Published: April 2002
Tibetans: Moving Forward, Holding On
By Lewis M. Simons
Near the spot in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha formulated his religious philosophy, a Tibetan monk meditates at the Mahabodhi Temple. Buddhists believe this is the holiest place on Earth. Trekking across the border by the thousands, Tibetans join Buddhists from around the world to celebrate many festivals throughout the year. Though their global population is less than six million, Tibetans often have the largest presence at the festivals by far.

Watching his daughter on a homemade ladder smoothing varnish over the red-and-yellow trim of their large new log house, Norbu Choden smiled with the satisfaction that even if there was no getting the Chinese out of Tibet, he'd finally figured out how to benefit from their decades-long occupation of his homeland. "Once you understand that they're never going to help us," he said, "you realize that you have to make your own future."

Norbu made his by transforming himself from a herdsman to a middleman. Like many of the five million Tibetans living under China's flag, he'd spent nearly all of his 48 years in eastern Tibet driving shaggy yaks through alpine meadows, eating their meat and butter, living in a tent woven from their coarse black wool, barely getting by from one brutal winter to the next. Now he leaves the hard work to others, while he buys and sells for profit.

The middleman has a long and storied history among Chinese, but his vital economic role has largely eluded the grasp of Tibetans. Before Norbu's metamorphosis, he would look on with envy as Chinese from neighboring Sichuan Province arrived each spring, buying up a wrinkled little fungus that he and other nomads had dug from the ground in their spare time. The Chinese then sold the brown Cordyceps, known as caterpillar fungus, for huge profits to traditional medicine makers.

Gradually the thought took hold: If the Chinese can do it, why couldn't Tibetans? Why couldn't he? The government in Beijing had long since declared that personal wealth was no longer a social evil; indeed, Deng Xiaoping himself had said back in the 1980s that to get rich was "glorious." So, nervous but hopeful, Norbu sold off his animals two years ago and went into the Cordyceps business.

Earning as much as $750 a pound (0.45 kilograms) from medicine makers in Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, Norbu made his risk pay off. Now he is by his own assessment a rich man. He displays the symbols of his new wealth: the coral-and-turquoise-studded jewelry he and his wife wear on their fingers and wrists, around their necks, and in their long, glossy black hair; the copper pots gleaming in the spacious log-walled kitchen; the sunny mountain mural in the main room. His rosy-cheeked wife still wears the chuba, the wraparound woolen robe traditionally favored by both women and men, but Norbu, tall and rugged, has switched to dark trousers and open-collared white shirt—what Tibetans refer to as "Chinese clothes."

Norbu says what satisfies him most is that he's used some of his wealth to help restore the Buddhist shrine, or stupa, across the dust-blown road from his house. For him, as with nearly all Tibetans, Buddhism is a constant, overriding presence, involving never ending rituals to assure good fortune and, ultimately, rebirth. In Tibet, as in all Buddhist countries, the faithful erect stupas and place relics inside them to bring good to their lives. Norbu's shrine was one of thousands of religious structures destroyed by Red Guards during the decade-long Cultural Revolution launched in 1966; by the time it was over, youthful communist zealots had killed millions throughout China—including tens of thousands of Tibetans.

But Norbu represents the stubborn side of Tibetans. He and some of his neighbors recently won permission from the local government to reconstruct the stupa. "They told us that if we were willing to pay for it, we could do as we liked." Now freshly whitewashed and gilt trimmed, it resembles a giant upended ice-cream cone, gleaming in the brilliant sunlight.

For me Norbu's experiences suggested the first tentative emergence of what could become a significant change in Tibet. More than a decade has passed since I was last there, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and a previous civil uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Martial law was in effect then, and foreigners weren't permitted to travel outside the city, where drab concrete Chinese buildings were already overwhelming traditional earthen and stone Tibetan architecture.

This time, though, I traveled more than 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) throughout the Tibetan Plateau, where 85 percent of the people live as subsistence herdsmen and farmers. I also made side trips to Nepal, a funnel for escapees, and India, where 100,000 Tibetans live. There I spoke with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan god-king who fled Lhasa in March 1959 and established a government-in-exile in northern India. The 130,000 Tibetan exiles around the world still dream of the Dalai Lama marching triumphantly home to a newly independent Tibet.

