Lhasa, Tibet #2: Taken Home: Uproariously Fun Parties, Tragically Sad Stories

We've had a lot of amazing experiences here in Tibet over the past few weeks, but the undeniable highlight has been hanging out and partying at the home of one of the friends we made at Tibet University during our first week here in Lhasa.

On our very first visit to the campus to play basketball we met these three young guys, all of whom are students at the university. In total, I think I ended up playing hoops with them and other students at least 6 or 7 different times. I even got The World Soccer Tour rolling again for a few hours one day. The basketball was definitely great fun, but the most amazing times were all had back at our friend Tenzin's place, eating, drinking, talking and partying with him and his mom, brother, friends and neighbors. And, man, what an incredible experience each of those visits turned out to be!

But before I tell you about that I should tell you that Tenzin's name isn't really Tenzin. Seeing that the Chinese police monitor the internet and email and, well, everything, I'd rather not risk getting anyone into any sort of trouble. And, as you'll see below, what I'm going to say could most certainly get him and his family into all sorts of trouble. So, what I'm going to do is call not just him, but everybody, Tenzin. Tenzin, incidentally, is the Dalai Lama's name and, not too surprisingly, it seems to be the most common boy's name in Tibet.

So, back on that first day at the university, we not only met Tenzin, but also his friend Tenzin#2 and their Chinese friend, ChineseTenzin. We found out later that it's very rare for Tibetans to hang out with Chinese people, but both Tenzin and Tenzin#2 had gone to middle school and high school in China (in Beijing and Chengdu) and were, therefore, it seemed, much more open to hanging out and being friends with Chinese people than your average Tibetan.

I should note that the reason these guys had studied in China was that the Chinese government sends the best Tibetan students away to China in order to try and make them assimilate and "become Chinese". It doesn't seem to work, but it does succeed in making them more accepting of Chinese people compared to other Tibetans.

The Two Tenzins and their buddy ChineseTenzin were all extremely friendly and after basketball that first day they invited us over to their dormitories and then back to Tenzin's home for dinner and a party. The five of us all hopped on a bus and headed over to Tenzin's place together, but I found out later on that Tenzin's mother and brother don't like having Chinese people in their home and weren't too happy about him bringing a Chinese friend over.

Tibetan people's anger is understandable considering all the terrible things the Chinese government has put them through, but, still, there's no reason to be angry at a nice guy like ChineseTenzin. So, like Buddy Holly bringing Little Richard home to his not-too-happy Texan parents, I think it was great that Tenzin ignored his mother and brother's feelings and brought his Chinese friend home regardless of what they thought. Hopefully in doing so he helped them see that the guy's simply a really nice person, undeserving of their contempt - contempt that should rightfully be reserved for the government, not individual Chinese.

We were invited over not just that first night, but the next day and night as well. And that made for two straight days of eating, drinking and hanging out with a big group of extremely friendly Tibetans.

Tenzin's mother, "Amala" (Tibetan for "Mama" or "Mother") - a wonderful woman full of life, humor and beer - made dinner for us both nights and sent out for crates of Lhasa Beer. She may not have been too happy about having her son's Chinese friend in her home, but she sure was excited to have a Canadian and a Japanese over. We were the first foreigners, other than Chinese, to ever visit their home; possibly, they said, the first to visit the entire neighborhood.

Eventually, both nights, after we'd finished eating and had started in on more of the big bottles of beer, we were joined by some of their neighbors and friends, with whom we played cards, talked, continued to eat lots of homemade dumplings and, of course, drank lots more beer. What an incredible time!

I should mention that the Three Tenzins all spoke pretty good English, but no one else there did, so all of our talking with the family, friends and neighbors had to be translated through them.

Our visits with these incredibly hospitable and warm people were wonderful, fun-filled and full of laughter, but also quite sad at times, as we were told so many depressing stories and facts. Everyone we met there - not just the family, but also all the neighbors and friends as well - were extremely open about everything, including how much they all loathed China. They were especially clear about that after ChineseTenzin left to meet another friend on the second night. I couldn't help but think they were all risking everything by talking so openly, especially when you consider that it's a well-known fact that there are government informers all through society, even throughout the ranks of the Buddhist monks and nuns.

The depressing stories we heard while in their home included one about how Amala's sister was murdered by Chinese Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. We also heard how Amala and her husband, who died of cancer a couple of years ago, were both forcibly sent to China to work on farms for 10 years each starting in the late-1960's, never being allowed to visit home or see their families even once during the whole decade away. After more or less being forced to join the Communist Party they were finally allowed to return home and were then given government factory jobs.

Tibetan culture is totally intertwined with Buddhism, but - and this was perhaps the most shocking thing we were told - government workers and Communist Party members aren't allowed to visit temples or even pray at home. This family had a beautiful little Buddhist shrine at home, but we were told that if it were ever discovered, Amala, who is now retired, would lose her entire pension and her older son, who works at the same government factory as she used to, would be fired.

