Written by Quinn Lehrman
Machik Program Intern & Rising Senior at Sidwell Friends School
Khabda was my first work experience at Machik. It was an introduction to the six weeks I planned to spend drafting letters, writing blog posts (like this one!), and fostering discussions about Tibetan culture. As a white American living in a western bubble, there wasn't much I could tell you about Tibet coming into Khabda. I hoped that Saturday's Khabda discussion might shed some light on Tibet. I realize now that I was initially looking for a way to generalize Tibetans. I wanted to develop a description of the "model Tibetan" that I could give to curious friends and family members such as, "Tibetans are Buddhist herding people who spend their lives on mountains and river valleys." This is the sort of stereotype that I expected to have by the credits of "Valley of the Heroes" by Khashem Gyal. I ended up with a better understanding of Tibet's diversity and realized that even some Tibetans are new to some of this cultural variety.
"Valley of the Heroes" focuses on a community in Hualong County, in Amdo, eastern Qinghai Province. Being a majority Muslim area, its people defy the stereotype that Tibet is an entirely Buddhist nation. Having very few preconceived notions about the Tibetan people, this diversity wasn't nearly as surprising to me as to the Tibetans in the room. After the film concluded and the discussion began, one of our visitors commented on the shock she felt upon seeing a Tibetan Muslim for the first time. She described the portrait of Tibet that her immigrant parents had painted for her since she was a child. She pictured a valley of Yaks and happy Chuba-wearing people sipping water from snow capped mountaintop streams. A Tibetan wearing a Taqiyya was a sight that didn't fit this image. Even Tibetans that had been previously quiet in the discussion shared that they identified with her sense of surprise. These people were infinitely more knowledgeable about Tibet than I, yet they had just discovered a completely new side of their people.
An explanation for this confusion was quickly proposed. Tibet is spread out, both geographically and population-wise. Communities are often many hundreds of miles apart, and it's through this geographic isolation that new dialects and differing religious practices may form. I walked into Machik Khabda searching for an answer to the question "who exactly are Tibetans?” and Khabda instead left me with no simple answer to that question. To do justice to the cultural diversity of Tibet, it is necessary to have an evolving understanding of Tibet and its people. I hope that I can use valuable discussions like Khabda to develop a deeper and more complex view of Tibet.