This is a re-post of an interview I did last year. I had to take it down because so many people criticized this woman and made her feel guilty. People who don’t want women’s rights accused her of embarrassing the Dalai Lama. No matter what they say, this is real life, this is an important story. I hope people who read this will think how we can deal with real life issues. We need to take responsibility for our own community.
Kunsang Dolma: Where do you come from and what does your family do? Are they nomads or farmers?
Tsering: My village is called Shukyi [in Kham, eastern Tibet], my family is completely nomadic, we have no farm. I have two brothers. I’m the oldest of the three children. We never got any education or went to school at all. Most people where I come from don’t care about education.
KD: You didn’t go to school, so were you helping your parents?
TS: Yes, we helped take care of the animals. We helped our parents with everything they needed to do.
KD: What age did you get married and leave home?
TS: I don’t remember what age I was. There’s a good chance I was twenty or younger, probably around twenty.
KD: How did you meet your husband? How did you get married?
TS: My husband had a business and came through the village once in awhile to sell his goods. That’s how we met, then I left my parents’ house to be with him. My husband and I ran a business in a nearby small town.
KD: How long were you two married?
TS: Twelve years.
KD: You told me earlier that you left your husband to flee to India because he was an alcoholic. Was he drinking everyday or just once in awhile?
TS: He drank a lot.
KD: Did you come to India mostly because you knew about the Dalai Lama and wanted to see the Dalai Lama or mostly because you wanted to get away from your husband?
TS: I have three kids. The reason I waited until after I had three kids was that I thought he would get better as he got older. I thought when he got older and had kids he would start thinking about his family, but nothing changed. I waited through the first child, the second child and the third child hoping he would change his crazy life, then I started worrying about the kids’ education. The family wasn’t stable, there was always fighting and violence around the kids. I was worried that when the kids grew up in this family they would end up having wild lives, maybe they would become thieves. In the town if people don’t have education or a stable life it was common that boys ended up stealing and fighting and girls ended up prostitutes. I could see our kids were probably going to end up like that. Kids need to be raised in a healthy family and our family wasn’t healthy, it was crazy and violent.
Since I lived with him I never bought anything of my own, I never even picked out my own clothes or one piece of fabric on my own. I used whatever he bought for me. Once in awhile he gave me money to buy food. I never tried to think about how to make money on the side, I did whatever I could to be a better wife.
My family suspected what was going on. They asked me if I was okay, but I always told them everything was fine. Going back to live with my family was too dangerous; my husband wouldn’t let me leave. I thought he would kill me for sure if I went back to my family, maybe he would kill my family too. There were a number of times he came close. I think it’s possible that until your time is up nobody can kill you even if they try. I knew I needed to leave, but I couldn’t see any way to do it. If I left I had to really leave; I had to go somewhere he wouldn’t find me. Even after I made up me my to leave I had to wait for the right opportunity.
I felt like it wasn’t possible to leave with three kids. The older one was six, the middle one three and the youngest only five months old. If I didn’t leave I knew my husband was dangerous to the family but if I left I didn’t know how I could take three kids. The five month old wasn’t ready to walk, and there was no way I could carry both the five month old and the three year old on my back. It wasn’t possible to take three so I had to think about who I would leave behind. I thought the older one could handle herself better at home than the three year old but I also felt that a girl needed her mother more than a boy. If I left the five month old boy at home I thought he wouldn’t survive. His father most likely wouldn’t feed him and he would die. I thought about it a lot, I decided the only way I could do it was to leave the three year old boy. He had a few other children he played with in the village and could talk.
KD: Was it when he cut your hand that you knew you needed to leave?
TS: When my daughter, my first child, was a few months old he came home in the middle of the night drunk as usual. He just yelled at me and scolded me while stabbing into the bed with a knife all around me. I wasn’t sure where I could go to get away because it was the middle of the night but it was hard to stay with him stabbing the bed next to me again and again.
I grabbed my chuba [traditional Tibetan dress like a robe], picked up my sleeping daughter and put her inside the front, then I started to leave. Just about when I got to the door he charged toward me with the knife. When I turned around and saw the knife in his hand I thought he might kill the baby so I put my hands out to grab the knife. I grabbed onto the blade with both hands, then he twisted the knife and pulled it away, slicing through my hands and causing the baby to fall out of the chuba. I tried to pick up the baby but I couldn’t. Blood was flowing everywhere from my hands. The next thing I knew I was in a hospital. At the hospital the doctor said I got there too late to repair the damage. All the doctor could do was stitch the flesh back together. We didn’t have any money to take me to a bigger hospital, maybe a bigger hospital could have done more. I don’t know. It took a long time to get better, when it did get better my fingers still didn’t work well.
