How do you translate intimacy? Recent news involving the Dalai Lama interacting with an Indian boy at a public event on Feb. 28, 2023 shocked the world. Over a month after the event, media everywhere ran suggestive headlines generating a firestorm of public responses on children’s rights and condemning the Dalai Lama as a pedophile. His guilt was proclaimed triumphantly as truth, but based on what evidence? A sharply cut video entirely devoid of cultural or geopolitical context.
To the Tibetan community, the accusations against the Dalai Lama made little sense. The Dalai Lama has a long history of looking after the welfare and safety of Tibetan children since his arrival in 1959 as a refugee in India. After sixty-four years working tirelessly and selflessly on their behalf and for the Tibetan people, this is the first time such dangerous accusations are headlining in the media.
I am a Tibetan scholar of Tibet. My doctoral research is on the Dalai Lama’s development of schools for Tibetan refugee children in India. The human cost of the invasion and war in Tibet devastated Tibetans and their families, leaving many children orphaned. Schools became an avenue for the Dalai Lama to safeguard the lives of these orphans, shielding them from the precarity of refugee life. In the absence of parents, the Dalai Lama offered children his protection and guidance — becoming their “mother, father, guardian, and teacher” in the process, according to the words of a former orphan I interviewed. He offers them his time, attention, and affection during his frequent visits to school, and stressed the importance of love, compassion, and care for others for Tibetans to survive together as a people.
Tibetans are not only aware of, but have grown accustomed to and feel blessed by, such emblematic affection from the Dalai Lama. Watching outsiders, including the world’s media, sexualize this affection and proclaim it to be problematic was disorienting and distressing. We responded with fury tempered by compassion. Here is why: The interaction we saw in the full, unedited video tracked with our own experiences. This was familiar affectionate behavior between Tibetan grandparents and grandchildren. My personal experience growing up in Dharamsala confirmed this. As a child, elders in the community who interacted with me in the role of grandparents often gave into my demands for sweets and offered genuine verbal and physical affection, including kissing on the lips and sticking out one’s tongue.
But which translation of affection is valid? Translation matters, they have the potential to heal or cause violence.
My PhD is in anthropology. Cultural anthropologists have long stressed the messiness of translating across cultures. One example is Brown University anthropologist Catherine Lutz’s book “Unnatural Emotions”, about the emotional life of the Ifaluk people who live on a Micronesian atoll. The title is ironic. Ifaluk emotions are unnatural only from a Western perspective, not from an Ifaluk one. Similar reads of the Dalai Lama’s actions were also made by outsiders who described it as ‘weird’ and ‘disturbing,’ centering their own lens over Tibetan ones.
In order for an outsider to understand the cultural nuances of Ifaluk or Tibetan emotions, one needs to spend time learning through cultural immersion. This sort of cultural knowledge is what Tibetans were trying to share in explaining the Dalai Lama’s conduct.
Another example is that of Tom Brady, who faced similar media outrage over a picture of him kissing his son. The picture sparked a slew of suggestive media headlines as well as social media criticism that deemed the act inappropriate and concluded that Tom Brady was a pedophile. It did not seem to matter that the kiss was between a father and his son, nor that such displays of affection are normative behavior for families across cultures and around the world.
Both of these cases highlight how this issue is not just about translating culture, but is more importantly about current politics. Not only did the news about the Dalai Lama generate massive traffic for media and social media platforms, it also became an instant opportunity for bot accounts to espouse Chinese propaganda on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Capitalist and imperial interests began aligning and targeting the Dalai Lama, a figure who the Chinese government has continually tried to malign ever since his arrival in India.
We still do not know who created and circulated the initial edited video. What we do know is how it was covered by the media and their reluctance to engage Tibetans.
In exile, hurt by attacks on the Dalai Lama’s character, old Tibetan women recorded videos shedding tears and pleading to the Tibetan public to protect the Dalai Lama. Tibetans responded by protesting against the media. In the Indian regions of Tawang, Ladakh, Spiti, and Darjeeling, Himalayan peoples joined Tibetans in these protests. Ladakh and Tawang are Indian border regions that China has been seeking to claim due to these regions’ shared histories with pre-invasion Tibet and long relationships with the previous Dalai Lamas. Protesters condemn the media for defaming the Dalai Lama and call out China for its explicit weaponizing of the clip.
In colonized Tibet and in China, images of and discussions about the Dalai Lama are banned. Having a photo of him can get you arrested, imprisoned, or worse. However now, the Chinese government is allowing media critiques of the Dalai Lama to circulate. But any governmental expectations that the video and coverage of it would disturb Tibetans are thwarted. Tibetans are reporting they are happy to see videos of the Dalai Lama without restrictions.
While news about the Dalai Lama has been presented explicitly through the lens of culture and sexuality, there has been little acknowledgement of its geopolitical significance. Like other communities around the world, Tibetans are also addressing issues around sexual abuse and consent in our communities, including by figures of authority. But this is not the right moment nor the right person for that discussion.
Instead of this fabricated outrage, Tibetans are focused on life and death events. Chinese officials are arresting Tibetans who speak out in support of the Dalai Lama, while reports of teachers and students taunting Tibetan children at schools in the West are growing. These are real-life ramifications of this transnational event. Impacts on the lives of Tibetan people living under Chinese rule and across the world should be considered. For that, alongside cultural translation of acts of affection, we need geopolitical analysis of political violence.
[Photo by Yancho Sabev, via Wikimedia Commons]