I have always admired his moral values and actions as a leader in the Tibetan community. He was exiled from his homeland at a young age and was forced to cross the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas along with thousands of other Tibetans. The despair of losing one’s country, along with the extreme climatic differences between Tibet and India, resulted in the death of countless Tibetan refugees. Soon after arriving in India, my father lost his parents and had to surrender his childhood.
By comparison, my sacrifice was insignificant. Wrapped in a white cloth with political demands printed in black and red, I closed my eyes and mourned—not for my hair, but for the cause. Tibetans inside Tibet were revolting against China’s 50-year rule. What started as a protest led by monks in Lhasa, the holy city of Tibet, on March 10, had become a tidal wave washing across the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans from all walks of life—farmers, nomads, university students, schoolchildren, laborers, intellectuals, and monks and nuns—risked their lives to call for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Lhasa is no stranger to protests; it remembers the popular protests that began in 1987 and continued for two years. The Chinese authorities had violently suppressed the uprising then, and many Tibetans lost their lives or were imprisoned. Suppression was, and has been, China’s policy on Tibet.
In this year’s protests, violence was perpetrated by both sides. After a number of monks were beaten and arrested, Tibetans took to the streets March 14. Video of Tibetan youths beating innocent Chinese civilians were broadcast throughout China, generating sympathy for the government crackdown and antipathy toward Tibetans. However, the Chinese government did not care to show its harsh military crackdown, including widespread detentions and hundreds of Tibetans deaths.
As I sat waiting for the razor, leaked images of Tibetans killed by the Chinese security forces flashed before my eyes. Buddhist monks who had been debating philosophy outside monasteries, lay in pools of blood. The frigid air of Santa Fe in April glided over my virgin scalp, as swatches of my soft black hair fell to the concrete floor. Tears ran and, in a few minutes, the electric razor left me exposed and frail.
I am a first-generation Tibetan refugee born in exile in South India, home to pockets of Tibetan settlements. As a youngster, I eagerly anticipated March 10—the anniversary of the 1959 uprising during which the Dalai Lama was forced to flee for his life as his palace was bombarded by the People’s Liberation Army. Though Tibetan schoolchildren did not witness the brutality that our elders experienced, we felt their despair. We painted banners, made signs and headbands, and marched through the streets of India, demanding release of all Tibetan political prisoners and freedom in Tibet.
But this year’s March 10 united the Tibetan diaspora like none other. Tibetans inside Tibet took to the streets, shouting, “We want freedom,” “There is no freedom in Tibet,” “We want the Dalai Lama to return.” These demonstrations were a clear signal that the Tibetans preferred the Dalai Lama and a symptom of deep resentment of Beijing’s hardline policies in Tibet. Forcing a religious people to denounce their spiritual leader as part of a “patriotism campaign” to bring an image of “national unity” and “stability” only deepens the resentment against Chinese governance further.
At the same time, Chinese nationalist sentiments had escalated in the months leading to the Beijing Olympics. Facebook groups were set up by Tibetan students denouncing Beijing’s crackdown of Tibetan protestors, and by Chinese students portraying the Tibetan protestors as violent mobs. These opposing views reflect the ongoing misunderstandings between Chinese and Tibetans and the need for dialogue. Chinese believe they have brought development, modern education, science, and technology to Tibet, and, therefore, Tibetans should be grateful for this progress.
Tibetans see it differently. Unlike Han Chinese, they often do not have access to credit and government jobs and are thus unable to benefit from Chinese economic growth. There is deep anger over the way Tibetan neighborhoods are bulldozed to make room for Chinese stores, over the fact that Tibetan is not the language for education or government work, and over draconian restrictions that limit their religious practices.
It was only when I left my family and the Tibetan community for Colby that I was exposed to the mainstream Chinese view of Tibet. Some of my Chinese classmates portrayed old Tibet as a backward, feudal country where most people were slaves. But I knew that, though our system was similar to feudalism, my own family— nomads and farmers who led a self sustainable life, the so-called “serfs”—never complained about their life in Tibet. Instead, they carry a deep sorrow over the Chinese invasion and occupation of their land. I realized that our different understanding of Tibet emerged from how we were educated. I believe the root of disagreement between Chinese and Tibetan people lies in mutual misunderstanding.
Misunderstandings should be recognized and acknowledged. Tibetans must realize that not all Chinese people support the hardline policies implemented by Beijing and that some are victims of these policies. At the same time, Chinese people should look beyond the surface of development and dig deeper into how the policies affect Tibetans. They also need to acknowledge that Tibetans have never felt themselves to be part of China, and that the forceful assimilation of Tibetans has always been seen as a foreign invasion. While we cannot bring change overnight, we can try to be receptive and open to differing opinions. Both sides need to engage in constructive dialogue that addresses and implements the basic needs of Tibet and the Tibetans who live there.
A Tibetan woman’s hair is her pride and is revered as a symbol of beauty. My baldness portrays my people’s barrenness—void of freedom and liberty, the greatest symbols of beauty in the world. Being a bald woman for the first time in my life I feel vulnerable.
But gradually I have learned to turn such thoughts into something positive, which has empowered me deeply. I realize how important it is to educate myself on the issue and to engage in meaningful dialogue with those who hold opposing views. While there are ample differences between our cultures and societies, I am certain that there are more things that connect us than divide us.
Chinese leadership should construct and implement policies that bolster and preserve Tibetan heritage; they must realize that China’s national integrity will come only by making Tibet a buffer zone of peace as suggested by the Dalai Lama. Everyone should have the right to live in her country without fear of arbitrary arrest or torture. Each one of us matters.
Life became more beautiful and meaningful to me when I saw the potential for amity between Tibetans and Chinese.
My hair is but a small offering for this timeless cause.