Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Phurbu the Tibetan

by Maple Xu

(Note: Whether or not you agree with statements about Tibet and Tibetans cited in this post, please refrain from hostility. Personal attacks will be deleted. Readers who have followed Maple's travelogues before know by now that she hardly concerns herself with any political topic. She has always been "an apolitical person" as she puts it. She has simply written down what she saw and heard.
Maple wrote this piece long before the July 5th Xinjiang riot; I just didn't get the time to translate it sooner. In the process of reading and translating it, I recognized a major difference between the Tibetans and the Uyghurs: the Tibetans have a history of serfdom while the Uyghurs don't. This factor might well be playing a role in their different attitudes. – Xujun)

[in translation]
Gongbo'gyamda, Tibet (photo by Maple Xu)

Phurbu is a 28-year-old Tibetan tour guide. He never took us shopping, nor did he crow about local products like other tour guides who give extravagantly colorful but unfaithful descriptions. When some tourists asked where to buy legendary Tibetan treasures such as Tianshan snow lotus, saffron crocus, or thousand-year Dzi bead, Phurbu would say frankly, "I won't take you to Bar-skor [Lhasa's old-town shopping street] or private stores, because I can't be sure you'll get authentic goods. I don't want you to curse us Tibetans as swindlers after you go home." Instead he took us to the official department stores that promise to repay you ten-times for counterfeit goods.

A member of our tourist group – a smart ass Shanghaier – once half teased, "Is that because you'll get kickbacks here?" Phurbu answered with a smile, "Yes. The Tourism Bureau has a rule, when tourists shop in official department stores, their tour guide is entitled for 2.5% kickback. That is to say, if you buy 1000 yuan worth of things, I can get 25 yuan, enough to drink a cup of sweet tea. Uncle and aunt, how much do you plan to spend?" The "uncle and aunt" were embarrassed, and mumbled that they just wanted to buy some high-altitude Judas's ear fungus. Phurbu laughed: "Then you won't spend 100 yuan. Looks like I only get to drink a bottle of spring water. But I guarantee that you won't be buying anything fake here."

That afternoon, a young couple asked: "We heard Lhasa has a dance performance called 'Tanggula Wind.' Where can we buy tickets?" Phurbu said, "That's easy. Come with me." Another tourist said puzzled, "Why didn't you advertise it? You could get another kickback." Phurbu laughed again, "Ha-ha, thank you thank you. You are so considerate. The reason I didn't tell you about the dance was because our tour today ends around 6pm, then we'll have dinner. I worry it would be too laborious for all of you to catch the 7:30 performance. Don't forget tomorrow morning we have to get up at 6 am to go to Nyingchi. If you are overworked, your altitude sickness will get worse. The dance tickets are selling for 180 yuan each, and I would get some kickbacks if you all go, but that money will make me a bit uneasy."

These two incidents started my interest in knowing more about Phurbu. I asked him privately: "I was once an accountant in a travel agency, and know that kickbacks are the main income source for low-salary tour guides. This is also the characteristic of our country's tourism industry. If you really don't care about kickbacks, is your salary enough to live on?"

Phurbu looked at me with his clear, pure Tibetan eyes: "You are right, a tour guide's salary alone is not enough for my living. But I don't accept every tourist group. I only accept those groups that interest me, so I can have time to do my own things." He told me he had been preparing a business for three years.

It turned out he and a friend were going to start a unique "donkey-friend inn" aimed at services for backpack travelers, and he hoped to take them to places official travel agencies wouldn't touch, "the really beautiful, mysterious Tibetan places."

I said, "You are so smart, don't you think you'll have more opportunities and room to develop in the heartland instead of the relatively backward Tibet?"

So, when others were visiting a Tibetan style temple for the God of Fortune, Phurbu and I took the opportunity to sit down in a sweet-tea house and chat.

