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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."

Be Cool -- Be Tibetan

August 15, 2009

By Therang Buengu (pseudonym)
August 11, 2009

In my life there have been a few rare occasions
when I wished I were younger. Such futile
sentiments are usually followed by a mixture of
nostalgia and regret. Sitting now in a coffee
shop, watching the Tibetan pop vocal group Yudruk
perform Milam, I am struck by these feelings once
again. I wish I were experiencing this as a
younger man. I wish I had had the chance to be
cool and be Tibetan when I was a young college student in Beijing.

In those days, I struggled to express who I
wanted to be. Looking back, I can see that I was
searching for a way to be "cool" and be Tibetan
at the same time. Of course, back then, the term
cool didn’t exist, either in Tibetan or Chinese.
And whatever it was, "coolness" was the last
thing associated with Tibetans in the Chinese
imagination. As a young Tibetan who grew up in
the Chinese education system, we didn’t yet know
how to live outside Chinese imagination.

I still vividly remember my first journey into
the Chinese heartland. In the barren city of
Golmud in the Tsaidam desert, I had a
conversation with my fellow Tibetan travelers --
all freshmen headed to college" about how to be a
Tibetan in this new land where we would spend the
next four years. One student had already been to
China as a soccer player. He told us that we
needed to carry a Tibetan knife and act a little
savage. For some reason, there happened to be an
abundance of Tibetan knives to buy in the dusty
market of Golmud. I think I was the only one who
did not rush to buy a knife. I just couldn't
picture myself with a big Tibetan knife dangling
at my waist, swaggering around the Chinese capital.

I was dreaming of something else -- of finding a
way to be both Tibetan and modern.

But soon after we arrived, I found out that in
China's national imagination there was no space
for me to be both. Who I could be was already predetermined.

 From the early days of China’s rule in Tibet, a
dark and savage image of Tibetans was created and
propagated: dark skinned, greasy, barbaric and in
need of civilization and liberation. This image
became widespread through the mute character
Champa in the classic film Nongnu. As the story
goes, when the People’s Liberation Army finally
liberated Champa from his slave master, this man
who hadn’t spoken for years cried out in
gratitude, "Long live Chairman Mao!" That
caricature not only became ingrained in China's
national imagination, it also became an integral
part of modern China's national narrative.

In fact, in the mad drama of contemporary China,
there were only two sanctioned Tibetan characters
scripted by the Party. We had the option of being
either the pre-liberation savage or the
post-liberation political sycophant, indebted to
the Party for rescuing us from ourselves.

Most of us were too smart and too proud to play
the post-liberation sycophant. So that left us
with the role of savages. Back in Tibet, we
tended to be quiet, mild-mannered, even nerdy
students. But in China we became street fighters.
We brawled in restaurants and beat up other
students in school. Everyone pretended to be
frightened of us and we pretended we were untamed wild men. We were Tibetan.

Meanwhile my dream of becoming a cool, modern
Tibetan remained shrouded in the distance.

Nowadays, I understand that Tibetan college
students in China have their own set of
challenges in being Tibetan. But as the story of
China becomes more diverse and complicated,
Tibetans are also coming out from the shadow of
the liberation narrative. There are now
extraordinarily conflicting images of Tibetans
settling into the Chinese mind. Now we are
rioters, learned Buddhist scholars, corrupt party
bosses, smart college kids, the best looking man
in China, stubborn religious fanatics -- and of
course, we are also coolly hip like the four young men of Yudruk.

The Yudruk phenomenon shows not only that
Tibetans can be cool, but that it is cool to be
Tibetan. This is a radical shift. But not only
does it show a kind of Tibetanness that is on the
cutting edge of cool. It also makes it clear that
a Tibetan image can be created and exist entirely
outside of the Chinese imagination. This is a
kind of Tibetanness that was made by and for Tibetans.

Last night I had a beautiful dream,
I dreamed about Bod, Land of Snow
Dream about five colors of the flowers bloomed
Dream about blue dragon land on grand

As I watch these intensely Tibetan and coolly hip
young performers, I can see that they have a new
audience in mind: other young Tibetans. They are
no longer just trying to fit into the Chinese
national story; instead they are creating their own.

It is a new cultural moment, and I am excited
about what new possibilities this might offer
young Tibetans. They are starting to have the
chance to be many things and at same time still
be Tibetan. Still at the same time, I also feel a
tug of sadness for my own lost youth, wandering
in the shadow of oppressive stories that I could
not control and yet found hard to escape.
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