William & Mary

A life lesson learned in Tibet

  • The gift that lets writers travel
    The gift that lets writers travel  Dave Gunton '99 and Anne Gunton '00 flank Naiwen Tian before she read her reflections from three weeks in Tibet. Tian received the Concord Traveling Scholarship, provided by the Guntons.  Photo by Jim Ducibella
  • Stunning scenery
    Stunning scenery  Naiwen Tian shows her audience at Tucker Hall one of several slides she produced from a three-week stay in Tibet last summer.  Photo by Jim Ducibella
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Growing up, Naiwen Tian ’16 believed that the majesty of Tibet could “cure” her, making her more conscious of who she was and her part in the universe.

She made many assumptions, she admitted, from her own romantic notions, from her mother’s experience as a Buddhist, from Tibet’s portrayal in the Chinese media. It was all she had to go on, seeing as how Tibet had been closed off to the rest of the world for many years. Using those assumptions, she even penned a novella about what she called an “exotic and dangerous land.”

Last summer, however, she spent three weeks there. She would have stayed longer were it not for the earthquake that ravaged Nepal. What she hoped to find and what she actually discovered were radically different.

“I really had expectations when I went there that I was going to become a really philosophical person when I came back. I was going to know the meaning of everything,” she explained to an audience that recently came to Tucker Hall hear her read from her writings on her trip. “That was my expectation. But after I went there, I realized that it’s just the same as everywhere else in the world. It’s not as different.”

Tian visited Tibet on the Concord Traveling Scholarship, funded by Dave ’99 and Anne ’00 Gunton, who drove from their home in Georgia to attend Tian’s reading. The senior film and media studies major prefaced her remarks by thanking the Guntons “for making my dream come true.”

Tian, for whom English is a third language, was accepted a year ago into a prestigious writing class at Skidmore College. In addition to her trip, last summer she received an internship at Columbia University. She’s also worked as a cross-cultural advisor at a university in Japan, partly because she also speaks Japanese.

That made her the ideal candidate for the Concord, said Professor Henry Hart, who introduced Tian.

“Dave wanted to give back to the English department and give a student that same experience he received at William & Mary: the opportunity for traveling and writing,” Hart said. “So Dave and Ann Gunton made that possible with the Concord Traveling Scholarship.”

{{youtube:medium|ymtodw_2INA, Tian shares a poem she wrote on Tibet.}}

Tian’s writing about Tibet constituted a thought-provoking, engaging tapestry, interweaving her own life and culture and what she witnessed in Tibet.

For example, she jokingly told the audience that she comes from a small place near Manchuria “about the size of Manhattan.” Her grandmother, who lives on the border between China and Russia, constantly worries that Tian has been recruited by the United States to be a spy because she believes “all Americans are inherently evil.”

By the same token, a friend once asked her what it was like living in a communist country, conveniently unaware of something called socialism.

“It’s always ‘all or nothing,’” she said. “Either communism or capitalism. Either evil or good.”

She wanted to travel to Tibet by herself, but her parents wouldn’t hear of a 20-year-old woman being alone in a strange land. In fact, they took a room next door to the one she rented atop a tavern run by a Sichuan woman. There, she learned about a daily debate among the monks at a nearby monastery.

“What kinds of things do they debate?” she asked.

“It’s hard to explain,” she was told. “Basically, they debate which came first, the chicken or the egg.”

The monks were charging 50 Yuan for people to watch the debate. Instead, Tian decided to sit outside the monastery and watch the people flock inside.

“No one came to charge me for watching the tourists,” she said, before adding, “I’d never know if the chicken or the egg came first.”

One of the dispiriting things about her visit were the efforts at commercialism she said she encountered everywhere. For example, one could hold a lamb – after paying 5 Yuan.

There’s a special breed of yak that has all-white fur. At one lakeside, Tibetans who owned this unusual species lined the shoreline, charging tourists to have their photo taken standing beside, or atop, them.

In the end, her best impression of Tibet was found in her essay Many Things Tibetan.

Life in Tibet is slow. People wake up, sit down at teahouses, and chat until it’s dark out. Imagine a place with no agriculture, no companies of any kind, and no factories . . . It’s a lifestyle I hated and enjoyed.

She went on to describe a juxtaposition of traditional culture with modernity and the age of technology. Tibetans resist modern ways of thinking and dealing with life, she said, but they love iPhones and giant-screened televisions.

I couldn’t remember the last time I sat down at a teahouse just to chat for leisure. Emails or texts would usually suffice my need for human interaction. I can message anyone, anytime, about anything just through a little text box on my phone. There’s no longer the need to labor through crowds, climb over mountains, or swim across oceans to find someone and tell him what I want to tell him. All the hassle has been saved, and you’re freed from commitment. It’s ironic how expensive technology has become, but how it makes communication so cheap.

Tian described her train ride back from Tibet, the “naked” mountains chasing after each other, the hundreds of miles of wilderness. Through her train window, she saw a man in a colorful hat and a woman with a baby on her back.

They were herding yaks in the midst of drizzling snow. The road was jagged with rocks, so they moved slowly, singing and chatting. They probably didn’t have cars or cellphones, but they had everything else in the world.

“Sometimes, reality is hard,” she told her audience. “I could not come back and say ‘This place is awesome, you guys should all go.’ Well, it is awesome and you should go. It’s still a fun place to go to research and observe, but it’s not what people usually think it is.”