From Sasu’s blog: My Tibetan Friend, and Tibetan Affairs

April 18th, 2009 by Mei

This translation was motivated by a rather inconspicuous comment a good friend of mine made in her blog. She watched the 2009 Chinese New Year Gala on TV in a friend’s house, and made various observations about the gala, in her usual humorous style. I was all itching to leave some comments of my own on her blog, when the last sentence of her article jumped to my eyes – it was an off-hand remark: “… at least three hours in, no mention of Tibet; but then you’re only supposed to think happy thoughts during Chinese New Year.”

It was an innocent remark that nevertheless stung, as if a dear friend suddenly started to joke about my family problems in a party. She was of course not the first one of my friends who talked about Tibet, since the issue has practically become a fashion statement in the west. But taking a side in someone else’s family dispute is one thing, joking about it like enjoying a comic show is another. I was so put off by the comment that for a couple of months I couldn’t find a way to talk to her.

The thing is, I really like my friend, and see her as one of my best friends, so this state of affair wouldn’t do. It’s also not nice to leave my friend wondering why I suddenly went silent on her. This little essay by Sasu, which I hastily translated here, is my attempt at bringing up the issue and getting it out of my system, without pretending it didn’t matter to me.

One thing I wondered about in the last few weeks was: why do I care at a personal level? After all, I have never personally known a Tibetan, nor have I visited the land. The only connection in my experience – at a personal level, not at a “talk over a newspaper” level – was taking a smaller allocation of meat and eggs in the lean times of 70s, by policy, so that my ethnic minority friends from far away could have more. As kids, we were thus connected, like brothers and sisters in the same family who shared what little food we had and survived the worst of times. In more hokey words, we are struggling to hold the family together because we are connected by love. Even if the love might have been “brainwashed” into our minds, it was tested and proven under pressure of survival, a love much stronger than the convenient passion for Tibet proclaimed by any western celebrity, including Dalai Lama himself (who is, no doubt, more a western celebrity than a Tibetan).

So here it is, a little essay by an internet writer Sasu, who lives in Japan and makes his living as an IT engineer. Sasu mostly writes about interesting events and characters connected to his life as a Beijing native. He has published several books, and now writes regularly for printed media as well. The piece I translated here is a rather “light” essay about his Tibetan friend Adan, and things he learned about what kind of people Tibetans are. I had always felt that taking the overseas Tibet Independence movement as a representation of the Tibetan people is practically an insult to the true Tibetans. That was the sentiment that partially motivated the choice of this piece.

My Tibetan Friend, and Tibetan Affairs

written by Sasu
translated by Mei

My friend Huar Adan happened to be in Beijing during my last trip home, so we got together for a long chat, on everything under the sun, till the sun had set and darkness fell completely.

As we walked out of his home, I was surprised to see stars all over the night sky. In my memory from middle school to college, the number of days I could see clear sky in Beijing could be counted with one hand. And now …. I see stars?!

This small miracle had simple explanations. First, Adan is not rich, so his home is on the outskirt of Beijing, near the 5th Ring, which naturally had better air quality. Second, we were starting to see the effect of strict air quality control in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. Still, I was truly excited.

Adan watched me dance around under the stars, and said: You are becoming more like us Tibetans.

Adan is Tibetan. We made friends when he was studying in Beijing Normal University. Our friendship started with a fight between me and his friend Chief Ye, after which we became as close as dear brothers — something that still baffles me today.

My impressions of Tibetan people come mostly from Adan. That is why, even when standing face to face with the Tibet Independence demonstrators in Nagoya as I volunteered to help guard the Olympic Torch Relay, I knew very clearly in my mind that T.I. was T.I., Tibetans were Tibetans, that they were never the same thing.

Since my notebook computer was smashed by T.I. rioters during the Nagoya event, Adan called from China to inquire on me. I asked him – How come there are thugs like this among you Tibetans? Adan shot back instantly – that’s all learned from you outside people, we Tibetans are never like that.

What, so TI was cultivated by us “outside” people? You have to give it to Adan for his unique logic.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time he expressed such an opinion.

Once, a friend of mine was robbed by some Tibetans in Jiuzhai Gou. I demanded an explanation from Adan (which was most unreasonable of me, come to think of it), and Adan shut me up with the same statement – that’s all learned from you outside people, we Tibetans are never like that.

When Alai’s famous book The Dust Settled was first published, Adan instantly had one copy delivered to me, with a note inside saying, with obvious excitement, “A book written by one of us, a Tibetan. YOU READ.” He made the words “you read” 7-8 times larger in size, to make sure I would never miss it.

