Before It's Too Late

April 11, 2008

This is partly because I have met some of them and have gotten to know them, some through my work as a journalist. I have sat down with them to discuss their lives, what brought them here. I have listened to their stories, talked politics with them, listened to their hopes and dreams.

I know the ones I have spoken with place a lot of hope in demonstrating in order to bring about change in their homelands. As someone who identifies as Asian American, I want to show solidarity with their struggle – and because what they are asking for is something we should all stand for: social justice, and civil and human rights.

I also know a lot of Chinese Americans who follow Tibetan Buddhism and in particular follow the teachings of the Dalai Lama.

My grandfather is one of them. In 1996, he requested that the Dalai Lama do a teaching in Pasadena. That itself is not so surprising, since the Dalai Lama had traveled around the world to speak and teach.

But my grandfather told him he would be teaching to a predominantly Chinese American audience.

This was the first teaching to a Han Chinese audience, according to the Dalai Lama himself and a news account from the World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper. There were about 800 Chinese Americans, 200 Vietnamese Americans, 200 Tibetan Americans, a few celebrities like Richard Gere and Steven Seagal, and many others, present.

I believe the Dalai Lama agreed to do the teaching in part because it would help bridge the gap between Tibetans and Chinese. After all, as one Tibetan protestor in San Francisco is quoted as saying, he doesn't have a problem with the Chinese people, but the Chinese government.

In subsequent years, the Dalai Lama always agreed to do a special teaching for this audience, and he and my grandfather became good friends, even to this day.

Of course, Chinese Americans in Southern California may be different from Chinese Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. For example, there are more Taiwanese Americans in the Los Angeles suburbs, who may identify and sympathize more with the Tibetans' plight.

I first saw the Dalai Lama at the 1996 teaching, and was able to meet him in 2004 during another one of his weeklong teachings in Pasadena, CA.

I felt like I was in the presence of someone really special, but I didn't realize the full extent of this "privilege" until I traveled to Lhasa that same year.

I saw firsthand what influence the Han Chinese – including much security in the form of police and military-like people – had on the area. Much of Lhasa was dominated by the Han population, and you could see miles of karaoke bars and restaurants.

And I witnessed the ethnic discrimination there, just as there is racism here in the United States. When we took a taxi into what's now known as "Old Lhasa," where most Tibetans live, our Han Chinese driver warned us to be careful and not to go there at night because we may get mugged. Just his tone of voice around this showed the way Tibetans – in their own land! – were viewed largely as inferior and as criminals. It reminded me of the stereotypical way some view black folks here in the U.S.

When I was there, we talked about the Dalai Lama with Tibetans we grew to know better, such as one of our tour guides. He, like many younger Tibetans, had never seen a photo of the Dalai Lama. Tibetans are banned from owning any likeness of the Dalai Lama, though many still regard him as their spiritual leader.

Just this fact alone – that as a Chinese American, I had the freedom and privilege to attend teachings by the Dalai Lama – really struck me and seemed outrageous. It was an awkward, and yes, shameful sort of privilege, that here I was talking with a Tibetan who will probably never be able to see the Dalai Lama unless he leaves his homeland.

While I was not out at the Wednesday demonstrations, I am showing solidarity with those groups – Tibetans, Burmese – here in this writing, for whatever it is worth.

I didn't want to sit back and let this opportunity to speak up pass me by, after the media limelight has passed, after interest in Tibetans' rights have waned.

There are many, many, many other voices and narratives out there – from Chinese Americans, Burmese Americans, people in Darfur, Uighurs, Tibetans in America, Chinese in Tibet, Taiwanese, other Asian Americans, and all sorts of other people - who have their own unique experiences and perspectives.

Let's hear from them. We all have a lot to learn from one another.


Momo Chang

Senior Contributing Editor

Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media, and freelances for magazines, online publications, and weeklies. Her writings focus on Asian American communities, communities of color, and youth culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Her stories range from uncovering working conditions in nail salons, to stories about “invisible minorities” like Tongan youth and Iu Mien farmers. She has freelances The New York Times, WIRED, and East Bay Express, among other publications.