KD: You told me earlier that when you tried to come to India the first time the Chinese government caught you at the border and put you in jail. How long were you in jail?
TS: When I started leaving, I left carrying my five month old son on my back and holding my daughter’s hand. I didn’t have any experience or have much advice to go on. When we got to Lhasa I didn’t know how to get a guide. I’d heard that the Chinese government had a lot of spies in Lhasa trying to catch people thinking about going to India, so I had keep quiet. It was hard to figure out how to get a guide without knowing anything or being able to ask people. I started thinking I couldn’t get out right away, instead I got the idea to go to Mt. Everest; at least I would be getting closer to India there. I got there by catching rides on passing trucks going in that direction. Each truck took me a little closer before dropping me off. Getting there wasn’t easy but I got there eventually.
After I got to Mt. Everest I heard about a guide taking people to India. Three days later I found the guide. There were eleven people in the group. Some people had told me that I couldn’t trust some guides because they might take everyone’s money then take us to the Chinese army instead of across the mountains. I’d heard that but I didn’t have any choice. Only two days after our group left we were caught by a Chinese soldier. It looked like the he was waiting for us. I don’t know because I don’t have experience, other people in the group said that they thought our guide took money for turning us in. Each one of us was questioned by the army, it went on all day. They wanted to know about our group and what we were doing. They didn’t feed us all day while questioning us, eventually people started to tell the truth. Until we told the truth, they asked the same questions again and again. It looked like they already knew what was going on.
I don’t remember exactly how long they kept us in jail, it was more than two months. One of the women from our group had three kids with her in the jail.
KD: What did they feed you guys? It must have been very hard with kids.
TS: From the first day we went went in until we left they only food they gave us was tsampa [barley flour mixed with water]. A lot of insect eggs were in the barley flour. When I mixed the barley flour with water and squeezed it into a ball the baby insects moved around inside my hand. Looking at all the eggs, I felt like there was no way to eat that food but that’s all there was. I used the little money I had to bribe the guard to bring tigmo [a Tibetan bread] and milk for the kids once in awhile.
KD: Was there any butter to mix with the tsampa?
TS: No no no. There was nothing else, just tsampa. The toilet was really difficult. There were three rooms in the jail, just rooms with no doors. All the women shared the first room. The second room had a few monks and the third one had other men. None of the rooms had a toilet inside. There was a hole in hallway we all used. When I needed to use the hole, I took a shirt to cover myself so not everyone could see me. After someone pooped, it didn’t go down the hole. We had to use a stick to push it down. It was terrible, even using the stick it was hard to get it to go down.
KD: You didn’t have any water to wash it down?
TS: No. Everybody used the same hole for a toilet.
KD: It must have been stinky, right?
TS: Of course! What do you think?!
KD: What did you do after you left jail?
TS: They put everybody in a car and took us to town. We could see we were somewhere close to Mt. Everest. There were prayer flags everywhere. After we got there they told us to make sure we all went back to where we came from, we weren’t allowed to stay there. They said if they saw us there later we would be in trouble. I told them I didn’t have any place to go and wanted to start a business there. I said trying to go to India was a mistake, I promised I wouldn’t try to go again. I was worried they wouldn’t believe me, I kept telling them I wanted to do laundry or beg or anything, I begged them to let me stay there, and they did let me stay. I walked for awhile until I found a house with a woman at home. I begged from the woman and she gave me a tent. I put up the tent on the ground near the house. I had the tent, but I didn’t have any blanket or anything else, so I went into the village to beg again. I got a few things, a blanket and a bowl and some cooking material. I don’t remember what month it was, it was early winter.
I was living in the tent and went back to Mt. Everest to look for work carrying supplies for people walking around the mountain. People only came in the summer and fall, and this was early winter, so there weren’t any people going around themountain that time of year. It too cold so I moved to a different village at a lower altitude where it was a little warmer. One family let me stay in a corner of their yard.