So this woman - who was basically kidnapped for 10 years, who prays secretly and in fear of being found-out, and whose own sister was murdered by Red Guards - is still, amazingly, a Communist Party member. Not because she wants to be, of course, but simply because she doesn't want to bring any unwelcome attention upon herself or her family... and she definitely doesn't want to risk her only source of income: her pension. Obviously, quitting the Communist Party isn't something that goes unnoticed. So, incredible as it may seem, Amala loves the Dalai Lama, can't stand China and wants Tibet to be free, yet she remains a member of the Chinese Communist Party! I wonder how many other Party members are in the exact same boat?

All the neighbors we met at their place (all of whom, incidentally, also work for the government) were, like Tenzin's family, quite open about their feelings of disdain for China. One particularly heartbreaking story we heard came from one of the neighbors who told us how she had sent her daughter to freedom in India 9 years earlier... and how she had never seen her again since.

In fact, it wasn't just these people, almost everyone we've spoken to in private here in Tibet has been surprisingly open about how they want Tibet to be free and how they can't stand the Chinese. Over and over we've heard: "This is Tibet, NOT China!" And, again, every time they say anything like that they're risking arrest should the wrong person overhear. They understand that, of course, and clearly live in fear of the government finding out their true feelings, but they still want to share these thoughts with us, whatever the risk... though they always conclude with "Don't tell anyone what I've said". They're much more open and direct about their feelings than most Uyghurs were in Xinjiang. And, just as I did in Xinjiang, I've tried to explain that Chinese people are actually really nice and that it's just the government that is terrible, but I guess it's often hard for them to make that distinction.

Although the stories were sad, it was such a great experience to be invited into a Tibetan home and be surrounded by such wonderfully friendly people. I really felt privileged, not only to be welcomed into their home and treated with such hospitality, but also to have had so many personal stories shared with us.

So, as you can imagine, it was a pretty amazing time... and I haven't even told you about the singing yet! Tibetans love to sing more than any other group of people I've ever encountered (though Mongolians, who, coincidently, are also Tibetan Buddhists, come pretty close). Tibetans sing on the streets, they sing at work, they sing in restaurants and they, especially, love to sing at home to guests. Or at least that has been our experience. Everyone in the room at Tenzin's place sang to us - all sorts of Tibetan folk songs. It was absolutely incredible... and not just after the first crate of those big bottles of Lhasa beer had been emptied either.

As usual in such situations, the low point came when a response was demanded and we had to sing for them. Tenzin#2 had a request: "Yellow Submarine"!! And so we sang that together with him - and, man, was it ever beautiful!

During the afternoon, on our second day visiting their home, we went out to a nearby Tibetan teahouse and drank Tibetan-style milk tea and played this local board game that Sonoko and I simply sucked at. But it was great fun, regardless of how many consecutive games we may have lost.

This was on the outskirts of Lhasa and walking around the local shops and streets without another foreigner anywhere in sight was a thrill in itself. It certainly wasn't beautiful out there, but that's where the regular people live and so it was, as it always is, quite interesting to see how they live.

Back at their home, before we left to return to our hotel at around midnight, Amala gave Sonoko two amazing gifts of old Tibetan jewelry together with some very big hugs for both of us, along with a few goodbye tears as well. It was really quite special and moving...

... but it wasn't actually goodbye. Not yet. After we returned from an incredible 4-day trip out into the Tibetan countryside, where we visited awe-inspiring places such as Ganden Monastery, Tidrum Nunnery and Namtso Lake, we were once again invited over, for one last party before our planned (now slightly delayed) departure for Nepal. And this goodbye party made the first two parties look and feel very minor in comparison. ALL the neighbors came over this time. The food and beer were great and the singing was even more unbelievable (theirs, not ours, that is) than the first two times. A couple of them even danced for us as well. I'm telling you, it just doesn't get much better than that!

I mean, you visit a place like Tibet and you expect to see a few temples and monasteries and view the Tibetan people going about their lives from a distance, you simply DO NOT expect to end up partying three different times with a group of extremely friendly, fun and joyful Tibetans. Now that's what traveling at its ideal best is all about!

One last thing: A couple of days before that final party I played in The World Basketball Tour and World Soccer Tour's East Asia Grand Finale Event (as both Tours are about to move on to South Asia in a few days). The Grand Finale involved 4 straight hours of basketball and soccer. That's 1.5 hours of basketball immediately followed by 2.5 hours of soccer... all at 3,650 meters above sea level. What a day! But I have to admit that I was finally forced to stop when I started to feel a bit dizzy and, for the first time in my life, began to see stars. The last time I ever felt dizzy playing sports was way back when I was 13 after we had played a whole soccer game in a blizzard of snow and hail, by the end of which I could no longer feel any of my extremities.

Some people might say that you shouldn't push yourself too much at such a high altitude like that found here in Lhasa, but clearly such people have no idea what they're talking about and would be best advised to stay far far away from the joys of Tibet and the World Basketball and Soccer Tours. Regardless of, or perhaps due to, the substantial lack of oxygen, it was truly a fantastic 4 hours of fun and I totally loved it.

The same can be said about our entire time here, with the possible exception of the time I was forced to wrestle a top cop for freedom. More about that next time.

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Monday, October 7th, 2002


Now check out the next chapter in the story: Lhasa Tibet #3: Wrestling Freak


And for a purely political rant about China's repression of the Tibetan people, check out my Tibetan Freedom Rant from March 2008.


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