Phurbu had graduated from the tourism department of a university in Sichuan 5 years before, and then worked for a travel agency in Chengdu for two years as a tour guide to the Tibet area. He hated the industry culture that made obtaining kickbacks its only purpose. He was ashamed of his career and the job held no pleasure for him. That was why he eventually chose to return to Tibet.

"Being here makes a big difference," he said with pride. His hint: the money he made in Tibet was cleaner than that he made in the heartland. It's not okay if it's only money, and it's definitely not okay if there's no money. He wanted to combine his personal interest with his career, and that was how the idea of "donkey-friend inn" came to life. The inn was nearly finished now.

A sudden voice interrupted us: "Could you take me to see your inn?" A thirty-ish man from our group appeared beside us, who knew when. He said he was from Shanghai, and ran a chain motel business. He was attracted by Phurbu's idea and interested in a joint venture. I politely left the two alone.
The next day, on the bus to Nyingchi, at first Phurbu stood in the middle and talked excitedly about the scenery along the route. He even sang a couple of Tibetan folk songs, trying to lift everyone's spirit. Unfortunately most of the tourists were numb and dazed, short of oxygen. Seeing no reaction to his effort, Phurbu muttered, "Fine, get on the bus and sleep, get off the bus and pee, get to the site and take photos, get home having learned nothing."

He came to sit next to me and said, "What can we chat about today?"
"You seem to have a super surplus of energy," I teased.
"I just like to talk, to communicate with people. My entire motley knowledge has been collected from talking to all sorts of people."
"Then could I ask you a sensitive question: is it true that Tibetans all want to follow the Dalai Lama to strive for Tibetan independence?"

Actually, I'm most apolitical. But since our arrival at Lhasa, the fully armed soldiers everywhere, the checkpoints on highest alert, and the locals' vigilant and cold looks, all incited my curiosity. The riots had been more than a year ago, was it really necessary to still be so tense? Wasn't this a bit of overkill? Were the Tibetans frightened and forced to obey the government?

Phurbu answered my question without any hesitation, and emphasized that most Tibetans would think the same as him.

He said more than 80% of Tibetans advocate the CCP. The reason was simple: it was the CCP that turned the serfs into free men. This sounded like a CPPCC (政协) member's official speech, but it was true, he said.

He said including his father's generation, all his family members were pure serfs. Tibet's serfdom was very brutal and savage; serfs did not have any rights or the least bit of dignity. In holiday parties the nobles could kill serfs as they pleased, and use the serfs' viscera for dishes, their bones and skin for religious utensils. Phurbu's grandfather and father eye-witnessed such things.

Serf owners did all the atrocious things in the name of Buddha. Serfs used to believe they were born to suffer, and their owners were sent by Buddha to redeem their souls by tormenting their bodies. They believed the more suffering in the current life, the more happiness in the next life. Praying was the only thing they lived for.

All this changed after liberation. No need to mention other things, just the quarterly distribution of food and clothing that had been happening for several decades were enough to please the Tibetans. "If these are the CCP's sugar-coated bullets," Phurbu joked, "then they shot us comfortably." He even expressed worry that the government's abundant supply would encourage laziness among some young Tibetans.

Phurbu then talked about how the PLA sent food and medical supplies to north Tibet's high mountains during the snow-sealed winter every year, and how people there worshiped the PLA as much as Buddha.

As such, Phurbu said, Tibetan people became deeply suspicious of the benefits of independence. People's chief concern was, with independence, would the new ruler treat them as good as the CCP? Or would the Dalai Lama bring back the serfdom system?

This was why, Phurbu said, during the 3/14 riot last year the participants were not common Tibetans but men sent by the Dalai with a few local noblemen, plus some bought-over thugs. He said if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn't have believed what they had done. Those men, all dressed in lama robes but displaying nothing humanistic or religious, slashed whoever they ran into – no mercy even for children – and burned whatever houses were in their path. That scene of hell brought Phurbu a sudden doubt about Tibetan Buddhism passed down generation after generation. If those men represented Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama, Phurbu questioned, is Buddhism a religion or a political tool?

