Tibet spring

Laughing Buddhas and unsustainable bottled water: Initial fractured glimpses of China

By Andrew Leonard
Published November 15, 2010 12:15AM (EST)

I arrived late Sunday night and it is still early Monday morning. But here are some fractured impressions:

  • A gaggle of American high-school students in line at the immigration checkpoint, laughing hysterically at each other's mangled Mandarin.
  • The bracelet of interlinked Laughing Buddhas affixed to the dashboard of the driver who met me at Beijing International Airport.
  • Logging on the Internet successfully at my hotel, but discovering that while Gmail, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were all easily accessible, Twitter and Facebook were not. Social media more threatening to the censors than the high gatekeepers of Western media? (And if any of my readers has advice on how to connect to Twitter from China, please e-mail me.)
  • The bottle of "Tibet Spring" mineral water served to me on Air China. Mined from a glacier 5100 meters high in Tibet, the elegant bottle included what I assume was the brand name written in Sanskrit-based Tibetan script.

Of all these idiosyncratic observations, the "Tibet Spring" bottle provoked the strongest reaction. The fetishization of bottled water combined with the cultural appropriation of Tibet is a strange thing; a bizarre juxtaposition of consumer capitalist mastery and imperial Chinese control. I thought Fiji Water was an environmental atrocity. But here I was, staring at a slickly packaged bottle of water mined from a glacier in the Himalayas and transported by the Beijing-Lhasa railroad, one of the modern travel infrastructure marvels of the world, to a point where ultimately it could be consumed by passengers rocketing high above the Pacific. And on that bottle, a script that dates back to the earliest roots of civilization and language. The whole shebang struck me as simultaneously essentially human -- a representation of everything we've been doing on this planet since we first started climbing down from trees and striking out across the savannah, and fundamentally unsustainable. What, I wonder, does the Dalai Lama think about Tibet Spring?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China How The World Works Tibet