Monday, April 2, 2012

Tibet Appropriated -- Writer's Poke #377




David Attenborough was probably joking when he said that he rather doubted if there was anything in Tibet. Of course when Michael Palin first arrives in Tibet, what he sees he describes as “lunar landscape.” And, it’s true. Not much is there. At least, we don’t see any strip malls, and who knows how many miles it might be to the nearest McDonalds.

If by “anything” one means people or even human structures, then perhaps vast portions of Tibet are “nothing.” Then again, Buddhist monks call it home. Are they attracted to the nothingness? Everest is there, too, of course, and it’s the “tallest nothing” on the entire planet. People from around the globe like to test themselves against it. Why?

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, isn’t “nothing.” It’s home to over 250,000 people. However, is Lhasa actually “Tibet”? Palin notes that since the Chinese came, so too came the wide roads, the modern communist-style apartment complexes, and something more: the Chinese. Did the Chinese see Tibet as empty space?

More than Chinese influence has changed the landscape of Lhasa. Palin notes that American influence (by way of China) has penetrated the nothingness of Tibet as well. Tibet used to be one of those “closed” mysterious societies. Now, although it still requires a long series of flights to reach Lhasa, anyone with a few thousand dollars can be there within a day or two. And with visitors comes outside influence. If nothing was in Tibet at one time, this is no longer true. Now the question becomes: Is anything in Tibet authentic? Or is everything simply imported?

If the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, would he be able to recognize the place he still calls home?

How do people's ideas of place change places?

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." -- Nelson Mandela


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