Apr 5, 2008

Territories and Taboos: Tibet in Asian America

I've recently gotten a fresh taste of the minefield that is Asian American homeland politics, at least how they play out on the seemingly innocuous setting (yeah right) of a law school campus. Basically, I visited a school where they decided to have a discussion about what has been going on with the uprisings in Tibet/China over the last month. If you haven't been following, Tibetans have been rising up with a lot more fervor recently, in the months leading up to the Summer Games in Beijing.

The school didn't even have a group representing the growing independence/freedom movement, which is at odds with the Dalai Lama's message of a middle pathway towards nonviolent conflict resolution with China. I have a particular, inexplicable draw to thinking about the Tibetan people. I almost always feel a sense of kinship with the Tibetans I meet, even though I can't speak Hindi, and most of the ones I meet come from India and know the language (among others) very well.

That Tibet remains an occupied land, that China will not hear of the independence or even the true autonomy of the region, and that there will only likely be more violence and bloodshed, even with the world community paying more attention aren't even my key points here. I think Tibet is quickly becoming the premiere fiery issue for the neo-nationalists from China in the United States. It's a funny thing to see people who may have been oppressed by the state in the past, singing its praises and confronting pro-Tibet sympathizers.

That's what happened at this event - there was an organized group of Chinese students (couldn't tell if they were foreign students, long-time residents, or folks who have adopted (or countered) the politics of their parents) who dogged the speakers, made long speeches about the brutal, archaic feudal system in pre-occupation Tibet, and challenged the accounts of people from groups like Amnesty International. It was incredible, actually. I was pretty surprised - these are students who generally sit just at the periphery of noticeable student activity or speech. Something's riled up this feeling, and I wonder what it is.

Well, actually, the "what" is easy: it's a reactive nationalism, either one that's been there all along, or one that is awakening in light of what they may perceive is "China-bashing" by the world community. It's the "why" that's puzzling. The people have little/nothing to gain from taking such an adversarial position - people are saying that the government is to blame, not the 1+ billion Chinese people. But the feelings seem to run quite deep, and the resistance to hearing anything to the contrary seems to run even deeper.

China benefits from this nationalism, of course. As the governments of nations like China and Indian recognized long ago, their expatriates are the P.R. foot soldiers for nations that are slowly rising up. Make good impressions. Don't rock the boat. Decrease the level of mistrust/unfamiliarity that has kept us foreign and dangerous. We want a piece of the action, and it's up to you to bring it. This "duty" to serve as ambassadors of the sending nation is more than just suggested, sometimes. But I won't go there right now either.

I just wonder what this sharp reaction from Chinese Americans to the Tibet issue means for folks who want to work in the community. Is Tibet quickly becoming the new Kashmir (which you can't really talk about with people in South Asian communities whose politics you don't explicitly know)? Or even the new Taiwan? It feels like the relationship of occupation, cultural oppression, and interference make it closer to Kashmir, or even, as a speaker mentioned, the West Bank. And so we're back to Palestine/Israel, again.

But in a community that spends a tremendous amount of time caring about things overseas, are Asian American community workers being forced not to talk about foreign affairs in order to focus on domestic social and economic justice issues? And if this is so, isn't this denying a piece of our consciousness, and the opportunity to change hearts and minds with each conversation, that we should be taking? How can we stay silent about Tibet when we're talking to well-off Chinese Americans about human rights violations against Asian Americans in the United States, when we know that they have a set of misconceptions about the situation overseas that run so counter to the life ideology that brought you to this work to begin with?

Or is this the place where it helps to have people in the coalition that is Asian America who aren't speaking from within a specific group (i.e. having a South Asian talk to Chinese Americans community members so we don't immediately turn them off somehow). I know there's a way to play the differences - will have to think/write about that more later.

I'm just saying: Asian countries need to get their acts together. It's becoming more and more difficult to navigate the delicate sensitivities people have about these issues without just saying "Yo, this is where things are at. Deal with it!"


Anonymous said...

The Mongolian people also have a stake in the happenings in Tibet. They broke away from China but are now a Democratic country being squeezed from Russia in the North, and China in the south. I think that China will soon turn it's head their way.

Anonymous said...

Oh wow, I just wrote a post just like this on my LJ (Buria_q).

Rage said...

anon2: I'm not up on the shorthand - what's "lj"? Would love to read your thoughts.

Res said...

LJ is Live Journal. Sorry about that.