In the early morning around first light I went out to gather cow dung [used for fire, the dung could be sold for a small amount of money] in a bag. When the bag was full I’d come back and get under the blanket. I’d wait for the morning sun to begin to warm before getting up, then I’d wake up the kids and make breakfast. After breakfast I left water in a thermos then went out begging. This was in an empty area, it was a long walk between the houses I went begging at. Sometimes it took all day to go around begging for food, it would be dark by the time I got home. The first day I went begging was very difficult. I was shaking from embarrassment while yelling out to people in the houses to ask for food. It was hard to look in their faces when they came to the door. I had to do it because I had two kids waiting for me who needed food every day. Nobody gave me money, but most people gave something. Some people gave a piece of meat or tsampa or butter or sausage. A few people didn’t give anything. It’s nice that most people gave something. Some people asked me to come inside and eat something inside, others brought out tea and a little food for me to eat. Whatever they offered I was happy to have it. At the end of the day I would be worried about how the kids were doing. My daughter pretty much needed to take care of my son even though she was too young to be a baby sitter. I was always nervous coming to the tent, anything could have happened. Seeing them okay inside always made me feel very happy. Next, I took all the food I’d been given out of my bag. I dried any meat on a clothesline inside the tent to preserve it for later. I went through the whole winter for that.
KD: How long did you stay like that living in the tent?
TS: I made it the whole winter like that and still lived in the tent all summer. In the summer I moved back to Mt. Everest. There were a lot of Tibetans and Westerns there to circle the mountain [for spiritual purposes]. For carrying food and water for people going around the mountain I got sixty Chinese Yuan per day. Tibetan people sometimes gave me money to go around the mountain in their place. For that I got one hundred Yuan or sometimes more. Other times I only got fifty. I never told people a price, I took whatever they gave me. Once in awhile people I carried supplies for were very nice and told me I could go back before they finished going all the way. Other people insisted I stayed with them all day until they finished walking and anything else they needed to do. Some of those people moved very slowly, and I had to stay with them. I would be so worried about getting back to the kids. It would get very dark before I got back to them.
KD: Where did you leave the kids?
TS: I always left the kids in the tent. I couldn’t carry supplies for people and carry the kids with me too. One day my customer was so slow that I didn’t get back until well after dark, really the middle of the night. I was so nervous about how the kids were, I rushed as fast I could to get back. I could see a candle was burning inside the tent, which made me feel a little better, but I was still very worried. As I got closer I listened for my kids’ voices. I slowly opened the tent when I got to it. The boy was asleep, my daughter had put a blanket over him. My daughter was huddled right next to the candle and her brother, she was on her knees bent over with her hands together, shaking. She was almost too close to the candle. I was worried I was startle her too much if I called to her right away, so I went back a little and called out to her from outside the tent. As soon as she heard my voice she came running out to me crying. She was crying and grabbed my neck, she said, “Mom!” She was crying because she was so scared. I really felt sorry about leaving them like that every day, but what could I do? I needed to save money for food and clothes so we could leave again for India. I didn’t have any choice, but I was very worried about the kids getting mental trauma or physical damage. On days I couldn’t find customers going around the mountain I went to hotels to knock on doors to ask if anyone needed laundry done. I did everything I could think of to make money, not wasting any time. All I could think about was getting to India. That was my plan.
KD: Is that the same year you came to India or was it the next year?
TS: I made money that way all summer. In the fall I started to go to India again. I don’t know exactly, it feels like it was in September.
KD: How did you go this time?
TS: I met a couple people with a business driving trucks to the border. I focused on going with them. To make sure nobody suspected me of leaving I left the tent behind, closed so that it would like I had left for the day. I could have sold whatever I had in the tent, I didn’t do that because people would have suspected I was leaving. In the middle of the night I got in a truck to quietly leave.
I got to the border but I didn’t know how to get across the border. It was hard to figure out what to do. I was there at least ten days trying to figure out how to get across. After ten days I met a Tibetan and a Sherpa going to India together. I followed them to a military base on the border between Tibet and Nepal. When we got there, the other two just quickly went through the border. Before we got to the base, I gave my daughter a stick and told her to walk through the border while playing with the stick so she’s look like a local girl crossing over alone. I told her not to call out for mommy no matter what happened. My daughter went through the border between two guards who didn’t pay any attention to her. I’d told her to keep going a lot further after she passed through, as far as she could go and still see me, then wait there playing. When my daughter got very far away I started to cross with my son. I carried a bag like a beggar. I made sure I didn’t act nervous. I went slowly like I wasn’t in a hurry. The soldiers were pacing back and forth, it made me so nervous, back they didn’t suspect anything. It looked like they really thought I was a beggar and didn’t stop me from passing through. I’d told my daughter not to come toward me even when I started to get close, to wait until we were out of sight of the soldiers. Once we were far enough, she was very happy to see me again.
