Tibet probably ranks high in many people’s list as a place for which they feel a close affinity but know next to nothing about.
For instance, I recently sent a book of old photographs on Tibet to a friend’s mother, an American. She told me later that she enjoyed it very much but was disappointed to see one photo of a group of men proudly posing for the camera with swords and firearms at their side, with a picture caption that said, ‘Tibetan Bandits.” She had hoped that Tibet would be the one place where something as mundane as crime didn’t exist.
I’m sure that pictures of European highwaymen or American robbers like Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde would not have the effect of changing her perception of those countries. But somehow, the unethical and often violent behaviour involved in committing successful banditry was difficult for my friend’s mother to assimilate into the niche that Tibet occupied in her mind. And in my experience as a Tibetan who has lived in the West for more than 25 years, the Tibetan niche in the minds of many Westerners is very similarly informed or, in my opinion, ill-informed.
This ubiquitous fantasy of Tibet as a realm where a “beautiful” people live in a transcendental state is more like the perceiver’s personal inner yearning than an appreciation of a nation. What’s not clear, however, is if this view of Tibet springs from a need to believe that somewhere on earth, a place exists where life continues in a blissful state of innocence or whether it is a desire to believe that, Tibetan people live in a perpetual nirvana induced by mental high technology.
The former reason would constitute naive condescension and the latter is for people who believe that all Americans are wealthy and that all Frenchmen are great lovers. In either case, this projection of a fantasy onto Tibet ought to be a private matter between an individual and his or her doctor and distinct from the realities of the country.
Sometime in the future, when the people of Tibet begin running their own affairs, they might adopt a policy of promoting tourism. We may then want to perpetuate the myth of Tibet as the “state of tranquility,” much the way the Caribbean islands promote unceasing sunshine or the way the British will have the tourist believe that there’s pageantry lurking around every street corner in England.
But in the present geo-political situation, continuing to believe in the myth of Tibet is like pulling the chair from under someone whose neck is already in a noose, because when someone continues to believe in the legend of Shangri La, he is denying the cultural devastation wrought on the land over the last 30 years. He is not believing the killings, the prison camps, nor the levelling of historical institutions.
It is ironic that those who are predisposed to Tibet and feel an affinity with it as a place of great serenity are actually the ones who, in effect, inadvertently deny the suffering of her people. When tourists in Tibet are asked by Tibetans for a photo of the Dalai Lama, please understand that they are not yearning for a Tibet where everyone lived in a godlike state of bliss. They merely aspire to lead normal human lives in their own country. Even if that freedom includes having Tibetan bandits. At least they’d be robbing Tibetan banks, and if caught would be tried in Tibetan courts and sentenced to Tibetan prisons that served Tibetan food.
Losang Gyatso is an art director at a New York advertising agency.