I’m going to Nepal for study abroad in less than 2 weeks, and I wrote the following for our pre-term assignment (prompt below). I didn’t dig too deep into anything, but I think I was going in the right direction haha.
Reminisce: recall a disparaging comment or an ironic question or an encouraging remark by an acquaintance, previous to your departure, about the possible use of this Study Abroad semester.
Give your reply or your private thought at the time. Somehow connect this with a quotation or anecdote from Avedon‘s book that set you thinking.
Reminisce: the last time you travelled; and what‘s different now.
Muddied Prayer Flags from Tibet: The Politics of Study Abroad
This summer, in between a couple part-times, reading, studying, sleeping, and shamelessly lounging in bed into the hours of the afternoon, I managed to reconnect with a number of friends and catch up on what we’ve missed in each other’s lives in the past year or so. When they asked the question, “What’s new in your life?”, I would drop what probably is the most interesting piece of news that I have ever been able to share with my friends (and I mean ever): “Well…I’m studying in Nepal in the fall.”
Most of them would let their jaws fall slightly, and congratulate me and compliment my unusual country of choice. They’d express, with enthusiasm, their support for my choice to study topics in human rights, anthropology, Tibetan/Himalayan culture and history, and Buddhism.
I met with one friend in particular, however, with whom the conversation didn’t go as smoothly. No sooner had the words left my mouth than I realized I probably shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place.
“Nepal?” he had looked up at me warily.
“Yeah, I’ll be attending a Tibetan studies program and living with a Tibetan family!
The friend took a slow drag out of his cigarette and blew slowly into the air. “That’s cool—now you can get some real, authentic prayer flags and hang them in your dorm as some ego-inflating decoration.”
"Like the white man,” he continued, voice turning cold. “You know, the West treats Buddhism like a seasonal club, to make itself feel more worldly, and less guilty. It’s laughable.”
After a pause, I sighed. “I know.” I waved the clouds of cigarette smoke away from my face.
My short response was not from a lack of things to say. There was, rather, too much to respond with. As out of place, hateful, and bitter-sounding as it was, his was the one comment about my trip I’d received in the entire summer that resonated with me.
It was a reminder: I am following in the trail of a continuous, centuries-long expedition of privileged Western tourists, students/scholars, and philanthropists from the West into the smoldering depths of the Third World—to tour, ‘study’, and ‘philanthropize’. The very West, which, in its quest for global empire, colonized and arbitrarily drew the very borders of the Third World, dominating its political, cultural, and economic affairs for its own strategic and economic gain. The very West that prompted the devastating global war in which it tried to conquer resistors of imperialism with the lives of people of color the world over—lead by the government of my home country, America, in the name of freedom and democracy. The very West which has defined the turbulent internal conflicts, inter-state disputes, and power dynamics of the modern state system that define the direction of international affairs into the present day.
In the context of study abroad, I have seen many privileged American students of white Western European background, the strongest present-day legacies of the exploits of the Western world, travel to less developed parts of the world, and undergo shifts in perspective and thought, but ultimately, treat their travels and cultural experiences as vacations, and personal badges of achievement and affirmations of personal virtue or righteousness. Some make the mistake of interpreting their time abroad as a one-dimensional cultural experience, in which the immersion in an ‘exotic’ culture in itself, the exposure to frugal living or the brutality of extreme poverty, and/or learning of the strength that exists in disadvantaged communities becomes the extent of their education. They often fail to reflect on the greater social context in which their experiences occur; they neglect the important task of recognizing the complexities of any culture or people, and of investigating the current role of US policy and forces such as colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and racism in influencing the conditions they see around them.
In Exile from the Land of the Snows, a comprehensive and detailed account of the Tibetan struggle with China’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Tibet, John Avedon briefly quotes the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on Western exploration of Buddhism:
“…Westerners were attracted to Eastern religions because it was like going on a mental vacation….but in Buddhism, it is not enough just to have faith… The Buddha said, ‘Monks and scholars should accept my word, not out of respect, but upon analyzing it as a goldsmith analyzes gold, by cutting, melting, scraping and rubbing it’” (175).
It seems that today’s students of the West are making an old mistake of treating global education as a “mental vacation,” thereby not according the amount of reflection and deep thought needed to more deeply understand and do justice to the complexity of what they are studying. As a result, they not only end up claiming credit for partaking in culture and living in places they have not wholeheartedly tried to understand, but they also fail to recognize why they, as the [unintentional] beneficiaries of the world’s deadly inequities, should be compelled to approach their travels with even greater sensitivity and awareness.
