I was working from a café alongside the Barkhor (Lhasa’s main pedestrian area and the heart of historic Tibetan Lhasa) today when people quickly amassed around some commotion that had erupted just around the corner. I could see unrest and people running but didn’t know what triggered the event. Later, I asked a fellow spectator, an Austrian (I assume from their accented German) couple well into their 50s, if they knew how it started. They mentioned having been caught in the middle, but said it appeared to them to start off as nothing. Someone had kicked someone’s car, which when they compared to their native Europe wouldn’t necessarily have erupted in a bout of more aggression. In venturing outside the cafe, however, a growing crowd of Tibetans, sprinkled with Chinese and foreign tourists had already circled the police car that appeared within minutes. It’s pretty easy to pick out who is of what “zu” (identity) here.

With the police on site, the Tibetans started to rock one of their two mini-vans and it seems shattered the glass pane of the back window and tore the door off. But the crowd was too dense and large to see into the middle, even from my precarious perch about 2 feet above ground atop an extremely wobbly street post, which separates the bike lane from vehicular traffic. In the midst of it all, I was grateful to have at some point practiced improving my balance in yoga and was convinced that this would be the ultimate test for my VR – vibration reducing Nikon lens. It was only later with the police car parked directly in front of me that I could even see the damage to their car. Traffic was snarled to a virtual standstill on one of Lhasa’s central thoroughfares with everybody guilty of rubbernecking, before 5 or 6 officers were eventually stationed in the middle of the road to ease the flow of traffic. The Austrian couple reported seeing spitting and the police raise a flog of some sort, intending to disperse the crowd. Outmanned at least 10 or 15 to 1 physically not to mention emotionally, they eventually succeeded in escaping the throng of people with what I’m assuming was a dose of tear gas or whatever other matter leaves a trail of smoke and is pungent enough to fracture a crowd not to mention assault my sense of smell – even in not so fragrant Lhasa, where it’s well advised to quickly become immune to most odors. The pervasive scent of urine, not surprisingly, accompanied by an even larger number of men who express little shame in relieving themselves square in the public domain, unfortunately, provides for a more intense not to mention intimate experience than is typically necessary. A second fight erupted after a guy who looked Chinese started up, again, for seemingly no reason, with a Tibetan rickshaw driver. Surrounded by another burgeoning crowd of restless, young Tibetan men, he was lucky enough to make a quick getaway by jumping into a passing cab and fleeing.

The brunt of it all was more or less over within, well, 30 minutes according to the time recorded on my Nikon, but police presence, always very evident assumed new proportions with surveillance cars either parked or speeding up and down Beijing Road, the street outside the window of the cafe. The police are everywhere here. Your initial sense is that all is relatively calm, Tibetans practice Buddhism, Chinese conduct business and occasionally the reverse. Add in a gaggle of tourists and a dash of wayfaring local expats and society appears just as diverse as anywhere. With time you become aware that the police serve a purpose, in addition, to cruising around in spanking SUVs or less sophisticated “bread” (mini) vans hassling foreigners. It can’t be for nothing that the tallest building in Lhasa is rumored to be the Public Security Bureau. Word has it that it’s even taller than the Potala Palace, which is situated atop a hill and leaves an imposing impression of towering over the entire city. All appears at peace I assume not for religious reasons but because of the sheer infiltration of armed military and local police.

The military are clothed in green and mostly keep to their own quarters, occasionally frequenting more exclusive locales, while the police wear blue and appear largely to be local Tibetans, like the plainclothes officer, who followed me into a Tibetan teahouse the other day and started questioning the staff about me in Tibetan with enough Chinese peppered in for me to catch the gist of their conversation. As have a few people I’ve spoken to here, the waitresses had also mentioned India, the West, hoping to learn English over Chinese, etc. all of which makes me uneasy. In fact, I have many qualms about society here and at first conclusion, am hardly convinced by Buddhist ideals or their gilded purveyors. I could only confirm the guy was PSB, however, because the waitresses told me as much when he left. I’m gradually beginning to somewhat distinguish between who’s who. It’s distressing, however, to grow increasingly suspicious of one’s surroundings simply on account of never knowing. I notice every police car and keep my face down or routinely look over my shoulder to catch whether someone vaguely familiar might be following me. Hopefully, with time my growing paranoia will prove nothing more than comic.

