Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tibetan Fish Curry: My Take on Groupon's Tibet Ad

I saw the Groupon Tibet ad online the night of the Superbowl, Sunday night a couple of weeks ago. The thirty second ad started with a shot of the Potala and went:

“Mountainous Tibet, one of the most beautiful places in the world.
This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since two hundred of us bought at, we are getting thirty dollars worth of Tibetan food for just thirteen dollars at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.”

What a weird, strange ad, I thought. Tibetans don’t eat fish curry, and that Himalayan restaurant looks Indian, and that supposedly Tibetan guy looks Nepalese or Sikkimese and also constipated.

So I was bemused and I was confused because I thought, “This cannot be the Superbowl ad.” The ad didn’t look like a $3 million dollar ad. The ad looked, frankly, a bit cheap. And I don’t cheap in the sense of “This belittles the Tibet issue” because I don’t think it did that but cheap in the sense of “This can’t have cost anything to make”. Why would you pay so much to sell something that doesn’t look very expensive? 

But I was not offended and I was not outraged. If anything, I was just a little bit excited that a Groupon ad featured Tibet. And a little bit awed that Groupon didn’t sugarcoat the opening lines to suit the Chinese palate: “The people of Tibet are in trouble; their very culture is in jeopardy.”

In Tibet circles, this is a big deal. It’s huge. A company had the conscience and courage to say something where even governments sit silent for fear of offending China.

But the next morning and the following days, I saw the media (social, political, commercial) tearing the ad to shreds. These were some of the headlines that came out:

Groupon-Tibet: Clever Ad or Crass Commercialism? from CNN
Groupon’s Gaffe from Chicago Tribune
When Edgy Goes Overboard from Politics Daily
Groupon Offends With Tibet-Themed Superbowl Ad from Forbes

The avalanche of criticism to the Groupon Tibet ad can be boiled down to this: that Groupon was turning the suffering of the Tibetan people into a way of making a buck, that they were “insensitive” to the “real crisis” in Tibet.

The show of support, the moral outrage on behalf of the Tibetan people and the Tibetan issue, was overwhelming, humbling and inspiring. I have no doubt that for so many people, it was an issue of principle. They must have felt like they were standing up for Tibetans.

But was the outrage really necessary? After all, Groupon’s heart was in the right place and they were not only acknowledging that Tibetans have a problem, but also offering people a way to help by donating to an NGO that helps Tibetans.

I wondered if the fact that Groupon was a more manageable and less vengeful target than the Chinese Communist Party had anything to do with the enthusiasm of the outrage; if Tibet supporters were unconsciously heartened and relieved to have a more human target than the totalitarian Cyborg machine that is the CCP.

I noticed that my fellow Tibetans’ reaction was quite different from the reaction of non-Tibetans. Far from being upset or insulted, they were just happy that a Superbowl ad mentioned Tibet. They were a bit confused about the slightly schizophrenic nature of the ad, and thought it could have been done better, but overall they were happy with the ad.

And they were all surprised at the reaction of the news media. They all wondered what the big deal was. Look at China’s reaction, they said. The Chinese government and Chinese people were terribly upset that Groupon had said Tibetans were in trouble. If something upsets China this much, doesn’t it mean that Groupon has done something right for Tibetans?

But should we be happy about a thing just because China is unhappy about it? And no matter how ironic the Groupon ad was, for a second there didn’t it look as if the suffering of the Tibetan people was made the springboard for selling coupons for fish curry? Is our outrage threshold too low? Should we take a page from the Chinese book and cry bloody murder every time we spy a paper cut as a way to stave off future injury?

These were all valid questions I was asking myself. But ultimately, I think my fellow Tibetans were right. For us, it’s an issue of survival above all else. We don’t really have the luxury of getting offended at any supporters, not least an organization that has taken our message to a hundred million people. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

From Slapstick to Standup

The Inside Story of How Humor Became a Respectable Enterprise in Tibetan Society

When my brother and I were small, one winter vacation our mother dedicated to the purpose of scolding him for trying to be funny on stage. For two months, she tried to set him straight.

He had gotten on stage several times that school year, after debates and elocution contests when they open the stage to the floor, and cracked some lame jokes. During one Suggestions Session, when the entire student body meets to make suggestions that are passed on to the school principal, he said that that the school tingmos, the flour buns for breakfast, should be bigger and puffier.

In those days, at Patlikuhl, sobriety from humor was considered as important as sobriety from alcohol; the idea that your kid might be seen as a “joker” was a terrifying prospect for most parents. It meant that no one would take them seriously.

Hence the long winter ordeal. I mean he should have expected it. When my mother came to school, teachers took her aside and in the deathly serious tones of something saying, “He takes drugs,” my mother was told, “He tries to be funny. He tells jokes in front of the other students.”

I think what everybody was so alarmed about was that humor is always irreverent. Humor deconstructs, subverts, turns something –an idea, a concept, a belief- on its head. Where humor flourishes, reverence diminishes.

That’s why authority figures like our school teachers could not abide students being funny.

In those days our entire community looked down on humor. People talk about how Tibetans are so good natured, ready to find the humor in anything but in fact our humor was too broad and shallow, too easily satisfied with watching people fall on their faces. Where there is nothing to be seen of wit and irony, satire and black humor, only slapstick survives.

However, and I am not sure how it happened, being funny slowly became an asset. As I moved schools from provincial Patlikuhl (the back of the woods) to Dharamsala, the cosmopolitan exile capital at the top of the hill, I noticed that the ban on humor was here lifted.

The funny students were known and lauded, and it was fine for them, good even, to be funny.

Don’t get me wrong. Humor still wasn’t so valued that women were going around saying of their prospective husbands, “I am marrying him because he makes me laugh.” No one was going that far.
But it was hip to be funny. And over the years it has grown progressively cooler to be funny.

Perhaps we were all so anal in the beginning because we were poor refugees working as coolies or settling farmland and there was no time to make or listen to jokes?

But now there was. A number of years ago, we debuted our first stand-up comic. Pasang Tsering. Ex-monk. His jokes were pretty funny, but a large part of his routine was song, or the singing of Indian songs with funny Tibetan lyrics.

And from Tibet there was Migmar la and Thupten la, but I heard them in Boston and thought they were pretty awful: theatrical and stagey, stiff and scripted, and just not funny. It was slapstick rather than standup: two grown men on stage feeding each other terrible, unoriginal lines and expecting you to laugh.

Which, to be fair, the audience was doing but only because Menla Kyab, who went before them, had hammered them with his Amdo accent to the nth power, and they were relieved to hear central Tibetan again.

Now we have Sonam Wangdue, ex TCV and a good friend of ours. He has a gift for physical comedy, a taste for impressions, and can be genuinely funny off the cuff. The other day we were hanging out with an Inji friend who speaks some Tibetan, and SW said, “Ok, please speak Tibetan in Tibetan only.”

He did a standup routine in Boston at Thanksgiving, and the audience was splitting with laughter. He topped it off with a dance routine, of the different dancing styles that our people have, which was totally hilarious. He does also have some jokes which fall flat, which he has to cut, but he is not ruthless at cutting.

He has a talk show that will debut on Vajra TV but I don’t know how funny that will be. Fingers crossed. He is also a professional MC and that’s a new thing. He keeps (and I mean this very loosely) a blog at

We still have a long way to go. Our political cartoons have no teeth. I don’t think the cartoonist at Bod-kyi-dus-bab even tries anymore. It’s like he’s just doing drawings.

But I live in hope. We have tottered this far. Surely a Seinfeld or a Stewart cannot be all that far in the future now.