This unrealistic hope has been weakening ever since 1965 when China separated most of the Tibetan Plateau from the rest of China and designated it the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Parts of the eastern Tibetan states of Kham (where Norbu lives) and Amdo were made into so-called autonomous prefectures and grafted onto the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. In reality neither the TAR nor the prefectures enjoy autonomy—they are as much under Beijing's thumb as any part of China, with dissent banned and dissenters punished. For this reason I have changed the names of most Tibetans in the story.

As with other Westerners, what I anticipated finding in Tibet today was heavily conditioned by the exile government's well-organized information machinery. The exiles admit almost no progress back in their homeland, and I expected a people and culture in deep decay. Finding Norbu and others like him, therefore, came as a great surprise. They are by any standard middle class, a breed of Tibetans that barely existed historically and is all but unknown to the outside world today.

Beyond these individuals I was also surprised to find signs of the modern world spreading across Tibet: robed monks wearing sunglasses and riding motorcycles; nomads' tents powered by solar panels; slope-walled adobe houses sprouting TV dishes. At Gonsar monastery on the eastern plateau, 20,000 people massed for a week in a sea of white tents to pay homage to a five-story-tall golden Buddha statue newly installed in a hilltop shrine. While some came on horseback, more drove in trucks, vans, SUVs, and wagons pulled by coughing tractors.

The greatest shift taking place everywhere in China is that with economic freedom now a reality, people are becoming increasingly independent minded. Tibetans are beginning to follow, but slowly and fearfully. Initiative does not come easily to Tibetans, conditioned by Buddhism to be content with their lot—overwhelmingly as impoverished serfs and nomads—and to await happiness in the next life. Added to this, Beijing's spending on agriculture, transportation, and other infrastructure has helped foster a culture of dependence.

Even given their first signs of economic initiative, Tibetans are nowhere near achieving political self-determination. Although many are loathe to accept it, the reality is that China is there to stay. Just as most Americans believe they are the legitimate owners of land once occupied by Native Americans, most Chinese say Tibet is a legitimate, historic part of the motherland. They'd no sooner return Tibet to the Tibetans than the United States would return South Dakota to the Sioux. And unlike the U.S., which had no prior claim on Indian territory, China does at least have an arguable historic claim on Tibet: Chinese emperors dominated Tibet during most of the 18th and 19th centuries. For more than 1,000 years before that, China and Tibet made war on one another repeatedly. Fortunes reversed again and again, at times leaving Tibet with the upper hand. China lost control early in the 20th century before the communists took over Tibet once and for all in 1959.

During the Cultural Revolution China tried to commit cultural genocide by destroying almost all the holy places of Tibetan Buddhism, though it has since pursued a less aggressive policy. As a result the number of active monasteries has been cut from 2,500 before "liberation" to 1,800, and the number of monks is down from 120,000 to 46,000. Now the Chinese government is betting that as Tibetans continue to join the money race, they'll become more pliant and less committed to the Dalai Lama and to what Beijing alleges is his scheme to split China by inciting rebellion in Tibet.

While Norbu is a devout Buddhist, rebellion is the furthest thing from his mind. He believes that he and others like him have the ability to improve their own lives and the welfare of Tibet. "We are taking our fate into our own hands," he said. "By growing rich we're able to support our religion and our language so that our children will be able to remain Tibetans."

In fact, everywhere I went in Tibet, the faithful were still in evidence: pilgrims in dust-coated chubas and Mao-style padded blue jackets packed into open-bed trucks, heading for temples; worshipers carrying out the repetitive drills of Tibetan Buddhism—circumambulating shrines and temples, always clockwise; passing loops of prayer beads through their fingers, keeping careful tally as they strive for millions of repetitions; twirling little prayer wheels around, around, around.

Once, driving at 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) in the eastern TAR, I nearly ran over two monks sprawled in the middle of a narrow dirt road. They were prostrating their way across the country to Lhasa, a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) and two years distant. This is perhaps the most extreme expression of religious fervor in a society that honors extremes—but it isn't unusual. The monks, protected only by rawhide knee pads and wooden blocks strapped to their hands, lowered and extended themselves from toe to nose, scrambled to their feet, took two steps forward, then repeated the whole routine. After swerving hard and screeching to a halt, I got out and asked the men the obvious question. "For His Holiness the Dalai Lama," one replied after a moment's thought.

