listening to tibet talk

The other afternoon, I joined several of my closest friends for a dim sum lunch. We gathered to welcome home a beautiful young woman, who had just graduated from university in England and was preparing to work in Hong Kong. And there, in the middle of the table, a plate of Sharon Stone’s comments on Tibet had been unexpectedly added to the baskets of shrimp dumplings, savory chicken feet, our favorite poached vegetables, sautéed baby clams, steamed pork ribs, stir-fried rice cakes, and honey-pork buns.

None of us resisted the sharp pleasure of eating those piquant words. Each syllable stung our lips and stimulated our tongues, momentarily appeasing our shared desire to taste rare and exceptional flavors.

At first, the words “Tibet, earthquake, Karma” hummed pleasantly in my mouth. As I swallowed, I could feel a warm self-righteousness accumulating at the pit of my stomach. I felt nourished. Strengthened. Emboldened. Indeed, those words gave me the sense of wellbeing that only a sense of justified superiority can impart. But then, my jaw tightened and I could feel my fingers clenching the tablecloth. Unable to digest the confusion and anger that spiced Sharon Stone’s remarks, I had unknowingly poisoned myself.

My friends fared no better. They too seemed unusually agitated. Like me, the more Tibet they ate, the more venom they regurgitated. Together, we dined on escalating anger. Fortunately, just as platters of “lost in translation” and “Chinese domestic affairs” had been served, our young friend arrived. We put down our chopsticks to greet her. Our genuine happiness to see her was the antidote to the unthinking ingestion of more “Dalai Lama likes me but he doesn’t like you”, and all of us were able to withstand the temptations of gorging on “Chinese netizens in action”.

In retrospect, it frightens me how quickly and how easily Tibet galvanized our negative emotions. None of us said anything that hadn’t been said before; we simply rehashed arguments that we had heard in other conversations and read in other contexts. I remember saying something about “it’s ridiculous to blame Tibetan Buddhists for the stupidity of Hollywood actors.” I think one of my friends mentioned, “You westerners carry on about human rights, but don’t care about historical slavery in Tibet.” Someone else pointed out that, “Tibetans and all ethnic minorities have more rights than we Han Chinese.” Bland and half-baked, our actual dialogue shed no new light the issue. Instead, talking about Tibet provided a form and justification for venting emotions that in other contexts would be blamed.

My behavior at that lunch shames me because when talking about Tibet, I not only gave over to feelings of anger and contempt, but also directed the negative force of those feelings at good friends. This is enough food for thought to make me wonder if I’ve ever had a conversation about Tibet that was actually about Tibet. It also has me rethinking the quality of my interactions with those less near and dear. What would I say in situations where I didn’t care about my interlocutors? How far would I go to make it impossible for others to disprove my words? I was so sure of the irrefutable truth of my statements that I didn’t bother to listen to my friends. I now wonder; if I had listened, what else I might have heard both in my friends’ contentions and my own assertions? And would true listening have achieved more than mere talk?

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