Even long after the riot, the locals still shuddered at the thought of it, so the fully armed soldiers on the streets actually gave them a feeling of security, Phurbu said.

Phurbu also disapproved of the way the government handled the riots. He believed the government likely knew about the riots from the very beginning, but intentionally waited without any action until the killing and burning escalated to a large scale. Only then did it jump in to clean up the mess with military force, so as to not give international opinion a chance to blame China for its lack of human rights.

Phurbu had a friend he grew up together with. Because his father was an officer in the Tibet military region, that young man was quite supercilious. During the riots, the friend claimed publicly that the government made a fuss over a trifle, and the whole event was a frame-up. Then one day the friend just disappeared. Soon after his father also disappeared. Phurbu was sympathetic to his friend, but also thought the friend's words had gone too far.
Our last stop was the ancient-cypress park in Nyingchi. The park has over a hundred thousand-year-old cypresses.
The cypress park in Nyingchi (photo by Maple Xu)

Here and there in the tree shadows were a dozen or so elementary students, looking to be seven or eight. They were either kneeling at a stone bench writing homework, or reciting from textbooks in crude Mandarin. The tourists chatted with them and praised their diligence in studying. A while later, the Tibetan children asked in a sincere tone, "Uncles and aunts, do you have a pen? Would you like to give me a pen?"
The tourists were taken off guard. They searched their own pockets, but only two people had pens with them. The rest of us felt apologetic: the children just wanted pens to do their homework, it would be a shame not to satisfy their small request. So, one after another, people took out their money, one yuan, two yuan, five, ten. They told the children to go buy a pen and study well. The kids accepted the money, and politely thanked us with a bow.

In the entire time, Phurbu did not utter a word. He watched the whole thing with a stern face.
Tibetan students in the cypress park (photo by Maple Xu)

I saw another seven- or eight-year-old boy was riding a broken bike circling on an open spot. Seeing me approaching him, his sun-reddened face beamed. He shouted, "Be careful, my bike does not have brake!"

"How come you are not doing homework like the others?" I asked.
"I finished a long time ago," he replied proudly.
"What's your name?"

Both the big Phurbu and I laughed. Next, our tour guide asked the little Phurbu a surprising question: "You didn't beg for money, did you?"

The little Phurbu answered quietly, "No."

The big Phurbu sighed; for the first time I saw a helpless expression on his always cheerful face.

"You mean that was their trick to beg for money?" I asked.

He nodded, "Always."

I felt lost. The little Phurbu suddenly ran up to a hill. On top of the hill he began to sing a popular song,

"The Road to Heaven." The big Phurbu joined the singing, his thick voice and the boy's childish thin one in perfect harmony.

When they finished singing, the tour guide Phurbu shouted, "Good boy, Phurbu!"

People clapped. A tourist said, "Why did the boy run so far away to sing? Otherwise we could pay him a bit of money."

The big Phurbu again shouted, "Good boy, Phurbu!"

My eyes went moist for no reason. I remembered once when I asked Phurbu how he positions himself in the world, he replied:

"A Tibetan."


Matthew said...

This is a great post. Wish there were more tour guides around the world like him. Only good ones I've ever had were for private tours (and only one of those was in China).

Anonymous said...

I'm sure your sister is a very sincere person. Sorry, I don't know her other posts so can't judge but your blog is good, so I'm imagining that her work is very important.

There are two things that stand out for me from this report.

1. If this man works for the government guiding tourists around Tibet, perhaps he 'works for the government'. I am a little sceptical about his report on the riots as a result. Could you inquire of your sister what he said about the monks in the riots? Did she find his reports suspect at all because he is a gouvernment employee?

2. I believe the Dalai Lama has called for Tibetan autonomy not independence. It's strange that a Tibetan would report that the Dalai wants independence. Did your sister happen to ask him about that discrepancy?

