Dharamsala is the end of the journey for many Tibetans fleeing their Chinese-occupied homeland, and where their stories are told.
Tenzing Ringdol, On a Distant Land, 2014. Collage, silk brocade and scripture, 80 x 48 inches.
As he speaks, the monk stretches his arms before him, fingers interlocked. The interpreter, leaning forward, lets out a guttural sound from deep in his throat, followed by a slow “tsk.” He has stopped taking notes. The monk speaks with a steady but urgent rhythm. His words emerge tighter and higher than the interpreter’s; he has not yet learned the Central Tibetan dialect that dominates the exile community.
The interpreter utters the low sound again. It is the sound I have heard Tibetans make when watching a distressing story on the news. His hands still clasped, the monk begins to jerk his body sideways. He’s smiling now, and giggling. The interpreter laughs. I have no idea what’s so amusing, but find myself joining them.
I am still laughing when the translation comes—“He was handcuffed. His hands were put around the channel of a fireplace.” My laughter catches.
“A chimney?” I ask.
“Yeah, chimney,” the interpreter says. “The heat from the iron was so strong there was sweating coming from his face. His hands were burned. So he pulled the chimney—” the interpreter’s words are round with laughter and my throat unclenches. “—off of the fireplace. With his body.”
We are sitting in an empty office at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center outside of Dharamsala, India. It’s a clean, peaceful campus of yellow buildings, set above a river and terraced fields in the green foothills of the Himalayas. It’s August of last year, and the monk, Golog Jigme Gyatso, has been here for four months.
His journey out of Tibet and into exile began in 2008, when he worked on a documentary featuring the uncensored views of ordinary Tibetans on life under Chinese rule. Golog Jigme and his friend, the documentary’s director Dhondup Wangchen, had never made a film before, but they saw the Beijing Olympics as an opportunity to bring international attention to Tibet.
Traveling thousands of miles, they recorded more than one hundred interviews across the northeastern Amdo region of Tibet. A Tibetan British citizen smuggled their footage out of China on March 10, 2008. The same day, protests against Chinese rule, incited by the upcoming Olympics and commemorating the mass Tibetan uprising of 1959, began in the capital city of Lhasa and spread in the following weeks across the Tibetan plateau. Chinese authorities responded with military force, and tightened restrictions on movement, information, and religious expression. The film, edited down to a short documentary, Leaving Fear Behind, was secretly screened for foreign journalists in Beijing on the eve of the Olympics.
Weeks after passing off their footage, Golog Jigme and Dhondup were arrested. Dhondup was imprisoned for six years, over the course of which he was subjected to torture, a labor camp, and solitary confinement. He was released in June 2014 in poor health. Golog Jigme was imprisoned for seven months, and subsequently rearrested and imprisoned two more times. Following his third arrest in September 2012, Golog Jigme disappeared for nearly two years before reemerging suddenly in Dharamsala in May of last year. The exile community welcomed him as a hero.
Since the Dalai Lama’s flight from China-occupied Tibet in 1959, more than one hundred thousand Tibetans have followed their spiritual leader into exile. In Dharamsala they obtain Indian paperwork and a blessing from His Holiness before settling there or going on to other parts of India and the world. Before 2008, between two thousand and three thousand refugees arrived in Dharamsala annually.
However, in the increasingly tense climate since 2008, China has tightened its borders and pressured Nepal, which once offered safe passage for Tibetans, to stem the flow. Now just hundreds, rather than thousands, of Tibetans successfully make the dangerous journey each year. Dharamsala’s new Refugee Reception Center, inaugurated in 2011, was planned with pre-2008 numbers in mind. The facility has never been full. When I meet Golog Jigme, only five of four hundred beds are occupied.
I ask him about his escape, but he will only say that many people risked their lives for his safety and that a great deal of money was spent. Many Tibetans have described their journeys into exile in great detail, he says, making the traditional routes extremely dangerous. He will not risk exposing the few means still available.
To see Tibet from afar thus requires intimate acts of imagination. You have to fill in the gaps between “not been confirmed” and “bloodshed.”
