February 17, 2014
One of the best class sessions we had was on the question of privilege and why do we do this “comparative” program of human rights. The deep life question pushed everyone’s thinking and in many ways felt like an existential crisis. Why do we bother to compare three countries and write a paper on it? What good does it do? For one, writing about our experiences is a way to respect, acknowledge, and thank the ones who shared so much of their lives with us, who allowed us into their lives and histories and stories. I remember at the end of my summer working at Cerecare in Shanghai, my supervisors were really enthusiastic that I was going to write a reflection on my experiences there. My presence during those two months did very little to substantially change the quality of life for the kids who inspired me, and the least I could do is to thank them in ways that I do know – by writing about it. Even though not that many people read that reflection, it IS important that I wrote it. Another reason that we do what we do on this program is that we are privileged. I never wanted to feel useless because I knew writing a paper on my experiences and studies won’t change the world. The nature of this program isn’t so that we can save the world, it’s so that we can use our privilege to learn all that we can and hopefully one day make a positive dent in this world. It is for the same reason that I do Alternative Spring Breaks and that they continue to be some of the most remarkable educational experiences in my life. One week somewhere won’t save anyone we interact with, but it will at least allow us to learn experientially for one week so that maybe we can even begin to think about how to make things better. On ASBs and on this program I’m not saving anyone, I’m just learning for my own good and hopefully one day it will translate into other people’s good. That is why I am so grateful for all the speakers we meet and organizations we meet. They know we can’t do much to help them, but a lot of them gladly share themselves with us anyway.
A few days after that class session, we traveled to Boudha, an area in Kathmandu with a large population of Tibetan refugees. We met with a wonderful lady who works for the UNHCR on the Tibetan refugee program, and then after lunch we met with some Tibetan refugees who are high school students in India. The Tibetan government in exile set up schools and support systems in India, so some students are fortunate to attend school there and some of them return to Nepal to stay with relatives during vacations. In close proximity, two other classmates and I talked with a grade 10 Tibetan refugee. He was very open, friendly, and inquisitive. He was deeply perplexed by the Chinese government’s refusal to speak with Tibetan leaders. Even though he never ever blamed the Chinese government’s abuses on Chinese people in general, as I sat there talking to him, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. He could clearly tell I am Chinese. Did he think consciously about my identity there, talking to him about his oppression? Did my identity make him uncomfortable? Did he hate me? I had never felt so terrible being Chinese before. As an American, I routinely deal with the privileges I have especially when interacting with people and groups who have been oppressed or harmed by American policies. But I never felt terribly guilty because the United States is so large, the guilt felt so widely distributed. So when I sat there contemplating my ethnic identity and how specific that is, I didn’t know how to interact with our speaker. I walked on eggshells and asked safe questions, or none at all.
But the experience took a remarkable turn later in the conversation. Our speaker grew up attending Chinese school since China occupies Tibet, so in some ways he knew more Chinese than English. When he asked us a complicated question about obstacles in education, he turned to me and asked me if I can translate the question to English if he asked it in Chinese. I felt so useful and honestly surprised that a language that came to oppress him and his people can be used for good dialogue, for peace, and for bridging the gap between all of us. Near the end of our discussion, he also explicitly mentioned that he does not blame all Chinese people for the wrongs of the Chinese government. I breathed a bigger sigh of relief later that day when I befriended another Tibetan speaker, a girl who left Tibet when she was very young. She initiated conversation with me and was so enthusiastic to make a new friend. She had a really sweet smile and aspired to be a dance teacher one day. She asked me about my ethnicity because I looked almost Tibetan to her. Identities became so fluid at that moment, we weren’t just a Tibetan refugee and a Chinese-American, we were also two girls who go to schools and deal with patriarchy and oppression and appreciate pop culture. We even talked about Korean pop culture over a meal. Who knew that’s what some Tibetan high school students are all about nowadays? I also remember the days in high school when I tried out a few Korean dramas, movies, and boy/girl bands. It was so unlikely yet it felt familiar to just bond over Korean popular media, while eating French fries at a restaurant across the street from a beautiful Buddhist temple in a country native to none of us.