In the past few days, I have received two requests to translate or compose request letters to a Swiss group (whom I know very little about) from Tibetan students who are being supported by them. I’ve done this before — even for the daughter of our Ecolodge manager! The letters are composed in Chinese, and follow a simple format similar to any Chinese school or government request letter — “My name is Droma. I am the top student in the third year junior middle school at XXX school. My family is in terrible straits. My mother is ill and my father is old and suffering. All he can manage is to be a gate guard at the Kangding Middle School. My brother is useless. I ask you Aunt and Uncle to continue to support me. I promise to study well. Thank you for your years of support.”
There is a bit more detail than this, sometimes quite dramatic, but this is the gist. I copy and paste the letter into a Chinese dictionary app, which aids my translation for difficult sections, and then I write the letter as well as I can in English — keeping to the original text as much as possible. Then I copy and paste the letter into a text message back to the Tagong elementary school teacher who helps organize this program.
Yesterday, a nomad man with long white hair tied back in a pony tail, and with amazingly smooth tanned skin on his face, came over to ask me to compose a letter. He arrived by motorbike, and I assumed at first that he was here to talk to Tenzin Nyima, our manager, and indeed Tenzin Nyima did know him. But he was here to talk to me, and handed me a plastic sack of Tibetan yellow poppy seeds, which he had collected. He told his story, offered me the Chinese documents he assumed I would need — the household registration and the ID card — as if I were a government official from whom he was begging something. But I transcribed the names into a reasonable Romanization of their Tibetan names, as I consider respectful, and wrote his story.
His daughter (born in 1983, I noted on her ID card), has two daughters, one, age 18, and one, age 10. The older daughter’s studies have been supported by this mysterious group of Swiss for many years. I asked the teacher how many years; he did not remember and advised me to simply write “many years.” She is now finished with elementary school (at 18 years old) and is going on to become a nun. She is writing to ask if the support can transfer to her younger sister, currently in school.
The father died in a motorbike accident a long time ago, hence the difficulty for the family, and the reason for this family to receive support.
I wrote the short and concise two paragraph request; texted it to the teacher, and the man put 100 yuan on the table in front of me. I pushed it back to him and said, “No, that’s ok. It’s a 10 minute job, and no problem.” And Rekho and Tenzin Nyima encouraged the man to accept this — “She likes to help people,” they insisted, “like a monk.” I told him the poppy seeds were quite enough payment — because actually I think people do need to pay for services, that this is important to their own self-esteem, and sense of value and worth, which I think is more important than most things in this world. Plus such payments are part of a larger system here.
When I went over and fixed a family’s solar system about a month ago, they also offered me payment — 150 yuan for perhaps 3 hours work. I took 50 yuan of that, again because I thought it best for him if I did, but then he offered me the use of his truck (and time) should I need it. So a few weeks later, I took him up on that and he picked up my water heaters in town, and delivered them here.
Another time, I was given a bottle of homemade fondue cheese in exchange for advising someone about their hepatitis situation.
This kind of payment-in-kind seems comfortable to nomads here; this seems to be the type of payment they consider most basic and important. It fits into the realm of helping and gifts, more than the realm of capitalism. And in this society, reciprocity of gift giving and favors is all-important, the way the world runs. The deeper reason, I realize, that I don’t like to accept monetary payment is that my sense is that accepting it is not the right thing to do in this society (and this is something shared with my own small-town upbringing). I have many acquaintances and colleagues (drivers, other hotel owners, shopkeepers) for whom I do favors (offering them business or recommending them or translating for them) and who do favors for me (picking up coffee and steaks, buying hamsters at the pet store in Chengdu and delivering them, taking my packages from the delivery truck in town and storing them till I get down there to pick them up, bringing up the rabies vaccines on ice). None of these people ever accept payment. And so I have the feeling that I should not either, that a much more valuable thing is friendship and good feeling. And indeed, this is why everyone always so vehemently offers a meal or at least a cup of tea, when you go to their house. It’s why people try so very hard to help. Because there is this general and overwhelming sense that it makes most sense financially and emotionally to develop friendship, not to be paid for services.
So that’s what I do too.
Now, this plays out in rather a sad way with tourists and backpackers and travelers — many foreign travelers feel that they should bargain hard, after all, they are traveling in a poor country and most likely the locals will try to cheat them out of an extra dollar or two. But from the perspective of reciprocity here, if someone asks you very strongly to give them a better deal, to help them out, then the most reasonable answer is, “sure.” Surely the person you are helping in their time of need will be even more grateful than a person in usual circumstances, and the kindness and aid will come back to you in a even larger way. So people accept — and many foreign backpackers manage to pay 50-70% less for transport, for example, than locals. They proudly relate this to the other backpackers they meet later in the hostels. And those poor listeners might well conclude that they had been cheated, when what they really did was pay a fair and usual price.
