First, I apologize…I’m so sorry this post has taken astronomically long to find its way to the Internet. When I don’t feel like writing, I REALLY don’t feel like writing. Anyway, I’ve returned to the web to tell you about China! Ready?
On April 23, 2010, I wrote, “I may be absolutely the luckiest person in the world.” These words were written as our bus drove through the majesty of rural Tibet. The time we spent in Tibet was filled with mixed emotions for me, but every time I found myself surrounded by the natural world, every negative thought vanished from my mind. How can I possibly have pessimistic thoughts when I am standing, unbounded by seemingly endless mountain ranges and blue skies? I often forget how incredibly lucky I am to be able to experience life in China, and over this past week, Tibet.
Because I approached our trip to Lhasa with such an academic mindset, it did not quite meet my expectations. Before our departure, I wasn’t aware of Lhasa’s status as a tourist center. Because of the political unrest in Tibet and TAR, tourism is very tightly monitored, and any non-Tibetan visitors must hire a Tibetan tour guide for the entirety of their trip. Within each tour group, visitors may not stray from their itinerary. Though Dan warned us that we would on paper be “tourists”, he assured us that we would have ample opportunities to skirt our way around this title. Because of the restrictions, I felt very much that we were handed “Lhasa in a box.” At moments, I was utterly frustrated with the blatant catering to the tourist population, but at others, I was awed that the tourist population didn’t deter those wishing to openly display their devotion.
During our week in Lhasa, we spent the bulk of our time visiting important religious sites, including the Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery, Palkor Monastary, and the Drepung Monestary. Though each site plays host to various important Tibetan Buddhist icons, each serve two similar purposes: preservation of history and religion, and as source of income. Throughout our entire stay in Lhasa, I found myself struggling with this duality. By the end of the trip, however, I finally came to a reasonably positive conclusion regarding tourism in Lhasa.
We began our trip by visiting the Potala Palace. This majestic structure is one of Lhasa’s most popular tourist destinations. The Palace’s grandeur makes it quite a desirable location, but for the practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, it is much more than this. The Potala Palace houses thousands of shrines and statues still used for worship by believers on their pilgrimages. I was quite surprised to discover such intimate worship inside the palace, as it was bursting with throngs of tourists and their expensive cameras. I encountered this phenomenon at each monastery we visited. Along with the hoards of Chinese and foreign tourists, were a hefty number of Tibetan Buddhists, traveling to Lhasa for their pilgrimages. Despite the tourists with their large bags and bright flashes, these individuals were able to perform their religious rituals without being bothered. Though these people seemed unbothered by our presence, I felt that I was intruding on something quite sacred. Especially since I was very unprepared as far as my understanding of Tibetan Buddhism is concerned. They are two very different experiences, observing with a blind eye and with prior knowledge. I suppose I can’t really say which is best. When looking at religion, it is important to separate observation with a critical eye from the practitioner’s intimate religious experience. Because my point of view was without any prior knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, again I felt as though I didn’t belong, intruding in these people’s sacred space.
Despite my felt intrusion, I understand how important tourism is in a place like Lhasa. Foreigners bring in, I am sure, most of if not all of Lhasa’s income. Tourists are willing to pay thousands of RMB to employ a travel agency to arrange a stay in Lhasa. Tourism both hinders and facilitates the preservation of culture. Without the money brought in by foreigners, there is the fear that Lhasa will not be able to be maintained, that history will be lost. At the same time, because every Tibetan in Lhasa caters to the foreigner, I had a very difficult time enjoying myself within the city limits. I wanted to experience Tibetan life as it occurs naturally. Ideally, I would have liked to be a fly on the wall instead of one of one thousand tourists. At the same time, because we all live in a consumer society, how can I wish to see the Tibetan people separated from this integral part of life? I suppose this is why I found the most pleasure in traveling away from the city’s center, where life is still somewhat simple and less based on pleasing foreigners.
Another surprise I encountered was the nature of the employees and monks of the monasteries. The employees of the Potala Palace are just “normal” citizens. Why am I surprised? Though I do not share the same sentiments about the monasteries in Tibet as those practicing the religion, I am well attuned to the sacredness of each monument. I expected that everyone affiliated with these sacred spaces would be quite serious and focused on their task at hand. I was surprised to find that the employees were so, for lack of a better word, ordinary. Now that I look back on it, this thought seems quite naive, as The Potala Palace is, in fact, a museum. However, because this site is still used for worship, I expected to observe a much different approach. The employees taking care of the burning yak cheese were dressed very casually and wore slapdash attitudes. I also encountered this nonchalant attitude at the Monasteries we visited. Again, I expected the monks to be quite serious, in meditation, in prayer. What I found was young boys on their cell phones, lounging around outside the various entrances.