Thank you for sharing this perspective. I think the lines are drawn too clearly/easily in this issue, and I think your perspective and voice are very helpful.
great post momo.
Thanks for the post, but let's keep in mind it's not just Tibetans or just Taiwanese who have suffer due to the policies of the Chinese government. There are plenty of issues that play out along non-ethnic lines: The persecution of Falun Gong, the suppression of dissent in the press and on the internet, the air pollution from the industrializing Chinese coast that can be picked up as far away as Seattle ... the list goes on.I only point it out because I think it often muddies the debate to conflate a society with the government that claims to represent that society -- on any side of a debate. I'm Korean-American, and I remember once having a very scary conversation with a younger Korean-American woman, a college student who was quite involved in various Asian-American issues, who would not believe that there were human rights problems in North Korea. From our conversation it seemed to me that she was motivated in part by a misapplied ethnic pride. But the genocidal, corrupt, barbarous North Korean government doesn't represent the North Korean people in any way. And defending that government only prolongs the suffering of those people.For me, as a Korean, I'm actually more prone to take their suffering more personally, and want them to be helped sooner. If that means holding my nose and saying I agree with a terrible person like George W. Bush on at least one issue, then I'll just have to live with that.
thanks for the piece momo. it's a persective i have yet to hear from a chinese american. so thank you.since francis hwang brought it up, let us - asian & pacific islander americans - really talk about the worst violator of human rights known in present and the recent past. i mean, a country that gives new NEO-meaning to genocide, corruption and barbarian-ness.who am i talking about? drum roll please....ya good 'ole boy the US of A!!!! (WINNER!!!!)let's break this down....1) Genocide or the direct support of it - huh, where to begin... well, how about with the founding of this country. fuck boycotting the olympics. why not boycott turkey day, i mean things-taking day. where's our solidarity with indigneous folks? read rogue states by william blum or on the justice of roosting chickens by ward churchill.2) Corruption - 2000 & 2004 presidential election? Bear Stearns bailout while millions of ordinary folks suffer? Blackwater? Enron? the two-party dictorship? tax breaks to the rich? (what the hell kind of shit is that mr. bush?)3) Barbarian behavior - huh, US war past & present... as in what's going on in Iraq right now where 5 million Iraqis have been displaced and an estimated million Iraqis have been killed since the US invaded 5 yrs ago. this on top of guantanamo bay, abu ghraib, and bagram in afghanistan. (watch the 2008 oscar winner taxi to the dark side to know more about the grand barbarian-ness of americans like you & me.)let's not forget the words of MLK, that the US is truly the greatest purveyor of violence EVER.can i join a group of APIs concern about the terrorizing policies of this country? free america?!!!
Christine,I appreciate you views of the oppressed minorities, but I differ on your views of the olympic protest. All the causes you support, Darfur, tibet, etc., etc., are issues pushed by guess who? The US and CIA. There are atrocities all over the world, and many that are much worse. 2million dead in Rwanda. Chechnya (sp.). Indigenous people of South America. Practical slave labor in the middle east for South Asian immigrants. All the issues you bring up are those that are propagandized by the US gov't for the sole purpose of keeping China down. Yes! That is the goal. However distasteful it is for you as a Chinese-America, that is the truth. In the US world view, there can only be one superpower, and anything must be done at all costs to keep it that way. These issues allow you to wrap yourself in feel good thoughts about moral superiority in human rights, free speech., etc.. I support protest for all those who are suppressed. But why all the anti-china protests now? How did the entire western media come out with a single voice on the issue of tibet instanteneously? How do a dirt poor people develop a modern worldwide PR network? The CIA funds them. Why? Tibet is another wedge issue to keep or at least slow China down.Do your really think those in the CIA and british gov't really care about tibetans? You're being used. You and your collegues would be better served protesting against the Iraq war and the other atrocities the US is committing. As a US citizen, you would actually have some say. Embarrasing China in it's day of glory will only make it worse for the actual tibetans who live in tibet. There'll be hell to pay for them after the olympics, while the Lama continues to mingle with actors and politicians of the west.
Thank you Momo for posting this. I also appreciate the reactions from all the blog readers on the topic. As a Chinese-American, I have been waiting for someone to say something about how complex it is for us being here amongst all this controversy.
hi guy,by Christine i think you mean me (Momo)?to answer your question about why the anti-China protests now - it's because of the Olympics.i agree with you on the point that i think people should be speaking out against the war in Iraq and other atrocities that the U.S. has brought on. but people should be protesting against the Chinese government's policies too, if they want. i don't see it as either/ is also too simple to see it as "anti-China" if someone supports the Tibetans' struggles. it is unfortunate that it is seen that way.i do think, though, that some peoples' struggles tend to get more attention from the media, and Tibetans' rights may be one of them. you don't, and probably will not, see similar stories and attention on the struggle of Palestinians, for example.but anyway, i am just putting my perspective out there since much of what has been out there has been very either/or without the complexities/nuances.
Yes, I thought the author was a Christine. I mean you, Momo.I do think the tibetans have valid grievances. In the ideal world, I would love to see the Lama go to the olympics and usher in a new age of cooperation. That will never happen of course, due to too many things. Some due to the commies, but least of which is the western world (esp. US) using the the tibetans as a wedge against China.You say that the tibetan issue is not anti-china. In a purist world I would agree with you. But, in this instance, as with the instances with Taiwan, Falun Gong, Dafur, Human Rights, etc., the commotion you hear is initiated by hidden people and activities that are strictly and ultimately anti-china. They are the powers that be in the CIA and other parts of the US govt and society who are deadly afraid of a rising China. And that is why I believe these protests smack of hypocrisy and ultimately devious goals. These protest are anti-china, even if do you don't believe so. This merely speaks to how good those who pull the strings are at hiding their true intentions.Ultimately, a simple phrase sums it up for me. "Don't rain on someone else's parade". There was and will be plenty of time for protests and diplomacy. Why ruin china's one moment in the sun. All that will be created is bitterness, which certainly won't do the actual tibetans in tibet any good.