Of course, the driver who accepted underpayment is never going to be paid back in favors or meals or whatever by these backpackers, who move on, and indeed never realize that they have been done a favor. This is a breakdown of an otherwise successful system, and hard to avoid, because even the nicest foreign traveler can be unsure of when he is being well treated and when he is being lied to. I’ve had many lovely souls tell me how they were cheated, say, at the Great Wall, and assume this means they will be cheated here also. It is interesting, I guess, to note how different these two places are. And of course, there is the odd extreme cheater in small town Tibet too.
Another interesting point about this letter writing I have been doing is about the support of these students. Do they indeed need support, and why? In both the recent cases, at least one parent was ill or deceased. Hence the need for support. But I also wrote a letter in the past for the daughter of our manager, Tenzin Nyima, who is also supported by this Swiss program. She is a star student, which is one popular point that she also put in the letter — and it is very true. She is second in her class of hundreds, vying for first. But her arguments about the poverty of her family I found a bit strange — and she looked a bit sheepish as she read it to me so I could translate.
“In my family, there are only 4 people: me, my older brother, and my father and mother. My family has no yaks, and no land. We only have one person working in my family. When my brother was in college, he got sick. Also, my dad is 55 years old. My dad does manual labor every day for money; all of it he gives to me, in order to help me have a better life. My mom does farm work at home.”
First of all, her dad is not 55, he is 48. Second of all, he works as a cook, cleaner, maintenance man, transport organizer, and host — not exactly manual labor, at least of the hard type she implies. In fact, he chose this job over higher-paying manual labor because it is relatively easy (though sometimes busy). The reason her mom does not work outside the home has nothing to do with illness, but more with enjoyment and a lack of need to. It is the norm here that people who sell their animals work quite little, living off of the income women bring in during the 6 weeks caterpillar fungus season. Her complaint simply seems to be that her dad has to work at all. But I know her dad well, and I know that he does not look well upon the idea of sitting at home idle; he works because of the enjoyment both of the work and the improved income. It is nice to not be dirt poor and live on little, though in this world where one owns one’s home and other costs are minimal, one can manage well on little.
I think these students have been instructed to write a sob story. What about the girl whose father was killed in a motorbike accident, and the younger sister is 10 years old? I would not be surprised if this sister has a different father.
And what about the girl whose father is gate guard, and whose mother is sick? In all likelihood the “aging” father is in his forties or perhaps 50s. The expectation is that people can stop working before 50, it seems. And her mother may be seriously ill, or she may have something that could be managed quite well with a doctor who had time and training to understand her chronic problem and solve it. But the kind of malaise that comes from these long term illnesses, no matter how low level, is real. Still, I’m not sure that it’s quite as dire as she implies — if it were, I think she would have stated clearly what the illness was.
And the brother, the “useless” brother who “could not find honest work” and so now has found himself in prison. I know all too many people in the same straits — I think it has more to do with the lack of stigmatization of prison and an acceptance of risky behaviors.
And yet these stories are not untrue, and I would guess they are very effective. I guess that the Swiss donors are glad to get them, and feel very good about the help they are giving these needy students. And indeed, there is a lacking of support for people with any kind of hardship — except of course there is always family support.
And these things are indeed hardships — but they are so very common. On one hand, I feel that these girls are asking for support, and getting it, simply because of the place they live, the romanticism of it, and the perception that there is little help here. I am struck by the normality of their problems: aging parents who don’t make much money, chronic illness, deadbeat brothers. The problems of the poor the world over, problems basically because of a lack of money to solve them. The real issue, I’d say, is simple, systemic, broad-based poverty.
It seems to me that the gate guard would have been happy, at one time, to be a gate guard, to have a job. The manager’s family would be glad that he has a consistent job that does not require backbreaking work. But the new concept in this part of the world is that everyone should be rich without working. The nouveau riches that have landed here are extreme — money from rich Chinese donors to lamas (whose families become wealthy), money from illegal deals in guns and drugs, money from government jobs where one does almost no work and can easily run a business on the side, further padded for some people by illegal bribes or skimming off the top of projects. Now the standard seems to be a life of ease and wealth.
Do these girls need help? Well, they can certainly use it. And so do many other students. I guess the thing that irks me is the encouragement of the idea that their situations are somehow abnormal and untenable, whereas for me, these girls are the absolute norm, and in fact doing well, working hard, and receiving recognition for that.
Might it not be better to have purely merit-based aid? Or perhaps not merit-based so much as freely given. The current system seems to require students to think badly of their own families and situation, and to play up sob stories they know to be untrue. Why not ask them instead to play up their true successes, which are numerous and impressive? All too often, I think Tibetans (and other people living in societies that receive a lot of outside “aid”) benefit most from exaggerating their troubles, which seems to cause a mental situation of neediness or lack of self-sufficiency, the assumption that things are worse for you than for other people, and a feeling that you cannot and should not be asked to solve your own problems. It is the classic culture of dependency — but I see it less as dependency as sensibly responding to incentives and opportunities. It’s just that those incentives do encourage thinking that is not helpful — or true.