Thursday, February 02, 2006

Back in Business

First of all, apologies all around for my four month hiatus from the blog. Suffice it to say that traveling alone got the better of me and my project came to a virtual standstill; and so I did not feel like posting my troubles for the outside world to see.

From that cryptic sentence you probably gathered that my time in New Zealand was a bit rough, however, you will be happy to know that I still managed to see a fair amount of the country, because who knows when, and if, I will ever return there. What amazed me most about New Zealand is its environmental diversity; I have never been to a country (the US included) that has so many different types of landscape. In the course of a few hours one can drive through rolling green hills (reminiscent of England), to deep evergreen forests, to jungle, and finally through snowcapped mountains and the ocean!

In terms of my project The Tibetan community in NZ is very small, from what I understand about 50 people--which includes those who are 1/2 Tibetan and 1/2 Kiwi. My interaction with the NZ community (like the one in Switzerland) was limited. I lived with a family in Auckland for about two weeks (whose only Tibetan member is the mother). And I spent some time with the head of a Tibet-New Zealand organization. Lastly, I visited some Tibetan Buddhist organizations. From this limited exposure I gathered that, on the whole, Tibetans in New Zealand are predominately more concerned with simply adapting to a Kiwi lifestyle and are less concerned with cultural preservation (as I met no single Tibetan who speaks Tibetan fluently). However, I must stress that my contact was limited and so I can not definitively say what the adaptation/ cultural survival dynamic is like for Tibetans in NZ.

I was supposed to head to India in December but decided to postpone it primarily because of the cold weather I knew I would encounter as I would be going to a place high in the mountains. So, instead I opted to come to Sweden (where I am presently) to look at the small Tibetan community as well as spend some time with Anna. Yes, it is also cold here in Sweden, but the insulation/central heating in the houses/the warm clothes I am borrowing are far superior to that of India.

So, since around the 1st of January I have been living in a suburb of Stockholm where we are house-sitting. I have linked up with a few Tibetan organizations here who have put me in contact with Tibetans and also allowed me to do some volunteering. The volunteer work is not quite what I was hoping for but I am making the most of it. At present I am in the process of editing a book on Tibet. Outside of the volunteer work I have been trying to meet with as many Tibetans as I can (there are only about 40 in Sweden and 20 in the Stockholm area) to carry out interviews. Thus far our conversations have been very interesting and I have been pleasantly surprised by what I have learned from them. For example, I had figured that since the Swedish population is roughly the same size as the one in New Zealand that the experiences would be similar. In other words, I was expecting to find Tibetans that have been focused more on assimilation and less on cultural retention. Thus far, however, I have found the opposite to be true.

Many of the Tibetans I‘ve met have learned more about Tibetan culture when they came to Sweden than they did by being in India or Tibet; coming to Sweden allowed them to examine and compare Tibetan culture to the vastly different culture of Sweden. Moreover, I think when they lived in India or Tibet many took Tibetan culture for granted because they were always surrounded by it. Here in Sweden, however, the lack of a large Tibetan community has prompted many to work at preserving the elements of Tibetan culture that they deem most important, which for the most part, has been either the Tibetan language or Buddhism.

The transition to life here has indeed come with challenges. A few of the Tibetans I spoke with told me of the difficulty of getting to know Swedes, who are known for being reserved, quiet, and sometimes closed-off. A Tibetan from India said that he missed big crowds and random strangers talking to him as he had experienced in India. Ironically, however, some Tibetans have said that Swedes are more like Tibetans than Indians are. Specifically, that both Swedes and Tibetans are reserved people who are initially hard to get to know; yet, once the initial barrier is broken, then one is a friend with a Swede or Tibetan for life. They said this differed from many Indians they knew, who are very friendly at first, but in the long run tend not to uphold the communication that comes with maintaining a friendship. They also were appreciative that Swedes are knowledgeable of worldly affairs. None of them have had to explain the location of Tibet to Swedes that they have met. Moreover, some said that many Swedish values strongly correlate with Tibetan values. In particular, they believe that Sweden's focus on avoiding war and maintaining peace—which Sweden has done for almost two centuries—resonates with the Buddhist concept of non-violence.

Another crucial challenge for their transition as immigrants is the Swedish language. The Tibetans who have come straight from Tibet say that learning Swedish was extremely difficult because up to that point they had never learned a foreign language and learning a new alphabet increased the difficulty of doing so. This differed from those coming from India who were fluent in three languages (Tibetan, Hindi, and English) and already familiar with the roman alphabet. For them, learning Swedish was relatively easier. Yet, all agree that one cannot fully understand or access Swedish culture without having fluency in Swedish, and therefore becoming fluent is pertinent. At the same time, many expressed the necessity of preserving Tibetan language, as language is the doorway to any culture and without Tibetan language Tibetan culture would remain inaccessible. Many have spoken of the challenge of balancing languages while living in exile. For instance, if Tibetans solely dedicate themselves to learning Tibetan, the language is preserved, yet, they are left without knowledge of other languages and therefore unable to operate in the host country in which they live. Conversely, if they solely learn the language(s) of the host country, they do so at the expense of the Tibetan language and thus risk loosing it. Therefore, the challenge is to learn multiple languages simultaneously so as to preserve Tibetan language on the one hand, and on the other, be able live and work in the host society.

Challenges aside, all the Tibetans I have talked with express contentment with the access to all the opportunities that arise from living in Sweden, the high standard of living, and the superb welfare system. Many have said that the biggest challenge in India was a lack of legal rights and economic security, two preoccupations which invariably loomed large. While Tibetans seem to like their lives in Sweden, many stated that while living here they have very quickly become used to western amenities and take things for granted, and that it is only by returning to Tibet and/or India that they are able to realize how lucky they are to live in northern Europe. One from Tibet said that when he was young and living in Tibet that getting an apple was big event to be celebrated; however, he said such an occurrence in Sweden quickly looses its significance as apples are plentiful.

So, I must say I am happy that I came to Sweden as it has given me another chance to look at a small Tibetan community. The only downside in terms of my project is that I have not been able to pursue the photography. Either the opportunity has not been right or those that I have interviewed do not want to be photographed because they are politically active and have family in Tibet, and therefore do not want to risk putting themselves or their families in jeopardy. But, I am hoping that I will be able to photograph some before I leave here.

I plan to be here for another month and then head to India in early March where I will stay for several months. Not sure if I will post more info to the blog before I leave Sweden, but if not, I will certainly keep you all informed of my time in India. You just may need to be a bit patient. So, until next time, I hope everyone is well and stays well…


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey babe, best of luck for your next couple of months in India. I know you will get back on track and have a fabulous time. Safe flights and travels these next couple of days. You are always in my heart and on my mind. Anna

10:55 AM  

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