My most sincere thanks -

Xujun said...

@Anon: thanks for your questions. My understanding is that Phurbu works part-time for a commerical travel agency, not the government. But I will verify this with my sister again. About your second question, it is a common view among people inside China that what the Dalai Lama really wants is independence. Bug again, I'll forward your questions to my sister.

Xujun said...

Anon, I have received a reply from my sister. I'm translating it word for word below:

[I don't know much about political issues; I write intuitively according to what I see and hear. I'm not sure if I can answer the questions correctly. Does the reader think Phurbu is the government's nursery child? If so this [exchange] becomes uninteresting.

I can answer that, China's travel agencies are mainly civilian, among them joint-ventures and privately-owned companies. They might be affiliated with different organizations; though they are all managed by the National Tourism Administration, the agencies themselves are not government units. Even the state-owned travel agencies such as 'China Travel' and 'Youth Travel' are just enterprises. Every tour guide they hire is freely obtained from the society at large. The tour guides come from all different places, and they are not officials. Other than the programmed site-seeing introductions, what they say represents their personal views. Why am I so clear about this? Because I worked as an accountant in a travel agency for three years.

Re: 'The Dalai Lama has called for Tibetan autonomy not independence.' This I'm really unclear about. My understanding is his purpose is independence. Tibetans seem to understand this more or less the same way as I do. As early as 2002, when I traveled to Shangri-La, a Tibetan driver Zhaxi told me he opposed Tibet independence, and he also said good things about the CCP and bad things about the old Tibet. At the time the term 'Tibet- independence elements' ('藏独分 子') did not exist yet. Why did Zhaxi say what he said? The only explanation is that they think the Dalai's return would mean Tibet independence. They are not the spokespeople of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the words they use seem normal to me, they are not formal or official sounding.

I think Phurbu and I have congenial personal interests, and in our chat he spoke his mind.]

By the way, Anon, I understand your suspicion. At first I was a bit skeptical as well, however I trust my sister's judgment about Phurbu's sincerity, which makes this travelogue all the more interesting. – Xujun

Anon's sister said...

My sister tell me about this blogge and this report because both of us curious about China and China thinking in regard to Tibet. Please google "Dalai Lama autonomy Tibet" and you find many article. Not independent, autonomy. Here is example in Wall Street Journale: 'It's Not Hard for China to Satisfy Tibet'. Chinese insist he says independent but not.

Xujun said...

I know what the Dalai Lama says. The problem is most Chinese don't believe what he says. It is a very difficult situation. I'd rather see the two sides sit down and talk and actually get some results.

Zhang Fei said...

Since saying anything else is tantamount to sedition, I am going to say that the guy's comments aren't necessarily to be taken at face value. Every Tibetan has been fed Chinese propaganda as mother's milk. The average Tibetan has no clue if your sister is a government agent. Even if your sister weren't a government agent, she has the option of having the guy put on a watch if he made any anti-government statements. Let me put it this way - if I were this guy, I would echo the party line. Any country in which your statements can lead to imprisonment or execution on sedition charges is going to be one where no one makes statements (especially on issues like Tibet) that can be interpreted as seditious.

Anonymous said...

Zhang Fei's comment above echoes my own experiences in a discussion with a former PLA soldier. She told me that whatever her opinions were, when "certain people" inquired as to her opinion, she knew that she had to give the party line. Her reasoning was, what was there to gain by exercising any independent thought?

This man, no matter what he said, was no more than an entertainment for your sister, and for every other tourist he encountered. Long after they have gone, he will need to live there, with the repercussions of what he has said and done in a country where the only place your thoughts are safe is in your head, unseen and unread by others.

Xujun said...

Well, my sister felt the guy was sincere, and I suppose her feeling is more trustworthy in this case because she, not you, was the one who talked to Phurbu. Also note that Phurbu said something against the government's propaganda as well.