I read about two hundred stories in Seattle. Many of the nuns had similar sentiments and experiences, which my limited consciousness can only keep separate with notes present. So throughout my day, their words swirl inside me in a newly knit literary vascular system, blending together into one beautiful, tragic, pumping, vital story, a second pulse to my own. I’m saturated. I must pass them on.
Visiting TNP’s new office in the International District was hugely satisfying. It felt so good to be back in the sea air and greenery of that place, and the TNP office itself has relocated to my favorite part of Seattle. They’re in a beautiful historic building right across from the endlessly wondrous and slightly frightening Iwajimaya Village, with twelve-foot tall windows that overlook SeaTac and Beacon Hill. Seagulls warble right outside, riding thermals high above the industrial part of the city. In case it isn’t obvious, I love Seattle and was thrilled to see her wet, hilly, beet-eating self again (beets… everywhere). I even got to spend time with Susanne Peterson, the unendingly energetic and vivacious woman who repeatedly calls herself a dork while whacking around the the office’s macs. Susanne ran TNP when I volunteered in ‘10, and she was the first to give me the go-ahead for this project (I believe her exact words were, “Do it.”). The whole thing made me wish, and not for the first time, that Seattle were just across the Mississippi instead of the entirety of the American West. Our country is way too big.
I’ve been thinking about the nuns while I try (and try and try) to write at home, to brainstorm more, and to plan my journey from cafes filled to the brim with St. Louis-style hipsters (they’re actually very nice) and espresso. It’s one thing to try to transport myself to Dharamshala and to the nuns’ vivid, smiling faces with my imagination. It is quite another thing to be surrounded by beautiful, almost tangible images of the women themselves. TNP Seattle’s office’s high ceilings leave plenty of wall space for the collection of prints from Jeff Davis’ trip to the nunneries, as well as shots that the nuns themselves have taken for the fundraiser-aimed TNP calendars. I cannot express how wonderful these calendars are. And to think that these women – women who, historically, have been intentionally kept illiterate in Tibet – took these photos on digital cameras, to support themselves!
Perhaps my favorite of Davis’ – and I really mean ‘perhaps,’ because it would be hard to pick just one – is the group of young nuns laughing uproariously together (see the 11th image in his slideshow of the portfolio). This print hung right in front of my work table, where I sat with a sprawl of over-stuffed binders, a dark chocolate, double shot mocha from the Tully’s on 5th Ave (they said “Oh, Mih-zerruh, huh?” when I told them where I was from, but their coffee is awfully good), a pen, and my notebook. This was my station for four days of non-stop reading and notation, and I have to say, there really is something to be said for surrounding yourself with images and materials of your subject matter. It keeps you present in your work. The nuns golden faces, mischievous with youth or wrinkled as hide by age and Himalayan weather, watched me. I felt their eyes on me as I read, wrote, thought, chatted with Susanne, read and read more. As I read, I found I could picture them clearly – a composite Tibetan young woman’s face swam into my mind’s eye; clear, determined, quiet, strong. I watched her escape Chinese policemen a hundred times over, watched her traipse through snow-laden Nepal again and again, watched her face cloud with anger as she took the stage at dozens of protests, watched her hide in the brush with her countrymen for months, watched her cry with joy and relief at the sight of her Dalai Lama during hundreds of ordinations. Every one of them had their own stories, their own perspectives, and yet I walked away with an iron-clad sense of unity and purpose. All of these women are individuals within a community, a people. Their tears and struggles are those of their sisters’ and brothers’ in the sense that their fellows struggle for the same ends, and in the sense that their struggles are for one another as well as themselves. They are for peaceful living, for heritage and ethnic pride, for freedom. For Tibet.
As a rule, I feel ethnic identity and nationalism can be a dangerous mix. What is “Tibet?” I’m not sure, and I’m not sure it matters – what matters, though, is what this group of people see as Tibet. I feel like I can understand it much more clearly than ever before, now that I’ve heard a collection of voices. One voice in an individual; many voices form a collective. Which is why the format of this project is, in my view, the perfect way to inform the world.
Having returned from Seattle, I hear more and more news about Tibetan struggle. At first, I figured it was because the nuns and their homeland were fresh in my mind. But then I read this newsletter from International Tibet Network yesterday and realized – much as the organization’s writers expressed as well – that these self-immolations and demonstrations I keep hearing about are not just isolated incidents that I noticed because of my own preoccupation. And I also realized that this book is not only timely, but more urgent than I initially believed:
“Unbelievably, there have now been almost 50 confirmed self-immolations in Tibet; a staggering 36 since 1 January 2012 and five in the past 10 days alone. At least 39 of all these protestors have died from their burns.
Something different is happening in Tibet. Over 60 years of occupation, periods of Tibetan resistance have been crushed by China’s military forces. But trying to stop individuals who are determined to set light to themselves must be akin to trying to stop grains of sand running through their fingers. And more than that, China is also now discovering that its military might is unable to prevent mass gatherings of Tibetans, whether they are praying for those self-immolating or engaging in more challenging acts of protest.”
(You can view the rest of the newletter here. It’s also a call-to-arms to sign their petition. Please feel free.)
I first heard about self-immolation in the context of the Tibetan resistance. With every Westerner to whom I’ve explained the phenomenon, I’ve been met with recoils, disgust, or uneasiness. I can’t blame them. It is truly gruesome and horrifying, the stuff of nightmares, except that you jolt awake with tears running down your face. The idea seems to be gaining exponential momentum among young Tibetans, too – much like the sweeping, electrical spread of real wildfire. Having read the bios of their predecessors, it would seem, to me at least, that the Tibetans have been watching their culture’s destruction for so long that they can longer bear its half-existence. They can no longer bear waiting for the rest of the world to care, while the Chinese government demands them to kneel, to suffer loss of dignity, faith, tradition, language, self-sufficiency – autonomy. Their very lives. So they’d rather set it all aflame and let the agony consume them, leaving nothing but ashes.
