Sunday, February 10, 2013

Getting to Know Tibetans

I spent 4 years working in seed studies in Aba (Ngawa), Gansu and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Aba (རྔ་བ་བོད་རིགས་དང་ཆང་རིགས་རང་སྐྱོང་ཁུལ་; 阿坝藏族羌族自治州), is located in northwestern Sichuan Province, the eastern end of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It neighbors Qinghai and Gansu provinces to the north. Tibetan people are the majority 54%, while the Han, Qiang, and other 8 minorities make up the remaining 46%. I also helped study bamboo flowering in the Wolong National Nature Reserve, since Panda were dying without food.
     Traditionally, Tibetan people usually lived high in the mountains. In the past, the tribes fought each other, so when they were up higher, it was easier for them to see their enemies. Secondly, it was safer because of landslides. Third, they did not get sick since there were fewer germs. However, it was very difficult for them to carry water up there. They could do that job that the Han people couldn’t. They simply carried a full bucket of water on their backs, even without a cover. They climbed the hill to their house without spilling any water.
     Another amazing thing they did was that they built their houses with stones of different sizes and shapes without any adhesive to hold the stones together. Stones could be piled two stories high, including in a variety of styles. I was always amazed at their building skills.  Every summer from June to August, the Tibetan people usually came down to the valley to build a camp. It was their “Flower Holiday.” Most flowers were in bloom. It was party time for them. They collected firewood for the night. At night, they built a fire and sang and danced around the fire. Their voices were so beautiful and strong. You could hear them from miles away.
     Problems sometimes happened between Hans and Tibetans around this time when the Tibetans were down in the valley partying. Usually young kids were too lazy to go up the hill to collect their firewood. Sometimes, they stole wood from the nearby Han people, along with vegetables from the gardens. The Han people usually let it go since they didn’t want to get involved in any unnecessary conflicts. They told me that the Tibetans were in the valley only once a year for few months and they would be up in the mountains again soon.  They bring joys down too since they could hear them singing and watch their dancing.

