Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Bus Ride, A Tibetan,A Chinese and 20 Minutes

         Public transportation has its advantages, especially if you live near a campus. The convenience of commute, the opportunity to speak with students from different countries or the time to read something without having to deal with the mundane task of driving everyday on the same route. This post will be a recount of one of the many interesting incidents that occurred during my undergraduate years of commute on University of Utah shuttles (buses). As the title suggests, it will be about meeting a Chinese student (one of many I have met over the years) and my conversations with him in a span of 20 minutes. I will try to avoid the seemingly allegorical posture of my title in the following paragraphs, it's just a plain narrative of one of my experiences :).

               Bus rides can both be interesting and boring, depending on the kind of people you are with during that particular day, as well as on your own attitude. Now University shuttle rides are different in the sense that more than often, you meet the same people on the same route, depending on the hour you commute. Sometimes you nod at each other, sometimes you see people shy away and being absorbed with their smartphones and tablets. You always have one of those "reader" kinds, nothing but the words on the pages of a book could grab their interest. Most of my fellow commuters were students at the University of Utah. This being a less than 20 minutes ride, I always tried to take the initiative of making that human contact with people, both strangers and friends made during a previous commute. This was possible, as one could always pick up a conversation the next day on the same route. 

             I have met many Chinese students during my commute and have always tried to initiate some form of a conversation with them. I know many of my Tibetan friends have done something similar and have shared with me their experiences. Some of them have had a meaningful conversation and some were aghast at the difficulty in making a Chinese see a Tibetan perspective. For this post, I am choosing one of the most difficult Chinese student I ever met on one of these commutes and the ensuing conversations that occurred.

             A lot of Chinese students have this unabashed sense of identity that sometimes comes across as rude or selfish to students from other countries. Whether its the loud conversations they make in the cafeteria or the seemingly aloof nature of many of the students. We don't see the nuances of Japanese and Korean etiquette in a Chinese student. Of course being Asian, everyone here colors us with the same brush stroke. And obviously nobody knows what is a Tibetan or a Tibetan born in exile and what to expect of us. Having lived in the US a bit now, especially in Utah, it was no surprise that I thought it to be very rude of the Chinese student who brushed passed me to get on the bus first without any courtesy for people waiting ahead of him. Not a good first impression of a Chinese I would eventually become a good acquaintance of. 

            As we sat across each other in the bus, he seemed pretty occupied reading a journal paper. Imagine the difficulty of talking about Tibet with an engineering Chinese student compared to others pursuing social sciences or humanities. I waived at him to grab his attention and asked him how was he doing. The shuttle was pretty empty at that hour, it seemed natural too to talk with another fellow commuter. He responded with a nod and said he was doing good, and jumped right back to his paper. I intervened further :), what are you reading seems very interesting. He looked up with an expression of amusement on his face and said I would not be interested if I knew what he was reading. I insisted, he obliged me with an esoteric explanation of the concepts of Topology in advanced mathematics and how it is being applied to "Big Data". Being an engineer myself, of course I understood bits and parts of it, but I responded with a smile and said that it definitely flew over my head and I am definitely not interested. We both burst into a laughter and thus broke the ice. 

        Then on it was the usual questions, what do you study, where you from etc. I said I am from Xizang and studying engineering. He was surprised and started talking in Chinese to me, I explained my parents are from Xizang and I was born in India. I knew the conversation would not be fruitful if we kept talking about where we are from. I changed the subject and started talking about engineering and what his research was. This got him excited and he went on explaining his thesis etc. We reached our stops and parted away. 

       We would see each other every now and then on our shuttle rides to school and chat about engineering, school , America and food. I have found "Food" to be such a great topic of bonding between two Asians. We especially found great pleasure in  talking about the horridness of American fast food. 

      Having established a human face to a Tibetan, a Tibetan this Chinese student knew, a Tibetan who shares similar taste in food and similar thoughts on many other issues and met often on the shuttle rides. I was ready to talk about Tibet more seriously with him, than the passing references that occurred during my earlier conversations. 

       It is surprising how little most Chinese, especially students knew about Tibet. Of course except the Chinese propaganda that Dalai Lama is an evil person and Tibet was always part of China. When I talked about Tibet, he would always get into this posture where Dalai Lama is evil, Tibet is a part of China and the west is conspiring to bring down China by using Tibet. The tone however differed, he knew me and we have become well acquainted before we even talked about Tibet. He seemed more uncomfortable rather than angry, when I had something different to talk about Tibet than the usual Communist party narrative. 

     Over the next few shuttle rides, I was able to talk with him about "Middle-Way Approach", which he had never heard of before and the rationality behind it in some ways unsettled most of his dogmatic stance on Tibet. I was able to share with him the economic plight of Tibetans in Tibet, discriminatory education policies, language preservation etc. Of course all this took a bit of self-education, but that is our duty as a Tibetan. I could find nothing else to be more useful than spend 20 minutes talking about Tibet with a Chinese on a bus ride.
   These conversations kept happening and he actually started to take interest in who Tibetans are as a people, what is their culture, how do they fit in the bigger picture of China, who is Dalai Lama and why everyone else respects and adores him, besides the Chinese government. He even shared with me a conversation he had with some of his other fellow Chinese classmates about a Tibetan he met, some of them met me later on the same shuttle rides and we even got introduced. 

    He graduated and went back to China and declared to me on one of his final bus rides, that he will visit Tibet and meet the wonderful Tibetans I had so often talked to him about.

Did I make any groundbreaking changes to what is the general Chinese consensus on Tibetans or the issue of Tibet? 

Definitely Not. 

Did I utilize those 20 minutes to at least create some sort of an image of Tibet and Tibetans in the minds of a dozen Chinese students that differs from the Communist party's rhetoric and propaganda?

Definitely Yes.

Would these conversations had easily achieved nothing but animosity and unpleasantness, if my approach was that of an emotional Tibetan with nothing but misgivings to exchange in a conversation?

Definitely Yes.

I am not deluding myself here in having any sort of misconceptions about my prowess as a convincing negotiator but rather trying to point out one of the rational ways in which a meaningful conversation can be had. Which may or may not mean much, but it was definitely better than staring at my smartphone or talking about the weather. A conversation with personal contact is much more meaningful than the forum chatter that occurs online, a lot of which on both sides, is mostly negative in my experience.

A Bus Ride, A Tibetan, A Chinese and 20 minutes can occur on most of the University Campuses or anywhere else. I would suggest many of my fellow Tibetan students to sometimes take advantage of this platform by commuting on University Buses. It does not always have to be a conference or a conclave where meaningful conversations can occur. With a little bit of Initiative and rationality, we can make it happen.

Talk about anything but "Tibet", when you meet a Chinese the first time.

Keep reading, Keep visiting. Tashi Delek!

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