People had told me there would be a big bridge ahead, they said that after I crossed over the bridge I would be safe. It was dark by the time I got to the bridge. A small house for Nepali soldiers was at the bridge. I saw the bridge and the house, I didn’t see the guards, but I was pretty sure they were there somewhere. I couldn’t let my daughter cross over the same way again in the dark, so I didn’t have any choice, I didn’t know what to do, I held my daughter’s hand and kept walking. I was sure someone would come out with a flashlight and yell at me to stop at any minute. In meantime I kept going. I got over the bridge and I still didn’t see anybody. I don’t know why nobody stopped me. I told my daughter, “oh my gosh, we made it.”
It was very dark, I couldn’t see very well on the other side of the bridge. It looked like there was a small village, I couldn’t exactly tell. I thought I saw some small houses. One house was half-way through being built. It had walls up, but there were no windows yet. That’s where we slept that night. When I woke up the sun was starting to come up. Looking around, I could see big mountain in front of us. People had told me that after crossing over the bridge there were mountain to go across, I thought those must be the mountains they were talking about. We started climbing a mountain. I didn’t have any experience and I didn’t know there was no source of water on the mountain. If I’d known I could have brought a little bit of water with us. It was a big mountain but I didn’t see even one drip of water anywhere. We walked all day, we still weren’t at the top by nightfall. Before dark I met three Sherpa men walking past us on their way over the mountain. One of the men asked where we were going, and wanted to know if we had any guide or friends with us. I told him no, it was just us. It was dark when we got to the top. It felt impossible to move another step at that point. The worst part was that we were thirsty. It was hot and we’d had no water all day. We sat down behind a large rock, where I planned to sleep.
KD: Did the kids ask you for food and water?
TS: Yes, they kept asking me but I didn’t have anything to give them. We sat behind the rock and tried to sleep, we were all too tired to move. Down the mountain somewhere one of the men yelled toward me, he was waving a shirt to get my attention. He was waving the shirt and yelling and yelling, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I could tell he was trying to say something to us but I was too tired to move or answer him. Before long, he came up the mountain straight toward us, he said, “You never heard a lot of Tibetans dies that way!” I answered, “Yes, I heard.” The man said that people without experience don’t know they can’t stay on the mountain. A snowstorm could come through any time and there was no way to survive a storm if it came through. He said, “Okay, Okay, keep on coming, keep on moving, we need to hurry to get down the mountain.” I still laid down, I just couldn’t move, then he started scolding me for bringing two kids out there to die. He said that if I didn’t move none us us would survive to see the next day. He grabbed my daughter’s hand and started walking. I had to follow him after he grabbed my daughter. I got up.
We all kept going in the dark, it was easier going down, we got down the mountain a lot faster than we got up. At the bottom we could see trees, it was a lot warmer, the Sherpa man told us we wouldn’t die there and could go and do whatever we wanted. We went to sleep in the trees. The three men we saw before were all there at the bottom. They told me they would help us, but we couldn’t all travel together or someone might suspect something and turn us in [bounties were paid to anyone who brought refugees back to the Chinese army]. They would go ahead in front of us with their pack horses until they reached a bridge, they would wait for us there.
We walked all morning until we reached a village around lunchtime. I knocked on the door of a house to ask for food. The family let us inside and gave us some rice and lentils. Getting food felt great, it gave us some energy to keep moving. After eating, we kept going for a long time, eventually we saw the bridge. The men had told me that when I got to the bridge I shouldn’t go over to them, I should hide so that the Nepali soldiers didn’t see I was there. They wanted me to wait until they finished crossing then come over. We hid behind a large rock near the bridge. We tried to stay completely quiet. My daughter was a little sick, she had a cough, but she was so scared her cough went away while we hid behind the rock. I could hear the men and the police talking. I think they were paying fees related to their business. I could hear their voices but I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. As soon as they finished, the men went through and the soldiers went back into their guardhouse. Everything was quiet. One of the men came back to get us and took us over the bridge. A little over the other side there was a monastery. The man said we should go in the monastery where they would feed us. At the monastery they gave us food and tea, we all ate as much as we could.
