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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

John Flinn: Tibet photo op turns into battle with tiny pickpocket

September 3, 2007

I was going to have to knock the kid to the ground, maybe even hurt him a little. I dreaded the thought, to put it mildly, but I was fast running out of options. And in a land where "compassion" and "nonviolence" are the bywords, no less.

The kid was 5 or 6 years old, and even now, looking at a photo, I'm not 100 percent sure of his gender. But I'm going to call him a boy. I encountered him in a back alley off a back alley off a back alley in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, where I'd wandered in search of a little-visited temple.

He was with a woman in traditional Tibetan dress I took to be his mother. I asked the two of them to pose for a photo, and the moment the shutter finished clicking, her hand was in my face, demanding money.

I used to staunchly oppose paying people for photographs - it poisons interactions, turns them into nothing more than a photo op and ... I'm having trouble now remembering the other principles at stake. These days, particularly when I'm shooting for publication, I've softened up on the issue. The people are usually poor, my employer and I are going to make some money from their images, and what's the harm in giving them a tiny share of the profits?

I fished a 10-yuan note out of my wallet - about $1.32 - and handed it to her, and she gave a little nod of thanks and walked off down the alley. I turned to leave in the other direction but was blocked by the kid, who'd planted himself firmly in my path. He was holding out his hand. He wanted to be paid, too.

Rather than try to argue that I'd already given money to his mother - this goes way beyond the 11 words in my Tibetan vocabulary - I pulled out a 10-fen note and pushed it into his palm. Ten fen is worth one-tenth of a yuan, a little over 13 cents. I figured the kid wouldn't know the difference.

The kid knew the difference. With as much contempt as a 6-year-old Buddhist can muster, he crumpled the bank note and dropped it to the ground. His little face scrunched up in anger and he held out his hand again, screaming something that needed no translation.

"Forget it, kid," I said as I tried to brush past him.

In a flash he was all over me, tugging at my shirt and trying to force his grubby little hands into my pockets. He was remarkably strong for his size.

I shoved him away, but before I could take two steps he was back on me, reaching down my pants to where he thought a money belt might reside. With his other hand, he scratched my arm deeply enough to draw blood. Now the look on the kid's face was red-hot hatred.

He was a tenacious little brat. I shoved him away again, and instantly he had his hands on me again.

"Uh ... help!" I said in a voice somewhat below a shout. I felt a little ridiculous.

No one else was around. I tried to make my back to the main street, dragging the kid with me. But after a few steps, he wrapped his arms around my ankles and we both fell to the ground.

Street urchins like this are one of the banes of travel. And by "street urchins," I don't mean the abandoned or orphaned children living on the street in Dickensian squalor. For them, I have the utmost sympathy and make a point of donating money to organizations that care for them. I use the term "urchins" (a little incorrectly, I admit) to mean the unsupervised little blighters who constantly inveigle us for money, candy, gum and pens.

They are, of course, largely the creation of thoughtless tourists who try to buy their affection by doling out these trinkets. My plea: Don't do this. Instead, give something back by making a donation to the local school. Money, I've discovered, is not so good; it has a way of ending up somewhere other than you intended. School supplies - a box of new pencils or pens, for example - given to the headmaster are a good choice.

Often it's easy to silence the demands for money, gum, etc., and have some fun with the urchins. As I've written elsewhere, I've never yet met a boy, anywhere in the world, who wasn't beguiled by the old college-dorm trick of snapping your fingers to make a bottle cap fly like a Frisbee. Do it once and every boy in the neighborhood will stop clamoring for candy and line up to take lessons.

Girls don't respond as well to bottle caps, but there are plenty of other tricks. Sing a song, do the Hokey-Pokey, blow a bubble, show her the pictures in your guidebook. Anything to get her to think of you as a human being, rather than an ATM or Pez dispenser.

None of this, though, had a chance of working with my tenacious Tibetan tyke. As I tried once again to drag him down the alley toward the main street, his fury grew, and he tried to bite me on the thigh. I wiggled away before his teeth got a good purchase.

I called out for help again, a little louder this time, but we seemed to be the only two sentient beings for blocks. He responded by trying to take a bite out of my forearm.

That's when I concluded that if I was ever going to escape, I was going to have to use force. I tried to calculate how hard I'd have to hit him to stun him without really hurting him.

I was trying to summon the nerve to strike when I heard an adult voice behind me bark something sharply. The kid let go of me and turned around, his face now white with fear.

I turned, too, to find a bald-headed man in a burgundy-and-saffron robe. Instead of the serene expression you see on the faces of most Buddhist monks, his was contorted in anger as he gave the kid a righteous tongue-lashing. I gathered this wasn't the first time. My little assailant looked like he was going to cry.

With the monk's dressing-down still echoing in my ears, I scuttled back toward the main street, giving thanks that I didn't have to go deeply into debt at the Bank of Karma.

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