As part of the ethnic education system of off-site classes in China, the Inner Uyghur/Tibetan classes are designed for students from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet Autonomous Region (most of them are ethnic minority students) who chose to study in Inner China for middle school and high school. These classes train students academically and socially for college in Inner China.
One of the graduates of the Inner Tibetan class, Denzin，recorded and passed down his memories of this tailored program in his book published in 2020 as the 35th anniversary of the Inner Tibetan Class, and completed an oral history of the key 35 people who are former students of the Inner Tibetan class. Denzin believes that "History is what a country and a nation must remember; it is not only the memories of generations but looking back on history provides us with endless lessons and spiritual motivation."
The oral history of the key 35 people | Source: Web
Similarly looking back into the history of the Inner Uyghur/Tibetan class, this article will examine the educational structure in Inner China and how this structure shapes culture and influences personal identity.
An Inner Alternative
Many ethnic minority students who pursue higher education attend university in Inner China because of the limited higher educational resources in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet Autonomous Region. The Inner Uyghur/Tibetan Class accepts students strictly based on academic excellence.
Emilia, a former Inner Uyghur Class student, recalled that "the selection exam for Inner Uyghur class is harder than the normal high school entrance exam in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region]. " Only the top performers in the selection exam are provided the opportunity to attend this particular high school program in Inner China.
Emilia’s family encouraged her to attend Inner China because they believed it offered better educational resources; she also hoped to "explore other cities." Similarly, Gulimighe, a former Inner Uyghur Class student, reported that "I[she] wanted to go to Inner China to see what the world [beyond Xinjiang] was like. My[Her] parents know the education in Inner China is better than that of Xinjiang, so they encouraged me[her] to go."
Cultural and Linguistic Adaptation
Nearly all students from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet Autonomous Region attending Inner China experience culture shock and adaptation.
Pasang recalled the contrast between the adorable "yaks on the street," a common sight in her rural Tibet, and the cold and detached infrastructure upon arrival at Inner China - there wasn't that sense of warmth I[she] felt when home." Lobsang also recalled feeling a sense of detachment because of the unfamiliar food and fare served in Inner China. Gulimighe from Xinjiang, however, had a different experience. "We continued to celebrate Uyghur festivals while studying in Inner China, and we also celebrated traditional Han festivals like Spring festival, so there wasn't much of a change for me."
Linguistics challenges are often at the core of cultural differences and necessary adjustments; after all, linguistics is foundational to culture. Most students attending the Inner Uyghur/Tibetan class are well-versed in Mandarin since a certain level of Mandarin fluency is required to qualify for the Inner Uyghur/Tibetan class.
However, Mandarin fluency differs based on the level of Han influence in their hometown. Pasang states that students from large Tibetan cities like Lhasa and Nyingchi are unhindered by language barriers for the most part. Still, students from districts of lesser Han influence usually have difficulty understanding lessons when they first arrive in Inner China. "There were even times when students were so frustrated they busted out crying in the middle of class," she recalled.
The difference in Mandarin fluency based on geography and background is often a result of people prioritizing a language's social value (Zhang, 2019). Frequent economic and cultural exchange with inner China in larger-scale Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet Autonomous Region cities increases Mandarin's economic value and thus public use.
For many ethnic minorities, preserving linguistic habits may undermine the ability to acquire fluency in other languages, resulting from the inner conflicts between the cultural and economic values of different languages. The middle school cohort of the Inner Tibetan/Uyghur class did not fail to recognize the value and importance of ethnic languages. "Tibetan class was just as important as math or Chinese when I was in middle school," Lobsang states. "But they stop teaching Tibetan in high school since it's not part of the National College Entrance Exam." A curriculum void of Tibetan class faced initial opposition from the student body at Pasang's high school. "Students were advocating to preserve Tibetan culture. We wondered why they wouldn't teach us Tibetan anymore."
