"Should I save or savor the world?"

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world.

This makes it hard to plan the day.

E.B. White

Thursday, April 16, 2009

we are more alike

It's time to answer the question: How do Americans and Tibetans differ? I've been wanting to create a list of similarities and differences for a while, but knew I needed to quietly contemplate and observe before jumping into this assignment. I think it became habit for people to walk into Shangbo's kitchen and see me randomly staring at the wall or a face, vaguely smiling while sketching characters into my Laurel Birch "Mediterranean Cats" notebook.

Dr. Maya Angelou wrote a poem, "Human Family", that is a p
erfect prologue to this post.

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

1.) Americans and Tibetans share the same ease and social skills that allow both people groups to laugh at themselves and at each other easily. There is rarely an awkward moment (ok, except when I mutilate words) and I have become something of a stand-up comedian because I enjoy imitating different characters who pass through the red gates of SGH... or maybe I'm the oblivious butt of the joke. Who knows. Who cares.

2.) Americans have this insatiable appetite for 24 hour noise, whether it's compulsory station-hopping in the car, verbal pauses during conversation, leaving the TV on while doing laundry, and most importantly, never allowing the "awkward pause" in casual conversation. We can't even let a speaker or musician pause for dramatic effect; if the music or words stop, we hasten to fill the void with applause, while the performer does a false-start and waits for the clap-happy crowd to shut up. Tibetans, conversely, are perfectly comfortable sitting in silence, listening to each other chew and swallow dinner (my pet peeve) while I squirm with the addictive need to volunteer some sort of relief to the silence. As the months have passed I've grown more at ease with the silence, and am appreciative of it; f you think about it, talking is an effort, while silence is natural.

3.) It is rare to see an American or Tibetan without a cellphone plugged into an ear, arm, or dangling from some other part of their body, and if it is not visible, then we are familiar with the cellphone grope in which the participant is patting down his jacket and pockets in attempt to find that elusive piece of technology (and despite this common problem, we continue to buy the latest models that become smaller and smaller with each production.) In a land where technology is slim to none, the Tibetans are cell-savvy, and since cellphone companies just started producing cellphones that have Tibetan script (rather than the former Mandarin), texting is in. Even the monks have a phone stashed away somewhere in the folds of earthy-red material swathing their bodies and they'll pull it out to feverishly respond to a text, thumbs moving over the keys at a pace to rival middle-school American girls.

4.) Some people have blamed the recession in America on credit card debt, and I think all would agree that Americans have (at best) a slight issue with credit. A huge cultural difference: Tibetans don't use credit cards, they pay in RMB at the time of purchase. I asked Shangbo, "Well then how do you buy stuff online?" And she responded that people don't trust virtual purchases, and so it's not a problem. There are definitely economic benefits to using credit wisely, but in this culture, the absence of credit abuse can only be an asset.

5.) Both Tibetans and Americans are individualistic and expressive in appearance and manner. Whether that is displayed through bright jewelry, ornate hair designs, colorful and unique clothing, or the expressive use of hands and motion to supplement conversation, these people groups have a zest for life that is evident in how they live it.

6.) Tibetan men are much more physically affectionate with one another than straight American men could ever be. They hold hands at meals, sit very close to each other, will leave a hand resting on another man's knee, etc. It didn't throw me off; I could tell that this type of physical affection was the norm, but I did ask Dockpo how prevalent homosexuality is in the Tibetan culture, to which he responded, "We don't even have that word in our language." I don't know if the comfort with male physical affection exists because homosexuality does not, or if it's strictly a cultural characteristic.

I hope you've forgiven my wanna-be anthropological meanderings; I'll do my best to redeem myself in another post.


  1. interesting observation. i don't know about homosexuality in tibet but remember that when i was a small kid living in china it was not uncommon that men holding hands walking down the street, even among soldiers. it was only fairly recently that it became something straight guys won't do. another western bourgeois bad influence i guess:)

  2. For some weird reason this makes me think of a conversation between Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland in the late '80's about an extraterrestrial invasion bringing everyone together.