Leaving Lhasa

I returned to Lhasa, intending to stay for six months, and immediately felt suffocated by the situation—the constant surveillance, the heavy military and police presence, the fact that Lhasa has more Han Chinese residents than Tibetan. In Lhasa, if you let yourself think about it at all, let alone too much, it consumes you like a disease, slowly and silently killing you from the inside out.  If you forget, ignore what’s going on, or force yourself to stop thinking about it, then you can function. When I left the city I let myself think about it for the first time—spending two months analyzing and dissecting the previous four—and when I returned, I just couldn’t ignore it anymore.

At first I couldn’t tell—had the city changed, or had I?  If one had asked my opinion of the place months prior, I would have professed my unparalleled love for Lhasa, my desire to live there for years and rent a tiny apartment in the heart of the Barkor, with an intention to persevere through the bureaucratic red tape for a new residence permit each year.  My opinion changed as soon as I returned to Lhasa.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, I no longer felt any inkling of desire to stay.

The heightened security, the emptiness of the streets, and feeling as though I were being followed and watched did not settle in well with me.  I sunk into a depression of sorts, not wanting to leave my room, and when I would,  I saw an ancient Tibetan city crushed under the heel of modernization and communist China’s policies.  Once the site of a unique civilization and a deeply religious society, Lhasa is now the home base of a cultural genocide quietly being imposed by seemingly benign policies and brute force.

Unlike most, I had the option to leave.  I weighed the pros and cons, thought about whether my staying was beneficial for me and for the community.  My time had been wasted away in my room—having not been allowed to leave the campus grounds for days—or in classes that were far too expensive for their worth, my money was being handed over to the Chinese government and indirectly funding a cultural genocide.

I had seen enough. I was tired of living in fear, in paranoia.  I was tired of not being able to trust anyone, of feeling like a criminal.  I was tired of playing the game, of pretending that I was okay with what was happening.  I was tired of wondering if my friends would disappear in the middle of the night, of watching them suffer in silence.  I was tired of walking by the military and police, of seeing snipers on the rooftops above me in crowded city centers.  I was tired of sitting by and watching while a language, culture, and religion were being swept off the earth, eroding ever so slowly and quietly and taking the people of Tibet down with it.

I have hope.  I love Lhasa and  the Tibetans that I had met and interacted with along the way.  I have faith that Tibet will be free some day, along with the drive and determination to do everything in my power to make that a reality.  I will return to Lhasa again someday, when Tibet is free.

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