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Shattering the Shangri-La Stereotype:Tibetans Re-branded

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2004/12/04; December 4, 2004.]

Tibetan Review, September 2004
By Dechen Khando and Tenzin Metok Sither

"Always Coca Cola." One of the world's biggest co-operations has succeeded in embedding this slogan in our minds. Strategic advertising and public relations have helped. Although not as commercial as Coca Cola Inc., there is an image of Tibetans that is being "marketed" by foreigners and Tibetans alike and has almost become a brand. Many scholars and writers such as Peter Bishop, Donald Lopez, Tsering Shakya and Jamyang Norbu have tackled this issue from various perspectives. We are two young Tibetans who feel at home in different cultures and yet identify ourselves as Tibetan. Through our travels and experiences we have encountered mixed reactions of not fitting the Shangri-la stereotype. This is the stereotype of mysterious Tibetans being charmingly passive, intriguingly religious and politically helpless. This stereotype has succeeded in drawing many into the Tibetan cause but it has led to many disappointments as foreigners meet more Tibetans that do not fit their preconceived notions.

Over 50 years of Chinese occupation has seen Tibetan society turned on its head, both in Tibet and in exile. Today, it is practically impossible for young Tibetans to really know what and how Tibet was before the Chinese invasion. The Tibetan Diaspora tries to preserve aspects of society that cannot flourish inside Tibet but the question remains: What is Tibet today and what is Tibetan?

There exists today a generation of exile Tibetans who have never even set foot in Tibet. There is a new breed of Tibetan, second generation, third generation - the likes of which have never been seen before. We are an ever growing number, are slowly getting to know each other and are finding much in common. Exchanging stories of how we are perceived as Tibetans show how often we are being confronted with questions of identity and perception. Being laughed at because we cook pasta but don't know how to make thukpa, hearing a comment that we are not really Tibetan because we don't speak English with an Indian accent and encountering surprised reactions for having heard of (and actually knowing something about) Andy Warhol or Haruki Murakami are all part of our daily lives! We are a new generation who is educated, modern and international.

Tibetans who are socialized in Western societies are all too often dismissed as "not being Tibetan". It is as though the limits of our people have been irrevocably defined. We’re expected not to eat meat, drive a car, throw a hip Tibetan New Years Party or even to initiate activism on political campaigns. Instead, we’re expected to wear our Tibetan chuba to every event to look Tibetan and exotic. We are frustrated by these kinds of stereotypes that are projected onto us. It seems to us that many see Tibetans no more than “gong-bashing Jedi-like monks”, to quote a friend.

It is almost as though the idea of Tibetans has the 'dolphin-effect' on people - Tibetans are cute and endangered. Look at them and their funny ways, God forbid they actually have opinions - who cares anyway when they look so cute... This is a real image problem for Tibetans and has much wider, more complex implications for the Tibetan cause. Much has been made and documented about the myth and mystification of Tibet. Our generation would do well to be taken seriously on an international level as educated, rational, global citizens - who are also Tibetan.

To a certain extent it is our own fault - there are Tibetans out there who cultivate this myth to their own advantage. Religious centres, charity organizations and small businesses have gained the favour of Westerners by presenting the image of underprivileged refugees. The media is to be blamed for selecting only images of traditional and religious Tibetans that look so good in National Geographic and on wall calendars.

However, the romantic image of Tibetans has also helped draw many people into our cause. Many Tibet supporters, such as Richard Gere, were first attracted to the religion and then learned about Tibetans and the movement. The more they research, the more foreigners will find that their first impressions of all Tibetans do not hold true. Some are even more fascinated and continue to explore our culture and current situation. Many are disappointed. Others continue to hold on to these stereotypes as they meet many exceptions to this romantic image – a case where contrasting views are held together like geological strata.

Traditional Tibetans and our Tibetan Buddhist religion are the foundation of the culture we take pride in. Our movement has gained so much attention due to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who embodies non-violence and compassion. We are rebelling against the expectation that all Tibetans fit the stereotype. We resent the idea that there is only one way of being truly “Tibetan.” The new young generation of Tibetans is as passionate about the Tibetan cause as our parents and grandparents. We see the Tibet problem in the wider context of international relations and politics and try to understand the political situation so that we can contribute to the cause in a meaningful way. We celebrate our heritage and teach others about our cause as we are forced to adapt to different lifestyles.

We are a unique and peaceful movement but in today’s world, global young Tibetans are learning new ways of living and thinking whilst maintaining their heritage and identity. Westerners holding this "Shangri-la stereotype" must begin to realize that perhaps they are only in love with their image of Tibetans and not Tibetans themselves. These stereotypes are not merely harmless misconceptions. They give a false notion of reality and justify irrational expectations. They exert a damaging pressure on Tibetans who attempt to shatter these stereotypes.

Dechen Khando (26) was born and raised in the UK. She studied in London and Berlin and graduated from University College London, UK, in English and German Literature. She is currently working in Berlin, Germany. Tenzin Metok Sither (21) was born and raised in India. She spent an exchange semester at Rice University, USA and graduated from International University Bremen, Germany in Integrated Social Sciences. She is currently pursuing her Masters degree at the London School of Economics in the UK.

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