Unbreakable Spirit

Ugyen Gyalpo

Ugyen Gyalpo

By Ugyen Gyalpo

WOODSIDE, NY, US, 11 October 2018

My first unpremeditated introduction to Tibetan Nationalism and birth of patriotism was when I was old enough in school to realize during one morning assembly, where we would have to sing two national anthems. One for India the place I was born and raised, for which I am forever grateful and the place that I still consider my home — and one for Tibet, the place that existed only in the figments of my imagination, the country my parents and grandparents were chased out of by the invading Chinese.

I am a US citizen now, but I know that I am banned from visiting my homeland because of my Tibetan name, and probably because of all the bad things I have said about the Chinese regime. But singing the National anthem of Tibet always stirred in me a spontaneous affinity and a sense of allegiance to a country that I have never yet seen to this day. Perhaps patriotism had already taken root unnoticed.

A little rougher awakening of my identity, came as a kid growing up in the hills of Darjeeling, India, surrounded by people of Nepali descent, whom I love with all my heart, but at times when we would have those childish arguments, they would teasingly call us katley bhotey (filthy Tibetan). Not that I was in this case raised up particularly dirty, in fact we wore good clothes thanks to the foreign second-hand clothes my parents used to sell back in those good old days.

Now this ridicule was in direct inference to how stories were passed by their older generations as to how the first newly-arrived Tibetans fleeing the Chinese bullets and persecution only with their belongings on their backs, and how in the beginning many Tibetans uprooted from their homes slept overnight in the sheds and on the street corners of a foreign land, some without shower for many days, and how they looked dirty, raggedy, homeless and probably smelled. The fact of life of a refugee worldwide that just fled persecution and cataclysmic change of fortune isn’t any different.

When I see Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Burma and are living for a few years now in a rapidly-expanding tarp city built on plastic bags on the periphery of the world’s poorest country in Bangladesh in horrible conditions, I always think about my parents and grandparents, of how they had to adjust from a life of self-sustenance to destitution overnight.

But to call us katley even after three decades of being in exile as a kid growing up, was in a way to bring our morale and self esteem down. But because of the sheer fire in the belly, the iron resilience and the audacity to quickly adapt made the Tibetans of my parent’s generations rise above poverty and the cataclysmic challenges forced upon them to emerge as one of the best-established refugee communities anywhere in the world.

In fact many Tibetans were able to do far better economically than the many locals in the areas where Tibetans were residing as refugees. Just as it would happen naturally, jealousy and contemptuous malice was outright prevalent. And it’s totally understandable. Since we are after all human. It’s the triviality of the human nature just all too commonplace.

But yes, to not mention that our parents and the rest of the Tibetans were hardworking folks wouldn’t be fair. When the hills froze during the winter times in the Himalayan belts where many Tibetans were nestled, Tibetans wouldn’t stay home and hibernate like the rest of the folks but hit the dusty plains of India to hawk sweaters on the streets for months at a time, leaving their kids with their older siblings or under neighbors’ or grandparents’ care until spring would come back.

Not to veer off from the main topic of the birth of patriotism, the first protest that I joined against the Chinese that I can faintly remember was probably when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. On every March Tenth uprising day, our school would take us in our uniforms up to a sacred plateau atop a hill where prayer flags fluttered from trees to trees and where all the local Tibetans would gather to start the protest after fiery speeches from the many organisers there.

As the day would progress towards the end of the rally, in the middle of the Darjeeling Chowk Bazar, the burning of the Chinese flags, of effigies of the then Chinese Presidents, and the breaking of Chinese flasks and porcelain bowls (mostly already broken actually) were common sights to see. A different era it was. A different approach it was. Now even wearing a “Free Tibet” T-shirt has become taboo these days. Even to talk about Rangzen these days has become like an anomaly.

Many elders would cry in rage, some old men still with their long braided hair tied across their forehead with bright red or blue nylon ribbons and huge dangling golden turquoise embedded earrings, cries that would build up amidst the reverberations of the emotional uproars.

Almost natively, my hatred for the Chinese government was incidentally sowed early on. Unbeknownst to me I was also innocently harboring bad feelings for the Chinese people too within this fragile mind.

I didn’t know what Communism meant, until I came across the term later on in my life. I thought it was just like how the bullying Chinese people came one day and forcefully took our land and chased out our ancestors, without thinking of any state-organized calibrated attack on the sovereign country that Tibet was.

Well, fast forward to 2018, and things have changed a lot. The world has changed a lot too. Not to mention China’s rise on the world stage and their vast economic and political clout, their tentacles now have spread all over the globe. With their “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China is bent on ruling the world order someday. But this wouldn’t be true at the tail end without mentioning that many countries are discontented with how China is behaving of late on all fronts.

The China that I knew growing up in school was a China that was just strong enough to colonize Tibet, a nation that was lost in the spiritual quest and prayers for the well-being of all the sentient beings.

Keeping things at real perspective even His Holiness, foreseeing the impossibility of gaining independence as a simplified truth, decided to settle for working towards genuine autonomy to save Tibet’s civilization that was once thought to be in the brink of extinction, but which saw remarkable resurgence because of the unbreakable Tibetan spirit. Although nothing has come into fruition since the Middle-Path approach was formulated.

When Xi Jinping became China’s president six years ago, there were renewed hopes that finally someone at the helm of Chinese politburo would listen to the cries of the Tibetan people, given Xi Jinping’s father’s affinity to His Holiness, and the story of the wrist watch. But this proved far from the truth. Instead during his vicious tenure that will now continue indefinitely, he oversaw the destruction of Larung Gar and vowed to rule Tibet with an iron fist.

But this human spirit is an amazing thing and sometimes unbreakable, a spirit that especially resides in the hearts and minds of a civilization that is thousands of years in the making. A spirit that has been tested in the torture chambers of the Chinese gulags. Apart from China’s systematic conspiracy to destroy Tibetan culture and civilization, sixty years still on occupation, Buddhism thrives in Tibet and the spirit of Tibetan nationalism is still very strong under the belly as was demonstrated by major protests in 1998 and 2008, and many small unrecorded protest in small towns, villages, schools, and colleges.

With America pushing back globalization and pushing forward protectionism and patriotism first, and China’s economy slowing down that grew on the backs of globalization that America helped open the door with the red carpet to WTO thinking that capitalism and economic growth would usher in liberalism and ultimately pave way for democracy seemed to have backfired and a country they want to reject now in many fronts.

Also the recent growing trade war between the two, where China is destined to lose with their huge trade imbalance with the US. In a nutshell, China’s miraculous rise to the global stage seems to be losing its footing that was first of all placed on slippery grounds with its bad trade practices, currency manipulations, and technological theft. But the spirit of the Tibetan people, their self-determination and courage to uphold their language and culture under the barrel of the gun, is in itself an encouraging sight. Some videos coming out of Tibet begging their countrymen to uphold and speak their language is a testament to their determination and inner will to preserve their language and culture.

The many self-immolations have already served as a barometer to show how unhappy and suppressed the Tibetans inside felt even after sixty years of the Chinese occupation. Despite China’s best efforts to assimilate the Tibetans and let their civilization die and dilute with the out-of-proportion incentivized Han migration, the Tibetan spirit remains unshattered and pure as before. Amongst everyone and everything, I have faith and belief in the Tibetan people inside of Tibet.

About the author

Ugyen Gyalpo lives in Woodside, New York, and works as an insurance agent for United Health Group, New York.

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