A Profile in Purpose: Sangjie Zhaxi

Profiles in Purpose: Sangjie Zhaxi, cultural anthropology, Duke 2020

“We cannot preserve a tradition, but we can preserve the knowledge of a tradition.”

For Sangjie Zhaxi, being at Duke has meant going to the other side of the world, both literally and figuratively. The style and rhythms of life he experiences here are a far cry from his childhood in the eastern edge of Tibet. Moving between such vastly different environments has been difficult going at times, but Sangjie finds purpose in bridging and connecting his experiences. He hopes to make a home for himself in the United States without ever leaving Tibet altogether.

“I did not realize how different my childhood was before I lived in mainland China, and later in the US,” Sangjie says. Born and raised in the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province, Sangjie’s early experiences were not dissimilar from those of generations of his family before him. He looked after yaks, sheep, and horses, moving with the seasons. But increasing development in China’s interior meant that Sangjie did not stay to herd with his family. Instead, he went to school and learned Chinese and eventually English. A scholarship to attend Duke brought him away from everything he had known thus far.

At the same time, Sangjie found that Duke offered a wealth of opportunities to continue to study issues about which he cared deeply. In his first two years, he took courses on religious studies and Chinese language, subjects that formed the core of what educated people in his region were expected to know. Moreover, he found a new lens for understanding his community and its stories in cultural anthropology.

After his first year at Duke, Sangjie went back to Tibet to research Buddhist rituals and to teach English in the rural communities in which he was raised. The nomadic lifestyle of many people on the Tibetan Plateau makes formal schooling difficult, and so many of Sangjie’s peers do not speak or read Chinese, nor do they speak English.

Being back in Tibet also drove home some of the changes that have been occurring in the region. Infrastructure projects like electrification and road improvements are changing the landscape, while government policies are pushing previously itinerant people to towards permanently settling in more urban areas. He thinks communities like his will mostly be resettled in a matter of years, not decades.

In the spring of his sophomore year, Sangjie enrolled in the Kenan Purpose Program. His coursework elicited reflections on the two sides of his life. He hoped to reconcile his desire to be connected to his homeland, a place that is changing rapidly in response to more concentrated development in western China, and his desire to grow as a scholar and continue to put down roots in the West. The following summer, Sangjie worked with Ganglha, an NGO focusing on cultural and environmental preservation in Tibet, to collect oral histories of elders his home region while it was still possible to do so. He hoped he would like this work, but he wasn’t sure. He is both of this place but also apart from it now, and he found that he was treated accordingly.

For Sangjie, the way forward is to continue to be connected and yet somewhat apart from eastern Tibet. Documenting the language, culture, and ways of life of families like his before they dissolve in the face of development is naturally very personal; it has become perhaps professional as well. “We cannot always preserve traditions,” he notes, “but we can preserve the knowledge of those traditions for future generations.” In order to do that, he needs to be far away for a while, developing his skills as an anthropologist and documentarian. He has some time left at Duke, but he is currently planning to pursue a PhD in cultural anthropology.