Revised May 31st, 2012
In the article The stories of Tibetan elders in exile, J.M. Brown writes about the oral history project work by clinical psychologist Marcella Adamski in recording the stories of Tibetan elders in exile. Adamski’s work was spurred directly from a request by the Dalai Lama, whom she met in Dharamsala in 1999. After reading this article I was reminded of some of the stories I have heard from my own “elders in exile” when I was younger. I thought I’d patch together and share some of these stories so that people can read them and then maybe share their own stories as well.
I can remember most clearly my mother’s account of why her family fled from Tibet in late 1959. My mother’s family lived in the small farming village of Namdha, about a half hour walk from the town of Khangmar in the district of Gyantse. Her family was the wealthiest of the village and her father was well respected for the kindness he had shown to the poorer villagers, and the loans he gave to those who needed it.
One particular villager had a lot of respect for my grandfather. My mother cannot recall his name, but for the sake of the story I will refer to him as Tenzin. Tenzin had many children and his family was the poorest in the village. For this reason, many of the villagers took pity on him – especially my grandfather. My grandfather had always helped Tenzin by giving him food and clothing for his children. On one occasion Tenzin had persuaded my grandfather to lend him money for a business venture he wished to pursue. However, rather than using this money for the business venture, Tenzin lied and ended up gambling all the money away.
Out of shame and fear of coming back to face my grandfather, and his own family, he hid somewhere nearby. But, due to the absence of their father, his family began to suffer. Thus, my grandfather went to where Tenzin was hiding and told him to forget about the loan and come back to the village to take care of his family.
When the Chinese communists invaded Tibet in the 1950s, they began to implement social reforms within many Tibetan communities. Many of the poorest Tibetan villagers were placed as the head of their respective communities. When the communists arrived in my mother’s farming village of Namdha, they did exactly this. The communists proclaimed that Tenzin, the same man who had gambled away my grandfather’s loan and was pitied by most of the villagers of his village, was now to lead as head of the village.
As the new head of the village, Tenzin was present at many of the meetings the Chinese communists held in the region. During one meeting he overheard the communists’ decision to arrest my grandfather under the charge of being a “feudal serf lord”. He quickly went to my grandfather and told him of the decision to arrest him. He urged my grandfather to quickly flee before the communists would surely come to arrest him. My grandfather, heeding to Tenzin’s warning, fled with his wife and children south towards India through the Himalayas.
One side-story from my grandfather’s flight to India that I can also recall comes from my late uncle, who was my mother’s eldest brother.
A snowstorm had picked up during the family’s escape through the Himalayas. When the storm settled, my uncle had found himself in a tough situation. He looked around and could not find his parents or siblings anywhere. He was all alone. The storm had separated him from his family and, worst of all, he was lost and had no idea which direction he should head in order to reunite with them.
My uncle started to look around for any sign or clue that might help him find his way. Suddenly, in the distance, he noticed a bird flying high in the sky. This was no ordinary bird; he had recalled how his father had told him how this particular bird was sacred and it’s sighting considered auspicious. My uncle believed that this had to be a sign of some sort. He began to head in the direction of the bird. After walking for some time, a snow storm picked up. Once again he found himself covered in wind and snow.
Suddenly, my uncle noticed a silhouette of a figure walking towards him in the distance. It was difficult to distinguish who, or what, this figure was, but he quickly concluded that this was surely a Chinese soldier who had caught his entire family and was now looking to capture him too. He turned and began to run, but the Chinese soldier pursued him. He kept running, but soon his legs began to tire. Eventually the shadow of the Chinese soldier approached from only a few feet behind him. Exhausted from running, he turned and faced the soldier.
As the Chinese soldier approached and put his hands forth to grab him, my uncle tried to slip past – but he was too slow. The soldier blocked him from running around and then grabbed onto him. My uncle tried to wrestle free from this man’s grip, but couldn’t get loose. He finally looked up and examined this stranger closely. It was then that he realized that he had not been captured by a Chinese soldier afterall – it was his own father who had been searching for him.
Lastly, I can recall another story from my second eldest uncle. During the family’s flight to India, my uncle had begged to take along the family’s Tibetan mastiff dog. His father quickly objected to my uncle’s pleas, he realized it would be too dangerous for the family if the dog was noisy.
And so, the dog was left behind. However, shortly after leaving their village and walking for some time, the dog could be seen in the distance running towards the family. After a short while the dog had finally reunited with his owners. Somehow he had managed to break free from his leash and find the family. The sight of the liberated dog made my uncle very happy (perhaps to the dismay of his father); the two friends could make the long trek together after all. It seemed the dog had escaped his own chains to now help his owners escape their own chains of repression.
After many nights of travelling and hiding from the Chinese, the family had reached the Tibetan border. Many starving Tibetan families who had made the strenuous trek through the Himalayas, approached farmers in these borderlands with gold, jewelry, and other valuables, in an attempt to make exchanges for food. My grandfather’s family was one of these Tibetan families, the harsh conditions during the trek had led to the death of two of his sons. He hoped that these farmers would be kind enough to provide food for his family to prevent the loss of more of his children.
My grandfather approached a farmer and offered their most valuable jewelry and belongings for food. The farmer rejected his offer since he had already amassed plenty of jewelry and gold from other fleeing Tibetan families before them. However, the farmer had taken a liking to the family’s Tibetan Mastiff. And so, regretably for my uncle, the dog was exchanged to the farmer for food to nourish the family.
Sometime after my mother’s family arrived in India, my grandfather received a letter from the Chinese communists informing him that the crops from his land had been sold for a sum of money which he should come back to claim. Rightfully suspicious, my grandfather replied that he did not want to come back to claim the money, rather, the Chinese should distribute the money out to the people of his village.
I’m not certain whether the Chinese communists followed out my grandfather’s wishes, but it gives me another reason to someday go to Tibet and see the village my family once called home.