Unfulfilled Yearnings with my Chinese Friends

Where the yearning ends, there the sprouting stops’ – self



(in the photo are Chinese friends at the University and they do not represent the three protagonists of the story)

the names of the chinese friends are altered to respect their identity

The Year 2006 -07 was a touchstone year of sorts. It was the year I lived, studied, ate, partied, fought and explored life with Chinese students from mainland China..

The prestigious University of Edinburgh, listed in the top 20 universities in the world[1], loved one thing that I didn’t necessarily, and that I certainly didn’t appreciate– namely its obsequiously servile cachet when it comes to China. Hence the ubiquitous presence of bespectacled, well dressed Chinese who outnumbered native Scottish students on campus.

The Chinese were omnipresent; in the classroom, library, dome hallway, labyrinth, loo, canteen, Tesco and Lidl[2], at times their inescapable existence seeming inordinate and an unwarrantable intrusion into my comfort zone.

I was taken by disbelief when I noticed their commonsensical persona, their ability to smile at a face that seemed neither akin to their own nor that of the country their leaders have occupied. My first few sincere attempts to dissuade their amity and friendly overtures turned out to be of no avail as I grudgingly became an island adrift in their sea, having Chinese as classmates, flat-mates, study-mates, work-mates.

What started as a detestable affair steadily turned into deep camaraderie and a very good friendship with three female Chinese students.

Four years thence, memories with the three friends are still crystal clear, still overpoweringly beautiful, and I remain yearning for the fulfillment of as yet unfulfilled yearnings.

Shin Jin (class-mate)

During the introduction round on the first day of the class, I observed a friendly demeanor in her, and sat next to her. She stamped her foot in vexation when three of our classmates – Machik Yen, Su Aaan and Jui Tiho – introduced themselves as Taiwanese nationals. I imagined her furor upon hearing me say with bolstered conviction that ‘I am a Tibetan and I belong to Tibet’. But it pleasantly surprised me to see no reaction from her end, until the very next moment when she made a discreet inquiry- “where is Tibet?” On hearing my elucidation of the matter, she stared at me with incredulity and fretted about my refusal to call it ‘Xizang’. [3] For the rest of the week all she did was fizzle and flicker and her usually affable approach withered into nothingness.

Months flew by, assignments were submitted and returned, grades and credits accumulated and monsoon gave way to chilly winter and quick-paced university life; in the meantime all five of us – Machik Yen, Su Aaan and Jui Tiho from Taiwan, Shin Jin from Beijing and me belonging to Tibet – bonded and gelled well as thick friends.

On Shin Jin’s 25th birthday, she treated us to an arresting array of Chinese dishes at the city’s top Chinese restaurant. In the midst of capturing a picture perfect moment, tipsy Shin yelled in assertive jubilation —“you are all a part of me”- and faster than I could digest the food and her words, the four of us nixed the party. We walked back to our flats, whining about her and her unfounded arrogance.

Shin apologized the very next morning and promised she would never again speak anything offensive, blaming the Scottish beer to vindicate herself; thereafter I noticed a different side to her.

One thing that always surprised her was why, unlike the Chinese, Tibetans had bigger, deeper and darker eyes to which in an amusingly frank manner, “Tibetans are genetically blessed with more striking looks!”  Whenever we posed for photos, she’d always try and match up with my eyes by putting her jawline really low almost touching her chest and she would stare up from beneath her barely visible eyebrows. She confessed, “this is what we – small eyed conscious Chinese – do to project a bigger and more evocative pair of eyes.” But I convinced her that her eyes were suggestive of an affable and amicable personality in her.

She started asking more Tibet related questions and promised me a month-long tour to Beijing after graduation. She even emailed her father, a mayor in a town close to Beijing (name withheld) about the possibility of me travelling to Beijing on my Yellow Identity certificate to which he signaled it falling within the realms of possibility.

Albeit four years since the invitation, the prospect of which has kept me exuberated, I still am waiting to hear from her, hoping I will visit her and her family in Beijing.

