Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
116 hours on trains and 2,210 km in a small bus. This is my idea of a vacation.
During my 7-day stay in Tibet, I travelled with my mother, sister, family friends and followed a detailed itinerary. Being foreigners, we had to have special visas to travel to Tibet. Right before you board and exit the roughly 44 hour-long ride from Beijing to Lhasa, there are ID checks for everyone. Our navy blue American passports required more thorough inspections with paperwork and more copies of paperwork.
Immediately upon arrival in Lhasa, I realized how this is a place still influenced by its own culture, but juxtaposed with the modern government and outside influence. Restaurant signs in both Mandarin and Tibetan, the Buddhist infinity knot on the sides of public buses, and plastic bright red Chinese flags on the poles along the streets. Even now, its not unusual to see Tibetans wearing the heavy layers of traditional clothing, sporting long braids and spinning a prayer wheel — walking and praying at the same time while motorcycles rush past them.
Even though I’m guilty of not reading enough about Tibet, I was confident in my views regarding its relationship with China. With the media buzzing about human rights and cultural suppression, the only natural reaction is to blame the Chinese government.
This moral tunnel vision was worsened when the first things I saw when herded along a walkway in the big square of the Lhasa Railway Station were police clad in black protective gear and tinted sunglasses. Some were sitting underneath umbrellas to shade from the Tibetan sun as riot shields lay next to their chairs while others were standing with crossbows and machine guns. I mean, who even uses a crossbow as a weapon now?
It’s very common for visitors and devout Buddhists to tuck money in front of the windows of the statue of a deity or deceased Dalai Lama. Seeing the monks collect and count the money was something so paradoxical and uncomfortable to watch. There were also child beggars, pleading in broken but well-practiced Mandarin. And when I visited multiple monasteries, the monks shocked me. There was one monk with a tablet in one hand and a smartphone in the other.
As silly as it is, I imagined the monks that the media portrayed to be perfect and unimpeachable, not to be affected by the material wants of this world. When this pillar was broken, all the doubts and panic set in.
How exactly did the monasteries allocate the donated money? Why were these children not in school on a Wednesday morning? Could there possibly be any corruption in this Buddhist institution? I even dared to question if all the allegations of human rights being violated were true.
Keeping an open mind and trying to understand Tibet, I arrived at an incomplete conclusion, with questions still unanswered.
After being that all-too-confident high school senior who didn’t have a care in the world, Tibet gave me a good shake and challenged me to think critically and attempt to arrive at the conclusion myself, rejecting the pre-made explanations handed to me.
Seeing how I’ll have to think independently and create original ideas, it is appropriate that I enter Swarthmore with this mentality. I should learn to embrace the certainty in uncertainty.
As an incoming freshman, I feel so humbled and dazzled by Swatties. In the class Facebook group, there are posts from how to scientifically cut a cake to maintain the moistness to the merits of handwriting notes versus electronic note taking in class.
In one post about suggested books to read, Swatties contributed more than 100 book titles. Granted, 50 Shades of Grey was included in this list, but many of the books I’ve never even heard of. Ranging from linguistics to religion to economics and military science, this compiled list of books made me feel so limited in my knowledge, interests, and experiences.
But then these are the same people asking about Chinese grammar or trying dance for the first time. It reassures me that I’m not alone in this time of self-doubt and new beginnings.
This is, after all, my first attempt at writing an article.