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From Guernica:

I meet Golog Jigme again in his large empty room at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center. He serves me Chinese green tea from golden foil packets, pouring hot water over the leaves until I have a dark forest in the bottom of my cup. Through the window behind him, a string of prayer flags hangs against the white sky.

I show him a cleaned-up drawing of the chair in colored pencil. “Is this right?”

He nods and laughs. “You have got a very whole picture,” he says through the interpreter. Then he crosses out the leg cuffs. “This was not like this.” He says we should move on. “It will take time to explain how the leg cuff looks. And in China are many different leg cuffs. This will just create more confusion.”
“Even in Tibetan,” Golog Jigme continues, “the chair is almost impossible to describe. Tibetans in India don’t know the names of the different kinds of Chinese handcuffs. There are specific words. It is difficult to understand what you have not seen, like trying to teach the Buddhist dharma.”

This isn’t the first time I have heard about the many varieties of Chinese handcuffs. There is one kind that clamps into the thumbs, and one that is used to suspend people by their wrists. In the conversation class, the students tell me about one type that is serrated on the inner ring, so that the metal teeth bite into the wrists of the cuffed. One of them recalls seeing a young man, a boy almost, arrive at the Tibetan Transit Center in Nepal with one of these ruthless bracelets deeply embedded in his wrist, his flesh having grown over the wound. The cuff had to be cut from his arm. At first I am confused—I think this young man is telling me what happened to him, then, what he witnessed. Later I understand that it is just a story he heard. This is a language problem, but it is more than that—it is the way stories are carried in common, part of a deep, collective pain.

When I Google “Chinese handcuffs,” I get pictures of those woven bamboo finger traps handed out in goody bags at children’s birthday parties. An unsuspecting child puts a finger in each end. As she tries to pull her fingers out of the trap, the weave tightens. The more she pulls, the tighter the hold. The game is a sort of psychological torture; the only way to release the tension and free herself is to push her fingers further into the trap.

I think of monks and nuns forced to sign pledges of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. I think of brand new Chinese flags distributed in villages to replace traditional prayer flags. I think of the “Happiness Campaigns,” requiring young Tibetans to sing and dance in local festivals. How easy would it be to play along? Sign the pledge. Replace photographs of the Dalai Lama with photographs of Mao. Report neighbors for suspicious activities. The quiet ones can get government jobs.

“The Chair”, Emily Strasser, Guernica