Everywhere, too, were the silent but dynamic signs of Buddhism and its affiliated animist culture. Hardly an hour would go by that I didn't pass outcroppings of rock with the Buddhist mantra chiseled in bas-relief: Om Mani Padme Hum . . . Om Mani Padme Hum . . ."Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus," again and again. Prayer flags—red, green, white, blue, yellow—strung from posts and trees like pennants on a sailing ship fluttered their appeals heavenward. At high passes and across table-flat pastures, rocks the size of bread loaves were stacked meticulously into squared-off cairns—more modest versions of stupas. Chinese authorities, despite their paranoia about religion, evidently don't consider these symbols dangerous.

While religion is crucial to Tibetan culture, the language—incomprehensible to Chinese, almost none of whom bother to learn it—is the second pillar of Tibetan identity. In this as well the new entrepreneurs are helping, financing schools and colleges to teach Tibetan to young Tibetans, who are in danger of losing their language as they become proficient in Chinese, the language they must use if they're to get ahead.

One of these young people—Sonam—traveled with me as guide and interpreter; he was fluent in Tibetan, Mandarin, and English. We met in Chengdu in Sichuan Province, but before starting out, Sonam wanted to receive a blessing from a friend, a lama, who was in town. This senior monk, in his early 60s, told me he'd sat out 30 years of "liberation," Cultural Revolution, and other Chinese-inflicted horrors as a hermit, meditating in a cave. Five years ago, having reached the level of spiritual growth he was seeking, he rejoined the world and found that Chinese were fascinated by his story. He was now on the lecture circuit, spreading Tibetan Buddhism to born-again former communists.

The lama received us in his room in a bare-bones hotel where he and a large party of aides—monks, nuns, and laypeople—occupied two entire floors. As he sat cross-legged on his bed, wrapped in a maroon robe, his young assistants flowed silently in and out with an endless stream of plastic trays bearing foam cups of instant noodles, hard candies, apples, bananas, cheese, buttered tea, and Coca-Cola. All had been paid for by the lama's followers—including some wealthy Chinese women.

Tibetan Buddhism, said the holy man, was becoming fashionable among sophisticated Chinese. "Some of it is due to their awareness that Buddhism is popular with famous American movie stars," he said, "and part is because their lives are empty and they feel a need to fill that emptiness with spirituality." In addition, he said with a vague smile, some are attracted by a misunderstanding of tantric practice, an esoteric element of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, which they associate with a more erotic sex life.

After taking our leave, Sonam and I headed west toward Tibet. An hour or so out of town, the four-lane superhighway gave way to lesser roads, some newly paved, some barely there, some holed deep enough to swallow our car, others terrifyingly narrow enough to drop it, and us, into bottomless ravines. Accommodations, too, deteriorated: Within a couple of days in Tibet, we slipped from hot water to cold to none; from indoor toilet to outdoor privy to a squat in the bushes; from clean linen to questionable to probably-never-washed to bare mattress.

Along the way I encountered my most enduring image from anywhere in Tibet: thousands of men and women—Chinese and Mongols as well as Tibetans—digging, hammering, blasting, pouring concrete, cooking tar, and meticulously assembling rough stone into towering retaining walls as they pushed an expanding web of roads mile after mile westward through the mountains and across the great Tibetan Plateau.

Like the long knives Tibetan nomads hang from their belts, new roads into Tibet can cut deeply, slicing away millennial layers of isolation and ignorance, clearing access to the world and to almost anything money can buy. But the roads can also cut into a rich—and fragile—culture. Still, although I found no shortage of Tibetans who damned the Chinese, few criticized the roads. "We have to admit that only China could accomplish this," a farmer with a brown walnut of a face, astride a wheezing one-lung motor tricycle, told me as we waited more than four hours for a pick-and-shovel gang to clear a rock slide. "Our own government never did and never could."

This mammoth construction project is key to Beijing's "Develop the West" program, intended to modernize the lagging economy of western China, which includes the Tibetan Plateau. The eventual objective is to fill this open territory—as vast as Western Europe—with millions of Chinese now living in economically deprived parts of China. Just as Horace Greeley advised an earlier generation of ambitious young Americans to go West, the authorities are urging Chinese to move in the same direction. So far results have been mixed, because lowland Chinese find the altitude, the dry, cold climate—and the Tibetans themselves—unwelcoming. Beijing's statistics, widely considered extremely low on this point, show that 122,000 Chinese are now living in Tibet. Those who do migrate generally stay no more than a couple of years, just long enough to save some money, before returning home.