Before we visited our first monastery, the concept of money offerings was introduced to us. Though we were told that it was an offering for the temple, I really did not understand the notion, and was quite opposed to throwing my small bills as a donation inside a monastery that I essentially knew nothing about. Because I lacked any noteworthy knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, the donations and prayers had no significance to me. I did not doubt the importance to those who practice this religion, but as I said before, I felt that I didn’t belong, and giving my money didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until about the fourth monastery we visited that I was able to establish my own reason for giving money. As I noted before, for those on pilgrimage to Lhasa, prayer in the monasteries is an incredibly individual experience. Because I initially approached my monastery visits with an academic and tourist mindset, I was unable to be one of those individuals. Though I felt that we focused too much on visiting monasteries, it ended up having a positive effect. Because we visited so many religious sites, towards the end, I was able to relieve myself of the academic mindset and experience the monasteries in a way that was appropriate for me. I was able to offer my money in memory and in honor of my loved ones, and no longer felt as though I was pretending to experience Tibetan Buddhism. Though my experience was clearly not the same as a practitioner, it was an event that was important to me, that made me appreciate Tibetan Buddhism for what it could do for me.
One of the most special experiences for me was the hanging of the prayer flags. We purchased traditional prayer flags from the markets in Lhasa to take with us to Lake Namtso. We all had a chance to write our thoughts, prayers, names of loved ones, really anything we wanted on the flags. When we arrived at the pristine lake a few of us climbed to the highest point in Lhasa to hang the flags. I can’t even begin to describe the majesty of that experience. The wonderful people in my life will forever be flying in the beauty of Tibet’s landscape.
When we were asked to record our thoughts about the Tibetan dance performance we attended, we found ourselves talking about photographs. During the drive to Gyantse, we made a quick stop to cool the tires, and I remember saying, “I feel as thought I am deprived of this kind of scenery.” We all were taking photos like crazy tourists, as though we had never seen mountains before. Unfortunately (or, depending on how you look at it, fortunately), a photo can never adequately capture the magnificence of a moment. During our discussion, we began to relate this deprivation we felt with the Chinese fascination with Westerners we have experienced. More often than not, when the group of us goes out, we receive gawking eyes and many picture requests. At first, we just giggled, and assumed that all Chinese are fascinated with Westerners and Western lifestyle. But as we have experienced this phenomenon more and more, we have realized that it is quite similar to our obsession with beautiful scenery. The Chinese who stare are, so to say, deprived of seeing the Western physique. Their stares are not meant to be rude or disrespectful, but are evidence of their curiosity. When one is introduced to something so rarely seen, it is only natural to want to document it. Just as the Chinese take photos with Westerners to show their friends and families our strange looks, our group took thousands of photos of the people and the landscape in Lhasa to prove to those who couldn’t be there, the beauty that we witnessed.
IN OTHER NEWS (I promise I will keep it short!)
-I went to an excellent music festival at Haidian Park and experienced true skinhead music for the first time. My body is still boasting some pretty nice looking bruises and scrapes.
-Dance is going excellently. I’m finally becoming less shy with the other dancers, and am making good friends with the 2nd company members. They’re all around my age and older so socially, I’m much more comfortable.
-I had a great Graham class with Willy Tsao, my company director. I couldn’t believe I actually enjoyed it after our freshman year disaster experience with Graham.
-This week I had my FIRST DANCE CLASSES IN ENGLISH SINCE I’VE BEEN IN CHINA. Talk about strange experience. They were master classes that were arranged for LDTX, one with native Australian Ian Spink choreographer and with a Cunningham based teacher and choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir.
-Last week and this week is the Beijing Dance festival, hosted by my company, LDTX. I took a master class with the deputy artistic director of Guangdong Modern Dance Company last week (amazing), and will be taking a class taught by a dancer in Inbal Pinto Avshalom Pollak Dance Company, as well as a class with someone from the French Company Systeme Castafiore.
-This weekend I’m attending 3 performances, Inbal Pinto, Systeme Castafiore, and Cullberg Ballet!
ANDDD…I am taking company class with Inbal Pinto on Friday!!!
So, things are really great, I’m happy, the weather is beautiful, and we occasionally have blue skies. Hope you’re all well!
CONGRATULATIONS TO THE INAGURAL LINES BFA CLASS OF 2010!!