Tough Choices for Tibet's Foreign-Schooled Elites

Young Tibetans who want to boost their prospects, and their homeland, often seek education in other parts of China or abroad. When they return, many assume positions of authority and influence. But the young elites' foreign education can also force them to face conflicting loyalties at home.

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And just as Latin Americans are learning to speak Chinese languages, China is hosting young Tibetans who are leaving their Himalayan homeland to pursue their studies. The young Tibetans, who are often the elites, are traveling all across the globe to study. But they invariably encounter difficulties in re-acclimating.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn spoke to some Chinese-trained Tibetans and filed this report.

ANTHONY KUHN: In the regional capital, Lhasa, Dr. Ghesan Norbu walks the halls of the Tibet Autonomous Region People's Hospital in his white lab coat. He spent years studying medicine in Beijing and Shanghai, and was a visiting scholar in West Virginia. Now he's returned to Tibet with an expertise in cardiology. Ghesan Norbu sees his contribution to Tibet in narrow terms.

Dr. GHESAN NORBU (Cardiologist, Tibet Autonomous Region People's Hospital): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I feel that an individual's powers are limited, he says. You can't do everything well. You can only really contribute to society in one area. My area is medicine.

Ghesan Norbu's looks don't mark him as a Tibetan, nor does his fluent Chinese. He says his identity comes from his profession.

Dr. NORBU: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I'm a Tibetan doctor of medicine trained by the new China, he says. China's Communist Party has been cultivating and training Tibetans since before it took over the region in 1951. China says that since 1985, it has trained more than 10,000 Tibetans at colleges and technical schools across the country. This is a deal many young Tibetans are willing to strike: working within the Chinese system in order to acquire the skills and knowledge to build a strong and modern Tibet. Their dilemma is how to do this without losing their Tibetan cultural roots.

One person who's done well on this score is 38-year-old Yumba(ph). He's one of Tibet's leading authorities on traditional Tibetan astronomy and calendars. Like many Tibetans, he uses just one name.

YUMBA (Authority on Traditional Tibetan Astronomy and Calendars): (Through translator) I'm constantly aware of being Tibetan. I speak Tibetan, I interact mostly with Tibetans, and I serve Tibetans. And I'm involved in traditional Tibetan culture.

KUHN: Yumba attended a university especially for ethnic minorities in northwest China's Gansu Province. Then, about 15 years ago, he apprenticed himself to a senior monk in Gansu's Labrang Buddhist monastery. There he learned traditional Tibetan astronomy and calendar systems. Yumba now authors one of Tibet's most popular publications, The Yearly Almanac.

YUMBA: (Through translator) Tibet's nomadic herders move to new pastures two or three times a year. Our almanac tells them the best times to move, as well as things to look out for. It tells them, for example, when's a good time for birthing lambs.

KUHN: Yumba and other Tibetans working within the Chinese system enjoy a standard of living and a range of personal choices that would be hard to find independently. Tibetan author Tsering Wesei(ph)knows this well. She once had a cushy job in Lhasa writing for the Chinese-language magazine, Tibetan Literature. Reflecting over a Chinese meal in a Beijing restaurant, she says the price of comfort is obedience.

Ms. TSERING WESEI (Tibetan Author): (Through translator) Tibetans couldn't survive without their jobs. They're dependent on the salary that the communist party gives them. But deep in their hearts, they're also dependent on their Tibetan identity. Their mental world is split.

KUHN: Wesei acknowledges her debt to China's educational system.

Ms. WESEI: (Through translator) I admit I enjoy the benefits of China's cultivation, and the government appears to have invested a lot in, for example, Tibetan high schools. But colonialists always feel they have done you a big favor. They don't treat you as their equal, and they don't respect you.

KUHN: Two years ago, Tsering Wesei was fired from her job, she says, because of her writings. She has no regrets now about being outside the system. She says she feels liberated and optimistic about her ability to influence young Tibetans through her writings. It hasn't been easy, though. This year, authorities shut down her Web blogs, where she had discussed sensitive political topics and posted a picture of Tibet's exiled religious leader, the Dalai Lama. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

You can catch more of Anthony Kuhn's recent series from Tibet at npr.org.

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