Mutual animosity runs high: Chinese despise Tibetans as ignorant, lazy, superstitious, and dirty. Tibetans hate and fear the Chinese as cruel and moneygrubbing. The resident Chinese seem genuinely puzzled by the antagonism. "We're bringing them the benefits of a superior culture," a couple running a tiny Chinese restaurant in the Wild West town of Dari, near Sichuan Province's boundary with the TAR, told me, with what sounded like utter sincerity. "We don't understand why they don't welcome us with open arms." They didn't understand either how numbing it must be for people with an ancient culture to realize that their country is permanently occupied by what they consider to be a foreign government, or how disquieting it is when a convoy of olive-drab trucks loaded with grim-faced armed Chinese troops rumbles past a village. I passed these convoys on several occasions, and each time I noticed that the Tibetans on the roadside would glance up, then quickly look away, fearful of making eye contact with a Chinese soldier.

A sign of why Tibetans resent the Chinese can be seen, at a distance, in the form of brick-and-stone-walled compounds sprinkled across the Tibetan Plateau—the laogai, "reform through labor" camps. Statistics on the prisoners in these camps are almost meaningless: Beijing claims that in 1995 there were 685 camps holding 1.2 million prisoners throughout China. Harry Wu, a former inmate now living in the U.S. and known around the world for his indefatigable struggle against the Chinese authorities, insists there are nearly twice as many camps and up to eight million prisoners across the country. Perhaps 10 percent of them are held for their political activities. According to Wu, camps in the TAR hold some 4,000 Tibetans, and countless thousands more are imprisoned in neighboring provinces. He says the Tibetans, along with other prisoners, are tortured and forced to work at hard labor and produce cheap goods for international trade; officially they are spared another indignity: the government's harvesting of bodily organs for sale.

Tibetans I met acknowledged that along with oppression China has brought a standard of living far higher than that of their parents under the Dalai Lama's rule. The Chinese have built hundreds of schools, where until the 1950s there had been just a handful of nonreligious schools. They've built hospitals. Everywhere I traveled, they'd halted deforestation and are replanting trees, having learned through bitter experience in the summer of 1998 that the denuding of Tibet caused the Yangtze to flood, drowning 4,000 people. They've built airports and are beginning the first Tibetan railroad. They've also installed a telecommunications network, one that enabled me to dial directly to the U.S. Despite having a phone line to India, the best the Dalai Lama could do to send word across Lhasa from the dim recesses of the Potala Palace was to dispatch a runner.

Yet Tibetans almost invariably also said that China was implementing development solely to help exploit Tibet's natural resources. "Their goal is to extract all our treasures"—timber, wildlife, gold, uranium—"and to make China rich and powerful," said a man in his late 20s in Chamdo, a town on the banks of the Mekong River.

It is in rough-hewn towns like Chamdo that China's colonization is most noticeable. Along streets either ankle deep in putrid mud or swirling with choking red dust, the air foul with sour, eye-burning smoke from yak-dung cooking fires, new Chinese arrivals throw together featureless concrete shops, restaurants, and brothels to serve the needs of the road crews and other transient laborers. The new one- and two-story buildings bear signs in two languages—Tibetan script on top and larger Chinese characters below.

As thankless as I found these towns, dirt-poor Tibetan nomads are as dazzled as the proverbial rubes who see Times Square for the first time. Herdsmen in filthy chubas roam the dirt streets in clusters, gawking into storefronts at Chinese women in short dresses cutting customers' hair or chatting over cans of Coca-Cola. A single tube of pink or purple neon in the window of a brothel can be as exciting as all the lights of Broadway. "I would like to go in," said a man in his 20s with lank, shoulder-length hair, in the little town of Jamdun, a few miles east of the Mekong River. "But I have no money." Few Tibetans do, but that doesn't stop them from aspiring to the pleasures of the towns. And Beijing seems to be counting on that hope to eventually win Tibetan hearts and minds.

One soft evening in the northeastern corner of the TAR, I shared dinner with Huadon and his wife, who—despite having suffered, as he put it, "the full misery of liberation and the Cultural Revolution"—seem to be bearing out that hope.

