08 June 2011

Tradition and Modernity

8 June
On the day I met my Tibetan host family I asked, innocently, a question that probably embarrassed my thirteen-year-old host sister Pema: "Is Tashi your father or is it Gyurme? I'm a bit confused."

She gave me a strange look. "Tashi. Gyurme is my uncle."

My confusion came from the way Gyurme had introduced me to the family. "This is my brother Tashi, my sister-in-law Amalah, this is Pema and this is Sonam," he said, indicating a man, a woman, a girl and a boy. "Tobgyal is away at school; he is twelve years old." Later, though, he referred to Sonam as his son, a small comment that nonetheless provoked my question for Pema.

A week or so later, when all the children were again away at school, Amalah stopped sleeping on the bed out on the porch and moved inside to the bed that shares a corner with my own in the one-room home. Tashi and Gyurme, however, stayed put. I waited until one morning when Amalah and Gyurme were still asleep in the corner bed and Tashi walked in, back from morning yoga, to be certain that I was living in a polyandrous household, but by that time I had few doubts.

When I spoke to the girl from my school who had lived with this same family a few years ago, I learned that she, too, had been introduced to Amalah as Gyurme's "sister-in-law" and had, like me, discovered that description to be euphemistic. She offered some insight: "Gyurme's probably embarrassed by polyandry because he's such a 'modern man.' That's what one of his British friends said."

Polyandry is, in fact, a traditional Tibetan practice. In an article published in Natural History I learned that nomad brothers in Tibet often share a wife and thereby prevent the family from splitting into different groups, only the eldest of which could inherit the family's property. It was desirable for the woman, who would have multiple incomes to support herself and her children.

I concur with Gyurme's friend, however, who believes that he is embarrassed by the arrangement. Everything about Gyurme--his Abercrombie label clothes, management position, cigarettes, determination to speak English well, habit of watching television from the time he gets off work to the time he falls asleep--belongs to a modern Tibetan man, not a nomad still living in the semi-feudal society that was pre-1950 Tibet. Like the Dalai Lama himself, Gyurme refuses to recreate Tibet as the isolated, timeless place it was and insists that Tibetans match the pace of the rest of the world. To this end are TCV students carefully trained in science and technology, advances that had bypassed even the best educated in Tibet. In My Land and My People, the Dalai Lama lists the curriculum for standard education in the Tibet of his childhood: drama, dance and music, astrology, poetry, and composition (22). By contrast, the upper Dharamsala TCV curriculum for a junior high class matches, except Tibetan and Hindi, my own education: English, science, geography, mathematics, computers, and religion.

I realized the other day that my own conflict between my past and present selves is the same core problem that Tibetans face: tradition versus modernity, past versus present. It must have been extraordinary to enter the world of technology and international politics after living so long in isolation on the roof of the world. No culture could have remained perfectly intact.

The question of Tibetan cultural preservation is not a matter of returning to Tibet-as-it-was, the isolated home of the Forbidden City. His Holiness believes that the proper policy would be to "welcome visitors from every part of the world" (38), which would eventually result in significant changes from influences around the world. Gyurme's balance of tradition and modernity is his own interpretation of Tibet in today's world, just as Tibetans who wear only chupas and sell homemade momos to tourists have determined their interpretations of modern Tibet. As the China/Tibet politics unfold, more and more Tibetans will decide what it means to be Tibetan in the 21st century.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I remember when I first heard about polyandry. It is so interesting, especially coming from an LDS point of view where I feel like I am constantly having to tell people that we do not practice polygamy.

    I think the question you pose about modernity and tradition is a very valid one, and very important to your research. I wonder how long some of these traditional practices will be around and what will change inevitably.