On the other hand, Lobsang recalled that students in his school were more indifferent about the lack of Tibetan education in high school. Still, their parents were worried that their children's ties to their native ethnic culture would soon fade without a proper Tibetan language education. "We appealed for two Tibetan classes every week," according to Lobsang. "The school was very understanding and agreed to hold two classes every week." Similarly, Pasang's high school organized a Tibetan language club so that students could continue studying Tibetan in high school.
There were also several students like Gulimighe who had never experienced such cultural-linguistics challenges. She constantly read Uyghur literature to maintain her linguistic bonds to Uyghur culture. "I communicate with my family daily using Uyghur language... When I go back to Xinjiang, I can easily revert to my native language. When I return to Inner China, I can easily switch to Mandarin."
Gulimighe believes her bilingualism to be an advantage, helping her adapt to different situations and circumstances. Emilia expressed a similar sentiment, " When I am at home I speak Uyghur with my family, but outside I use Mandarin." Upon learning about the problems facing other Inner Tibetan/Uyghur classes in preserving their language and heritage, she admitted that "nobody around me [her] thinks that the high school division of Inner Uyghur class should teach us Uyghur language. You come to Inner China to study and understand their culture, but then you want to learn your native language in Inner China?? -- I don't think people think like that."
Equal Cultural Communication
On the question of cultural communication, all interviewees confirmed that the interaction between members of different ethnicities is generally equal. In Lobsang's view, he can take the initiative to freely learn Tibetan without infringing on Inner Class policy or undermining dealings in real life. Furthermore, the exposure to both cultures has made him think more about cultural exchange. "I feel that I have remained faithful to Tibetan cultural customs, but I also like the Han culture very much. I even prefer many social etiquettes and aspects of Han culture."
Gulimighe reported that she is satisfied with the status quo of cultural communication between Ughyurs and Han. "I once saw on Weibo a Uyghur girl who included elements of Uyghur culture on traditional Han embroidery -- like a spark of the cultural communication that's fostered by the program."
The Reevaluation of identity
Experience and different environments lead to new perspectives and even identities. Studying two different cultures can reshape and shed new light on identity, especially during formative years.
Pasang explained that her experience in Inner Tibetan class has been transformative as "I[she] learned to view things from more than a single perspective. [She] stopped considering everything based on ethnic pride and competition after studying in Inner China -- there are many ways to interpret things."
Lobsang admitted that he didn't immerse himself in the education of the Inner Tibetan Class at the outset. "I resisted modernized education," he confessed, "but I later came to accept it and was even glad that I[he] chose to enroll in Inner Tibetan Class." He added, "If I[he] had chosen to stay in Tibet instead of attending the Inner China Class, I would probably be living and working on the streets instead [of my current occupation]."
Emilia shared similar sentiments -- "I started seeing my culture and other cultures more analytically, ..... when you see different people living completely different lives, you become more open-minded towards the beliefs and perspectives of others." Emilia commented that students who have attended high school classes in Inner China are more likely to accept the local culture and customs when they go to college. Gulimighe's refined view of culture explains this phenomenon -- "Participating in the Inner Uyghur Class opened my mind to cultural issues. I have already learned another culture and adapted. I can be very open to different cultures since I enjoyed my first experience and the new perspectives gained."
Gulimighe also added that she initially considered the Han culture as a means to benefit her education and put her on a better professional career path, but she admitted that "after I[she] learned about the Han culture I[she] realized that I do[she does] like it. This inexplicable draw of a different culture makes you curious, and you can find much joy in the learning."
"When you experience more and see more, you reach a higher level of contemplation and understanding." Gulimighe explained that this "higher level of contemplation and understanding" can be achieved by immersing herself in both cultures. She also engaged in more active critical thinking as she talked to people from different cultural backgrounds and socialized in various cultural settings. As her perspective and understanding grew, so too did her world and place in it.
Zhang Zhiguo. (2019). Language value, language choice and language policy. Journal of Yunnan Normal University (Philosophy and Social Science Edition), 51(05):48-56.