at the hostel room I stayed in Lhasa. The other was at my friend’s house. Other than those two, I had never used any lavatory with water supply during the five weeks. My guess was the lack of water in a living condition still far from pleasant for human beings to survive, water was cherished in a more productive way. I’ve never asked or talked to anyone about that during the trip. I felt like talking about this trouble would be disrespectful and maybe make me obnoxious to Tibetans. I had to gather courage to go to the toilet in the first week but quickly got used to the terrible conditions afterwards.
Indian influences can be detected from the language, religion, dining habit and flies in Tibet. Yes, flies. Wherever I go, there were flies. I’m not talking about several flies buzzing around. Every night, the ceiling of the room I stayed in Konka would be covered with flies. Without wearing glasses, I thought there were several giant black stains on the ceiling the first night I slept there. Only after I was buzzed into conscious the other morning did I realize the black was not stain. Days later I was told by a teacher at the school that flies gathered for warmth, but it was still extremely uncomfortable for me to sleep with so many flies. I never got accustomed to their company.
Tibet was the land of believers. Every single person I met believed doing good deeds and devoting everything they had were the only way to be reborn to a better life. Without much knowledge of that, it took me a couple of days to realize the purpose of our trip and what it meant to my Tibetan friends on team.
Most of my teammates come from communist elite families in Tibet. In a place where ordinary Tibetan people have to bring ID for inspection whenever they go on street, where water was too scarce to flush the toilets, my fellow Tibetan students could quickly summon lamas to guide us around a closed temple and lived in a house having goldfish swimming beneath the glass floor. Sent to elementary schools in the mainland at seven or eight, those Tibetan students had clear mind what their life would be. It wouldn’t matter how they are doing in school. The point was that they were brought up in an environment where Han people and Han culture are dominant. They have no difference to their Han peers and are Tibetan by ethnicity. Thus are more trustworthy than ordinary Tibetan in the eyes of Communist rulers. After graduating from universities, those students would be sent back to Tibet to become civil servants like their parents are. In that sense, the Tibetan society is still ruled by hereditary inheritance like old aristocracy did some 60 years ago under Dalai Lama.
The voluntary teaching trip thereby has two layers of meanings for my Tibetan teammates. The first is that they believe they are doing the good deeds, which would lead to a better afterlife. The second is to add up on their resume to prepare them for future government positions.
Rinjin Nuozeng was the Tibetan girl I talked to the most and the organizer of our team. Growing up in Sichuan Province close to Tibet, she has distinctive amber-like eyes, narrow face and not-so-Tibetan fair skin. The only luxury I had in Tibet was three days lived at her home.
Nuozeng was named after two Tulkus. Only aristocracy from the old time kept their family name in Tibet. The majority of Tibetans don’t have surname. Nuozeng’s name certainly proved some point about the family she’s born to and her future. Her father was head of the Lhasa police, who ordered ID checking on Tibetans in the first place.
“This is nothing. You shall see where those old aristocrats live in Beijing,” said Nuozeng, noticing my astonishment to her home decors. Apart from the goldfish tank beneath the floor, her house looks exactly the same as those villas you can see at suburb Shanghai. Everything is kept in accordance to the trend in the mainland. Nuozeng even has a Jacuzzi in her bathroom. Souvenirs like banners and hoodies from Harvard University, and pictures of foreign travelling were hung at a notable spot in her room. At a time most Tibetan people can’t be issued their own passports, the family’s foreign vacation had symbolic meaning.
Nuozeng’s parents appeared mixed feelings to Han people like me. Both of them spoke perfect Mandarin but none of them would talk in Mandarin to their daughter even if I was aside. As a consequence, I felt like isolated during the three days’ sleep-over. In most scenarios, it was Nuozeng who noticed my embarrassment told me what was going on. Having her only daughter away from home all those years, Nuozeng’s mother who is akin to one of the old aristocrat family was always cheerful talking about her daughter’s graduation. “My Rinjin must suffer a lot outside. Please take care of Rinjin in Shanghai.” This is one of the few words Nuozeng’s mother ever said to me in Mandarin.