Traveling to India to Track Tibetan Culture

Di Grazia's research found that many Tibetans saw the proliferation of souvenirs and religious items as an avenue for people to educate themselves about Tibetan culture, rather than being an offensive practice. Photograph courtesy Amanda Di Grazia

When Amanda Di Grazia went to Nepal for a study-abroad program in fall 2017, she found herself avoiding the immersive cultural experience that typically accompanies the academic component of a semester on international soil.

There was a universal reluctance among the students in her program to participate in local activities because her classmates were concerned that their participation might offend community members.

But Di Grazia wondered if this logic was sound.

“We were a bunch of white people speculating that our actions would offend these Nepalese people, but was that actually rooted in truth? Or, were we just being overly sensitive?” she says. “And was our intent backfiring because we weren’t learning as much about the local culture as we could be if we spent more time involved with it?”

Many Tibetans see souvenir objects, such as brass statues of Buddha and Hindu deities, as a way to keep their traditions and identity alive. Photo courtesy of Amanda Di GraziaDi Grazia turned her question into a research project, remaining in South Asia to investigate the matter after her program concluded. Although not required to do so by any class or professor, she designed and executed a study and wrote a paper outlining her findings, simply driven by her desire to learn more about another culture.

Di Grazia examined how Tibetans feel about the commodification of religious items and souvenirs affiliated with their culture. She chose this subject because McLeod Ganj, India, her residence after leaving Nepal, is home to Tibetan refugees and the city is a bustling tourism hub, brimming with visitors exchanging cash for Tibetan tokens and keepsakes.

Metallic trinkets and colorful handicrafts flood storefront windows. Shops overflow with brass statues of Buddha and Hindu deities, piles of bright, beaded jewelry, crocheted hats, long rows of prayer wheels, and Tibetan knives.

Many of these objects might look familiar to Americans, Di Grazia says, as many people in the United States decorate their homes with Tibetan pieces, adorning their porches with rainbows of prayer flags and planting statues of Buddha in their gardens.

The philosophy and sociology double major asked Tibetans if they found these gestures offensive, or objected to people profiting from their culture through souvenirs and trinkets. In her interviews, she used skills acquired in ethnography—the scientific description of the customs of peoples and cultures.

Di Grazia found that most of her subjects weren’t offended by the proliferation of souvenirs and religious items. Instead, they saw these objects as an opportunity for people to educate themselves about the Tibetan culture and cause.

“Most people were not at all concerned about the amount of religious and cultural souvenirs being sold in local shops, as long as people are respectful and not misusing the objects,” says Di Grazia, who graduated earlier this year. “Souvenirs can act as a form of sharing culture and communicating the issues affecting Tibet. Many Tibetans saw these objects as a way to keep their traditions and identity alive and to spread word of their cause around the world.”

The deeper she got into the interviews, the more Di Grazia shifted her own behavior as a visitor to a foreign country. She started embracing cultural activities as an integral aspect of visiting a new place and living amongst its people. She attended dance performances, accepted invitations to family dinners, and went to the local monasteries.

“Americans don’t need to be so hypersensitive that they avoid cultural opportunities outside of their own, they just need to be respectful,” Di Grazia says. “If you want to participate in someone’s culture, take the time to learn about it and understand what you’re using or doing.”

—By Emily Halnon, University Communications