The three men wanted to keep moving. They were in a rush to get through the woods that night to get to a large river I could hear softly in the background. We walked all night in a rush without any break. A huge mountain was on the other side of the river. I understood their hurry to get through the woods overnight when I saw the mountain, they wanted to start climbing the mountain first thing in the morning to make sure we got all the way over safely before night. Again, we climbed up a huge mountain all day. We had to keep moving. It was really difficult, but we did get over.
On the other side of the mountain I saw two men from Amdo I had met before when I was living in the tent and begging. I hadn’t know those two men planned to go India. We both wanted to go to India, and we’d both kept our plans quiet from each other. I was shocked to see those two men going back the other way. I was curious what they were up to. There were a few other men walking with them. I talked with my daughter about why they might be going back. I stopped moving to watch them. I waited for them to stop too and say something to me. They didn’t even look at my face when they got close. They walked right by us without saying one word. There we both were in this empty place and they didn’t say anything, I couldn’t believe it. I stood there watching them for awhile. I really wondered why they were going back with their group of friends. Later we met again in India and I asked them why they didn’t say anything that day. It turns out the other men weren’t their friends. The other men caught them and were bringing them back to the border. They didn’t say anything to me so that we wouldn’t be caught too.
KD: It’s great that you safely arrived at the refugee center in Nepal. When you met the three Sherpa men on the mountain, did they share any food and water with you?
TS: They also didn’t have water. They did have raw meat, a leg from a sheep. They offered to let us take bites from the raw sheep leg. The men passed it around for everyone to take turns eating. I tried to bite it, but I wasn’t used to the raw meat so it was hard to chew and swallow. It was soft raw meat. I tried, but I couldn’t eat it. It couldn’t get it through my neck.
KD: The first time you got to India your daughter was old enough to go to school but you still had to take care of your son, right?
TS: Yes, when we got to Dharamsala [India] my daughter went to school [boarding school]. I stayed in the refugee center with my son at first. We were allowed to stay at the center until we had a chance to attend an audience with the Dalai Lama. After that, everyone was supposed to leave. Kids and young adults went to school, and monks went to monasteries, but I didn’t have anywhere to go. I had no idea what I would do outside the refugee center. I ask them to please let me stay an extra month. I was worried and scared about what I would do to survive. They did let me stay for another month, and I asked them again to let me stay a little longer. The second time they said that if I stayed they wouldn’t let me eat there. I got scolded a lot for asking again. I insisted on staying a little bit extra, then I didn’t have a choice, I had to leave. I went to find a village to get an apartment. I got a small apartment with one bed and a gas burner next to the bed. I didn’t have any blanket or anything like that. At the refugee center a lot of monks going to monasteries in south India had jackets they wouldn’t need anymore. Some monks gave me jackets and warm clothes. I used the jackets to make a blanket by tearing out the sleeves and sewing a few jackets together.
When I cooked, I had to stay on the bed. There wasn’t any more space than that. To make money, I made vegetable momos [Tibetan food similar to dumplings] in the apartment. The problem was that the ceiling was low and there was no window. The steam from making the momos made the whole apartment wet.
KD: What year did you get to India and what year did you leave home?
TS: It was 2001 when I got to India and 1998 when I left home.
KD: What happened with your momo business?
TS: I started selling momos, but my son was too young to leave home alone. It was hard to take my son and carry the momos at the same time, I had to figure out how to do both. Finally, I found out that a school in Dharamsala took kids my son’s age. I went to ask them if they would take my son. They would if I paid the school fees. I don’t remember how much it was. My son started school and I started selling momos. I got up early, around three in the morning, to make momos. I took the momos out in a bucket to go sell them. Each morning I fed my son breakfast, took him to school, walked back to get the bucket, then went all the way to the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) to sell momos. I’d arrive at the school right before lunch. After lunch was over I’d come back. On the way back I bought whatever I needed before dropping off the bucket at home. I didn’t have enough to do anything, even drink a cup of tea, before it was time to pick up my son from school. As soon as we got home I got to work peeling potatoes for the momos until it was time for bed.
After awhile the school told me I couldn’t sell there anymore. The momos I made didn’t look nice because of my hand. They looked pretty bad. That’s why I sold at the school. Next to other people selling momos in Dharamsala, nobody would want my ugly ones; the kids at TCV didn’t care though. When kids are hungry they don’t care what food looks like. After someone from the school told me to stop coming there, I started to hide a little while selling my momos there hoping the school bosses wouldn’t find out I was still coming. That only worked a few days before a school employee came out, grabbed my bucket with the momos, and threw it a long way. That was the end of my momo business.