With fewer Tibetans escaping, there are fewer voices to contradict the reports published by China’s state-sponsored media, which portray Tibetans as a sweet and simpleminded people in need of shelter, guidance, and education. Tibet has been largely sealed since 2008 and news from the region is slim and becoming slimmer; there are now fewer foreign journalists in Tibet than in North Korea, and ordinary citizens face imprisonment for photographing a protest or attempting to contact foreign journalists.
To see Tibet from afar thus requires intimate acts of imagination. You have to fill in the gaps between “not been confirmed” and “bloodshed.” You have to guess what it means when the “whereabouts and wellbeing” of a protestor are “unknown.”
I have come to Dharamsala to hear the voices of Tibetans directly, to try and see past the uncertain headlines. Yet even here, it’s difficult. The new arrivals have to be careful—they speak anonymously; their actions in exile can lead to repercussions for their families in Tibet. Around town, Tibetans have told me to talk to “the monk” who arrived a few months ago. They don’t name him, but they all mean the same person. “He is very special to us,” they say.
When I meet Golog Jigme, he says I can use his real name because for him there can be no more hiding. He was named an “Information Hero” by Reporters Without Borders on World Press Freedom Day of 2014. Yet when I ask about his courage, he speaks of the courage of those he filmed.
In dim rooms smelling of wool and butter and incense, Golog Jigme promised his subjects—weathered nomads and red-cheeked farmers, old women with long silver braids, and young men in leather jackets—that he would not film their faces or reveal their names. But many told him to tip the camera up, and met the lens with dark eyes. They stated their names and hometowns. They told him his work was their work. “Even if I had to sacrifice my life for this message to be seen by the Dalai Lama,” said one man, face half in shadow, “I agree with and welcome this chance.”
When I ask Golog Jigme to tell me what it is like inside Tibet right now, he speaks for over ten minutes without pause. You might expect a monk to radiate a meditative calm. You might expect a man who has spent two years hiding to be drawn, edgy. Golog Jigme is neither. He’s round and soft in a comfortable way, but restless too. As he speaks, he gestures in swooping arcs, his room key pinched between two fingers. He shifts in his chair. He unwraps the maroon cloth that drapes his upper body and sits with bare shoulders. I listen to the steady tumble of his syllables.
Before we sat down, I told the interpreter not to let the monk talk too long between translations. I want the translation to be exact. But neither the interpreter nor I can stop him now.
When Golog Jigme finally finishes, the interpreter bends his head to his notes and begins. He tells me of the mining that has cut across the monk’s home region of Amdo, wresting gold, silver, and iron from the ground. The words are not Golog Jigme’s, but an approximation, the only words I can pass along. The interpreter says the natural resources extracted from Tibet feed the Chinese economy. Golog Jigme fiddles with his iPhone. The interpreter speaks of promises for human rights written into the Chinese Constitution that have never been enacted in Tibet. Fewer and fewer monks are allowed to study Buddhist philosophy. The artists cannot sing freely, the poets are censored.
The room is hot, the air heavy with the mountain monsoon.
Most afternoons in Dharamsala, I climb uphill from my guesthouse, stepping over potholes and cow dung, sweating into the humidity or hunching under an umbrella while the sky empties itself. I duck into a tiled entryway, muddying the floor. Down a concrete stairway is a classroom where I volunteer as a teacher, helping students practice English conversation. Some of the students are former political prisoners, and all are refugees; many left Tibet in the years since the 2008 crackdown.
I sit with small groups and ask why they left Tibet. They speak in short sentences and hand gestures. I teach them the words they need—Communist Party, pamphlet, patriot, protest. Some words they all seem to know already—Chinese, CCTV, mountains, freedom, education.
I collect their words in scribbled lists in my notebook. After Golog Jigme, it is a relief to speak without an interpreter. I like thinking there is not a gap between what they say and what I hear. Only, there is a gap—between what they want to say and what they can. We arrive at meanings through pantomimes and sketches, laughter and missteps.
After class one day, a man with wide, rosy cheeks, and a weathered, windblown look, stops me at the door. He had not been in my group. He introduces himself as Tashi. (I have changed his name to preserve his anonymity.)
