Jenny Gao ’18: From Tibet to Swarthmore

6 mins read

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.


  1. Dear Jenny,
    Glad that you made it to Lhasa. Though i am 34 years old Tibetan i have not seen tibet in real neither did my mother. My father was just 10 years old when they had to flee due to the Red Invasion. Since then we have been here in Bhutan as refugees.
    Security officials carrying crossbows and monks tablets and smartphones shows that Tibet is not heading in the right direction.
    I would like to request you to do more research and and continue writing your article. Please help us to tell the world that Tibet will be best if led by Tibetans and not Hans. Genuine Autonomy is what we are asking for.
    best wishes and thank you for this article.

  2. I went to Dharamshala this year. Dharamshala is an Indian city which is the current residence of the Dali Lama. There were photos of the Tibetian monk “martyrs” everywhere. Kids 13-22 years old who had burned themselves in the name of Tibet. They were celebrated in multiple places – the Dali Lama’s monastery, the walkway leading to the Dali Lama’s monastery, and in one of the main training monasteries. Monks begin their studies as young children and are shown the martyrs in a celebratory manner. The martyring didn’t really start until 2011, so this is all a recent development. Pure evil. While I have Buddhist relatives and an appreciation for the culture, I feel that we should oppose the current Dali Lama. In the last few years, he has taken a turn towards darkness.

    • It’s my understanding that these “martyrs”–the Tibetans of varying ages from many Tibetan regions, mostly outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (but especially young monks from Kirti)–set themselves on fire out of a sense of desperation. What does it say about a country when people feel they have no other recourse to express themselves?

  3. As a Chinese, I have to say things are far more complicated beneath the surface, especially when modern technologies, political forces and economic profits all rush into the monastery at the same time.

    But thank you Jenny for this great article, and it’s really an accomplishment for you!

  4. Thank you for your honesty, Jenny. With a little more experience traveling, I think your ideas will evolve and some of your preconceptions will fall away. Why monks with smartphones? When a lama has thousands of followers, how does his secretary (also a monk) do his job? With email, Facebook, websites, pdfs of books and other resources. Even the Pope is on Twitter. Renouncing the world does not mean one must be a luddite. Look for Stephen Hopkins’ classes and I hope your interest in Tibet develops further. His classes changed the entire direction of my career plans and led to a PhD in Tibetan Studies.
    To the editors of the Daily Gazette: watch out for fake commenters like AP. When the writer spells the Dalai Lama’s name wrong three times, after claiming to visit his home town, and then makes highly partisan accusations, you have to wonder…

    • Hi Cameron, here at the DG we pride ourselves on providing an open, anonymous forum for anybody to speak within our relatively liberal guidelines. This opportunity is given only at The Daily Gazette, and we are glad to be a space that reveals the inside of this institution in all of its potential dissatisfaction, dissent, and/or enthusiasm. With this policy, we censor very few comments — especially when they criticize public figures and public situations.

      We filter through many spam comments each day and have a system in place to flag these messages (i.e., no valid email provided, no previous comments approved, etc.). The comment in question is linked to a valid email address that editors are able to contact if we feel it is spam, inappropriate, or threatening. Through our judgment, we feel that allowing the comment to enter the virtual conversation surrounding this thoughtful article is and was appropriate. We will continue to filter out spam comments, but err on the side of allowing even the more controversial comments on the site.

      Grant Torre
      Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Gazette

  5. Hi Jenny!

    It’s so awesome that you actually went to Tibet. I always wanted to visit but it’s too far away so I’ve got no chance 🙁

    Although I’m basically ignorant of Tibet bhuddism and Western practices, I have to say that something you’ve mentioned – that a monk collected money from visitors’ donations – is astonishingly similar to the ancient Chinese practice.

    In areas of Han people, the major source of everything for temples in ancient times was donation from bhuddists, and the type you mentioned IS a very important one :). Some donations they actively sought (for example, certainly when they wanted to build or fix something major), and some of the others they just received. Of course, only certain monks were in charge of so (so I suspect you happened to see one); most monks just devoted themselves into bhuddism. So, to mea monk counting money is extremely natural, and actually “a (Chinese) bhuddist temple without some place for pubblic money input” is the stranger one.

    The main reason for such is that monks and nuns don’t make money and are not paid. Sometimes monks/nuns also actively asked for food or staying (“化缘”), mostly to (bhuddist) common people but sometimes also to the officials. Of course, they might also do something in return, like praying for their well-being or letting the dead exempt of afterlife sufferings. This happens when they got outside (such as to visit some bhuddist figure, to advocate for bhuddism or to study in a bigger temple; it was more likely than not that they couldn’t bring enough supplies like food) and sometimes when the donation couldn’t sustain their basic living – they were ascetic, yes, but things happen.

    I’m also still trying to get used of “modern-styled” monks. there are some super-famous monks on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) who just don’t speak and do like a monk I’d expect to. Objectively, they’ve done a terrific job letting themselves and things they represent/connected to them be well-known and somewhat further appreciated among modern non-bhuddist people, but some expectations/stereotypes are really hard to get rid of.

    Please correct me if I’m mistaken.

  6. Dear Jenny: I hope you continue to keep an open mind and think critically. Statements like “Seeing the monks collect and count the money was something so paradoxical and uncomfortable to watch” are interesting, as China’s government officials (who are supposed to represent the Chinese people) are frequently known and criticized for amassing an inordinate amount of wealth during their time as public servants. Your piece is very critical of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, without questioning the government’s policies in Tibet. Why do you think these monasteries are responsible for alleviating poverty, yet not the (all-Han) party officials who govern the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)? Do you know about the government’s policy in TAR, which they have stated is to throw money at monasteries and development efforts in the region while exercising strict religious control in order to maintain “peace” and “harmony”? Do you not wonder why military officials carry crossbows in TAR while the street is filled with child beggars? Have you wondered why the Tibetan flag is banned in Tibet while Chinese flags line the streets? Please continue making these connections and seeking answers to your many unanswered questions. I would suggest that next time you are in Tibet that you try actually talking to local Tibetans (including the monks themselves) before making assumptions, and that while you are in the U.S. you talk to exile Tibetans about Tibet.

  7. I’m glad to see current Swatties interested in Tibet! While at Swarthmore, I studied abroad in Dharamsala, which as another commenter has mentioned is the political and cultural center of the Tibetan exile. (The program was run by Emory University, and I highly recommend it.) What I say is heavily colored by that experience, and I’m aware that the general opinions of Tibetan Exiles are not necessarily the only valid ways to view Tibetan politics.

    It always surprises me a little when I hear people talking about how they don’t expect monks and nuns to have cell phones and whatnot. The monks I knew in India (including my roommate) were people, you know? They have very limited possessions and don’t make money the way laypeople do, but when their monasteries/nunneries and/or patrons decide it would be useful to have a phone or computer, they buy one. In my experiences, Westerners don’t act so surprised when they see Christian monks, nuns, and priests with phones or cars.

    As for donations–whether left in small amounts at the altar or from bigger checks by wealthy people–that’s how the temples and monastic orders support themselves, including building maintenance and the feeding, healthcare, and education of their members, from children to the elderly.

    It’s really important to try not to buy into the propaganda of either side–there sure is a lot of it. For instance, yes, Tibet was pretty much in the Middle Ages in 1950, and the PRC has brought lots of things, like transportation infrastructure. On the other hand, that same infrastructure has facilitated the migration of large numbers of Han people to Tibetan regions, significantly altering the demographics of the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan regions.

    But the repression… that’s a thing. I’ve heard far too many people tell me stories like this one, part of a series by Humans of New York that is really worth checking out:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix