Ever since my semester in Nepal, I knew I wanted to come to Tibet. Having met so many Tibetans, spent so much time in their homes, talking and learning about their culture and language, I really grew to have a sense of familiarity and an unspeakable bond with Tibetan people. For some reason, because I knew many of them could not go back to their ancestral home, I felt a sense of duty to go see Tibet for myself and for the people that left. Never did I expect to feel the way I feel now that I have spent almost a week here in Lhasa.
I expected to meet lots of Tibetan people, (duh), and be able to speak Tibetan and make friends. I expected to feel that sense of familiarity and home again, the way I felt while I was in Nepal. I expected to be less of a tourist, and be able to experience Lhasa in a way that is authentic and real. With that being said, expectations are meant to be broken and that is exactly what happened.
Not only did I not speak a lot of Tibetan and make friends with Tibetan people, I did not find that sense of home and connection with the people I so wanted to bond with. Now that I think about it, it should not be surprising, as I knew how China does tourism and deals with ethnic minorities. The whole city felt like it was catered to Han tourists. Monasteries have fences set up for tourists, their schedule catered towards tourists, streets full of souvenir shops, people learning Mandarin so they could communicate with tourists and sustain their business with tourists. The list goes on. In result, anyone that I tried to speak to only saw me as a source of revenue, some tourist to get money off of, not someone who genuinely wants to get to know them. Even if I tried to speak Tibetan, they quickly denied me with their fluent Mandarin. I was an outsider in this land, and I was damn well reminded every time. It is disheartening and discouraging. I couldn’t figure out whether I was more sad about being rejected from their culture or the system that made them treat tourists this way.
Chinese tourism definitely lacks the education of cultural awareness and respect. That is one thing I learned and am sure of. People who come here take pictures of everything without actually understanding the historical or cultural significance. I saw it everyday everywhere I went, and I could not ignore it. It is disrespectful and ignorant. The picture shows a tourist and her photographer, having a photoshoot in front of the most sacred Buddhist temple in Tibet, with her dressed in traditional Tibetan dress. Not only was she dressed in traditional clothes, she did prostrations for the camera while there were Tibetans all around her, who do hundreds everyday for personal and religious reasons.
Tourism in China monetizes evey aspect of what makes a culture unique and special. It exotisizes a culture and highlights the power dynamic between ethnic groups. I never really felt so strongly about this realization until I came to Tibet.
Despite the disappointments and issues that I have faced, Tibet really is a beautiful place. The nature is incomparable with anywhere else and I am absolutely smittened by the place. I managed to meet some genuinely nice people and was able to connect with them. Traveling to a place is so much more than just taking pictures of historical architecture and beautiful nature, the people, the food, the culture makes up more than half of the experience and the way you interact with those.