It had been months of preparation, dedication, and stress, but the day had finally come. March 30th, 2019, the Tibetan Interest Association (TIA) would be performing at Asian Nite for the first time. Twenty-six groups had auditioned, and we were one of only fourteen groups that had been selected to perform. Asian Nite is a showcase that is held in Jorgensen every spring by the Pan Asian Council (PAC), a program that falls under the Asian American Cultural Center (AsACC). We had been frantically painting our props the night before, anticipating a crowd of one thousand, with a mixture of nerves and excitement. After several months of rehearsal, our culturally and ethnically diverse cast was honestly just worried about perfecting our performance and making the Tibetan community proud. Never did we imagine the outpour of negativity we would receive about a performance based on rejecting division and celebrating unity. Even more shocking was the aftermath of the performance and the Asian American Cultural Center’s lack of response to the situation.
Our seven-minute performance included monologues about the three provinces of Tibet. Each monologue was followed by dance from that province. The final dance was a popular Tibetan gorshey (circle dance), meant to symbolize unity. You can watch the entire performance recorded by UCTV for free. Several students, primarily international Chinese students, were disturbed by our performance and began booing. In the UCTV clip, you can audibly hear their disdain during and after TIA’s performance. My aunt and cousin were in the audience that night sitting near where most of the booing was occurring. She confessed to me days later that she was seriously worried for my safety and what the aftermath of this performance would bring.
The Chinese Student Scholars Association (CSSA) issued a formal complaint to AsACC demanding that TIA apologize for the cultural performance. The CSSA prides itself on being an, “Official Chinese Association supported by the Consulate General of the P.R. of China in New York.” On social media, students were requesting that the recording of TIA’s performance not be released to the public. A member of the CSSA stated: “I respect the members of TIA and any Tibetan people as well as their political belief, but those comments should not be shared in public. Let us agree to disagree.” However, at no point in the performance was the Chinese government referred to or alluded to. In response to this accusation, members of TIA were heartbroken and concerned for their physical safety in regard to their civil right to celebrate their cultural heritage.
“Saying that Tibetans not in Tibet don’t have the right to represent our own country I am actually disgusted in this oppression by students from my school.”
- Lhamo Dolma (UConn Sr.)
In order to understand the true impact of the remainder of this issue, here is some background information. For over 60 years, the Chinese government has gone to incredible lengths: arbitrary detention, education camps, imprisonment, censorship, and propaganda to suppress the Tibetan people: “Today there is no justice in Tibet for Tibetans, for their religion, for their culture, for their language, and for His Holiness The Dalai Lama. … This is a civil rights issue.” Jim Sensenbrenner. (Wisconsin R. Senator). Tibet has been ranked the second least free place in the world for the past several years by Freedom House. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we protect the Tibetan identity: “Today, the religion, culture, language, and identity, which successive generations of Tibetans have considered more precious than their lives, are nearing extinction,” His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
“Many of our people have sacrificed a lot to preserve the Tibetan flag and our culture till now. I have my right in the United States, let me repeat, the U.S and UConn to put that flag up no matter what you think.”
-Tenzin Pharachesur (UConn Fr.)
What is disappointing and most hurtful for TIA was the Asian American Cultural Center’s response to this situation. The administrative leaders at AsACC announced that they had decided to remain neutral, referencing the complicated nature of the relationship between Tibet and China as a primary reason. The sheer irony of that statement is that the Center was built after eight students of Asian descent were taunted and harassed by other students at an off-campus UConn formal. This was a case of CSSA harassing a minority group, Tibetan students, for attempting to gain representation at UConn. The Pan Asian Council (PAC), a program under AsACC claims they “promote[s] awareness through social, cultural, and interpersonal activities.”
In the aftermath of Asian Nite, all PAC members were instructed to not discuss the issue. The PAC Coordinator urged, “So in lieu of the events that have happened with TIA and JW (CSSA dance group), please be sure to have no comment on this situation as PAC... So please do NOT engage or respond.” AsACC claims this situation extends beyond the Center as a possible excuse for their neutrality. Many issues are sensitive and so-called "beyond the Center," including racism, sexism, antisemitism, discrimination, and so on. However, that doesn't mean we condone or dismiss them in our school or cultural centers, does it?
AsACC’s Director expressed their hope that this situation “goes away soon,” and that nothing we students say can “change anything for the current situation between Tibet and China.” The Director admitted that it may be beneficial to meet with the international Chinese students. Yet, in the same breath they said they agreed with a sentiment an international Chinese student had posted online, “agree(ing) to disagree.” As an educator and director of a cultural center, this type of rhetoric is dangerous; some of the greatest movements have started on college campuses.
In an effort to continue the conversation, TIA has reached out to CSSA with no success. The only response we have received is in the form of a Facebook post from a CSSA member who issued this statement, “Offense was never my intention so I am so sorry if you took the message personal before…. please allow different opinions about the same issue.” The CSSA tried to censor TIA, a common practice of the Chinese government, but not something that should ever be tolerated at UConn.
Whether AsACC realizes it or not, their silence is extremely powerful; it sends a direct message that TIA does not have AsACC’s support in times of injustice: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu.
AsACC asserts in their mission statement that they, “enhance the University’s diversity commitment through outreach,” and that they provide a, “supportive environment.” As leaders of diversity and inclusion on campus, it is crucial that AsACC be held accountable for their inaction. The administrators at AsACC refuse to speak out against the repression of Tibetan students and their allies because of the economic power of international students. This refusal prompts the center to lose all authority to talk about human rights, diversity and inclusion anywhere else on campus.
At the end of the day, even Tibetans differ in their opinions about certain facets of the Tibetan cause. However, what we stand united on, and what we should all be united on, is everyone's right to freedom of speech and self-determination of their identity construction.
Tenzin Miglay is a junior biological sciences major at the University of Connecticut. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.