I started making lafing [a special Tibetan noodle]. I couldn’t make the yellow style of lafing which needs a lot of squeezing of the dough, my fingers couldn’t do that, I could only make the cheaper white style. Again I used a bucket to carry it, I went to sell it outside a monastery. Later in the day, I went to a monastery for nuns to sell there too. I sold lafing all through 2001.
Sometime in 2002 I heard that the Tibetan Women’s Association had a tailor shop. I went there to ask for a job. I tried to get the tailor job because I was having a hard time carrying the bucket of lafing around all day. I thought if I got a tailor job it would be a lot easier. I got a job there, and worked as a tailor for six months, but being a tailor was more difficult for me than I thought. I’d thought I mostly needed to use my feet to make the sewing machine go and wouldn’t need to use my hands much. Really I needed to use my hands for keeping fabric tight and making things look nice. My fingers didn’t work well for that. Even though my fingers didn’t work from the start, I insisted on keeping at it up for six months, I wasn’t sure what else to do. After six months I had to give up.
It was 2003. The Dalai Lama was teaching in Bodh Gaya. I carried my son with me to go to the teaching and try to make money there. I sold tea. I’d make a thermos full of tea and take it around to sell to the audience. After the teaching was over, I came back to Dharamsala again. There was some sort of association for the unemployed getting started in Dharamsala at that time.
I joined that group for a year. We did coolie jobs, carrying dirt for buildings, mostly we carried dirt. We also moved bricks or whatever was needed for a building. For that, we got one hundred rupees per day. During rainy season, we got soaked in the rain every day. Our shoes got completely soaked too. One year I got sick during the rainy season. I was sick for seven months. The doctor said my body was too weak. I got dizzy from going to the bathroom and back. My mouth was dry all the time. I looked drunk when I walked in the street, I couldn’t keep my steps straight. The doctor said I didn’t have enough blood or my blood was poor. It took awhile to get better. By the time I got better the association for the unemployed got a sponsor, we started making jewelry instead of doing coolie jobs. It was great news for the group and bad news for me. My hands couldn’t make the jewelry. It was too bad for me, those of us who joined the group first had the chance to make 10,000 rupees per month instead of 100 rupees for a day, except I couldn’t do the job.
I left the group and went out to look for work. I gave a lot of applications for jobs like being a housekeeper at a hospital. I guess you need to know somebody there to get a chance at a job and I didn’t know anybody. I had a hard time finding any job I could do. I felt that I could sweep or mop but I didn’t get a chance. There wasn’t much I could do with my hand and I didn’t have any education.
KD: What did you do after that?
TS: I started to make lafing again. While I was making lafing I heard that a wealthy older Tibetan couple in Norbulingka was looking for someone to help take care of them. I worked for them, and stayed there for awhile. Sometimes they went away from Norbulingka, and I stayed to take care of the house. I worked there for a little more than six months. I stayed there and ate there, it was nice. Eventually I had to think about what I was going to do when my daughter came home for the Losar [Tibetan New Year] holiday for one month. It would be hard to stay at another person’s house with my daughter home. I had to think about getting a regular job so I could afford my own place.
I looked around Norbulingka. I applied many times at the Norbulingka Institute [a Tibetan cultural center]. There was a restaurant just outside the Tibetan Transit School where I found a job. I got a job at the restaurant, but I still lived in Norbulingka. Everyday, I had to walk across farmland to get to the restaurant. At night the owner walked with me after dark to make sure I was safe. He was a nice guy. The walk was hard during the rainy season, so I looked for a different job.
I found a job at a Tibetan hospital cooking and cleaning and gardening, that kind of stuff. Meanwhile I found out that somebody with a tea shop was leaving for a Western country. I took over the two shop two years ago.
KD: Is the tea shop your best job?
TS: Yes, it is. I made circles everywhere doing all kinds of jobs, and this is the best so far. My life has been like a piece of paper in the water, sometimes it moves forward for awhile and sometimes it get stuck turning in circles.
As a child in Tibet, I heard this story about a clever way to get rid of a ghost: Two friends were very close, they rarely went long without spending time together. On a certain day, both friends separately went about their daily business as usual. One was in an accident and died, the other was not and lived.
