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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Tibet With and Without Compassion

Berkeley speakers often report on foreign parts. Giovanni Tundo’s talk on Tibet was in striking contrast to Anne Schiller’s on Borneo. Schiller, an anthropologist held to her professional standard of impartiality. We had to read between the lines to grasp her sympathies. Tundo, a medical man, began by putting compassion emphatically first, which involved taking sides. His was very much a doctor’s viewpoint, a human being in pain before him trumps all else. Tundo never hesitated to attribute blame to the powers he saw as responsible.

Dr Tundo’s life has been replete with travel and work in crisis-riven places. In his Berkeley talk of Sept. 29, he dwelt exclusively on his 2001 sojourn in Tibet. He worked there for a non-government organisation of Tibetan exiles tolerated grudgingly by the Chinese. In a diary he noted what he saw. His talk to us echoed his entries. They are fresh, full of discovery and the compassion he found was so absent from the Tibet he witnessed.

Tundo found that the Chinese imposed re-education of Tibetans was going the usual imperial way. It was eliminating the possibility of any dissidence or movement for separation of a minority people by destroying the live nerve of their culture. With its nomadic origins and importance of the monasteries, the Tibetan way of life proved particularly vulnerable because it was so different from the Chinese policy of breakneck modernisation. In out-of-the-way Tibet, product of another history, the frenetic Chinese drive often made for only slapdash modern incompetence. Tibetans were seen as obstacles, incapable of taking the big step forward and written off as human detritus. Europeans had done the same thing to the Roma. Myanmar (Burma) would do it to the Rohingyas. Difference was seen as a threat.

The result was clear to Tundo:

Photo by Evgeny Nelmin on Unsplash

“From all this the Tibetans seem to be clearly excluded, they have become outcasts in their own land.”

“Chamdo is a Tibetan town the Chinese are in the process of modernising. Naturally they are modernising it on their own terms, and only for themselves. They build streets that cave in after one month, they gouge out the mountain sides, which the cause mountain slides which interrupt communication for months….They built big buildings in the Chinese fashion. They knocked down the old Tibet buildings….Chinese are introducing the value of money to Tibet….The subsistence- level economy which had worked for more than a thousand years is about to be swept away, and Tibetans are being cut off from an economy based on accumulation. They do not have the money to do anything. Their children will neither receive medical treatment nor be able to attend school.”

Along with such general thoughts, the diary touches on how life was lived day to day.

We sleep in a camp [made of] wood and cardboard; the blankets smell just like the people—like yaks. I try not to think about it and miraculously I fall asleep.”

Nothing works, neither plumbing or air-conditions and everything is filthy. Garbage is everywhere. Potholes in the road can be six-feet deep. An hotel toilet is a big room with a trench-like hole in it over which is a place for everyone together, elbow to elbow.

The surgical gloves he is given in a hospital are second hand, not only having served in other operations but pawed absentmindedly by an assistant.

“The surgical nurse knows nothing whatsoever about surgical instruments.”

“People blow their noses directly in the streets as they don’t use handkerchiefs and they spit in the room where I examine patients.”

Photo by 李大毛 没有猫 on Unsplash

One can imagine the shock this clash of civilisations in hygiene caused an Italian doctor groomed by Lister’s antisepsis system. Tundo found one way of enduring it. He would gaze after dark at the limpid sky, puzzling out the constellations and delighting in the Milky Way.

“Hercules is brighter than ever and seems about to strike the final blow on the head of Ladon, the dragon.”

There was also the comfort of the Tibetan smile which the most oppressive re-education had not managed to dispel.

And there was beauty:

“The Buddhist divinities, either terrifying or bewitching, are gaudy and brightly-coloured, and bear amazing close resemblance to our naif artwork.”

Photo by 和 平 on Unsplash

Tibetan children are beautiful.

“Then we see a Tibetan woman who looks as if she has just stepped out of an international fashion magazine—willowy, oval face, very deep black eyes, red cheeks, she is sitting on a hillock with 3 or 4 kettles on an open fire—she is preparing tea for the men who pass by. She is wearing a traditional wide-brimmed grey hat, a long milky-coloured dress and a dangling necklace. When she stands up, she looks like a model—everyone wants to take her picture, and she is willing, even amused, but after a bit, she hides behind her hat—bowing her head and revealing her slender neck.”

Wares on sale are all hand-crafted:

“Burnished knives, almost chiseled, studded with green stones, beautiful to look at, and when you grip it in your hand, an intense feeling overcomes you.”

But the medical man is obliged to add:

“I have also seen, unfortunately, the effects of such knives. Badly distributed stab wounds, blows inflicted haphazardly, that still succeed in damaging muscles and tendons.”

The old human problem rears its head in Tibet as in London or Rome. Beauty has its downside.

Intriguing strangeness lurked among the mud and mountains:

“A dark skinned Khampa with long hair and colourful ribbons greets me by sticking out his tongue.”

“The Tibetan nomads look amazingly like Native Americans in pictures taken in the 19th century—dark, with long, jet-black hair woven in two braids which hang down their backs, clad in long coats. They make the trek to the hospital and set up their tents in the vicinity, together with their yaks and sheep, of course.”

In words of encouragement to a Tibetan doctor whose father had died in a Chinese internment camp, Tundo had this to say:

“It is one thing to judge events according to our personal lives and quite another to judge them in the context of history. Tibet could even be occupied for two hundred years, but will still find a way to go back to being the land of the Dalai Lama, because this has been its destiny for thousands of years, because this is what Tibetans in their hearts long for.”

Such was the spirit of Giovanni Tundo’s talk to us and can best serve as his final word.


*Anne Schiller’s spoke to us on June 17, 2017, ‘Borneo Families in this life and the next’; on March 25, 2022, ’On the Edge of Two Worlds in Borneo-Reflections on a 2019 Revisit’ (reviewed in ‘Identity Between Heaven and Earth,’ March 29, 2022) and on May 13, 2022, ‘Borneo: Beyond the Grave, A National Geographic Film’ (reviewed in ‘Beyond Entertainment,’ May 16, 2022).

**Giovanni Tundo’s diary written in Italian was published in 2003 by Manni of San Cesario di Lecce. He signed it with a nom de plume. Tibet Senza Compassione by Tristano Banti

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