I came across this Tibetan meme on Facebook a few months ago. In true meme style, pithy as it is, it manages to encapsulate and gesture towards a great deal. The image shows an assortment of beaming non-Tibetan foreigners wearing traditional Tibetan dress. The top speech bubble says:
“We will learn spoken and written Tibetan and then we will teach it to you”
The foreigners continue in the speech bubble below:
“If you don’t wear Tibetan clothes we will wear them (for you), and then you’ll come to our countries looking for patterns/designs.”
The ‘we’ of the captions is ‘foreigners’ and the ‘you’ is Tibetans. The meme appears to have been made by a Tibetan, most probably one living in exile, who one might speculate has experienced firsthand the way that non-Tibetans are coming to Tibetan communities to learn about Tibetan language and culture. The image draws upon Tibetans’ pervasive and well-founded fears about the erosion of indigenous knowledge and values in Tibetan contexts – about language deterioration and loss and the erosion of Tibetan traditional practices in the wake of Tibet’s colonization by China, cultural devastation, restrictions and ethnic discrimination by Chinese authorities and citizens, and rapidly changing lifestyles in both occupied Tibet and the global Tibetan diaspora.
The idea here of ‘patterns’ or designs is interesting. The word used in Tibetan to convey this point is ma dpe, a term which can be literally translated as ‘mother-copy’ or ‘original prototype’, and which, outside of dress-making, can be used to refer to the original manuscript of a text or scripture, from which duplicates ought to be copied. Subtly gesturing at ideas of Sanskrit Buddhist originals and religious ideas of pure, unbroken lineage, the term underscores the vicious irony of the meme, where, in this troubling scenario, it is foreigners who come to hold the precious ‘ideal type’ of Tibetan culture. The meme’s author thus presents a disturbing take on the so-called pizza-effect, what Wikipedia defines as a “term used especially in religious studies and sociology for the phenomenon of elements of a nation or people’s culture being transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported back to their culture of origin, or the way in which a community’s self-understanding is influenced by (or imposed by, or imported from) foreign sources” (I discuss this concept further in my essay on the history of Tibetan singing bowls). Basically, not only are non-Tibetans learning Tibetan language and wearing Tibetan traditional clothing – beating Tibetans at their own game, as it were – but if Tibetans don’t start caring more about their own cultural heritage, these non-Tibetans will also ultimately end up instructing Tibetans in their own traditions. In the final depressing scene, our meme prophecizes that Tibetans will ultimately have to travel to foreign lands to find new designs or fresh inspiration to reinvigorate their moribund culture, just like, one imagines, those foreigners themselves did in the first place.
The meme skilfully ventriloquizes the voice of outsiders, and employs irony and fears about cultural appropriation to boot, to motivate ‘you’ Tibetans to start being better at preserving and embodying their culture. One thing that remains somewhat unclear though, is exactly how the division of labour and the exact responsibilities involved in performing this preservation and embodiment of traditional culture will play out for the undefined demographic of ‘you’ Tibetans that are the meme’s primary audience.
Discussing her research on gender relations in contemporary Amdo, Tibet, anthropologist Charlene Makley has pointed out how in marginalized, indigenous communities, it is women who frequently end up being expected to bear the brunt of the burden of this kind of culture or heritage work. As principal child-rearers and domestic labourers, women’s bodies in particular come to serve as metonyms for the nation or cultural collective, are most frequently subjected to scrutiny and punishment when it comes to questions of upholding traditional values or comportment (See the following essays, for example, by anthropologists Carole McGranahan and Veena Das which explore in different ways how Tibetan and Indian women’s bodies respectively become battle-grounds for ideas about the nation and cultural integrity. Similar issues have also emerged with the revival of virginity testing as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zulu communities in South Africa).
True to form, over the last few years, debates on Facebook about the ways in which foreigners and/or Tibetans can and should wear traditional Tibetan clothes like the Tibetan chupa (phyu pa) have tended to focus disproportionately on foreign and Tibetan women. They have also tended to run the usual gamut of online back-and-forth when it comes to debates about cultural appropriation. At various points foreign women have accused Tibetans who have invoked the critique of cultural appropriation of being racist, of misunderstanding how ‘culture actually works’, and have furiously demanded answers to such questions as why ‘Tibetans are allowed to wear jeans, but foreigners aren’t allowed to wear chupas?’ In other words, all familiar territory for anyone who’s spent even a little time scrolling through Facebook comment threads.
Whatever the case, this pointed meme captures the extent to which ideas of pristine originals or ideal examples, and proper copies of these, play a role in Tibetan ideas about learning, authenticity and the integrity of knowledge. Speaking a language and wearing a piece of clothing are both social activities that rely heavily on mimesis, on the idea of having learned from direct physical instruction and seeing. Whatever else it might do then, this meme thus reminds us of how important ideas of community, reliable role-models and genealogy are to Tibetan notions of authentic knowledge and meaningful cultural life.
* Speaking of original sources or models and copies from these, debates have also appeared on Facebook among Tibetans about whether or not foreigners involved in such textual preservation and archival projects as the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which preserves, publishes and scans Tibetan religious and cultural texts and places these online, ought to be paying royalties to Tibetans for access to such a large body of Tibetan texts which represent the result of centuries of sacrifice, and translation, writing, and printing labour on the part of Tibetans. While parallel to the clothing example above, this sort of discussion highlights as well the extent to which Buddhism as a universal good for all beings, and Buddhism as an inalienable part of Tibetan cultural history, identity and heritage can potentially butt heads when it comes to the delineation of something like an official ‘corpus’ or archive for Tibetan Buddhism.
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