“I was in protest,” he begins. “May 24th, 2008. Three hundred people. Chinese shoot. One monk, 20 year old. He died. One man, my friend. He, bullet. Here,” he puts a hand on his belly. “Stomach. One bullet, arm.” He helped the wounded man flee to the mountains, and finally to Nepal. Tashi hadn’t meant to leave permanently—he had a wife and two young children in Tibet—but when he called his family from Nepal, they told him that Chinese police had visited the home three times, looking for him. He couldn’t go back.
The phrases of his story have been practiced and memorized through retellings, expression of his pain confined to a few blunt sentences, approximations.
“I don’t see my wife,” he says. “I don’t see my children. I am here six years. My mother in Tibet. She die two years ago.” Two days later, he repeats his story almost verbatim during conversation class, as if he has forgotten he already told me. Or maybe the story is not meant for me, but is a kind of mantra. A way to keep his bearings, word by word.
When I ask Tashi questions, I realize he speaks very little English. In fact, he admits he is retaking the English class because he didn’t learn much the first time. The phrases of his story have been practiced and memorized through retellings, expression of his pain confined to a few blunt sentences, approximations.
The thought occurs to me that in exile Tibetans learn what works for a foreign audience. Which scenes are best. Which words to use. Tashi is not famous like Golog Jigme, but he has been interviewed by reporters, and one day two Taiwanese filmmakers show up to make a documentary of his story. The story he has learned how to tell.
I wonder how Tashi acquired these words, and which words he would have chosen if he had all of them, in every language. And I wonder if all of the words would be enough.
On the second day we meet, Golog Jigme tells me about the chair. We sit in the open-air breakfast room of my guesthouse. Heavy clouds obscure the mountains and the silhouettes of a few tall evergreens stand skeletal against the encroaching white. I spread the table with food—walnuts, yellow raisins, McVitie’s digestive biscuits. While the interpreter speaks, Golog Jigme eats raisins, one at a time. He worries his dark wooden prayer beads, sometimes twirling the strand around one finger, sometimes losing control of it, letting the beads spin through the air and, with a dull cascade, land on the concrete floor.
Golog Jigme was kept in the chair day and night, the interpreter tells me, for most of the seven months of his imprisonment—arms cuffed before him on a small metal table, legs bent beneath the seat and cuffed below, shoulders locked back. The monk flips his wrists over to show dime-sized scars, indicating each with the forefinger of his opposite hand—as if he were applying perfume. He lifts the maroon hem of his robe to reveal twin scars on his ankles, like little moons pressed into his smooth skin.
The scars, he explains, were from when he was suspended from the ceiling, turned backwards in the chair somehow and left hanging for hours. This was just one of several cruel, creative ways in which the chair was used. The more we ask about it, the less it seems we understand.
But once we have begun we cannot stop. Golog Jigme sits, holding his arms straight out before him, sliding his ankles back as far as they will go. We circle him, looking from all angles. Then I sit. Golog Jigme pulls my wrists in front of me, gently, presses my shoulders against the back of the chair. We sketch. Then the interpreter sits. Were your arms like this, or this? Was it a chain or a strip of iron around your wrists? We sketch, and the monk leans over the drawing and says yes like that, and no, not like that.
When the interpreter says that after a few weeks the skin from Golog Jigme’s behind began to rub off through four holes cut into the iron seat, I realize I have missed something big.
“You don’t wear pants?” I ask, not looking at Golog Jigme.
The answer is clear, for once. “No. Naked.”
But the interpreter doesn’t say “behind” or “rub.” He says, “the butt skin is also coming out from the holes,” and the image of spirals of skin hanging from the seat of the chair is so horrifying that I don’t ask any more about it.
We stop because we have been talking for five hours, because it is well past lunchtime. Because I am tired and the interpreter is tired and only the monk is not tired.
“I was trained very well by the Chinese,” he says laughing, and we join him. It’s strange to laugh, but the joke feels like forgiveness, or a gift.
