From the Viewpoint: Tibetan Cultural Fair

My friend and I were in a pretty good mood when we got to the church basement. The Tibetan bazaar in its entirety boasted an elevated circular stage in its centre, surrounded by vendors hawking their wares from tables to passersby. There was Tibetan calligraphy being taught in the corner nearest the entrance, and next to that sat two women behind a table draped with the Amnesty International logo. It was then that we got our first and only reminder that every piece of culture we were about to see was, in essence, under siege from a world power. Almost immediately, I zeroed in on my most treasured destination: The homemade momo station, behind which one could see the dumplings being handrolled and steamed to perfection. The menu also featured samosas, which my friend noted were probably not native to Tibet. The attendant smiled and informed us that the intersection of Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese, Chinese, and Bhutanese cuisine was quite common considering the diaspora of many Tibetan exiles to these countries. My friend and I noted our own ignorance, then promptly bobbed our heads in unison.

Halfway through our visit, a troupe of female dancers took the stage clad in brightly coloured wrap dresses. Whilst striking handheld drums and twirling around each other, the performers sang a pleasantly lilting tune with accompaniment from a musician sporting a Tibetan lute or dramyin. It flowed well and looked polished, and I let myself believe that the performance was a traditional, possibly ancient ritual. Afterward, one of the dancers nonchalantly informed us that the song and dance routine had been conceived and practiced within a three day span. Cue Tony Randall’s shouting in the Odd Couple: "When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME!"

Walking amongst all the textiles and jewelry with a constant drum beat in the air, I was struck by how my lack of experience with Tibetan culture left me no index for confirming the veracity of anything I was witnessing. My own preconceived notions concerning Tibetan culture, I reflected, were mostly baseless. Of Tibetan culture I knew only that the yak played some role in Tibetan livelihood, and that China had been violating human rights here for decades—though exactly how, I had no idea.  I had not even searched “Tibet” on Wikipedia until a day after the fair. Was this me being a bit paranoid and a little stupid?  Perhaps. The food was good, the music nice, and the people even nicer.

It was clear that everybody knew everybody; the vendors and fair staff all chatted amiably between sales, while their children ran around with soccer balls and toy swords.  Speaking with one of the vendors, I learned that the Tibetan communities in both Montreal and Toronto—the vendor himself visiting from Toronto—were tightly knit. He then proceeded to regale me with the tale of last night’s booze-soaked merrymaking while I picked out a yak-wool shawl for my mother. I caught a glimpse of a child menacingly waving a plastic cutlass, and felt myself craving yet more momos.  It being my third visit, the affable server joked that at the rate I was eating the dumplings, they might run out.  I fervently hope the man never finds out the altitude at which his joke had soared over my head.  

On the whole, the fair was fun and enlightening, and yet I cannot escape the feeling that my being there was less active engagement with Tibetan culture and more aloof tourism. It’s certainly not every day that one’s own ignorance is made so painfully obvious—as was mine—and, in the end, uncomfortable revelations such as these can be useful stepping stones for curing cultural myopia. It should be common knowledge by now that keeping an open mind is a kickass doctrine for life.  Granted, hallmarks of true open-mindedness may include feelings of uncertainty and discomfort; but then again personal growth is almost never a comfortable experience.  If breaking through one’s comfort zone were easy, life would not be nearly as rewarding, and momos would not be nearly as delicious.  

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