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Education on the Move

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/03/21; March 21, 2001.]

South China Morning Post
Wednesday, March 21, 2001.

China is moving Tibet's brightest children 2,500 kilometres from their homeland to Beijing.

This relocation may conjure up notions of forced cultural mixing with political overtones, but it also may be the best thing that ever happens to the children.

They come to the capital to attend Beijing Tibet Middle School. The school's 70 teachers train them to go on to college, then back to Tibet. Tibetans do not usually go to college - for lack of money and prior education - but more than 90 per cent of the Beijing school's students make it.

The top two or three students from Tibetan schools have a chance to go to Beijing, or to similar schools in Chengdu and Tianjin. The school has 760 high-school students and about 200 middle schoolers.

Tibet, a region lacking public transport and electric lights in many areas, needs educated people to help it advance, said headmaster Yu Rucai. Since 1998 the central government has been urging people to develop western China, but most Chinese people prefer to live in the already developed coastal cities.

"The biggest goal is to help Tibet develop with talented people," Mr Yu said.

The school, founded in 1987, teaches mostly standard middle school and high school courses. The campus of three-story and four-story buildings includes a quad slogan backing harmony among China's minorities and a Tibetan face wearing a Communist scarf and hat. During their breaks, students congregate in cement-floored classrooms, giggling as they look out a window, or shoot hoops in a gravel field.

Much campus behaviour mirrors that of Han Chinese students. Dressed in pale blue and white uniforms, the teenagers like basketball and can speak four or five lines of English - in their loudest voice possible - for foreigners. They shout and laugh in groups and become shy when called on individually.

The students live in dormitories, six to a room with phone lines they can use to call their families in Tibet. All expenses, including laundry service and three meals a day, are free. A grant of ten million yuan a year from the central government covers these costs, Mr Yu said.

Students say they get along at school after acclimating to the low, urban landscape of Beijing that they see when the school takes them on weekend outings. Like any high school students, they are considering colleges, careers and whether to visit their parents during their next class break. Four hundred alumni have returned to Tibet, Mr Yu said, and teachers expect more to follow.

"School killing Tibetan culture? What's said overseas suggests people don't understand the true culture," Mr Yu said.

In the classroom, cultural differences show - and show that the school is stepping up rather than stepping on at least one aspect of indigenous Tibet: the language.

Tibetans need fluency in their own language as well as Putonghua to succeed in their homeland. When students enter the school, they speak Tibetan and Putonghua but often cannot write Tibetan.

Teacher Lopsang shows graduating seniors how to read and write Tibetan, which has 30 phonetic letters. With flat tops and long rounded-out tails, the letters look like a series of lower-case j's and g's. Some students write in blocky print; others with a calligraphic flair. Mr Lopsang, a graduate of Beijing's Minorities University, also drills students by asking them to read passages and answer questions.

"I've never seen any statistics on literacy among Tibetans, but I know it was low in the time before the Communist takeover," said Richard Barron, a California resident who studies Tibetan and runs a Web site explaining the language." Education came with enrolment in a monastic institution, similar to the situation in Europe during the Middle Ages. Since 1959, Tibetan children in Tibet are being raised to be fluent in Chinese, while their native language is actively discouraged, if not outright suppressed."

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