The next day, I ask my conversation class students to tell me about their happiest memories. One student remembers long summer picnics on the high grasslands of his nomadic home, his extended family spread out beneath the huge blue sky. He thinks of them, those golden afternoons and the family he left behind, whenever he eats an especially delicious meal. A young woman recalls her earliest days in the nunnery, playing on the frozen river with her friends when they were sent to fetch water from the village below, taking an hour to complete the fifteen-minute chore.
That was in the days when the authorities left the nunnery alone, before they came to collect the photos of His Holiness and required the nuns to spend hours in political reeducation meetings. This is a pattern for these young exiles—that what is most precious is inextricably intertwined with what has been lost.
The woman has half-moon eyes and a face that ripples from joy to sadness at the slightest movement. The Party officials noticed her face, too, saw it flash in anger as they criticized the Dalai Lama. They noticed when she stopped showing up to the political reeducation meetings. She was twenty-three when they told her to go. After marching in a protest in 2008, she fled to India where she let her hair grow out so she would fit in with the other girls in the refugee school. Glossy and black, halfway down her back, it measures a life in exile.
They gesture towards something bright and expansive. This may be the hardest thing of all to translate.
They all speak of meeting the Dalai Lama. The way they feel about him, and the way they hurt for him, comes out in poetic bursts, emotional outpourings, and odd metaphors. One young man heard His Holiness’s voice as if amplified by a microphone, though there was none. A young woman from Amdo, a region known for its distinctive dialect, claims to have understood every word His Holiness spoke, even though she struggled to understand other Central Tibetan speakers. Another young man describes a feeling that started in his “deep heart,” “like when you hear a song you love,” a feeling that flowed up through his head giving him the sensation that all of his hair was growing. With laughter at the corners of their mouths, they struggle to describe encountering His Holiness.
It was like—it was like. They gesture towards something bright and expansive. This may be the hardest thing of all to translate.
In exile, Tibetans hang the Dalai Lama’s photograph in every home and shop, above their heads—it must be higher than their heads. In Dharamsala, they circle his home in prayer, daily. Whenever he returns from giving teachings elsewhere, they sweep the streets, line the way with prayer flags, and light thick, earthy incense. They clasp white blessing scarves between their hands, bow their heads, and cry to see him pass.
The Chinese government, meanwhile, calls him a “splittist” of the motherland, and those who follow him the Dalai Clique. Aside from a few rare instances of riots gone awry, the Tibetan struggle has remained astonishingly peaceful for more than fifty years—the Dalai Lama’s call for nonviolence may be the only thing that has kept it so. He has tried to give away his power: in 2011, he resigned his political position as the head of the Tibetan government in exile in favor of a democratically elected prime minister. To people who call him a god or living Buddha, he likes to say, “I am a simple monk.” He has not been allowed to return to Tibet.
When I ask Golog Jigme how he did not lose his mind in prison, he shakes his head. It is the wrong question. For people like you, he explains, people from a “freedom country,” prison would make you crazy. “What makes us crazy,” he says, “not just me, but all Tibetans, is when they burn His Holiness’s picture in front of us.”
Later, in my guesthouse, I watch Golog Jigme’s documentary. In one scene, an old herder wrapped in a thick wool robe weeps in short humming gasps as he rocks back and forth. “I have only to hear his name and I am filled with faith, devotion, and deep, deep sadness. The situation is hopeless. I feel exhausted. It’s as though I were walking along, with no destination, endlessly.”
I meet Golog Jigme again in his large empty room at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center. He serves me Chinese green tea from golden foil packets, pouring hot water over the leaves until I have a dark forest in the bottom of my cup. Through the window behind him, a string of prayer flags hangs against the white sky.
I show him a cleaned-up drawing of the chair in colored pencil. “Is this right?”
He nods and laughs. “You have got a very whole picture,” he says through the interpreter. Then he crosses out the leg cuffs. “This was not like this.” He says we should move on. “It will take time to explain how the leg cuff looks. And in China are many different leg cuffs. This will just create more confusion.”
“Even in Tibetan,” Golog Jigme continues, “the chair is almost impossible to describe. Tibetans in India don’t know the names of the different kinds of Chinese handcuffs. There are specific words. It is difficult to understand what you have not seen, like trying to teach the Buddhist dharma.”
