AHOME IN MEMORY
A daughter returns to the Tibet her mother had lost in this poignant memoir
In 1959, like many Tibetans, including the 14th Dalai Lama, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s mother fled Tibet to a life in exile. As the writer describes it in the opening pages of her book, “All her life exiled [ my mother] waited to return home. She spoke of exile as something that would be expunged over time.” She pined for the flowers, the great steppes, and the beauty of her homeland. Unfortunately, death, in the form of a traffic accident in 1994, arrived long before that time.
A decade and a half later the daughter travelled as a ( American) tourist where her mother could not, to visit her relatives, see her land, and discover for herself what it means to be a Tibetan today. The result, A Home in Tibet, is a daughter’s love offering to the spirit of her mother through the celebration of the home her mother could never return to. That emotional attachment is transparently present, and makes for a very moving account of the time that she spends in Nangchen, in the province once known as Kham, and specifically the district of Dhompa, which is named after the author’s clan. More importantly this is one of the first accounts we have of a Tibetan recording a history, almost an anthropological account, of the travails and joys of being Tibetan.
Tsering is a poet, and her command of language infuses the book with a great deal of beauty, especially in her descriptions of the beauty of the landscape. It also adds a certain amount of amused self- reflection, as when she describes scolding children to speak Tibetan because they are Tibetan, and then hearing them pass on the admonition because the “foreign lady” told them to. Or when she speaks about the opinions of nomads, “My politics is not their concern… They understand this life of the grass and the life of work,” or the economics and practice of mating high- pedigree dogs that she, as a “foreigner”, can enquire about when Tibetan women cannot.
Her writing also reveals a certain elite character. Her father and maternal grandfather were chieftains, the descendant of generations of chieftains. When she speaks of history it is the history, largely, of lamas and leaders, and it is a history that has no place for China or the Chinese. This is odd, since the first great Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, not only defeated the army of the Tang Empire, but also married the Chinese princess Wencheng in the 7th century— who probably introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Tsering describes her nephew, Kunga, reading Don Quixote in Chinese, and realises, “how insular I have become to feel shocked at a non- English translation… Only in English can I make sense of it all. Only in Chinese can Kunga make sense of it all.”
This resistance to understand how much Tibet and China are interrelated mars her work slightly. While she talks of how much the Tibetans suffered in 1959 and its aftermath, some of them even forced to eat grass to survive, this ignores what was happening in the rest of the areas ruled by Mao and his coterie of incompetents. Over 35 million Chinese died of starvation during those years, at a time when China was exporting grain, because of Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, and the sycophancy created by the Communist system. Many Chinese survived only by eating the flesh of the dead, including their relatives.
The tragedy of Tibet is part and parcel of great tragedy of China under the Communist Party, and cannot be understood as distinct from it. Tsering’s journey through the book allows us to come closer to the grim facts of the stoic resistance Tibetans have displayed when faced with such horrors, but also to the joy, beauty and humour in their lives. No mother could wish for a greater gift from a daughter in her memory.