Both 54, they'd lost family members among the more than a million Tibetans killed since 1950; they'd never been to school; Huadon had been frustrated in his boyhood dream of becoming a monk. After the agricultural commune where they lived during the Maoist era of the 1950s and '60s was disbanded, they began growing barley, the staple of the Tibetan diet. They scrimped and searched for business opportunities. Now Huadon owned a small cement plant and a general store, which his wife ran, and a blue pickup truck. Despite his lasting anger over the past, Huadon didn't hesitate to tell me that "there's no comparison between the way we live and the way our parents did."

Huadon and his family certainly seemed comfortably off. As is the custom each summer throughout rural Tibet, they and about 20 other families were spending three weeks relaxing, camped in a grassy field riotously spread with yellow and lavender wildflowers against a stunning backdrop of snow-streaked mountains. A hacking gas-powered generator, a sure indicator of rural prosperity, provided electric light and pumped Tibetan and Chinese pop tunes over the fancifully embroidered large white tents.

At the open front of their tent, Huadon's wife was cooking on a portable gas stove. She'd loaded a long table with dried yak meat, huge mutton ribs—which we ate with a hunting knife passed from hand to hand—bowls of steaming rice and curry, salted nuts and seeds, cookies, candies, watermelons, bottles of tepid Chinese beer, soda, juice, and water. "This is our time for forgetting everything and to eat and drink and have fun," said Huadon, as we raised unending toasts.

I asked about their three children. The couple had sent their elder son through college, and he was now working as a teacher. Their daughter was a Buddhist nun. And, to Huadon's great joy and satisfaction, their younger son, at 16, was becoming the monk Huadon hadn't been allowed to be. The Chinese government bans monastic education before the age of 18, but devout parents like Huadon quietly ignore the law. "I believe that my son and his generation will save Buddhism and Tibetan culture," he said.

People like Huadon and Norbu, who use their participation in the new economy to help preserve the old ways, represent the leading edge of change in Tibet. I spent my most comfortable night of the trip in a shiny new hotel in the burgeoning town of Jyekundo, a few hours drive from Huadon's camp. Proud of his success, Gama Sera, the owner, was pleased to let me use his real name. "I was working for a state-owned bank and came to realize that because of this town's location at the juncture of six counties, a decent hotel could do well here. So I proposed that the local government lease me the state guesthouse for 20 years. Very quickly, they agreed."

The result was a multistoried, tile-faced structure replete with gilt dragons on red-lacquered pillars, a glass-domed lobby with marble floor and electric-eye doors. Clean rooms, clean beds, clean bathrooms, fresh towels, soap, toilet paper, TV spouting Chinese dramas and advertisements for luxury condominium communities in Beijing, and, most delicious after days of red dust and no showers, the prominently advertised "24-hour hot water."

Gama Sera, too, is contributing to the rejuvenation of Buddhism. With his earnings, he said, "I'm helping support a lama whose teachings I follow."

With religious practice woven so inextricably through the fabric of their lives, and with China having systematically undermined it, the Tibetans' fear of cultural genocide is well-founded. Although individuals are permitted to worship, owners of photos of the Dalai Lama, which are seized from temples and even personal shrines, have been jailed for as long as six years. Monks feel the lash of Chinese control most severely. In the Dalai Lama's day the power of the religious establishment was complete. Nearly a fourth of all Tibetan males took the tonsure and maroon robes of monkhood. The great monasteries counted members in the thousands and owned huge tracts of farming and grazing land. They enjoyed the right to use peasants as laborers and to recruit little boys, some of whom they may have used for sex. Claiming moral outrage, although in reality far more concerned with loosening Buddhism's hold on Tibetans, the Chinese have jailed thousands of monks during their occupation.

In Lhasa, I spoke with 73-year-old Tashi Tsering, who also allowed me to use his real name. He said that at the age of ten he'd been recruited into the Dalai Lama's dance troupe and chose to become a drombo, or passive sex partner, for a senior monk. Tsering, who has written a book about his life, said the drombo practice was widespread, but I was unable to find any other Tibetan willing to acknowledge awareness of this sexual activity in the monasteries.

Lhasa is the spiritual focus of Tibetan Buddhism, and in the heart of the city is the Potala, the deep-red, 13-story hilltop palace that has been the residence of all Dalai Lamas since the 17th century. The Potala is now a museum, and fewer than a dozen of its thousand rooms are open to visitors. Bored Chinese tour guides deliver rote recitations on paintings and statuary in a smattering of languages. I found a few men hanging around languidly in the dim halls, mainly for atmosphere, I thought. But like Tibetans I encountered elsewhere, they were willing to risk being caught to let a foreigner know their true allegiance. One, prayer beads in hand, sidled up to me and whispered, "I love the Dalai Lama. I think of him every day."