Songyey, (flat-mate)

On my first day in Edinburgh, amidst my battle to overcome homesickness and alienation, things worsened when I realized I had a Chinese from mainland China as my flat mate in the self-catered residence: this meant we would cook from the same pot, eat in the same place, bath in the same bathroom and defecate in the same loo! This also meant she would stand privy to everything that transpired in my room, including the weekly Tibet group meetings. The next thing I did was phone Pollock halls [4] for a flat shuffle, however I was informed that I could either stay put there or shift into a men’s flat. In no way wanting to live a bohemian student life, I opted to stay back and swore to limit our acquaintances to hi’s and bye’s.

One evening, Songyey came knocking at my door and forced herself in with a letter for me; I couldn’t stop noticing how she subtly picked out my Tibetan Buddhist altar that was adorned with the Thanka painting of Goddess Tara, my portrait photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama below, and sprawled across the wall a huge striking Tibetan National Flag. I was anticipating a scurry remark from her and was ready with a reproaching answer, when she looked closer and commented, “does he always wear the glasses?” To my utter dismay, her next lines were- “He is quite good looking.” I smiled and she smiled.

In November 2006 when Hu Jintao made his first state visit to India, the international media got into a frenzy with the angry Tibetan protests literally chasing him out of India. When I saw Songyey cooking Chinese noodles in the kitchen, I assumed her Internet savvy self would have kept well informed of the mishap her beloved leader was facing in the world’s largest democracy. But realizing she was ill informed, I told her every bit of the news. She casually remarked- “Really? Good for him. He will then realize that Chinese people are nice to him.” Unable to decipher her terse response, I retorted, “why and how does this relate to our banter?”

Ladling the contents in the boiling pot, Songyey responded in her loud Chinese accent – laden English, “Whatever he does, Chinese don’t protest, only Tibetans do.” It occurred to me that our conversation had unraveled one truth:  a Chinese student studying overseas seemed to imply that Hu deserves protests from the Chinese too, but that they are reticent.

The mention of Tibet always had Songyey proudly boast of how her father (a gynecologist by profession) made annual visits to remote areas in Tibet for medical treatments to poor Tibetan women, to which my friend Karma from Dundee[5] made a pointed remark: ‘maybe he goes with a big injection to sterilize our women.’[6]

On one of our Sunday trips to the Edinburgh castle, Songyey confessed that she visited Tibet after her class XII in 2002 and had to wear masks to keep up with the high altitude. And I told her much has changed in Tibet after the railways in 2006, she said in a half serious manner, “Why don’t we go together to Tibet this Christmas[7] before Tibet becomes unrecognizable?” Though we laughed it out back then, now I long to travel to Tibet with her and explore the true prevailing situation. My dithering thoughts on her father’s engagements in Tibet have lingered, keeping me intrigued.


Kuhang Lee, (work partner)

The 5.1 feet, bespectacled, studious veterinary student hailed from Shanghai. We met on weekends at the University library for our student jobs that included labeling and positioning the one million books on library shelves. Kuhang always whined about how Shanghai was losing its rustic sheen and how the booming population[8] was fast making it an untamed city, serving as a runway for western commerce.

We bonded as best buddies, always in tow, resembling Siamese twins; we were of the same height, loved the same food, and howled and yowled at the same execrable actions of snobbish readers who disfigured those priceless books and littered the library aisle.

A week before Christmas, Kuhang invited me to tag along with her and her boyfriend for a trip to Disneyland in Hong Kong, the prospect of which I wanted to forgo.

She was one rare Chinese; despite that fact that her mother served as a Chinese cadre in the Shanghai political department, she was well aware of the Tibet story and pined for more. This could be attributed to her under-graduate years at Boston University. She requested for website links to any and all news and information on Tibet.

