Life Between Lhasa and Brooklyn

My neighborhood coffee shop and grocery store

It is just past three in the middle of the night in Brooklyn. In Lhasa, the clocks read the same as here, but it is afternoon. This basic fact, of how it can be day in one place and night in another has never failed to amaze me. Perhaps it’s because I, like many whose families are split between the West and the East, live in both places in my mind, even as my body cannot, and I often think about this existence, fragmented between inverted worlds. To be neither here nor there.

Life between Lhasa and Brooklyn also seems inverted, impossibly so. Four days ago, Tsewang Dorjee, a 22-year-old nomad of Chode village just outside Lhasa, went in front of a community hall in Damshung (“chosen valley“) and lit himself on fire. During this three-minute self-cremation, like forty-two others before him since 2009, he had the brief chance to publicly protest the Chinese government and call for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the first and last time in his life. He walked 100 meters while on fire before falling to the ground.

Damshung, 2009 AFP

On Saturday, a day after His Holiness’ birthday, as Tsewang steeled himself and gathered his gasoline and something to light the flame, I was at a cousin’s wedding in Toronto, serving drinks at the bar and catching up with relatives and old friends. At around one in the afternoon, as he cried out not for himself but for his country while flames charred his skin and organs, I had just crawled into bed, complaining of how much my feet hurt from a rare day in heels.

Survived by his elderly mother, Tsewang has since died in hospital. All witnesses of his actions were arrested and his hometown of Damshung was put into lockdown, phone lines severed. People have since been barred from speaking of his actions. We do not even have a photo of him, just his story. Tsewang is not the first nomad to protest in recent months as the self-immolations involve more and more lay people, and as Damshung is approximately 90% nomadic, we can understand how Tsewang and his family’s way of life is being systematically threatened by the Chinese government.

Tibetan Nomads’ Rights from Students for a Free Tibet on Vimeo.

I am losing track of the Tibetans who have self-immolated.
I am fearful of the news of more bodies dissolving in flames.
I am looking for comfort when I don’t deserve it – not when I can live as I do.

Perhaps it is juvenile to make such comparisons, to gawk at the existence of such different worlds like some innocent child who asks why the sky is blue and what clouds are made of.

I asked the latter question to my mother once after a science class at my international school. The teacher had taught us that clouds are made of water that has changed form. I was dubious. My mother replied, while tending to her garden, that clouds are made of cotton balls. This sounded more reasonable. But I decided, with some sadness, that my teacher was an American science expert and so she must be right.

It was years later that I realized that my mother had not been wrong. She had simply said that clouds were clouds. The mistake had been mine. “Trin-peh,” (སྤྲིན་པ) the word for cloud, is the same as the word for cotton balls, at least in how we used it colloquially. Because I rarely spoke to my mother about clouds, but often dealt with cotton balls around the house — passing her cotton balls for prayer lamp wicks or to stuff into our ears when we went swimming, I had thought trin-peh meant cotton-ball first and foremost.

Nearly two decades later, I still struggle with two simultaneous and opposing truths, especially for things that don’t have scientific explanations. So I don’t have any answers to give today about how to understand what is happening in Tibet while we watch from around the world. This different form of Tibetan existence occurring in a place twelve hours ahead of me, where my ancestors grew up and where I cannot go, batters and baffles me. It creeps up at moments throughout my days. Often, when asked by a friend about what’s happening in my homeland, all I can do is look back at them, wide-eyed, shaking my head, and say, “It’s crazy.”

It is now four thirty in the morning; day will break here soon as another ends in Lhasa. It is also Lhakar today. There will be small gatherings and protests in a few major cities, perhaps one of them is happening near you. Perhaps one of them is happening in the land of snows.

I found Tibet in this mural in my neighborhood