Patricia Schiaffini


As Interviewed by Jenny Lu, March 16, 2014

Patricia Schiaffini: In Her Own Words

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but I was raised in Spain. When I was a child we moved several times because my father was a researcher, so he got different scholarships to study here and there. Since I was a child, I was very interested in China, partly because my father gave me some books about China. I started reading those books and I was very interested. What interested me the most was actually the Chinese Revolution and how that affected the life of the Chinese peasants. I was interested in going to China, yet I didn’t know what I would do in China. And I remember every time something about China would come up on TV, I would sit there and almost cry and think that I would never be able to go there!

At that time in Spain, we didn’t have any possibilities to study Chinese language or anything related to China, so I had to wait until I finished my BA degree to get a scholarship from the Chinese government to go to China to study. My BA was in world history, and then I got a scholarship from the Chinese government. I went to China for four years to study at Beijing University. After that, I came to the U.S. to pursue my Master’s degree at Stanford, also in Chinese Studies. I did my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, but I also took some courses at Princeton because my advisor was at Princeton. At that time, in China and at Stanford, I studied more Modern Chinese History, but when I did my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, I kind of changed my research towards Modern Chinese Literature.

When I was doing my PhD, I chose as my dissertation topic: Literature of Tibetan writers who write in Chinese. Because of the research that I was doing, I had to interview a lot of Tibetan writers who wrote in Chinese, so I went to Lhasa for several months. As I was interviewing them, one of the things I realized is that in ethnic minority areas, because they were far away from the centers of economic development in China, people tended to be a little bit more poor, and they didn’t have that many resources and that many schools. Then we visited some schools and we saw not only Tibetan teachers, but also Han Chinese teachers and Hui teachers that were working in the countryside. They didn’t have much training, and their schools were very poor, so I thought we could maybe do something for them.

At the beginning, it was a way for me to give back to the people there that had been so generous to me when I was doing research, because everybody was really helping me a lot. I remember when I got sick in Lhasa, my Chinese friends and my Tibetan friends would come everyday to visit me, bring me food, take me to the hospital, and many different things. And I thought, these people have been so generous to me, and then I’m going to go to the U.S., I’m going to write my dissertation, I’m going to become famous in my research world for the work I’ve done, but then nobody’s going to remember the people that helped me so much in Tibet. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to finish my research. So at the beginning was the idea of giving back to them, so I created a nonprofit organization called TALI, which stands for Tibetan Arts and Literature Initiative. It was just an idea to preserve Tibetan language through entertainment because that is how I manage to keep my children trilingual.

This is what we started with, but then I realized that we could also help the teachers at school, and that is how we started our training program for teachers. We go every summer and we train Han Chinese, Tibetan, and Hui Chinese teachers in rural areas in Qinghai province. Some of them also in Lhasa, where we did a lot of training, even for Chinese teachers. We take American teachers, and last year we also took Han Chinese and Taiwanese teachers that were working in Suzhou. We took them to Qinghai so they could teach the teachers there. It’s kind of a very interesting training because there’s all kinds of languages happening at the same time. That’s what we’ve been doing every summer since the year 2008. Basically what we accomplish is to give an idea, an example, to inspire teachers.

I would say maybe out of a whole week of training we give them, they may be able to apply 10% of what we say because their situation is so different. That is what I’m saying: we’re there not to teach, but more to inspire.

Have you noticed the effects of modernity on their culture and society? If so, how?