Any opportunity for Tibetans to organize and there’s a sense that perhaps enough would to incite the need for change, even if – or, perhaps, it is therefore that – even in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, native Tibetans are a declining fraction of the population. Mainlanders come from every corner, Sichuan, Anhui, Gansu, Xinjiang etc. to run stores, drive taxis, and do construction work. Based on my rather unscientific survey, some have lived in Lhasa for years, but a significant number of cab drivers, in particular, seem to have arrived within the last year. Despite the population dynamics, the alliance among Tibetans seems strong enough that people could unite regardless of beliefs, values, education and the other differences in background that connect or divide us as humans. Birds of a feather still flock together

My observations, of course, are limited to the month I’ve been here, the two times I’ve traveled in Tibet in 1/04 and 6/06, and not to mention my grasp of Chinese but no Tibetan. Instead, I’ve just done the unthinkable and walked into a local school, figuring I have nothing to lose in trying and subsequently attending my first elementary Tibetan class ever in Lhasa. I must be at least twice if not many times as old as my classmates, who despite speaking Tibetan fluently cannot read. My guess is from talking to one girl, who oddly came across as relatively progressive but then shared she is preparing to be a nun, that the older students never attended school, which is why they cannot write. While I’d like to say I’m at a disadvantage, it’s enough of an experience alone to be sitting on the same broken stools cramped behind the same wooden desks, shouting the Tibetan alphabet at ridiculous decibels in unison in a room, measuring no more than 7 x 15 feet large, that I’m hardly deterred by either my non-existent Tibetan or that I endeavor to learn a foreign language in a foreign language instead of English.

For now, I can provide little other explanation for the need for such vigilance among the police other than that they are very aware of the palpable undercurrents that could potentially surface in society. Police presence is often attributed to tourists and foreigners, but even placing recent events like those at Mt. Everest and the Great Wall aside, I doubt whether either tourists or the upcoming Olympics could warrant such a sizeable display of force. If Tibetans were to take action, I assume the depth and effectiveness of their attempt would probably be marred. My guess is it would be a spontaneous response to the tension that has built itself in society – not a well-planned and thought out movement. As the Austrians remarked, a similar transgression elsewhere would hardly have fomented the same degree of aggression, anxiety or jittery excitement that spread rapidly among an audience simply attracted to an altercation. There’s little conduit for intellect or energy, or other release for or relief from the friction that naturally builds in any diverse urban not to mention urbanizing society – save for perhaps a few decrepit store fronts furnished with a single pool table inside. These are primarily frequented by Tibetan and Hui (Muslim) men with a solitary Tibetan woman to rack the balls at the end of each game. Otherwise there are Tibetan tea houses everywhere, but they hardly meet the expanding interests or appetite of the young and curious. Instead, the sight of high school students gathered smoking in any of the three or four more upscale Western cafés here, gives the impression that whoever were to open up any fast food or other chain in Lhasa from MacDonald’s to Starbucks would be likely to become a millionaire in little time.

As for night life, for young local people it appears almost non-existent and of the sparse selection of Tibetan literature available in major bookstores, at least 1/3 is Buddhism related, another 1/3 concentrates on traditional Tibetan medicine, ½ of the last 1/3 are Chinese-Tibetan dictionaries and while I had hoped to allocate the last 1/6 for something less mundane (not that the above selection isn’t entirely satiating), I’ve regretfully neglected the numerous editions of mind-stimulating communist party affairs and Chinese law translated into Tibetan. Tibetans don’t seem to harbor the same hatred for the Japanese as mainland Chinese, one of the more well-known outlets that the Communist Party supports as a channel to direct people’s frustrations and anger. As one foreign traveler remarked not yet inure to the unadulterated joy of Chinese TV, anti-Japanese war movies are broadcast almost 24 hours a day, while another friend and native Tibetan commented that Tibetan language programs are apparently intentionally recorded in a softer lilting tongue than the standard Lhasa speech. Television dialogue mimics tonal mandarin Chinese, and unless you listen closely, it is difficult to distinguish between the two, oddly enough despite the fact that Chinese and Tibetan stem from different language families and bear little resemblance to each other.

Aside from language, official functions and other popular entertainment supported by the government, promote a taste of Tibet “lite”, I presume part of the function of which is to pacify and placate. The extent to which it satisfies is a different question, but a cursory reflection lends credence to the notion that they, indeed, seem to have succeeded in their intention. Young prospering, urbanite Tibetan women, who in 2004 I unexpectedly observe turn towards Pakistan and Bollywood for the latest trends, while still retaining Tibetan roots, inevitably seem to increasingly follow the influence of their Chinese counterparts, who again direct their attention towards Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. It is not difficult to imagine how China will quickly succeed in conforming each subsequent generation to the national patois. At the end of the day, however, I am admittedly challenged to understand the roles that Tibetan, Han or even Hui people, the other predominant ethnic group here, play in society. The power dynamics are simply too intricate and involved for me to offer but a superficial observation on everything this city has to offer.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Sept. 2, 2007