Rooting for Olympics Underdog

Whne I was a child in Kiev people feared that being seen with foreigners could lead to false accusations of revealing government secrets.

Watching the Olympics, I am reminded of my earliest memory of the games, the 1980 Moscow games that the U.S. boycotted in protest of the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Afghanistan. I was seven at the time and my family was just off the boat, having arrived as Jewish refugees in Cleveland three month earlier from Kiev. I was too young to understand geopolitics but I was grateful that the U.S. was standing up to the Soviets.

Growing up in Cleveland in the 80’s when it was known as the “mistake on the lake,” it was easy to take for granted how lucky I was to be in the states. Though I had some vague memories of the one room shack our family of four lived in and the outhouse we shared with neighbors, I barely remembered Kiev until my family decided to return for a visit when I was 25. A stagnant economy and crippling currency crisis sent women parading down Kreschatik, the capital’s main drag, in hopes of attracting a foreigner husband to escape the desperate situation. I avoided eye contact as we explored the city, feeling guilty about my privileged life. In a week I would return to the land of opportunity but these people had no way out. I had never before considered myself lucky.

Years later, I traveled to Tibet. A special permit granted to those traveling on group tours was the only way to get in. I made my way to Chengdu in Sichuan, China to a guest house that secured the permits for a fee and then let us loose in Lhasa. It was the only way I could see the country without a handler ensuring everything complied with the official for-tourist-consumption version. Arriving in Lhasa, I saw the same hopeless, resigned stares that followed me in Kiev.

Tibetans are fighting against a systematic cultural genocide aimed at wiping out their language, religion, and way of life not unlike what Jews faced in the Soviet Union. When I was a child in Kiev people feared that being seen with foreigners could lead to false accusations of revealing government secrets. That same trepidation pervades Tibet today. Tibetans avoid eye contact with foreigners knowing that arbitrary laws may land them in jail with no trial. Monks and Nuns are regularly arrested for expressing their religious beliefs and sentenced to long prison terms in secret trials. Han Chinese enjoy preferential access to education and jobs just like Ukrainians and Russians were given priority through institutionalized anti-semitism. Seeing Tibetans secretly pass banned images of the Dalai Lama reminds me of my grandfather Leonid who hid his yarmulke and survived the WW II labor camp by pretending to be Ukrainian. China’s Tibetans are just like the Soviet Jews were with one exception. No super power is willing to speak up for them.

As an adult, I learned that America leveraged its economic clout by granting favorable trade incentives in exchange for the Soviet Union’s releasing over a million refuseniks, Jews and other dissents. In today’s post-Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Iraq world, the administration has lost that moral footing. We fear challenging China’s human rights record will bring the focus back to our own failures so we look the other way.

Or growing trade deficit also has a silencing effect. As I hunch over my made in China Lenovo laptop, I have mixed feelings. My personal history won’t let me ignore what is happening in Tibet. But I am addicted to the cheap imports and comfortable life as much as everyone else. I wish there were a 12 step program to break our national consumerism addiction because I know the stakes.

China has spent years and millions sprucing up its image for these Olympics. Beijing banned public spitting, moved factories outside the capital to reduce pollution, and gave English language and etiquette classes to thousands of workers who will come into contact with tourists and athletes. But the cosmetic transformation has done nothing to improve free speech, secure religious freedom, create jobs for minorities whose primary language is not mandarin, or improve real living conditions of 2.4 million Tibetans.
The Beijing Olympics began at 8 p.m. on 08-08-08. The auspicious number eight is supposed to bring luck, prosperity, and wealth. I hope some of that luck will rub off on Tibet.

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