One fatal afternoon, we joined our workmates at the library canteen. While munching over the lunch she cooked for me – hot sticky rice and stir fried broccoli dipped in sesame seeds – she hesitatingly said, “I have a question” and seeing her struggle, I hurried her to quiz me before the library bell tolled.  “Why do you refuse to call yourself a proud citizen of Xizang?” was her question. We heard the gong and as we rushed upstairs, I struggled to balance the lunch box in my hands as I hogged the last bites, responding, “because it is a Chinese name for Tibet which only included smaller Tibet and not the entire region of Tibet that includes the three traditional provinces of Tibet, and moreover it undermines the original Tibetan name referring to an independent nation and its people.” She averred – “so you don’t like Chinese names?” I made an audacious, inconsiderate and indiscreet response – “We hate anything Chinese and we in-fact advocate a movement to boycott Chinese goods.” Within a few seconds of realizing that it was a Chinese friend at the receiving end of this answer, she grabbed the food from me and retracted to a corner.  She accused me of being blatantly rude and I kept mum and maintained my calm, while the silent library walls exacerbated the awful hushed moment. But one thing was obvious- I would at no end eat my words.

That evening in the dressing room as we dressed into our casuals, Kuhang made a humble apology for her curt behavior and attributed it to being offhand and not intending to humiliate me. Choking back my tears, I smiled and said, “I don’t have anything up against Chinese commoners like you, but I definitely loathe your leaders and those ruthless military who have taken everything from me and my people.”

Kuhang said that she would talk to her mother during the weekday.

The next weekend, as we caught hold of each other at the library hallway, my yelling her name out went unheeded. During lunch break, she refused see eye to eye, impeding the prospect of sharing our lunch boxes. I oscillated between cajoling and coaxing her to respond and not giving a damn, in the end opting for the latter. It definitely was the conversation with her mother, which had had ramifications beyond what she could imagine and unveiled the irrational and ludicrous side to this otherwise sensible and chirpy girl, who was at one point my confidante and soul sister.

I still wonder what her mother had told her about me, the Tibetan Women’s Association, and exile Tibetans..

On November 27, 2007, the day of our graduation, I was taken aback to get a photo invitation from Kuhang and that was the last picture we took together.

The very same evening, I saw an email from Kuhang with the subject- Hi and an attached photo file of the graduation pictures. Exhilarated, I opened it and to my sheer joy she congratulated me on my graduation. The very next moment, as my eyes read the lines, exhilaration withered to downright dejection; she wrote to tell me that she had deactivated her email, Facebook and MySpace accounts to facilitate a communication blackout between us. She expressed that the circumstances were dire and that we would have to mutually terminate our friendship. It took days to nurse the deep stab of pain caused by her decision.

My undeterred attempts to contact her have proved futile and if ever I were to see her again in the digital space or elsewhere, all I’d have to ask is – ‘what did your mother conspire against my people and I?’


So they are the three friends whose friendship has culminated in making me prudent, discernible and sagaciously wiser.  The three friends who have taught me more than I had ever hoped to learn about the people, race, ethnicity and the country which will eventually in some measure capitulate to deciding the fate and future of our people, race, ethnicity and nation.

I wish them luck and I trust they too are feeling ruffled  unless they bring to fruition the promises they made to me and essentially until these anticipated responses come to effectuate the fulfillment of the unfulfilled yearnings with my Chinese friends.


Yearning is not only a good way to go crazy but also a pretty good place to hide out from hard truth.” – Claude T. Bissell

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/sep/08/worlds-top-100-universities-2010

[2] Cheap grocery stores on Edinburgh streets frequented by students from self catered residences

[3] Chinese name for Tibet Autonomous regions which comprises of traditional provinces of U-Tsang and western half of Kham and excludes major parts of Kham and the entire Amdo province

[4] Administrative offices for the 50 student residences in the University of Edinburgh.

[5] The fourth – largest city in Scotland and the 39th most populous settlement in the United Kingdom

[6] The Chinese family planning policy introduced in Tibet coerces Tibetan women to undergo forced sterilization and abortion

[7] Christmas week from December 22 to 31, 2007

[8] Shanghai is known to be the largest city by population in China and the largest city in the world


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