Not much time passed before the unfortunate one who had been in the accident appeared at his friend’s house. Having seen the dead body with his own eyes, the friend knew he was talking to a ghost, so he was afraid. People say that when the dead don’t know they are ghosts they can easily become angry with friends and family, causing disease or other harm. Careful to avoid making the ghost upset, he calmly said, “I am very busy right now, but we should get together on Black Donkey Day.” The ghost went away, then back came back the next day. This time he said, “I will see you on Black Donkey Day, unfortunately I have too much to do right now.” For the next several days, the ghost kept coming back and was always turned away with the same excuse. Over time, the ghost came back less frequently until his friend said, “You don’t need to come by here, I will go get you when Black Donkey Day comes.” The poor ghost is still waiting.
Some members of the Tibetan community have been treating women’s rights and other social issues like dangerous ghosts. I don’t know what they are afraid of exactly, but it seems that they have also heard the Black Donkey Day story and are using the same trick. Whenever I talk about some idea to make our community more equal, someone will always say we are too busy right now, but if I wait, we will definitely deal with equality or whatever other issue later.
It’s true Tibetan society is already managing a lot. We are busy, but that’s no excuse to ignore everyday problems. You never see Barack Obama going out in dirty clothes just because he has more important things to take care of than changing his underwear. America is working on curing cancer and sends people to space, but that doesn’t mean they let kids pee in the street. If you want to achieve something big, you start with getting the small things under control. If we are going to achieve big goals for the Tibetan community, we need to start by fixing our basic everyday problems. Instead of using our major issues as an excuse to delay social change until Black Donkey Day, our major issues should be the reason we make change immediately.
Everybody agrees that we need to protect our culture. Some people take that to an extreme by hiding embarrassing truths and condemning critical opinions. Unfortunately, it seems to me, these people are exactly some of the ones harming Tibetan culture the most, replacing our imperfect reality with a fake image.
The fake image is not even our own myth, it’s a reflection of what foreign supporters want Tibetans to be like. Dissatisfied with the societies they are familiar with at home, foreigners often look to Tibetans to represent the kind of peaceful, harmonious, and deeply spiritual community they wish for. It has more to do with their desires than our actual way of life, but we play the part. We make sure the whole world sees, and only sees, us in terms of what other people would like us to be. Although we all know it’s just a show, the danger is that we spend so much time acting that we forget who we were in the first place.
The benefits aren’t worth it. Our audience is not even that large, just ask a random Westerner about their views on Tibet and wait for the puzzled look. A typical answer might be, “Umm…Is that part of China, right?” or “Oh right, I saw that movie” if they have any idea at all. Yes, there are enthusiastic supporters, but they are a tiny piece of the population of the places they come from. As hard as we work to impress supporters, most people still have little or no idea that Tibetans exist.
Instead of sacrificing our identity to appear a certain way, I’d like to see all of us working both to embrace the best parts of our culture and to improve on the areas that need it. If we are truly proud of ourselves and our traditions, and we should be, we don’t need to worry about that anyone else thinks.
I remember the cooks from when I was at TTS many years ago. Most were older men, retired from the military, men who didn’t have a chance to marry while in the service and were later too old to attract a wife. So they focused on female students instead. At that time, students had to take turns working in the kitchen with these men, and the girls were regularly subjected to groping, leering, and sexual comments. The cooks could do and say whatever they felt like, without any consequences. If a girl wanted to see her boyfriend on the weekend, that was considered a big problem, but older men, men my father’s age, grabbing us was fine. Everybody knew about it. Male students complained because they thought it wasn’t fair that the cooks gave girls extra food along with their sexual attention.
The recent TCV incident was different. This time the cook crossed a line, a big one, from harassment to rape. Most people seem to agree that rape at least is unacceptable. But why do we tolerate behaviors like forced kissing, unwanted touching, and demeaning comments? These also violate women. Anytime a man imposes himself on a women after she says “no” isn’t okay. Let’s not wait for a man to rape someone before he hears that message. When a woman is being harassed, any one of us can speak up, and if we speak up enough, we can start to change these behaviors.
The views in the link above seem pretty typical, mainly advising against marriage to non-Tibetans and highlighting the importance of Tibetan mothers. Yes, Tibetan mothers are important. There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out, but it does make me wonder, what about Tibetan fathers? Why is it that there is a lot of talk about Tibetan mothers need to do this, should be doing that, or are praised on the condition of acting a certain way, yet the same people are totally quiet about a father’s responsibilities.