So I read the book. Soon after, a TV series was made from it, and I woke Adan in the middle of the night over the phone: Which one is better, the book or the TV series?

After a moment of disorientation, Adan replied: The TV series.


The girls were pretty.

I hang up the phone – could this guy be a dummy Lord (main character in The Dust Settled) in his previous life too?

This time, when Adan said I was becoming a Tibetan, I smiled back, as I knew perfectly well what he meant, a meaning I just came to understand that same day.

That day, I had lunch in a Tibetan-cuisine restaurant with a journalist from Beijing Youth Daily. It was early afternoon, and we were alone in the sunny and quiet restaurant main lobby. The waitress didn’t have much to do, so she abandoned her customers, took out her Qin, and was soon lost in her music.

My journalist friend had just returned from Tibet, so we talked mainly about things in the Tibetan region. She climbed the Meili Mountain, where the only road to top was a slippery path shaped like the ridged back of a fish. She had the choice of walking on her own legs, or riding on a donkey. “I chose to walk”, she said. “Sheer cliffs dropped down both sides of the path. I didn’t want to rely on anyone else’s feet.”

Of course, after she gazed stars from the top of Meili, all of this felt worthwhile.

I could relate. I said: You look like your soul had been cleansed.

Then I asked: Tell me something about the Tibetans you know.

She pondered for a moment: Where do I begin? — There isn’t much to say about Lhasa. It has become a metropolitan area. Let’s talk about Ali. Actually, let’s talk about a lawsuit between Tibetans.

Tibetan lawsuit? I knew I was in luck. I heard that she spent a winter in Ali a few years ago. Overwintering in Ali is by no means a simple affair, as the harsh climate up there can easily claim the life of an “outsider” (my journalist friend did develop some health problems after that winter in Tibet). This is why it is utter nonsense to say that Han people are eliminating the Tibetan local culture. The Tibetan traditions and culture are kept as pure as ever outside of Lhasa, for a very simple reason — outsiders are not capable of settling in and disturbing the culture. Even the Qinghai-Tibet railway cannot change that fact, for it is but a thin line of influence, and any outsider would encounter mortal difficulties as soon as he wanders from this line.

My journalist friend stayed in a village near the center of Ali. The whole village population was Tibetans, as were the village leaders. Government jobs are simple in such places: hospital, communication, disaster relief, stores. There is no need, nor manpower, to do anything else.

The local Tibetans are like Tibetans in any other village, who are, needless to say, honest and kind.

But the honest and kind villagers did a little something not quite so honest or kind.

On the other side of the hill, opposite this village, was another village.

One day, a yak from the other village ran over to graze on this side of the hill. A few fellows from this village shot and cooked the yak.

A few days later, the other village sent someone to look for the yak.

The Tibetans in this village simply shook their heads — no no, we didn’t see it.

Despite this adament denial, the other village was not fooled. They traced the yak, and concluded that yes, “you took our yak”.

So, the two villages decided to hold a negotiation session.

The location of the negotiation was chosen to be the hilltop between the two villages.

On the day of the mediation, my journalist friend saw that the village leaders all put on their best traditional attire, hopped on their best horses, and took off for the meeting site.

Out of curiosity, my friend followed. When she saw the scene at the meeting location, she was shocked — the leaders from the other village were also in their best clothes and on their best horses. Behind them were a milling crowd. Apparently the whole other village had arrived!

Just as my friend was recovering from the initial shock, she heard footsteps behind her as well — all villagers from this side of the hill had also come!

Was a fight going to break out?

But when she saw the faces of the villagers, she thought her eyes were failing her.

The villagers, old and young, all had the same expression on their faces — joy!

Carrying her bewilderment, she followed the crowd to the top of the hill.

The negotiation lasted only 10 minutes. Translated to our language, here is the essence of the negotiation —

Village A: Our yak was eaten by your people …

Village B: No, it was not us.

Village A: There is nobody else around here. It could only be you.

Village B: Did you see us eating it?

Village A: If you put it this way, obviously our perspectives on this matter are quite different.

Village B: So it seems. Do you think this negotiation can solve the problem?

Village A: I don’t think so.

Village B: Neither do I.

Village A: Alright, we will send someone to your village later to arrange a time for the next negotiation session.

Village B: OK.

Ten minutes? If you count the time spent on greetings.

In order to reach this beautiful common understanding, the next 3-4 hours were spent by villagers from both sides singing, dancing, drinking, and eating. Village A slaughtered a yak for this occasion, and Village B agreed to contribute a yak for next time … my journalist friend were dragged into several dances in that day’s joyous celebration.

