KANGDING, China (Reuters) - As Qingcuo Duoji and his friends lounge on a football pitch smoking, little beyond their crimson cheeks and high noses mark them out as Tibetan.
The youth banter in the Mandarin twang distinctive to Sichuan province in southwest China. Their clothes are no different from those worn by Han Chinese kids in this area where Tibetan and Chinese populations overlap.
“Enter a village, follow its customs,” Qingcuo Duoji, 25, says, using the Chinese equivalent of: “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”
The biggest protests by Tibetans in almost two decades turned violent in the historical heart of Tibetan culture, Lhasa, earlier this month and spread to other areas. The government has flooded the region with troops and suppressed spreading unrest.
There have been no protests in Kangding, a trade outpost turned tourism hub where the Himalayan highlands and the Chinese plains meet. Yet the recent anti-Chinese unrest elsewhere has exposed rifts that could set Qingcuo Duoji and his friends apart from their Han Chinese mates for a long time to come.
Tibetans and Chinese, particularly from the Han ethnic group which accounts for 90 percent of the population, have mingled here for centuries, but ethnic Tibetan identity still runs deep.
For most, that means a desire to preserve distinct linguistic and religious traditions that some fear are being diluted through government policy and assimilation.
Qingcuo Duoji grew up tending yaks and horses, like many of the 5 million or so ethnic Tibetans in China who live as high-altitude herders.
From the time he was small, however, he wanted more.
“It’s very simple. The living conditions are bad, the roads are bad. Everybody wants something better,” he said.
He said he studied hard and went to college near the provincial capital of Chengdu where for the first time in his life he was a minority. He and his ethnic Tibetan classmates got together when they could to sing Tibetan songs and dance.
“We couldn’t sacrifice our culture. It’s in our hearts no matter where we go and that won’t change,” he said.
Nearby, in a one-storey house, a Tibetan woman who declined to divulge her name, sat by a burning stove. Her three-year-old son, like all children in the area, is taught Chinese in a school on the outskirts of Kangding.
But his mother has no worries about him losing touch with his roots. “It wouldn’t happen,” she said, laughing at the question.
On the soccer pitch, the Tibetan youth assiduously avoid discussing politics and seem genuinely disinterested. But the touchy subject is never far, especially during such a tense time.
Down the road, the gate at the Sichuan Tibetan Language School was padlocked shut, its students from around the region only allowed out of campus with a signed note from an administrator.
If language strings Tibetans together, their distinct form of Buddhism underpins their culture.
Pilgrims travel hundreds of kilometers (miles) to Lhasa each year to pray, some by foot prostrating themselves with each step.
Monks in ruby robes populate ornate monasteries that dot the landscape. In some areas, every family is expected to offer one son to the local monastery.
Unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world, Tibetan Buddhist monks can sometimes act uniquely secular. Many eat yak meat. Some go home to help out on farms during harvest season.
In a Kangding coffee shop, two robed lamas played cards for money with a local, while a third busily typed text messages on his mobile phone.
“We can use them any time we want,” he said of the phone, “just not when we’re reading sutras.”
Before the Communist army’s takeover in 1950, Buddhist clergy ran the mountain kingdom’s politics.
Since then, the ruling Communist Party has kept a close eye on the monks and poured scorn on their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile.
Nevertheless, most Tibetans retain a deep affinity for the Dalai Lama, who China has blamed for the unrest.
China bans keeping photos of the Dalai Lama, who was awarded America’s top civilian honor — the Congressional Gold Medal — by U.S. President George W. Bush in October.
But many Tibetans find ways around the ban.
As police drove by outside, one monk furtively showed a snapshot on his mobile phone of the U.S. president meeting the Dalai Lama in October.
“George Bush is great. George Bush, I love you,” he said.
A Han Chinese driver encapsulated the depth of the ethnic divide where the unrest is unfolding.
“We are basically the same, except for religion,” said the man. “It’s like the Muslims and the Jews.”
Editing by Megan Goldin