Just imagine all this happened at night, around a camp  fire which is the only light.
     I witnessed two such occurrences. We watched the firewood being taken away. They watched us somehow knowing that we were outsiders. Hans and Tibetans were friendly with each other and respected each other in most cases. There were some interracial marriages too. The Han people there always told me that the Tibetan people were very warm and honest. They let you know when they were happy or angry. From a local Han person’s description, “Tibetans could be your best friend or could kill you with the knife hanging by their belt.” Han people did not allow to have knife hanging like them and they did not have any weapons to defend themselves.
     There were lots of stories of mysteries and mysterious people in those remote harsh regions. I met a Tibetan who had blended into Han completely. You couldn’t tell that he was Tibetan unless he told you so. But he still kept in close touch with his own people. I asked him how much he believed in about the Tibetan religion and traditions. He thought for a moment and said, “let me put it this way. I believe there are lots of things that need serious research. I don’t believe a lot of things. Some things in the Tibetan culture changed with time. Some things are gone. Some things are new. But be careful here. There are some things that would not and have not changed for thousands of years. People believed in those things in their hearts. I believe those could pass the test of time.”
     I asked why Tibetans didn’t take regular baths, they smelled so bad and you could see dirt on their skin. He replied that it was a kind of natural skin protection from harsh sunlight and wind since they didn’t have any sun block or lotions. “But how about their clothes,” I continued. “Yes, you are right, they do need to take better care of them through education and communication from the outside.” I also told him my shocking observation one day while we were waiting for a bus. Suddenly, this Tibetan next to me pulled out a naked newborn baby boy out of his front pouch. The wind was blowing very strong, he handed the baby to the mother and both were playing with their baby. I was worried about the baby getting cold. He explained that they were used to it. The baby would be fine.
     Unlike city grown-ups, I always admired people, even kids, in the poor remote regions. They had acquired many skills to survive under those harsh conditions. They knew all of the useful herbs, food, and animals. Even a little shepherd boy could use a simple spindle about “foot size” to make wool yarn while he walked around the hills watching the sheep. They were so alert and knew everything happening around them in their natural world. And they knew where almost everything was, as if they had these big homes with everything in them.  They are truly independent.
     Once I was in the capital of Barkam (马尔康), the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Mr. Zhou and I went with two local foresters to a local Tibetan fair. I was walking with three men on the street, while another group of young Tibetans passed by on the opposite side. The Tibetan next to me flicked one of his fingers on my face, touching my face when he passed. I was so furious because no one had ever done that to me. So I turned around and was ready to chase the boy; I wanted to punch him or break his finger. I wanted to tell him that his behavior was not welcome here. The local foresters grabbed me by the arm, they almost left me in the air, and dragged me back even before I could get any attention from the Tibetan teens. They scared me by saying that no one would come to look for me if the Tibetans decided to take me away, because the land is so vast outside of this tiny city. Han Chinese is the minority here. If you want to survive, you stay low. Sometimes Han Chinese girls disappeared, even Han Chinese men disappeared. Some Tibetans loved Han Chinese, for them it is okay to steal someone they love (抢婚). It is rare, but it did happen every now and then. Mr. Zhou’s face changed too, he decided to take all of us back to the Hotel instead even though we had just started.
I also met some professors from Sichuan University who studied Minority Cultures. I did learn a lot from them. I was shocked that the Tibetans I saw were not all Tibetans. They actually could divide into a dozen of smaller nationalities. Most of them only had oral languages, no written language. They just discovered one tribe whose population was so small and they were more precious than the Giant Panda. The project involved helping their culture survive. They had only an oral language. One thing that puzzled me so much was that this professor and his group were going to help them create their own written language. I didn’t understand why. If they had one fine, but if not, why wouldn’t they learn the ones already available or just let them develop one on their own. Governmental aid and no restrictions on childbearing were for non-Han Chinese.
      Most Tibetans did not have education especially the older ones. They had their own ways and traditions just to fit their habit. I used to see one older Tibetan every morning when he came down from his mountain house to the Forest Station clinic for his shot. He told me what a wonderful clinic it was and it was free of charge. Too bad that few people about his age believed in using Western medicine. They only trusted their traditional Tibetan medicine as practiced by their herbal doctors.
      One thing I tried to convince the Tibetan people was that we didn’t have many forests left. We needed to plant trees, protect them, and let them grow instead of letting sheep and cows roam through them, and not cut the growing tips of trees just for fun while walking through the woods. The funny things was the boys were so proud of themselves; they would let me take a picture next to the tree tip they just cut off with their knife still in their hands. They even let their animals into our enclosed experiment sites in the remote mountains, took apart our instruments, and took them home as their toys. For them, anything outside without people watching they could take home, meaning no one wanted anymore. They did not think they did anything wrong, they told us that they took them home or took them apart just like anything else in the mountains was free to take.
      The trees couldn’t become healthy mature trees anymore after that, and couldn’t become a tall dense forest. It took the Forest Station workers a whole day of climbing to carry up the tree seedlings. The Tibetans always laughed at us. They thought it was funny and foolish to plant trees because trees grew by themselves. I was trying to tell them that the trees could not grow fast enough now that the trees were part of the timber industry. Just like the food in their farm. They just didn’t understand why we put so much effort into growing them in the nursery, transplanting the trees up on the hill, and cutting back the competing shrubs to let the trees grow.
      I also met other minority groups in other places. Since China is a large country with more than 50 nationalities, I was very interested in all of them, their culture, and their wisdom. We could be good friends to each other, to learn and help each other. Nature and time are much more powerful than humankind’s efforts as a whole even though we are pushing our limit every minute. We often ignore the cries of nature and forget Time. Only Time will tell, might not be in our lifetime, but will tell our children or our children’s children. I realize it is our challenge to educate people that we need to balance everything we do, take it out and put it back. One cannot just take; otherwise, we are going to disappear just like the dinosaurs. Maybe that is the eventual fate of humanity. At least, we could delay that happening instead of bringing it on sooner.
    TED offers some interesting ideas Is There A Better Way To Be Buried? And it looks like marketing is being done: What Can Happen With You And Your Body After Death? More people accept the idea of letting mushrooms eat their body. I used to help grow shiitake mushrooms in college, but it was not easy. We are full of germs which means our bodies would have to be treated first to kill everything alive. And our bodies are not meant to grow mushrooms, which usually grow on wood, too much fat and meat, and not enough fibers. People are too high on the food chain to fall to the bottom. Even if we could cultivate a supper fungi for the dead human body, the same fungi might escape and mutate and attack the living body. As bad as it looks, I think the Tibetan Sky Burial is the most cost effective, the most clean and natural way to return back to nature. Tibetans are model citizens on Earth. They take the least away from the food chain and return the most back to the food chain. They also do the least amount of damage to the Earth which makes it possible for them live on fragile habitats. Also, they make it possible for 1.4 billion Chinese people, many Indians, and people on the other side of the Himalaya to be able to drink clean water since both the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers originate in Tibet; the Himalaya and the Karakoram ranges in India.

56 Ethnicities of China!

Tibet, Reaching the Sky
Haibei Tibetan
Tea & Horse Trail One
Tea & Horse Trail Two
Tea & Horse Trail Three Three
Rdiscovering Yangtze River
Tibet: The CIA’s Cancelled War