[Originally published by the Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1994]
I often travel to undeveloped areas of Asia, and am frequently asked to give slide shows. An image of a Tibetan nomads flashes up on the screen, and someone in the audience invariably exclaims, "Oh, how healthy they look!" Yes, it's true they have rosy cheeks and strong bodies--but their world is not really a paradise.
Take, for example, this hypothetical but typical family photo. At the left is an old nomad lady. She looks about ninety, but she's only about fifty. Her teeth are just about gone, and her hands are swollen and misshapen from years of hard labor. Exposure to the sun has left her skin dark, dry, and wrinkled. Life in this natural environment has taken a toll. And notice further that there's only one of her. The others of her generation are already dead.
Look also at the children. There are many little ones, but older children are few. Why is this? Because many babies never make it to adulthood. Every mother can expect to lose children to disease or malnutrition, for some families might go months without seeing any fruit or vegetables, and they are ignorant of ordinary hygiene; in fact, most have probably never seen toilet paper in their lives.
Think of the last time you broke a bone, or had a toothache, or a severe flu. You went right to the doctor, didn't you? What would life be like if you couldn't do that, could never do it? You might try eating unusual foods, or herbs, and if you got well you'd attribute it to their magical properties. But more probably they wouldn't work, and you would simply suffer. Children in non- technological societies often have misshapen limbs; elders have cataracts; women die during childbirth. These are the inevitable consequences of living in a "healthy" natural environment.
Yes, the nomads in my photos do have rosy cheeks and strong bodies. They have to, for they work hard all day long. What you don't see are the sunken cheeks and shrunken bodies of the ones who didn't survive.
In TV documentaries, non-technological societies are usually portrayed as somehow better than ourselves. It's politically correct these days to praise what is the farthest from our own environmentally-destructive urban lives. We are exhorted to protect natural ecosystems, to preserve endangered wildlife, and to shelter Borneo's headhunters and Amazonia's Indians from the ravages of the white man's civilization. So when I tell people about my friend Tsewang, a Tibetan who lives in Lhasa and who recently acquired a hook-up to bring MTV into his home, they are horrified. "Contamination!" goes up the cry all around.
I don't know anyone in Borneo or Amazonia, but I do know Tsewang. He is not at all unbalanced by having MTV to watch. He thinks it's interesting, yes, but also odd and rather incomprehensible. He has not taken to wearing baggy calf-length pants and huge black sneakers, but even if he had, what of it? Isn't that his right? Certainly everyone who vacations in Tibet next year will be disappointed to find Tibetans looking just like us, but that doesn't mean Tibetans should be imprisoned in the past for the sake of our entertainment.
Like many young Tibetans, who generally have no opportunity travel outside their homeland, Tsewang is burning with curiosity about the outside world. How would you feel if someone put up a wall around your home town, forbade you to leave, prohibited outsiders from coming in, took away your television and ordered you to forget how to read, all in the name of preserving your cultural purity? When you eat Chinese food, or see a French film, or admire Italian fashions, do you feel contaminated? Of course not; most of us are interested in foreign things. That we have opportunities to enjoy them we take as a sign of progress. So does Tsewang.
I think it's time to recognize that people are not wildlife. They have ambitions and desires that are every bit as legitimate as ours, despite our "superior" knowledge. People everywhere want to have longer, safer, and more comfortable lives, and an education for their children. They want progress, but at their own pace, from their own labor (with some help from outside), and by their own choice. Are we less American because we have given up our six-shooters and ten-gallon hats? Of course not. Will Tibetans be less Tibetan if they are stockbrokers and beauticians instead of farmers and herdsmen? Of course not. It is up to them to select which customs they will keep, which they will discard, and how they will develop. It is not up to us.
We who live in rich societies cannot and should not repudiate our own accomplishments. Instead we need to make them consistent with a healthy planet Earth, while at the same time allowing others, if they choose, to follow in our footsteps.
Return to Tibet article index.