8.07.2007

Taken to a Government-Sponsored Tibetan Theme Park?

Tonight I watched fellow Vassar alum Anthony Bourdain travel and eat his way through the exotic and yet ordinary foods of southwest China, ending in a "Tibetan" village that, strangely, actually wasn't in Tibet, but rather Yunan province. His guide repeatedly emphasized to him that he was seeing the "traditional" Tibetan house, the "traditional" Tibetan food, the "traditional" Tibetan dress, etc. etc. I've been to Tibet, and lived with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India, and I can promise you there was nothing "traditional" about the size, grandeur, or wealth of the house and family that was paraded out for Tony's enjoyment. I'm afraid one of my favorite chefs got used by the Chinese government to help publicize a bunch of government-sponsored hogwash.

In the real Tibet, all public services, schools, place names, traffic directions, etc., are in Chinese. Traditional Tibetan villages have been razed to make way for Chinese-government style buildings and development. Where they have not been razed, they are a tiny, impoverished outpost surrounded by modern development. The wooden "traditional" Tibetan house visited by Tony was clearly recently built. The rooms were huge, the house had two stories, and the food was abundant. Most telling: the butter tea, which is traditionally meant to taste rancid and takes some getting used to (I grew to love it), was adjusted to suit a western palate. Tony braced for the worst, but found the light frothy beverage he was handed actually tasted good. He was not being given the real thing - he was being given something to make him feel good.

Tibetans are not permitted to have a photo of the Dalai Lama, whom they revere as their spiritual and political leader (Tibetan government does not separate church and state in the western way) on display in their shops or windows, which may not sound like a big deal to a non-Tibetan, but for Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is at the heart of their identity as Tibetans. In Tibet, the monasteries were the places of education and housed the vast libraries of ancient texts relating to law, medicine, and the dharma.

My admittedly speculative conclusion: the Tibetans that Tony visited are well-connected cadres in the communist party and are happily participating in the ruse in exchange for the lovely accommodations and assured futures for their children and relatives. The "Tibetan" village in Yunan is being put forth by the government as the "real" thing so that people won't travel the extra several hundred miles to the very remote actual Tibet and witness what in fact has happened to the Tibetan people there.

Tony, dude, you got used.

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