In general, only those at the center of power are allowed a stable sense of self; those at the periphery, from contested regions, are often required to be more fluid in their identity. In this story from Tibet, excerpted from OR Books’ fine collection Old Demons New Deities (edited by Tenzin Dickie), a monk must make a difficult choice about where to place his loyalties.
Nyima Tsering’s Tears
by Tsering Woeser
translated by Jampa, Bhuchung D. Sonam, Tenzin Tsundue, Jane Perkins
It was one of those hot summer days in 1999. As usual the Tsuglakhang was packed with pilgrims and tourists. And, as usual, Nyima Tsering was at the entrance selling tickets and ready to give tours in English or Chinese to visitors from far away. is was his job. Unlike other lamas, he was called a “tour-guide lama” in the press or on TV. Yet he was not only a tour guide, he also held many other titles, such as Member of the Standing Committee of the People’s Assembly in Lhasa. So, in the news on Xizang TV and Lhasa TV we often saw a young monk in his maroon robes sitting amidst taciturn-looking officials in their laymen’s clothes. He always looked calm, sensible, and self-assured.
On that day, someone suddenly told him to submit two photographs to the department that handled passport applications. Nyima Tsering was told that he was to fly to Beijing a few days later, where he would join other officials from various government departments to attend an international human rights convention in Norway. Norway? Wasn’t that the country where the Dalai Lama received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1989? Nyima Tsering felt slightly excited and uneasy. When he went to submit his photographs, a man there noticed his strange expression and said: “Relax, the people you will be traveling with are all high-ranking. They won’t be like the officers in Lhasa who know nothing.”
Soon Nyima Tsering boarded an airplane alone to Beijing. Of course, there were people who saw him off and received him at both ends of the flight. He couldn’t quite remember who he met or what he said. Two days later he was on board again with another ten to twenty member delegates heading to Norway. He could barely remember anything on the way. This was Nyima Tsering’s first overseas trip. However, compared with human rights, other matters were just not that important to him. What else but the convention could have concerned him so much? After all, he was the lone Tibetan coming from Tibet and the only lama in monastic robes.
The people with him were indeed different. They were older than him and, unlike the Lhasa officials, they looked well-educated, had good manners, and were not loud-mouthed nor bossy. To this day, Nyima Tsering still remembers an official from the Committee for Nationality and Religion, at an embarrassing moment when he couldn’t hold back his tears, quietly asking, “Are you feeling unwell?” Finally, when he did burst into tears, no one demanded any explanations. That was a kind of understanding that Nyima Tsering appreciated very much.
These days, whenever the convention is mentioned, Nyima Tsering tends to avoid talking about a lot of details, such as the convention’s proceedings, participants, contents, its background, environment, atmosphere, or the gatherings, discus- sions, and sightseeing that took place outside of the convention. In fact, the incidents that Nyima Tsering remembers come out of nowhere, from deep in his heart where they can no longer be suppressed. The first incident that he remembers occurred when the morning session of the first day was over, on the way to a lunch party at the Chinese Embassy. The worries Nyima Tsering had for so long were receding, since nobody had bothered him or asked him questions that were hard to answer. It was pleasant to watch the elegant Scandinavian street scenes pass by as they drove and Nyima Tsering began to chat with the foreigners sitting next to him. Gradually, he seemed to have returned to his confident self who was used to leading foreigners around the Tsuglakhang. Therefore, when the car suddenly stopped and its door was pulled open, the sound of people, oh, that sound of people, that sound of many people, was just like sudden thunder coming face-to-face with Nyima Tsering. He felt like he had been hit. It was like the aftershock of a big explosion in his head. He almost lost consciousness and could barely move.
“Gyami”… “Gyami lama”… “Communist lama”…
Outside the embassy, scores of angry faces had features that couldn’t be more familiar to Nyima Tsering; scores of mouths were shouting in a language that couldn’t be more familiar. These were men and women of his age, and these people shared the same blood as Nyima Tsering. The only difference was that they were exiled Tibetans; he and he alone was the “liberated Tibetan” from Tibet. However, at that moment, in the city where the Dalai Lama had received the Nobel Peace Prize in front of the Chinese Embassy, he and they were like two completely divided formations.
Also, they came with several banners on which they had written “Chinese, Give Us Back Our Home” in Tibetan, English, and Chinese.