So she understood. The lives of Tibetans are very simple. An event as important as yak-stealing was a perfect excuse to gather together and drink and dance. No wonder everyone was in total ecstasy.

This reminded her of barley harvesting time — villagers would all come out to help a particular family harvest their crop. My friend was very moved by everyone’s selfless community spirit.

Barley harvesting would take maybe one hour. The rest of the day, the whole village gathered in the family’s home to feast and dance. The host of course supplied all food, with complete pleasure and not a trace of worry. My journalist friend couldn’t help thinking — brother, isn’t this way of barley-harvesting completely cost-ineffective?

But her question was soon answered — before the villagers leave at the end of celebration, they happily arranged to gather the next day again, to help with another family’s harvesting. Every family had a chance to receive generous help from fellow villagers, and each had the opportunity to supply food and drink for the feast afterward.


I heard you went to Tibet again recently. Did you visit Ali? I asked my friend.

No, it was too far out of the way for this trip. I just called the village head. She said.

How are they doing? I asked.

Pretty good. She told me. But I heard the yak dispute was still not resolved …

It’s already 3 years! She added.

You know, the Tibetans are a people whose joy come easily. She added again.

That was the reason, I think, that Adan said I was becoming more like a Tibetan. If I could dance around just for seeing a few stars, then I was someone whose joy came easily.

It’s 2009. May everyone’s joy come easily.

7 Responses to “From Sasu’s blog: My Tibetan Friend, and Tibetan Affairs”

  1. AvatarLara

    I like this story about yak-negotiation parties. How many yaks will be sacrificed in the protracted negotiations over the original one that went AWOL? Any excuse for a party!

    Hey, I don’t know any Tibetans, either. Nor did I know about 70s sharing of food between people in China and Tibet. I asked my badminton partner, who was brought up in Harbin and is a few years younger than Mei, if she’d been brought up encouraged to love and share with her Tibetan fellows and she said no. All she knew was that her brother reported (ten years ago) that Tibetan students in Beijing seemed very wealthy – he figured this because they flew home every holiday break, instead of staying in China or taking the train. All most westerners know is what they see on TV (or the movie “Kundun,” which doesn’t do the Chinese any favors), or what they read about/by the Dalai Lama. Pretty one-sided, and of course not presented by either native Tibetans or Chinese.

    So, as happens so very often when I’m making a fool of myself in Chinese cultural matters, I need some (lots of) context and explanation. It doesn’t help when you hear reports of deaths in Tibet, then a news blackout by Chinese authorities. This is the same knee-jerk reaction that the folks in Beijing resort to too often, (cf. Tianamen Square), with a usual litany of “stop interfering in our internal affairs.”* In a world dominated by news satellites and the internet, wouldn’t it be smarter to come out and try to EDUCATE the ignorant westerners? It would be a change, at any rate, and perhaps make some progress towards international understanding. If wise and loving people like Mei can be so upset by their friends’ uninformed (but not intentionally malicious) casual remarks that they can’t communicate with them, correct or inform them, just imagine what happens at national levels. Something is going to fill the news void – could be a good idea if the officials in Beijing took the initiative and did some pro-active responsible reporting.

    As it happens, I’m currently editing a book by a French scholar who spent about 14 years interviewing Chinese and Tibetans about the Ninth Panchen Lama, the guy who after a disagreement over taxes with the 13th Dalai Lama (the previous one; the current one is #14), fled to Mongolia, then China and lived there for the remainder of his life. And after reading through the manuscript I finally understand why China has some very valid claims to Tibetan territory, just how feudal and primitive political and economic life was under the Lamas, and why that old way of life had to come to an end. Really! China looks pretty good, now that I know some of the context!

    But who produced that context? Was it some forward-looking soul in the PRC’s propaganda wing? Heck no, it’s a French scholar who learned both Chinese and Tibetan to try to figure out what was going on. It would be wonderful if we could see trustworthy histories of China, written by Chinese, translated into English and aimed at well-meaning nonspecialists.

    *I know that China’s not the only country to have killed its own student protesters; the U.S. did that in 1968 at Kent State University in Ohio. The difference I’m trying to get at here is the attitude to the public (domestic and foreign)’s right to know. If you try to shut down all news reports, you look like a despotic regime – that’s what Myanmar and North Korea do. If you want to look credible and concerned, you field your own reporters and investigators, knowing that it’s unlikely that the truth will remain buried forever, and wanting to get your story out there to compete with the one-sided version that the “Free Tibet” people are undoubtedly going to put out. You do a proper investigative series, with backgrounds on the situation, budget figures, and credible mortality rates; you prove your opponents wrong with logic and evidence, and intelligent presentation. You engage the opposition. Either that or you work like mad on the Great Firewall of China, now and forever.

