In the college canteen today

In the college canteen today

Despite of the Chinese government’s emphasis on national unity, identity politics is still an important part of people’s daily life in today’s China and following is what Tsanglo Tenshag has got to say about being a Tibetan student in a college in China pre March 2008. (See the orinal article in Tibetan)

《中华民族大团结》The Great Unity of Chinese Nationalities, painted by 叶浅予(1907-1995)

Having been ill these past few days, and unable to eat, I did not have the fortune to set foot in the college canteen. Today I was feeling a little better, and went there when noodle soup was being served. I took my place at the end of a long line queuing for soup. Reaching the cashier desk, I had taken a large plate and was waiting in line, when a 30 year old Chinese woman ahead of me in the line pulled the plate away from me. Without paying much attention, I pulled it back towards me. What is wrong with taking a step forward to get a plate? This is the first time I have seen or heard of anyone trying to snatch a plate from another’s hands. The Chinese woman went on ahead, and just so, I remained waiting in line.

I put the bowl of noodle soup on my plate, and was looking around for a place to sit, when to my disbelief I found the same Chinese woman in front of me, crossing my path and fixing me with an angry stare. At once I asked her “Why are you looking at me like that?”, but she didn’t reply and walked away. I saw an empty seat in front of me and took it.

Again unbelievably, the steaming bowl of soup in front of my place belonged to none other than that Chinese woman. She stood in front of me trembling, and I also did the same. Then I asked her again, “What kind of expression are you looking at me with? That is not civilised behaviour!” In a tone of displeasure, she replied “My expression is like that.”

Saying “What to do? Poor thing….” I ate my soup with an air of resignation. Soon, a friend of the Chinese woman, slightly older than her told me “Today we made a mistake. Please don’t be angry” and went on like that. “No problem”, I replied, continuing to eat my soup.

A little while later, that Chinese woman who had pulled my plate away looked me in the face and asked “Which country are you from?”

“ I am Chinese” (ie; a Chinese citizen), I replied.

“Well which part of China are you from?”

“Beijing”, I said.

Actually I don’t speak Chinese with much of a Beijing accent, so she became suspicious and asked “Which Middle school did you go to?”

I said “Forget it”, and she immediately remarked (using polite address) “You don’t seem to be Chinese. Which country are you from?”

I tried to not to say much, recognising that I was indeed a foreigner.

The Chinese woman kept asking which country I came from, but I didn’t answer except to say “Talking in this way is un-called for.”

The woman seemed like the talkative type. She went on “When I pulled the plate, I was only aware of the plate, not of any person (holding it).”

I kept eating my soup, giving no reaction. Then she asked:

“So, do you know when the great wall of China was built?”

“I have no idea” I replied quickly.

“It was built by Qin Shihong of the Qin dynasty [221 BCE – 206 BCE]”, she said.

“I have no idea who that was”, I said, at which she remained silent. It seems that she had probably decided that I was a foreigner.

Next she said in a soft and pleasant tone “I was mistaken. I have been impolite with you, please forgive me.

“No problem”, I replied, still without paying her much attention.

Again she insisted on asking me which country I came from, as if she really wanted to know, but I didn’t answer her at all.

About the time I finished eating, a Tibetan girl student from our college appeared, and I quickly went to sit with her, and as I briefly recounted what had happened, she laughed at each exchange.

If you think about it:

1. If that Chinese woman had been a student at my college, the plate-grabbing incident could not have happened. I guess most students at our school spontaneously behave in a civilised way.

2. If she had not taken me for a foreigner, she would never have ended up talking to me sweetly and accepting that she was in the wrong. I was seeing a Chinese embarrassing herself in front of a foreigner.

October 4th 2007



1. (from Yeshi Tenzin) Ha ha! Next time a Chinese asks you which country you are from, you can tell them you are from Bhutan! And to speak some Tibetan in front of Chinese students would be even more amusing and telling! Ha ha!

Author’s response:

Ha ha! Yes, that’s true. One time a group of us went on holiday, and we made ourselves laugh by telling Chinese people that we were Bhutanese and pretended we couldn’t speak good Chinese by conversing in broken Chinese, and so on.

That used to really make us laugh. Oh! When I talk about those times, my memory is of feeling only happy. Oh! Recalling happy times, I hear the songs we sang together….


2. (from Zxzm) Yes indeed, friend! Her behaviour was really not very good, and we should not bring shame on our fellow Tibetans in front of people from other countries, like that Chinese woman did.

Author’s response:

He he! Friend, that’s quite right. That is exactly what I wanted to say. Good for you!