Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Westerner" on a Spiritual Pilgrimage

I stumbled upon this story on the Yoga International magazine website. What's fascinating is how, if you strip off the first part of the following quote, you might think: Is this another Eat, Pray, Love privilege-fest being quoted here? But it isn't. Not for the most part anyway. Although it's true that anyone able to fly half way around the world to do a "spiritual pilgrimage" has some level of privilege.

I grew up in the Midwest with native Chinese parents. Although they hung paintings of Kuan Yin in the living room, they weren’t spiritual types. They didn’t assemble altars with plastic light-up Buddhas, burn incense, or chant. Instead, they planted fruit trees in our yard, baked lasagna, and ballroom danced. Once, when I was a girl, I asked my mother about the Buddha. When she told me that he was a wealthy Indian prince who gave up everything he had, I decided that he couldn’t be trusted.

In my late 30s, I began to attend a Tibetan meditation center in Seattle. Soon, my sitting practice deepened. I chanted the Heart Sutra and I learned that the Buddha was indeed someone I could trust. But impatience hindered my budding practice. No sooner would I fold my legs into lotus pose and relax than I’d begin to fidget or drift off to sleep. When I did manage to stay awake, my mind would chatter away about the dental bill, the beastly project at work, and the benefits of espresso versus chai. Buddhism just didn’t seem to fit in with my American lifestyle. I was too busy and too occupied with modern distractions.

I told myself that all I needed was a journey to the motherland and click, my meditation practice would activate. What I needed was to go where people practiced Buddhism for real, lived it, and not because it was some trendy lifestyle promoted by celebrities or the spiritually correct.

This is quite an interesting mix, isn't it? A middle class Chinese-American woman finding in mid-life, of all things, Tibetan Buddhism, and then taking a trip to Tibet to "jump start" her practice.

It gets better.

The monk asks me where I am from. My guide translates between Tibetan and Mandarin.

"America," I reply.

The monks look puzzled. "America?" They lean in and glance at each other. "How can that be? She looks Chinese."

In all my travels in China, I’d never encountered this reaction. If anything, my response—that I was Chinese American—usually explained why my familiar accent was hitched to my odd grammar.

"My parents were born in China," I explain. Surely they’d heard this story before. But the monks stare at me, their faces riveted to mine. "But they moved to America. I was born there," I finish.

I might as well have said that I was born on Venus. "But she looks Chinese," they say again. They discuss this perplexing matter. I look at Zhuo Ma. She shrugs.

"Westerners have blonde hair and large bones," one monk insists to Zhuo Ma. "Her parents must look very

You gotta love how all these assumptions hit the fan here. The author's assumptions about what might constitute "real" instead of "trendy," as well as her views related to what the trip might do for her Buddhist practice. The monk's assumptions about who the author is and where she's from, as well as what they believed all "Westerners" look like.

If I had quoted only the second and third paragraph above from Ms. Tai's article, would have pictured a Chinese-American Buddhist practitioner who grew up in the U.S. Midwest?

Somehow, I bet not.


Mumon K said...

A middle class Chinese-American woman finding in mid-life, of all things, Tibetan Buddhism,...

Dude, a lot of Chinese are Tibetan Buddhists.

Many aren't even ethnic Tibetans, but rather Han Chinese.

Mumon K said...

And while I'm at it:

- There's lots of folks in Guiana who are Sikhs.

- There's Chinese and people of Chinese descent in Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain ... pretty much anywhere there's people!

There's Chinese restaurants in many of the most voidforsaken parts of America.

There's Japanese and people of Japanese descent in Brazil, Peru, ...

Ethnic misconceptions are universal.

Nathan said...

I was speaking about folks that were born here, not over there. Maybe I'm missing that a lot of Chinese-Americans and Chinese-Canadians are practicing Tibetan Buddhism here in North America, but it's not something I have heard a lot about.

Nathan said...


I have written posts about those folks of Japanese and Chinese descent in Brazil and Mexico, just to name two off the top of my head.

Oh, and in another lifetime it seems now, I spent half a year working with a Chinese-American photographer on an exhibition he did focusing on what it means - at least to him - to be a Chinese-American. The guy went all over the country documenting everything from Chinatowns to a Chinese-American guy in TX who has an in-home shrine to Elvis.

I'm sure as hell not perfect when it comes to understanding issues of race, ethnicity, and all the intersections thereof - but I'm no bumbling idiot either.