Friday, July 9, 2010

Celebrating Independence in Tibet

So my computer decided to turn on this afternoon and after moving all important data to an external hard drive I again have access to all my photos from Tibet. There are a lot of things that I want to talk about, and there were some really wonderful places and people I would like to blog about at length, but the first thing I want to address was one of the strangest 4th of July celebrations I have participated in. 

Being American the 4th of July usually means fire works, grilling lots of meat, parades, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and and mixing it all together with lots of family and friends. Somewhere in there we occasionally remember that the holiday is actually Independence Day, celebrating the severing of our ties to the Kingdom of Great Britain an action that lead to the founding of our Republic. Most of the time though that aspect of the holiday is lost on us. We take it for granted. 

There were only three Americans in our group; myself, Kim and our friend Donny. The way that the days fell, Independence Day fell on our first full day in Lhasa. With the thought that we should try and recreate as many of the normal American observances of the holiday we set out looking for things that would allow us to celebrate at our hotel in Tibet. As everything we consume in the U.S. seems to be made in China, it wasn't as tough as one might think. We purchased some American flags at a place that also peddled portraits of Chairman Mao, we found plenty of alcohol, and though Kim and Donny preferred Lhasa beer, there was the option of Budweiser and PBR (I just tossed some cheap local liquor in with my ice tea). At another store we purchased speakers for Kim's laptop so we could listen to music like the sound track to Team America, Jimmy Hendrix playing the star spangled banner, and other patriotic themed music. We ordered plenty of deserts at the hotel and set up all our stuff, fully prepared to be OK with being the obnoxious Americans.

You see what those passports say?
That's right, we're American.

At this point it might be important to bring the reader up to speed on the somewhat ironic position of the country we were being obnoxious in. Tibet was an independent kingdom ruled by a Buddhist theocracy as late as 1959, when the Chinese decided that they were going to change all that. Since then many Tibetans went into exile in the country I currently live in, Nepal, and northern India, where the Dali Lama and the Tibetan government currently live in exile. Despite the best efforts of the Beastie Boys (tongue is firmly in cheek) it doesn't look like independence is possible, China is in very firm control and as a rising super power I don't expect their grip on Tibet to loosen any time soon.

China is a very suspicious master, and as we entered the country they searched our computers for any images of the Dali Lama. The few that they found from our pictures of Losar celebrations in Kathmandu and Kim's recent meditation retreat at Kopan, they made us delete. These weren't even pictures of him, his image just happened to be in the background of some of the shots. During the Dali Lamas birthday which fell on the 6th of July they had troops, police in riot gear and armored personnel carriers deployed in the streets to deter any thoughts of uprising. Since their occupation of Lhasa and especially in the last five years they have demolished much of the old city and shipped in ethnic Chinese that more than double the indigenous population. Anything that is linked to the past is quickly becoming a museum, and a new modern Chinese city is growing in the heart of Tibet, much to the chagrin of the local Tibetan population.

Donny wants you to know were he's from.

So back to us being obnoxious. So while we drank and stuffed cake down our mouths, blaring Freedom isn't Free and Welcome to the Jungle all the while sticking american flags in our bottles or behind our ears, we kept getting looks and attention from the local Tibetan people at other tables and those running the restaurant. It started to dawn on us that maybe this was (more than) slightly rude and insensitive. This may have been true, but it was in this case the wrong conclusion. As the attention in us increased with stares, people going out of their way to walk by us and look at us, and whispered conversation in the indoor section of the restaurant, the woman running the hotel came out to confront us. She was curious if she could have one of the flags we were waving about.

Donny & Our Tibetan Hosts Celebrate the 4th

There are plenty of times when I am very disappointed in my country. Hardly a day has gone by in my adult life where I haven't read the news and felt like as a society we were pissing away every freedom we fought for following that declaration given in 1776. Now I don't mix the politics of my home with this blog, so I'll stop right there, but I will say that this moment in Tibet did remind me of the power of the idea that America still holds in the world. There is in my opinion no higher political ideal than the individual liberty and freedom that America was founded on. What those men stood up for in 1776 echoes down to this day and inspires people all over the globe, especially those who find themselves under the thumb of a government that sees freedom as a problem and not the solution. 

By the end of our little celebration we had no more flags to give out. The awkward stares had turned into friendly smiles and the quiet whispers had turned into cheerful laughter. As we wrapped up our little party a bunch of people waved us goodbye and we headed up to our hotel rooms for the night. We unfortunately hadn't been able to find any Chinese fireworks, despite our guide telling us that they were available somewhere in the western part of the city. We didn't need any though. Sometimes you remember what the holiday is all about, and the rest just seems superficial.

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