Everyone else got out of the car, ignoring the scene, and moving straight ahead. But he couldn’t move. How could Nyima Tsering do that? Afterwards, no matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t remember how he had negotiated that short distance between the car and the building. Yet, it was certainly the longest and most difficult path he had taken in the thirty-two years of his life. His Tibetan monastic robes were like a brightly blazing flame, the disgusted looks of the protestors were like drops of oil or boiling butter, making the fire more intense. Those splattering drops of burning butter scattered on his bowed head, his bent back, and his shuffling legs.
Nyima Tsering’s voice became sharper, and he said “What could I do, what could do, I was wearing this…” Tugging at his burgundy robe, which looked so brilliant under the sun, he quietly kept repeating this as though talking to himself.
“Since then,” Nyima Tsering recalled, “I was never able to feel light-hearted. For four days I came to understand what it means to be an ant on a hot pan.” The hot pans were everywhere and there was no cool place to hide.
By the time Nyima Tsering had finally walked that short path of ordeal, he was completely wounded. He felt deep scars of pain, the deep marks of a branding iron. This branding iron was so painful that he wanted to cry, but there were no tears. The other people in the embassy pretended that nothing had happened, or, one might say, they were used to looking but not seeing. No one mentioned the drama. They were all talking about something else. While everyone was politely chatting and eating, only Nyima Tsering couldn’t swallow, as though a fishbone was stuck in his throat. This was the first time he had seen so many exiled Tibetans of his own flesh and blood in a foreign land. Though they were only a few feet away, it was as if they were separated by ranges of mountains.
Many people must have said things to Nyima Tsering. Yet, none of it mattered or was of any consequence. He listened to them without real attention, listened and forgot. His heart was wounded and he had lost his spirit. And yet he remembers that besides the sympathetic glances of the foreigners in the car, there an official from Beijing who quietly asked, “Are you feeling unwell?” Nyima Tsering nearly nodded his head. The man looked gentle and polite. No sooner had the worries that accompanied him for days vanished than they appeared again. The worries that had been growing in his mind since he left Lhasa were hard to allay, and now more concerns had been added. “What if I step out of the door and run into them again, will they despise me, ridicule me, feel sorry for me? Oh no, now I am a ‘Gyami lama’, a ‘Communist lama’ in their minds.” Nyima Tsering smiled bitterly.
So when he forced himself to cautiously step out of the embassy, still feeling unsettled, he sighed with relief. Yet, he suddenly felt lost. The agitating fellow Tibetans who had earlier gathered were gone, leaving the place empty. Where had they gone?
The second day went smoothly.
On the third day, Nyima Tsering gave his speech, which was the real purpose of sending him to the convention. Because the voice of Tibetans had been missing from the previous meetings, the reasoning from the Chinese side about human rights conditions in Tibet always sounded very weak. The presence and testimony of Nyima Tsering was supposed to prove that Tibetans had human rights and that their human rights were protected. However, who would know what the dilemmas were in Nyima Tsering’s heart? How to speak? What to speak? What should be spoken… and what shouldn’t be spoken? He was really troubled. Although he was aware that he, in his burgundy robe, was no more than a stage prop, he didn’t want to sound too out of tune or go beyond what was proper. Quietly, he asked the opinion of a foreigner whom he had begun to trust. The foreigner also quietly told him to talk in general terms and avoid mentioning anything concrete.
Nyima Tsering thus went on reciting the speech that he had prepared according to “the text” or, more precisely, according to “the text” of newspapers, radio, and TV stations. It was completely in tune with ideas that often appear in the domestic media — such as that the culture of the Tibetan nationality is fully protected and has progressed, that Tibetans have religious freedom, and that the monastic masses are patriotic. Everyone in the convention listened to him in silence. Only one person from the audience, an American, asked in English: “If that’s so, don’t you have the freedom to meet with the Dalai Lama?” Nyima Tsering was dazed. Although he had already prepared himself for questions of this kind, on hearing the name Dalai Lama, as he did on the first day when someone pointed out the place to him where the Dalai Lama had received the Nobel Peace Prize, he was still dazed. But he immediately regained his composure and cleverly responded, “This is a political question, I refuse to answer.” “What kind of political question is it? Can a Tibetan, a lama, wishing to meet his Dalai Lama be a political question?” No one else asked any questions, as if everyone at the convention understood his situation and his feelings. The fourth day finally arrived. Nyima Tsering had thought that the days of torture would soon be over, but the biggest blow fell on the fourth day.