The monastic establishment today is a faint shadow of what it had been before the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa just steps ahead of the People's Liberation Army. I visited six monasteries, and at each one the nervous whispers were the same: By reducing the number of monks, the Chinese are attempting to destroy our religion.

At Derge, an 18th-century town carved into the side of a ravine rising steeply off the east bank of the Zi Qu tributary of the Yangtze, I met two men in their 20s. For protection, I will not identify their homes, but they'd been traveling by truck for nearly a month, and now they, as I, were gawking at the Derge Parkhang. This exquisite carmine, gilt-roofed, three-story printing house, which looks like a temple rather than a factory, was built in 1744 to produce traditional unbound books of religious and medical texts. During the 1960s troops of the People's Liberation Army occupied the building, gravely damaging it. The Chinese government, always in search of tourism income, restored it and opened it to visitors in the late 1990s.

Led by a Chinese government guide, after paying the 20-cent admission fee (no charge for Tibetans), we walked past walls newly painted with religious murals of fantastic demons and through unlit rooms lined with floor-to-ceiling racks holding 270,000 ancient wooden printing plates that had survived the Chinese army and subsequent neglect. Tibetan men, many physically disabled, sat by threes on the floor, each team slathering the plates with thick black ink, pressing them onto sheets of rough paper, and peeling off some 2,500 pages an hour of the classical texts. This impressive output, sold inexpensively in bookshops throughout Tibet, appeared to contradict allegations among Tibetans living abroad that the Chinese ban Tibetan-language publishing.

After the tour, as I chatted with the two men, it became evident that they knew a great deal about the tribulations Tibetan monks face today. "Fifteen times a year Chinese officials visit the monasteries and conduct 'patriotic education' classes," said the younger man. "Each class lasts two or three hours. Basically they tell the monks that the Dalai Lama is evil and that he wants to split the motherland. The monks must pretend to listen, but most manage to block it out by chanting silently to themselves." Afterward the monks try to erase anything that might have seeped in by listening to Voice of America Tibetan-language broadcasts on shortwave radios.

In an attempt to counter the impact of the age ban on monastic life, they said that the monks smuggle in boys as young as eight and begin training them in secret. "No one wants to become a monk when they've already danced with girls," the older one said with a little chuckle as he glanced at two gum-chewing young women in diaphanous chubas, tottering past our table on platform shoes.

One afternoon on a roadside in eastern Tibet, I spoke with a monk I'd waved down to ask directions. He told me about his monastery, which once held 500 monks and 300 students and had seen those numbers more than halved by government edict. Like other monks I spoke with, he measured the strength of Buddhism by the length of monastic rolls. "Only when we're many," he said, "can we properly teach the people that it is much better to be poor, as long as you have your faith and know that peace is coming, than it is to live in a concrete house, wear Chinese clothes, and have a lot to eat, if you're not at peace."

Not all Tibetans agree. "One of the main reasons Tibet was so backward is that too many men were in the monasteries and not contributing toward development," said Arzong, a 39-year-old instructor at the Tibetan Language School in eastern Tibet, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) southeast of Derge. "I continually advise parents to send their children to schools, not to monasteries. Otherwise, our population will remain stagnant, and we'll never be able to compete economically."

In his large, sparsely furnished office, Arzong demonstrated that he was able to communicate on the Internet in Tibetan. "The truth," he said, "is that there are plenty of Tibetan books and literature available, both electronically and in print." Over the summer he was writing a volume on Tibetan grammar for use by teachers and was editing a collection of folktales. He conceded, though, that the only reason for young people to learn their ancestral language was "to preserve Tibetan nationalism."

In these ways do the old and new, tradition and change, exist uneasily side by side. Among the Tibetans, even while those like Norbu, Huadon, and Gama Sera are embracing change, I found a people conflicted by that change. Some candidly acknowledge the hardships and inequities of life under the Dalai Lama. Others grudgingly concede economic progress under China. No one wants to return to the old, often abusive, theocracy. But no one wants the Chinese to remain in Tibet either. They don't miss the old days and its old ways. They simply want their country back.