Tibetan mothers, all mothers, already do a lot. Nine months of pregnancy is a long time to carry a little person kicking and squirming around, then pushing the baby out into the world isn’t so simple either. Believe me, men did the easy part. Once the baby is born, mothers still have a lot of work to do. And so do fathers. Caring for a child is a tough job that both parents need to be fully engaged in. We don’t need more rules for mothers, we need to stop ignoring the importance of dads.
Many Tibetan fathers do a great job, and should get credit for everything they do to raise healthy, happy kids. Instead of only focusing on mothers, and giving us advice we didn’t ask for, let’s try giving as much attention to encouraging good fathers. If mothers and fathers are working together to bring up their children well, there’s nothing to worry about, we can trust the children we raise with our future.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about the importance of education for Tibetans, and that’s great, but it is also important to think about what kids are learning. Reading and writing Tibetan language is not the only important lesson for kids, they need to learn good behavior too. Unless young Tibetans know how to interact with the rest of the world the right way, they can’t rise to the top.
When I was growing up in Tibet, the school I went to for a short time didn’t improve our behavior at all. It made us worse, school was where we learned to fight and throw rocks at each other. During my recent stay in India, a lot of the same problems were going on at the school my daughters went to. They had cute uniforms, and everything looked very profession, but what was going on inside was ridiculous. My daughters were shocked at how rough the other students were. Managing naughty kids also took up too much of the teachers attention instead of focusing on education. Most parents didn’t see a problem though. They wanted to make sure their kids were tough. One girl from the school came home with several obvious bite marks, her mother told her, “What’s wrong with with? Why didn’t you get her back?” The girl, who had lost her front baby teeth, complained that she tried her best to bite back but it wasn’t working.
A long time ago, teaching kids to be tough was probably smart. In Tibet, people needed to be tough to handle a rough life. Unfortunately, we can’t keep going in exile as if nothing is different. In the Western countries many of us live in, kids can’t be biting each other, pushing, or fighting. They need to learn the skills they will use as adults to manage problems and anger without causing trouble. That’s what the societies we live in expect, so that’s what we need to learn too. Rather than fighting, kids can learn communication skills, how to talk through an issue with other kids. When that fails, they should know who to contact, like a teacher, to take over. By improving behavior as well as education, Tibetan parents can make our kids can be successful anywhere.
An older Tibetan man recently asked me what I thought about increasing divorces in Tibetan marriages, especially among couples fifty and over. The basic basic problem, he observed, is that women seem to want to stop having sex at some point in the marriage but the man wants to keep going. His friend was in exactly this situation, which he tried to solve by having an affair with a younger woman. Unfortunately, the affair wasn’t great for the marriage either. His question was whether women always lose interest in sex at a certain age and what men can do to hold their attention.
I’m too shy to go around asking women fifty and over, but I don’t think the issue is about age. The real issue comes when women don’t have a history of enjoying sex over the course of a relationship. If sex is something that happens between a couple when the man wants, anytime the man wants, and the focus is on the man having a good time, it shouldn’t be a surprise if the woman eventually decides she’s had enough. The attitude that sex is for men, and the women’s job is to let men take care of their business, has to change. Some men think women don’t even like sex no matter what. That is totally not true. If men pay attention to a woman’s feelings, women can be just as interested in sex as men are.
The first part of the solution for this problem is that men need to recognize when it’s a good time for the woman or not. If it’s not, that needs to be respected every time. Work for it, show her a little romance. A good time will come for sure if the man makes an effort. Next, the couple should communicate. If two people can have sex, they should be able to talk too. If you want to know what the other person in the relationship likes, trying asking. Finally, Tibetan men need to learn to respect their partner’s privacy about what happens in privacy. When the woman knows her boyfriend or husband is going to go out and describe every detail of their sex life to his friends she isn’t going to feel comfortable.
This is very sad, these self-immolations have been going on for a long time now. Almost every single one has been inside Tibet, where people don’t know much about what’s going on in the rest of the world. When I see this I wonder if these people expect the world to pay more attention than it really does. If they knew the world is not going to change anything because of self-immolation, maybe they would not want to suffer this way.
It’s not always great when Western people ask the Dalai Lama whatever personal questions they can think of, but this was an interesting, and surprising, moment. The Dalai Lama said that, for people not following the rules of a religious tradition, he thought gay marriage is okay.
I know it’s very hard for our community to talk about this. But this is part of freedom, giving people the option to choose how they want to live. I hope that one day someone will also ask him about equality and safety for women.