  2. AvatarMei
    Author Comment

    You make some very good points about where the disjoint perceptions of Chinese and western friends come from. It’s true that the Chinese government have been very reticent about Tibet, but not because they don’t want to argue their case. Many from China have tried to communicate their perspective on the Tibet issue. The effort hasn’t necessarily taken the form of “battle of words” in the media or in books, because it has proven futile in conveying actual information (it tends to stir up more hatred and further misunderstanding, especially with the help of overseas TI movements).

    This is reflected in my personal experience, too, while talking to my western friends about Tibet related issues. There are two typical reactions I get in these conversations. If I appeal to facts/reason, the response I get is usually “well you have been brainwashed, therefore your facts are automatically wrong, and your reasoning is just the communist ruler’s reasoning. QED.” To me, it’s an amazing display of intellectual laziness, but you can see the futility of continuing to say anything after such an assertion, especially if I don’t want to lose a friendship. If I appeal to personal experience and emotional connection, basically saying “we ARE the same people, we have always been, and we get along and care for each other, and we (especially Tibetans) are better off together than divorced”, then I usually get something like “well that’s all fine, and I’m sure you mean well, but you have no right to care, since Tibet is another country! Even if they want to go away and die alone, it’s none of your business” Again, a response aimed to shut off the communication.

    Your response is very very polite. Some of my other western friends can get quite rude on this issue, and I’m tired of losing friendship over something that I don’t even have any control over. It took me a long time to respond this time, since it’s a friendship I really do care about. It’s certainly not because of a habitual tendency to not communicate! I sympathize with the Chinese government’s silence treatment, since anything they say/publish would be given treatment #1 above, so it wouldn’t do anyone any good. I think they are actually careful about this because they don’t want facts to be labeled “propaganda” just because they said it, so they choose not to say it. It’s much easier to get the facts through if a western person discovers them and writes about them.

    There is a Chinese guy who wrote a good book on the very complex issue of Tibet. The name of the book is Sky Burial by Wang Lixiong (< 天葬>王力雄)( It is a recommended reading by pro-Tibetan-independence people (the link goes to a pro-TI website), so one cannot accuse him of being a propaganda tool of Chinese government. Reading this book would help my western friends understand the issue, and not have a knee-jerk reaction of “Propaganda! Free Tibet!” whenever the issue comes up. But very few of my western friends actually go read up on these things, or search for more info (not even on the pro-TI websites), even as they are passionately accusing me of various offenses just for saying I don’t agree with TI movement. It’s amazing to me how much righteous passion people can display over something they have so little knowledge, so little stake, and for which they have suffered so little inconvenience on.

    The food rationing policy during my childhood was for all ethnic minorities, not just for Tibetans. We all learned that there were 56 ethnic groups in China, and we sang about it, and so on. The minority families got almost twice as much meat and egg allowance as the Han families. It wasn’t a big deal anymore after Deng Xiaoping took power, as the economy improved and food wasn’t nearly as scarce. Kids 4-5 years younger than me wouldn’t have remembered the rationing years.

    Thanks for the discussions. I usually don’t get to say this much before i get the “brainwashed!” treatment. :)

  3. Avatarxgz

    Let me add another dimension in this discussion. The Chinese government’s restriction on discussion of Tibet is not one-sided either. In 1985 author Ma Jian (马建) wrote a disgusting book depicting Tibetan culture as backwards and ugly (亮出你的舌苔或空空荡荡 or “Stick out your tongue”, see wiki page It was immediately banned by the Chinese government as a “vulgar and obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots.” I had the opportunity to read the story before it was banned and it was sick. There is no doubt in my mind that the publication of this book would have fueled racial tension and aggravated discrimination against Tibetans.

    Unfortunately, in a perverse way, because of Chinese people’s general mistrust of the government, the act of banning the book was perceived by the population that the book was telling the truth about the Tibetan culture, even though they didn’t even read the book. The author thus established his standing in the literacy circle and eventually immigrated to the West. He now lives in London.

    Here are a couple reviews of the English translation of the book:

  4. AvatarLara

    Ah! We’re talking again! Hooray!!!

    I was just re-reading the part of the French scholar’s book in which the author describes the sources she sought and had access to, and what sort of access she was allowed, by both Tibetan and Chinese officials – both sides are somewhat reticent. I thought about you a lot.