Since it was the last day, an arrangement was made for the delegates to visit a famous national park. The parks in Norway were very beautiful and full of the charm of harmony and co-existence with nature. This cheered up the young lama, who had grown up on the rooftop of the world. While he was looking around, a young woman approached. Despite the way she dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, no different from the foreigners around, Nyima Tsering recognized at first sight that she was a Tibetan with a typical Tibetan face, Tibetan aura, and Tibetan character.
The woman walked toward Nyima Tsering with her arms outstretched and looking as if she’d run into a long-lost friend. All of a sudden Nyima Tsering was in a trance, thinking he had met and known this woman before. He too couldn’t resist holding the woman’s hands. But, very unexpectedly, the woman not only refused to let go of his hands but began to cry loudly. With tears flowing, she said to him in Tibetan, “Kusho, what are you doing here? What are you doing with these Chinese? You are a Tibetan, remember you are a Tibetan, don’t be with them…”
Nyima Tsering was embarrassed, nervous, and felt very sad, but he was neither able to withdraw his hands, nor could he find any words to say. A crowd began to gather. They were all foreigners, very curious at a monk in his red robe being clung to by a crying woman. None of the delegates intervened. Instead, they quickly moved away, looking as though it had nothing to do with them, which could in some way be a kind of sympathy and understanding. The man who had been sent by the embassy to follow Nyima Tsering for these four days opened his mouth: “Let’s go, Nyima Tsering. Leave her.”
Of course the Tibetan woman couldn’t understand Chinese, but she could guess what that meant. She got angry and was trying to shout at him in English. Nyima Tsering hurried to stop her while repeatedly saying to her, “I know, I know, I know…” the Tibetan woman kept weeping and said, “If you really know, then don’t go back.” By now, with great difficulty, Nyima Tsering blurted out what was really in his mind. “How can I not return? Our home is there. If we all leave, to whom will Tibet be left?” As he said those words he could no longer hold back his tears. They drenched his eyes.
Eventually some people came to help them out of their predicament. These were Tibetans who had been sent by their work units in Lhasa — such as the TAR Academy of Social Sciences, Tibet University, and the library — to take short-term advanced courses in Norway. Nyima Tsering didn’t know them, but he could tell that they were just like him — Tibetans from Tibet. But even to this day Nyima Tsering wonders why there were so many Tibetans from different backgrounds gathered there that day. Of course, at the time he couldn’t think that much. In a big hurry, he pulled himself out of the grip of the woman who was still crying. He quickly dried his tears with his robe and rushed to rejoin the delegates.
“Kusho,” One of the mediators stopped him and kindly advised him: “If anyone asks you what has happened, just tell them someone from her family has passed away and that she asked you to light butter lamps and do some chanting for her dead relative in the Jokhang once you get back to Lhasa.” Nyima Tsering quickly nodded his head and felt that stabbing pain again in his heart. No one glanced at him or even said a word when he was approaching them. It was as if nothing had happened, nothing worth talking about.
Finally, it was time to leave Norway. But not right away. The delegation had to wait for a long time at the airport — more than two hours. The leaders and cadres from the embassy, including the man who had never been apart from Nyima Tsering for the previous four days, had already left after dropping the delegation at the airport. In those long hours in the bright, spacious, and comfortable airport lobby, people sat, stood, or moved around. No matter which country they were from, everyone looked free and relaxed. Nyima Tsering also strolled around freely. No one seemed to watch him particularly, which made him feel that he could go anywhere he wanted. In a flash, an idea popped into his mind: “What if I don’t go with them? After all, the passport is with me and I have enough money. If I go to buy another ticket for somewhere else…”
Of course, the idea was just a flash. As I mentioned earlier, Nyima Tsering was always calm, sensible, and self-assured. So, in the end the ant on the hot pan went back with the delegation. Returning to where he had come from seemed like the best arrangement for him. Yet, while the flight slowly departed from Oslo Airport, and while Norway — the symbol of the free world — was gradually left behind, two streams of tears silently ran down Nyima Tsering’s bony cheeks.
Reprinted with permission from the collection Old Demons New Deities: Twenty-one Short Stories from Tibet