Monday, May 25, 2015Monday, May 25, 2015
Tsering Woeser

My Chinese education

Published on Aug 18, 2014 11:49 PM

IN 1981, the year I graduated from junior high school in Kangding in the Tibetan region of Kham, high schools in China's heartland were starting to recruit ethnic minorities like me. In official parlance, this was the beginning of what was to become a larger "Help Tibet" campaign. Minority students were plucked from their native villages to be "cultivated" in Chinese schools in order to serve their people and the nation.

After several decades, Beijing's education strategy has suffocated minority culture, serving to unify the country under the rule of the dominant Han ethnic group. I enrolled in the preparatory high school for Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. A few other Tibetans and I were among the first guinea pigs in Beijing's grand education experiment. I was eager to get away from my parents and yearned to go off to a big city - and Chengdu was it.

My father and I boarded the bus for Chengdu. We bounced on the wooden seats, meandering through Mount Erlang, descending from more than 8,000 feet above sea level. As a teenager on my maiden journey outside the Tibetan region, I was mesmerised by the lush bamboo forests and orange groves. Once I got off the bus, I was greeted by an alluring aroma from a sidewalk food stall. I was stunned to see the source was heaps of skinned rabbit heads. Recalling the Tibetan taboo against eating hare meat, all I could remember was the rabbit I saw dashing through the mountain pass during my ride.

Soon enough, I faced more culture shock. The local accent, diet and dress were all different. I stole my first bites of stewed eel, frog meat - and those spicy rabbit heads. I knew full well that I would be cursed by my folks for violating the cultural and religious taboos that I had been brought up with. But then if I didn't go ahead and try the local food, I would be teased by the Chinese students. To them, if I was too scared to eat a rabbit's head, I must be one of those ethnic "barbarians".

Enjoy 2 weeks of unlimited digital access to The Straits Times. Get your free access now!