    I am, alas, not surprised by how much passion people pour into things they know nothing about, and have no stake in; look at (plenty of) Americans on gay marriage, abortion, etc. In fact, they seem to get more impassioned about evils presented to their imaginations than to the evidence of their senses. Why get worried about Tibetan rights when you can see the crumbling schools in your own neighborhood? (But I will refrain from launching into my usual school-based diatribe.)

    What I’m really astonished about is the sheer amount of rudeness that people are willing to point at their friends and acquaintances. I am so sorry. It is NOT meant to further discussion, but to quash it. Thanks, Rush Limbaugh.

    Unfortunately, it looks as though xgz has an excellent point – NOBODY trusts the Chinese gov’t to do the right thing, even when they’re trying hard – and how do you overcome that? How can the U.S. gov’t overcome that kind of perception that we’ve also been cultivating during the GWB years? Very hard to fix this.

  5. Avatarram

    I liked the story of the villages and the Yak.

    When I visited my sister in India, I think it was in the mid 80’s, she had a great and eclectic collection of books. One book was a picture book that showed illustrations of absolutely horrible tortures carried by Tibetan monks on Tibetan peasants, i.e., skinning them alive etc. I’m not sure who published this book or how it got to India, let alone my sister’s collection. I think it was published in China. Anyway, my reaction when reading it was to feel loathing and disgust for Tibetan monks.

    Some years later, I met two people who personally met the Dalai Lama, and told me of their wonderful (to them) religious experiences. I’m not sure where the truth lies. The tortures I saw depicted in the book were so incredibly cruel that it’s hard to imagine any human being carrying them out. I started to wonder if the Tibetan monks were really evil. It’s certainly possible that someone made up this book to further their cause. I wouldn’t put it past the Chinese government. Of course, I wouldn’t put it past the Indian government to do similar things if it suited their purpose, such as the hiding their implicit support for pogroms against sikhs and muslims, and I wouldn’t put it past the US government for whitewashing the genocide of American Indians.

    I don’t know what the truth is about Tibet, whether it was liberated or occupied. However, I am certainly learning a lot by reading this post. I had no idea of the sacrifices made by ordinary Chinese for ethnic minorities. That’s way different from India or the USA — I can’t imagine Indians giving up food for Sikhs, Muslims or untouchables, or in the USA people sacrificing anything at all for Blacks, Hispanics, or American Indianans.

  6. AvatarLara

    Not so fast, there, Ram. Our taxes went to pay for the Great Society programs (benefiting many blacks, as well as heaps of poor whites); our taxes still go to pay for the maintenance of conservative voters in the southern U.S. states for all the education they can’t get up to getting themselves, and the deficits in income they exhibit when compared to better-educated liberals in the blue states. We pay 15% tax on every penny everyone earns up to $90K so that old and poor people can have pensions and medical coverage. And when I was in college (OK, some millenia ago, but still…) the idealism of young people was still intact, and Oxfam ran a widespread campaign to get people to give up food for one day and donate the amount they would have spent to Oxfam to feed the poor elsewhere.

    The trick is that as we become older we doubt the efficacity of giving up local pleasures to ensure distant survivals; and we doubt that our government is telling us the truth. If Bush were to say “faith initiative,” I would respond, “bloated church budgets and child-sodomizing priests.” If a government were to tell me, “You’re getting less of something so that someone else can have more,” I’d say, “Prove that they’re getting it and that you’re not pocketing the difference.”

    Just a screed to let you know liberalism isn’t dead, but it’s tempered by middle age.

  7. AvatarMei
    Author Comment

    I think the torture systems Ram read about in that old book was real — it was part of a very cruel slavery system in Tibet in the old years. I don’t believe that Dalai Lama would restore that cruelty, though, even if he could somehow regain power in Tibet. He has become a western person, in many ways, and very modern in his ideology.

    The torture history does reflect a side of Tibetan religious system that is far from the pristine and peaceful image painted in western media. There is a very large percentage of the population (20%?) in Tibet who are monks, and they have to tax the general population heavily to sustain that high number of non-working population. Right now the Chinese government essentially taxes from the non-Tibet region to support the Tibet religious class, basically to appease them in the hope that they’ll be complacent and not care about what Dalai Lama wants them to do. But if this outside support goes away, either someone else has to come in to fill in the financial hole (would the US do this in such a scenario?), or there would be huge tension between the taxing class and the taxed class, and life wouldn’t be good for a long time over there. This is just one of the many realistic problems one has to worry about in a TI scenario if one truly cares about the well-being of our Tibetan friends.

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