Review: Stranger in My Native Land

While watching Stranger in My Native Land, I was particularly struck by the range of emotions of Tenzing Sonam as he toured Tibet (his homeland) for the first time. When meeting his father’s family, he describes himself as “an emissary from the past”, referencing the fact that he only knows Tibet the way that his family described it to him and that there is a great difference between the Tibet-of-the-past and the Tibet-of-the-present. For example: while he knows Tibetan, his father’s family only speaks a Chinese dialect. In these moments, Tenzing Sonam is emotionally conflicted. He is both thrilled to meet most of his family for the first time (he had met one other member inIndia) and yet he is saddened that the Tibet that he had held in his mind didn’t match up with the reality.

This is especially true when he enters Lhasa for the first time. He claims that Lhasa is a Mecca for Tibetans, who all try to visit at least once before they die. Now, though, as Tenzing Sonam describes, Lhasa is largely controlled by the Chinese. The shops and businesses are Chinese-controlled, the signs are in Chinese, and religious sites have been turned into tourist locations.


The above picture is the most notable of these sites: the Potala Palace, where the Dalai Lama used to reside. It is currently a tourist attraction operated by the Chinese. This photo, in fact, comes from a Chinese tourism site and accompanied an article about places to see in Lhasa.

When Tenzing Sonam saw sights like this, he described himself as being “filled with deep and helpless rage”. While he describes his emotion as anger, the emotion that he displays is one of grief at something that has been lost. It is as if he is mourning the loss of a Tibet that he never knew, as evidenced by his reaction of sadness at the fact that the Potala Palace is a museum, although he never personally knew it as anything else.

As if to underscore the emotions surrounding the loss of Tibetan culture, his next stop is the village where his mother’s family lives, which has been relatively untouched by the efforts of the Chinese government. This village, as Tenzing describes it, is “strange but strangely familiar”. I expected his reaction to be much happier when he discovered the village to be “Tibetan” (no Chinese dialects spoken, etc.), but it was still tinged with sadness. He was saddened, it appeared, by the poverty in which his family and the rest of the village lived. A village similar to the one that he visited can be seen to the right (from http://www.carto.net).

While many peasants in Tibet are poor (and live in villages similar to the one in the picture), and Tenzing knew that his mother’s family was not wealthy, it seemed as though he was deeply upset by the fact that he had just seen wealthy Chinese immigrants in Lhasa. Other Tibetans in Lhasa had secretly told him how much they were suffering under Chinese rule. This distinct contrast between the relative wealth and poverty of those who live in Tibet lies just beneath many of the emotions that Tenzing feels upon returning “home”, although it is a home that he has never lived in.

While this concept of considering a place a home without having ever lived in it is very reminiscent of Maalki’s discussion of “roots” and the homeland as a “moral destination” (Maalki 1999:67), what this film made me think of most was The Struggle for Modern Tibet. The book is the autobiography of Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan who grew up inTibet as a dancer for the Dalai Lama and who later left the country. In the opening chapters, he describes his youth and childhood inTibet and many descriptions of events that occurred during those times are followed by the statement that “…it was simply what was done in those days.” (Goldstein et.al. 1997: 30).

A statement such as that indicates that much has changed over the years since those customs and events took place. TheTibetthat existed before the Chinese take-over – the place that Tenzing’s parents described to him and where Tashi Tsering grew up – no longer exists.Tibetis constantly changing in response to both external and internal influences. This, of course, raises the question: should we (the world) allow Tibet to keep evolving? If we do, or if it does so against our wishes, should we mourn those changes like Tenzing Sonam does?

What this constant evolution does mean, however, is that there are multiple views and understandings about what Tibet is. Those in exile necessarily have a different concept of what Tibet is compared with those who live in Tibet (for example: Tenzing’s older cousin can’t stop dancing in his joy that Tenzing is visiting and can see/document all of the things in his life). Somehow, though, these different conceptions of what Tibet is will have to be reconciled (or at least negotiated) in order for an answer to emerge to the “Tibet Question”.

Furthermore, this song by Iron Maiden (Stranger in a Strange Land) connects beautifully with the conflicting emotions in Stranger in My Native Land. Literally, the lyrics refer to a man exploring the Artic, being frozen to death, and being discovered many years later by another group of explorers. While the titles of the movie and the song are remarkably similar, the lyrics also express sadness at the loss of someone these explorers had never known mixed with the curiosity of discovery. Most striking are these lines from the chorus: What became of the man that started/All are gone and their souls departed (Adam Smith, 1986). When applied to Tibet, this easily connects to the constant evolution of Tibet and Tibetan culture: nothing that is alive can be “frozen”, instead things evolve as they continue to exist.


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