There’s always this issue of not only tradition versus modernity, but also your own culture versus the imported culture. That’s what I think is happening all over China now that in these rural areas, modernity is getting there, through iPhones and things like that. One thing that was shocking to me was that last year; many of these teachers had iPhones. That was shocking to me because I thought these teachers came from rural areas, so they wouldn’t have that much money. They would probably prefer to have that iPhone and not have other things that we would consider better. For me, it’s better to buy organic food than to have an iPhone. So I will spend my money buying organic food or better food or providing for my children education in a way, like with extracurricular classes. iPhones are very expensive in China, more expensive than here, so for them, it’s really a sacrifice. At the beginning, I thought, why would they buy an iPhone? Is it just a social status thing? Then I realized that when you buy an iPhone, you can write in Tibetan and you can write in Chinese. I realized that the iPhone was empowering them to be able to cling on to their own language, write in Tibetan, and preserve their own language instead of losing that by writing all in Chinese. So the iPhone was not only a status symbol, but also that the technology. The iPhone was providing them was empowering them to use Tibetan as well -- to text, or to post things in social media. That was important to them, and I understood.
China is one of the few countries in the world that is so culturally diverse and so wonderfully diverse that if that diversity and those local cultures are lost, it will not only be a huge loss for China, it will be a huge loss for humanity. We’re talking about languages like Shanghainese, that people call dialects. They are not dialects -- they are different languages. And they have to be preserved that way.

Maybe this globalization is tending towards the loss of other languages in China because people want to learn Mandarin and English, so when are you going to have the time to learn the language of your parents? For me, as a historian and a literature person, preserving your own culture is very important, so you cannot accept another culture if you don’t know your culture first. I’ve seen that when you accept blindly the culture you are importing and then you don’t cling on to your own traditions, I’ve seen that people, in some years time, they regret it.

Ethnic minority children obviously have a different childhood than an average western child. How are they different? how are they similar? For example, their maturity, relationships with other children, education...

They’re still children in the sense that they want to play, but if their father says go and milk the yak, they’re going to go and milk the yak. They're going to have another set of skills that most children in the U.S. don't have.

Children make friends and make enemies. Sometimes they’re able to keep their relationships longer than here because there’s less mobility in these areas. Usually if you are born in a place, you are raised in that place, and you may die in that place, unlike in the U.S. where you will most likely leave the city where you were born and raised and never see your friends again. I think in that situation, friendships are developed and kept for a longer time.

A lot of children don't go to school or go later, especially in areas that are very remote. And we are talking about some of these areas that are nomadic areas, so some of the nomads are moving with their cattle from place to place, and they may not be able to send their child to school, or they need the children to stay at the farm and work. We can’t even criticize these parents because they are working in a survival mode, and they need to survive. Also, they think, especially people in ethnic minority areas, if the school is not teaching ethnic minority culture or language, they’re wasting their time.

Imagine if the school is several miles away. That child has to walk in the countryside alone to get to that school. It’s going to be very cold. Some parents don’t even have the money to get a thick jacket for the child, or a backpack for the child to take their books to school. It’s very simple things like that. Before, the Chinese government took care of that, but ever since the 1990s, China has become more of a market economy, so parents are forced to have some money to support the education of their children. Schools are not free as they used to be. Even though the schools may not be expensive in our terms, when you are very poor, if you don't have money for a jacket for your child, or a backpack, or a good pair of shoes so your child can walk miles to get to school, then that child can’t go to school, period. That is just the way it is.

Based on your vast experience with multiple visits to places all around the world, what changes have you noticed over the years? And what differences have you noticed between different places?

I think human beings are the same all over. I tend to see the similarities more than the differences because I’ve been all over the world, so I tend to see the things that unite us, that make us equal. The only thing I see that is a little different is gender relations because I think women rights are not equally defended there. It’s not a problem of culture; it’s a problem of initial economic development and a lot of social issues. If women aren’t still able to have a job that gives them independence, then women equality will not thrive. That situation is interesting to see. We are also talking about rural areas, and rural areas tend to be traditional all over the world. If you look at the rural areas of Texas, you're going to see some of the same social issues that you will see in rural areas or ethnic minority areas in China.

One of the things that I feel is that because we adopt what we think is modernity, we tend to forget things in our culture that are very important, so that is something that I find regrettable. I think it is just a general tendency in the world towards globalization, but I still feel sad whenever I hear that a language has been lost, or the last grandmother that spoke that language died without being able to pass it on to someone else, and honestly, I feel bad, and I might be too extremist, when I hear Chinese children are celebrating Halloween, it gives me a stomachache. I guess it’s fine if they celebrate Halloween, as long as they don't forget to celebrate their own festivities. I think it is fine to globalize ourselves, but without forgetting our own culture.