This isn’t the first time I have heard about the many varieties of Chinese handcuffs. There is one kind that clamps into the thumbs, and one that is used to suspend people by their wrists. In the conversation class, the students tell me about one type that is serrated on the inner ring, so that the metal teeth bite into the wrists of the cuffed. One of them recalls seeing a young man, a boy almost, arrive at the Tibetan Transit Center in Nepal with one of these ruthless bracelets deeply embedded in his wrist, his flesh having grown over the wound. The cuff had to be cut from his arm. At first I am confused—I think this young man is telling me what happened to him, then, what he witnessed. Later I understand that it is just a story he heard. This is a language problem, but it is more than that—it is the way stories are carried in common, part of a deep, collective pain.
When I Google “Chinese handcuffs,” I get pictures of those woven bamboo finger traps handed out in goody bags at children’s birthday parties. An unsuspecting child puts a finger in each end. As she tries to pull her fingers out of the trap, the weave tightens. The more she pulls, the tighter the hold. The game is a sort of psychological torture; the only way to release the tension and free herself is to push her fingers further into the trap.
I think of monks and nuns forced to sign pledges of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. I think of brand new Chinese flags distributed in villages to replace traditional prayer flags. I think of the “Happiness Campaigns,” requiring young Tibetans to sing and dance in local festivals. How easy would it be to play along? Sign the pledge. Replace photographs of the Dalai Lama with photographs of Mao. Report neighbors for suspicious activities. The quiet ones can get government jobs.
On February 27, 2009, just under a year after the wave of protests and brutal crackdowns has swept the plateau, a young monk named Tapey from Kirti monastery walks to a crossroads in the market of Ngawa. His robes are already dark with oil. Raising a homemade Tibetan flag with a photo of the Dalai Lama at its center, he sets himself on fire.
After Tapey, there is Phuntsog. And then Tsewang Norbu. At first it is all monks, and then there is a nun, and then mothers and fathers, nomads and farmers, but most of all young people, men and women in their teens and twenties, in robes and in T-shirts, standing in markets, at crossroads, on street corners, shouting “Free Tibet” and “Long Live the Dalai Lama.”
On the path around the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamsala, their photographs hang on a makeshift wall painted in swirling flames. Only a few of the images show burning bodies; the rest are heartbreaking in their normality. A 23-year-old monk gives the camera a half-smile as he lifts a momo, a Tibetan dumpling, to his mouth. A boy poses atop his white horse. A young woman with thick dark hair and hoop earrings stands in a handsome fur-lined wrap dress.
There are the sixteen frames that contain no photographs, just identical black silhouettes, the dark shapes of where people should be.
In Tibet, they are burning themselves with no one there to see.
Malcolm Browne, who won a Pulitzer for his 1963 photograph of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc sitting cross-legged in the middle of a Saigon street while hungry flames devoured his body, described a “searing feeling” years later when he considered his role in the peaceful monk’s death. He didn’t think the monk would have lit the match if there hadn’t been a Western journalist to witness the act.
In Tibet, they are burning themselves with no one there to see.
Golog Jigme has tried to make us see. In the year or so before his third arrest, he worked to send news of the self-immolations to the outside world. Hearing of a burning, he’d set out for the town where the protest had occurred. Tightly controlled by police checkpoints, the villages were difficult to enter. He couldn’t stay long without attracting the attention of authorities, and he could never get near the families, who were closely watched and sometimes even charged with homicide for their alleged roles in encouraging the protests. He saw whole villages under strict curfew, neighbors forbidden from speaking to one another.
When he was arrested for the third and final time, he was not tortured. The guards said they would take him to a hospital for a medical examination. They told him he might get pills or an injection if the doctors found anything. They were very firm, emphasizing that he must follow the doctor’s orders exactly. Golog Jigme was certain his life was in danger, certain the needle would carry poison. After midnight, he leaned down to unlock his leg cuffs with a pin. He could not do it. He said a prayer to His Holiness, and tried again. This time they opened. He walked past the sleeping guard. The door had been left unlocked. He walked out into the night.
