Far From the Rooftop of the World: A Conversation with Amy Yee and Tsewang Rigzin
NEW YORK, DECEMBER 4 — Amy Yee, an award-winning journalist for Bloomberg News, recently joined Tsewang Rigzin, former deputy director of the Tibet Fund, for a conversation at Asia Society in New York about her new book Far From the Rooftop of the World: Travels Among Tibetan Refugees on Four Continents. The book, published earlier this year, has already been called “an example of journalism done right” by the Boston Globe.
Yee was working as a reporter for the Financial Times in Delhi when, in March 2008, unrest broke out across Tibet. Numerous peaceful demonstrations were held in remembrance of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising — when the 14th Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet — but the Chinese government cracked down on the monks and nuns with excessive force. Over the next several months, Chinese officials detained over 4,400 people, nearly all Tibetan, in connection with the March protests.
When news of the protests first broke, Yee was called up to a press conference with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile. There, the Dalai Lama embraced her in a hug. "Tibet and China must discuss...It is between us,” he told Yee, who is Chinese American. She claims that this hug from the Dalai Lama was the inspiration behind her commitment to document the stories of Tibetans living in exile, which she has spent the past 14 years doing.
“One may think that given the history of conflict, [Tibetans] might have an animosity towards one who is ethnically Chinese...Actually it is the opposite, people were really warm and welcoming towards me,” says Yee about working with Tibetans in exile to write her book. She attributes kindness this to the influence of the Dalai Lama: “The Dalai Lama says 'my faith in the Chinese government is getting thinner and thinner, but I still have faith in Chinese people.’”
In March 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Dalai Lama shared the stage with over a dozen Chinese activists for a speech. “Imagine sharing the stage on this momentous occasion with Chinese people,” says Yee. “At the time, I was like 'oh this is happening,' but now I think it’s unusual. Think of the conflicts in the world with a leader of the people being persecuted sharing the stage with the other side.”
In Dharamsala, there is a growing community of Tibetans living in exile. “Under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, we have started a number of Tibetan schools. These schools and monasteries are thriving,” says Tsewang.
“Thousands of students are keeping the language and traditions alive, meanwhile in Tibet that is not the case,” says Yee. “A lot of Tibetans send their family to attend these schools and the journey is so perilous...many of them can’t even make it [to India] because they are so cold, hungry, and unable to breathe.”
Tsewang spoke of his own experience fleeing from Tibet to Nepal in 1992. “I have a lot of friends who walked for 40 days across this terrain and got frostbite and hand to cut off their hands and legs. In my case I was packed as a luggage and then put into a bus as luggage.”
While many Tibetans find refuge in the foothills of the Himalayas, there are other communities of Tibetans that are growing in unexpected areas. Bylakuppe, five hours south of Bangalore, is home to the second largest Tibetan settlement in the world. The first exiles came to the steamy jungles of Southern India in 1961 and became self-sufficient by growing corn. Now Bylakuppe is home to around 20,000 Tibetans and is unofficially known as “Little Tibet.” In Far From the Rooftop of the World, Yee profiles the growing community of Tibetans in Australia, where many have received asylum.
As Dalai Lama ages, the question of his successor is on many Tibetan minds. “If [the 14th Dalai Lama] passes in exile or if he is not able to return to Tibet, the 15th Dalai Lama will certainly be born in the free world,” says Tsewang. It is unlikely that China will recognize the birth of a Dalai Lama outside of China, and Tsewang believes that the Chinese are likely to appoint their own version of the 15th Dalai Lama. “We are a little concern that many people might get fooled by the tricks that the Chinese might play," he says.
Despite the difficulties that the Tibetan diaspora faces today, both Yee and Tsewang have hope for the community. “A think a lot of that hope from me comes from what Tibetans are doing in exile...The cultural institutions, the religious institutions have been transplanted and they are growing and thriving,” says Yee.
Tsewang points to this resilience as an indication that Tibetans will one day regain control over their homeland. “I think of the around 2300 years of recorded history of the Tibetan people, the last 50, 60 years have been the most difficult. At the same time, the near future might be difficult, but in the long run Tibetans will prevail,” says Tsewang. “If not me, certainly my kid will come back to Tibet.”