It’s understandable; the wonder and thrill of travel, plus roots in the highly racialized, politicized, and white supremacist social landscape of the United States, as well as much of Western Europe, produces a bias that is very hard to overcome. But the bias is poisonous. Students adopt a privileged and self-congratulating mindset that feeds preconceived notions of non-Western peoples, cultures, and countries, tendencies to view situations with a trivializing and over-simplifying eye, and subtly racialized perspectives that lead to offensive misconceptions and microaggressions—all of which serve to perpetuate the inequalities and imperial relationships in the world, and undermines the significance of a student’s genuine interest and good-intention.
Look beyond study abroad; this pattern is manifested powerfully on the institutional level, in American foreign policy, academia and research, and even the burgeoning industries of voluntourism, fair trade, and state-sponsored international development and humanitarian aid, and operations of international financial institutions like the IMF, where seemingly well-intentioned Western presence in the Third World has done more to exacerbate unjust conditions and serve personal, political, and economic self-interest, than to address the roots of the issues they want to alleviate.
My friend thought that I might saunter into Nepal and make the same sort of mistake. After all, while there, I am not exempt from these considerations in any way. This sort of consideration increasingly transcends lines of race and ethnicity, and should be heeded by most who have been raised in America. In fact, in my case, as the child of Taiwanese immigrants who made the trip to the West in search of a better life, I must be even more careful.
Avedon, in Exile, presents an account of the brutality, authoritarianism, and sheer ruthlessness of Chinese Communist rule in Tibet, and details the oppression, violence, loss of life, famine, and indescribable pain and hardship from which the Tibetan people suffered in the struggle to resist and to survive. Ironically, the massive occupation and colonization project, which established out of a vision for an anti-imperialist, egalitarian, unified society, was executed from a racialized framework of Han domination and superiority, and enforced the violent erasure of Tibetan culture and the adoption of the Chinese language and political systems.
Where does that leave me? Han, my ethnicity. Chinese, the native tongue of my family and my ancestors. China, the land from which my grandfathers fled in their youth. And Taiwan, ruled for so long by the Kuomintang that claimed ownership of Tibet and continued to do so even after leaving China. What relation could I possibly have to this situation, when I have such a weak connection to Taiwan and nothing to do with the Chinese government, when I am not benefiting from the racial oppression of Tibetans or the occupation of Tibet?
Like the white Westerner in the Third World who has not participated directly in the imperial projects of their government or their forefathers that have directly shaped the lives of the people around them, I must accept I have certain duties to fulfill if I want to travel as a socially responsible student. Whether I like it or not, the features of my face and the elements of my culture have been used as a tool of oppression; the Chinese state, culture, language, and people have become images of oppression and reminders of tremendous grief and injustice for many. As a Chinese Westerner in a Tibetan community, I must put forth an even greater effort to follow the Dalai Lama’s advice—I must refine my goldsmithing skills and analyze what is before me with concentration and discipline. I must understand how our histories are intertwined, so that I may shed any harmful biases I may have and truly learn about their culture and history, and at the same time, treat all with sensitivity and respect and avoid perpetuating injustice.
I’ll be honest; I’ve never traveled outside of the United States before, so my perspective may be limited. However, I feel that, in the past few years, I have gained valuable insight that will help me make the most of my first time traveling abroad. Being a woman and person of color in the multicultural atmosphere of the US has afforded me understanding of different types of oppression, and showed me how the social constructions of race, gender, class, culture, etc. collide with each other, and together with the flawed thinking of all human beings, define the greatest struggles of our time. It has ingrained in me a sort of hyper-consciousness of how these forces deride the quality of life of so many, and limit society as a whole - and a great sense of duty to not contribute to any of them.
So I’ll say with confidence: it takes a lot of work to be an open-minded student and a compassionate traveler that avoids doing harm. It requires a great deal of conscious effort to stay humble, to use experiences less for shallow self-interest—to feel as my friend put it, more ‘worldly’—and more to serve others and sincerely encourage personal intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth.
In Buddhism, it is taught that humanity must recognize the root of all suffering if it wishes to prevent and ultimately eradicate it. In the same way, we can never bridge the divisions within humanity if we do not recognize their source and perpetuating factors (and our role in relation to them)—especially the privileged, who are most far removed from their harmful effects. Thus, this perspective I offer is not meant to needlessly antagonize people, create unnecessary dualisms, or politicize existence out of anger; it is to say that the wounds of the world are bitter and uncomfortable to confront, but nevertheless, they exist, and we must deal with them in the most compassionate, constructive way possible if we wish to heal them. After all, I do believe, more than anything, that love, friendship, solidarity, and sincere exchange of culture in the face of such a painful and divisive reality is one of the most beautiful things that we can do in this world.
The end, if you have any comments/criticisms please share!