In the weeks that followed, in hiding, he learned that the Chinese police had put out a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of murder. He thought of setting himself on fire in front of the police station to protest the false accusation. But he knew that would only give them the last word. So he stayed silent, remained in hiding for nearly two years, biding his time and choking back his words until he could escape.
The month Golog Jigme arrived in Dharamsala, Chinese authorities placed new restrictions in certain parts of Tibet on the use of phones and the Internet to send information outside the region. Areas that have refused to fly the Chinese flag have seen the expansion of detention facilities and more checkpoints on the road. Drivers who complain at the delays may be beaten or detained for weeks of “reeducation.”
“The situation in Tibet becomes worse every day. It is unimaginable,” Golog Jigme says. “But this repression will compel the Tibetans to work harder than ever before. This is the nature of the phenomena.” The interpreter struggles with a word. He says “revolution,” but I do not think that is exactly right. “If you beat me,” he says, “I will become stronger than ever before, and I will give you answer.” He does not use the word “explosive,” but that is the word I hear—a whole country ready to ignite. At least 136 Tibetans have set fire to themselves inside Tibet and China since 2009. I have had to change that number five times while drafting this essay.
Chinese police in Tibet now carry fire extinguishers and special hooks they can use to grab burning bodies.
On a rare sunny afternoon, Tashi, the student who fled Tibet with a wounded protestor, catches me on the street. He asks if I will record some English words so he can practice pronunciation. He hands me a list of several dozen irregular verbs. I read all of the tenses, slowly. Be, was/were, been. Beat, beat, beaten. Become, became, become. Each word, altered and repeated, seems to gather uncanny meaning. I hear Tashi’s story, strung out across this slim scaffolding. I feel like crying.
Fall fell fallen
Flee fled fled
Freeze froze frozen
Hide hid hidden
Hurt hurt hurt
Leave left left
See saw seen
Shoot shot shot
Shrink shrank shrunk
Weep wept wept
On our final meeting, Golog Jigme says the chair was not even counted as torture. The chair was the holding place for torture. Torture was the beatings. Torture was when the guards set his mouth on fire. Torture was being made to hang or stretch in still more contorted positions conceived by a mind inexorably bent on cruelty.
“To tell about my torture in detail,” he finally says, “would take at least two full days.”
I do not want to spend two full days hearing about his torture. I don’t know whether I can bear it. And I wonder whether cataloging the precise iterations of trauma can ever approximate the meaning of that pain. What would it mean to draw the perfect chair? What would it mean to build one?
Perhaps what is unknown or unknowable needn’t be a barrier to engagement, but an opening. The Dalai Lama says that compassion begins with imagining the pain of others “to the point where you feel that their suffering is almost unbearable.”
Imagine inhaling thick black smoke. Feel it enter your nostrils, sting your throat, sink into your lungs.
Then, gather the deepest resources of your generosity, your patience, your compassion. Exhale, and see that the air is clear and luminous. See it diffuse into all living beings.
This is the Tibetan meditation practice of exchanging the self with others.
A Tibetan friend tells me, “The Chinese don’t realize it, but they are destroying their only hope.” I am uncertain what he means, but I think it has something to do with this—the Dalai Lama teaches compassion which is “undiscriminating, spontaneous, and unlimited…even for someone who has done harm to you: your enemy.” One monk who spent eighteen years in Chinese prisons told the Dalai Lama that there were times when he had been afraid—not for his life, but rather that he might lose compassion for his captors.
When I ask Golog Jigme whether he meditated in prison, he laughs. I am not so advanced to meditate in such circumstances, he says. He did pray though, and when he had the strength, he would shout for the long life of the Dalai Lama. He would shout in the faces of his torturers.
Emily Strasser is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Minnesota. She spent the summer of 2014 among Tibetan refugees in northern India. This essay was made possible by the University of Minnesota Scribe for Human Rights Fellowship and the generous mentorship of Patricia Hampl and Barbara Frey. Tremendous gratitude is also due to Jason Quick, Tenzin Phuljung, and Sangey Tashi.
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