Disturbingly, that last sentence is not a metaphor. It is literal. This is so far beyond my day-to-day experience and understanding of life and place that I almost can’t not read it as a metaphor, even though I know it to be true.
I read a lot of stories in Seattle. Many of them described how Tibetans would, in their words, “go crazy”* (or rather, their translated words) in the face of Chinese atrocities. Some of the women described, memories sharp and fresh with the pain of it, the way that the Chinese officials and troops came to their villages and burned their holy scriptures and relics in a public circle, so that all of the Tibetans would see. What they could not burn, they tossed in a truck to be taken back to Beijing. At the very sight of their ancient, precious scriptures set alight, the villagers would “go crazy” (several nuns referred to them this way) with grief, weeping and screaming and pulling at their hair, sometimes attacking the Chinese. The sanctity of these objects had been upheld for thousands of years, handled only by monks and nuns, believed to be tied to the very land and people themselves. Then, in just one afternoon, they were grabbed by foreigners and burned to cinders.
One nun actually referred to herself as insane. What sent her – and, according to the nuns, many other Tibetans – over the edge were moments of extreme cruelty by their occupiers. This particular nun proclaimed that she first “went a little crazy in her head” when the Chinese refused a group of pilgrims to worship at their final destination.
Many pilgrims, men and women mostly from nomadic backgrounds mixed with city-dwellers and lamas, would travel arduously through the mountains for up to two years, their prostrations on the cold, mountainous earth bringing callouses to their joints and feet. They became a family of peace-seekers, so absorbed in their prayers, meditations, and visions of the stark and beautiful Himalayas that their spirits awakened. Then, they would arrive at the final holy site – a temple, a mountain, or the capital, Lhasa (their holiest city – now Chinese-occupied with brothels and Mandarin-medium schools [Tibetan is finally banned in schools as of March]) – to find a troop of Chinese policemen waiting for them. They would be barred from entrance, and though the Tibetans begged and cried, they were turned away again and again. The younger generation among them, often monks and nuns, would feel anger and rebellion boiling in their stomachs. Protests would spark. Beatings and imprisonment would respond.
In these kinds of prolonged incidents, it was sometimes a small thing – a red-eyed, drunken guard telling a nun she could not pass for the fifth time, perhaps – that would serve as the last straw. The aforementioned “crazy” woman described a sudden anger and sadness overtaking her, like a demon. Furious, yelling and crying, and ran past the guards to stand by the holy site, prostrating and calling out to the forbidden gods of her land while she screamed. Ever since, she still “goes crazy” sometimes, dissolving into an inconsolable sadness for a few days.
It’s sad to me that this woman feels abashed or ashamed, feels crazy, for the state of her emotions. Personally, I think calling this behavior madness is an oversimplification, and perhaps limits and condescends the individual acting out in the face of injustice. The same can be said for self-immolation, and other extreme acts of rebellion. While it is true that she endangered herself and fell into hysterics as she was dragged away, was she being irrational? Illogical? Was she wrong? Why so extreme? Because when an individual or community tries everything, waits, works, protests, prays, begs, waits some more, organizes, conspires, educates, waits and waits and still – nothing – then there is nothing left to try. These are acts of desperation, a last attempt at being heard. And at the same time, these are acts of bravery. In the many cases like this anonymous Tibetan nun, she endures as a living relic of injustice.
In the case of self-immolation, well, they are at a new level of desperation, having still not achieved freedom for their people even three decades after the incident on the mountain top, when a young woman lost her head at the dismissal of her spiritual and cultural rights. There are 39 youths who do not live to tell us of their experiences as young Tibetans in a country the world still won’t recognize as their own.
Before my trip to Seattle, I thought I could, perhaps, try to stay apolitical in this journey. Apoloticalish, anyway. I could try to keep my own feelings hidden and focus more on a timeline of events, letting the nuns take the stage (which of course they still will). However, I walked into this with a lot of opinions, and even beliefs, before I read the first nun’s bio at TNP. It was that red hot, can’t-think-straight, acid sense of injustice that even provoked me to send an email to TNP about volunteering in the first place.
Coming from academia, I know that a clear lens is best for getting a whole and viable snapshot of a situation. But this project would really be a sham if I pretended not to care one way or the other, pretended I was the objective observer hovering ethereally above any potential “biases.” There is a more complex Chinese side to this, which I will get into in due time. But for now, I must stress to all of you that I read many horrors throughout those nuns’ abbreviated biographies, made all the more tragic and disheartening in their brevity and obscurity. And I must stress to all of you how terrible things still are. Not because I want you to be sad. Because I want you to read about it, think about it, talk about it. It is as age-old as it is current, this political-genocidal mess. And once you’ve read and talked and discussed, perhaps take a look at the map, and see in that huge swath of the Middle Kingdom the most Western tip, running along Nepal and the Himalayas, and see what is really is. I hope this project helps.
*Since the nuns bios are not to be published and don’t leave the office, I cannot name particular nuns, nor can I cite my sources. All the quotations and anecdotal information you see in this post are from various nuns’ bios, and I apologize for the format I have to use here. I must simply ask for your faith; I would no more misrepresent these women than I would give up on the project.