Exiled – A Tibetan’s Tale

Interview by Brian Covert


 My feet are wandering neath the alien star
My native land – the road is far and long.
Yet the same light of Venus and Mars
Falls on the small green valley of Rebkong

Rebkong – I left thee and my heart behind,
My boyhood’s dusty plays, in far Tibet.
Karma, that restless stallion made of wind,
In tossing me, where will it land me yet?

Gendun Choephel — “Rebkong”


Kalsang Dorjee - Tibetan refugee in Japan

Kalsang Dorjee

[F]or Kalsang Dorjee, a young Tibetan of university age, education and learning was to be the road out of his country and into an unknown, uncertain world. It would be his tool, his nonviolent weapon, for a Tibet that he dreamed would someday be free. Everyday life in Tibet had grown too oppressive under Chinese rule — no personal or academic freedom at all, as he experienced it — and at age 23, the student of Tibetan literature had now come to accept the possibility of death as the price of that freedom, as he slowly made his way over the Himalaya mountain range and away from his homeland.

Kalsang Dorjee had grown up in Qinghai Province in the Amdo region of China, one of the centers of cultural Tibet. He remembered well how, like many children of his generation, he was not allowed under the Chinese educational system to learn his own Tibetan language in primary school. By his own accounts he was a bright student, moving up through the educational system and eventually graduating from Qinghai Nationalities University with a degree in Tibetan literature. During school vacations, he would study Tibetan Buddhism at a monastery.

In 1999, “The situation in Tibet was very severe. Things seemed to be getting worse. There was no personal freedom at all,” he recalled. “Tibetans were forced to do work they didn’t want to do,” such as in farming or agriculture, “and a person might be put in prison or tortured” for refusing.

He desperately wanted to study more, but not just for himself: He felt that he wanted to use his education to “do something for Tibet and Tibetans” of the future, to “communicate to the Chinese government and the Chinese people” — and by extension, to governments and people around the world — as his own personal contribution for a free, independent Tibet. He wasn’t politically active; that was too risky at that time. He just had a passion for learning and a deep love for his culture. He saw only one avenue open, and that was getting out of the country before the gates of possibility were shut for good.

I sing for myself, the traveller
The ever-wandering vagabond,
Chased from where I belong
Eluded by promises and hopes
Belonging to a vaunted diaspora
That fights from atop a beautiful hill,
And for all travellers with no destination
For all fights fought and yet to fight
For the lost chord unfound
For the trail that rises upward
For the revised spirit
For gentler hearts
For the Promised Land
The snow sunk upland
Closer to where I want to die.

Bhuchung D. Sonam — “Song of an Old Tibetan”

Kalsang Dorjee joined a group of about 20 other Tibetans and made plans in 1999 to secretly slip over the Chinese border and across the Himalaya mountains. Destination: Nepal. There was no guarantee they would make it there alive. “It was very dangerous. If you wanted to do that, you had to be ready to die,” he says. By that time, he was. If the cold, harsh climate of the Himalayas did not kill you, the Chinese military’s border guards would — they were known to shoot border-crossing stragglers on sight.

“It was not a pleasure trip, and I had no special training” for being in the outdoors for long periods of time, he recollects. He and his compatriots survived on tsampa, the roasted barley rolls that are a staple food of Tibet, as well as on Chinese herbal medicine drinks and some high-energy supplement pills that Chinese soldiers were known to take. More than the severe climate of the Himalayas, “Our biggest fear was getting caught by the Chinese army” stationed along the border, he says. “Of course, I was ready to die, but even so, it was harder to do than I imagined. But we couldn’t go back.”

Kalsang Dorjee and his group were not spotted by the Chinese military’s border guards, but another group of Tibetans following behind them were not so lucky: A few of the Tibetans in the other group were shot at and killed by border guards. His group kept on going. At times the cold and the hunger and the exhaustion would get to them, and some of his comrades, young men in their 20s, would wail uncontrollably. “If I had known how hard it would be” to flee Tibet over the Himalayas, Kalsang Dorjee says, “I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Once they finally did make it over the mountainous border into Nepal, “three or four in our group couldn’t walk any farther, so we had to leave them behind and keep going. It couldn’t be helped. It would’ve been too dangerous to keep going with them.” He thinks they eventually made it to safety. Twenty-four long days after leaving Tibet and crossing the Himalaya mountains, he was safely now in Nepal…and officially exiled.

Oh, you brave, brave people
I greet you in exile!
You have like me become
An orphan of this world.

And like me, you will never ever
Know what lies ahead now:
But you must be patient
While we remain exiled.

Now that the worst is over
You must learn once again
To smile at the rising sun:
And to start all over again.

Norbu Zangpo — “To Boat People”

The Nepalese police took the weary Kalsang Dorjee and his fellow Tibetans to a local human rights organization, which looked after them temporarily. At the time, he remembers, a couple thousand Tibetans a year were making the same kind of trek due to the heavy oppression of Tibet under Chinese rule. He stayed two months in Nepal, then moved on to New Delhi, India. After that he relocated to the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, home to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, the chief representative of the Tibetan government in exile.

Tears are visible in Kalsang Dorjee’s eyes as the memory of that time of his life comes back to him. “It was great being there” in Dharamsala, he says, and though he never got to meet the Dalai Lama face to face, “I felt I wanted to do my best within the Tibetan refugee community, as they all are doing.” Kalsang Dorjee, like many of his fellow Tibetans, was deeply inspired and influenced by the world-renowned spiritual leader, and was more sure than ever that he wanted to further his education while in exile to do his part for the liberation of his people back home.

But India, he says, did not seem to be the right place to do it. “I was concerned about the many differences between India and China — the ways of thinking, for one — and India was not really up to confronting China. If I stayed in India, maybe I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of things I really wanted to do to help Tibet.” He eventually set his sights on Japan, with its own brand of Buddhism and spirituality, as his next home in exile.

In 2008 he obtained a student visa and entered Bukkyo University in Kyoto, receiving his master’s degree in Buddhist studies four years later. In 2012 he applied for refugee status under Japanese law and, at this writing (summer 2013), is still waiting for official confirmation one way or the other as, he says, reportedly the first Tibetan to apply for refugee status in Japan. “Before I made the application, I already understood how hard it would be to get refugee status in Japan. However, under the Japanese constitution, basic human rights are guaranteed. Japan is a country that follows the United Nations treaties on refugees, so I think Japan wouldn’t go against its own laws.”

He has picked up some of the Japanese language in the meantime, lives on a small monthly stipend provided by the Japanese government, and has to check in every month with immigration officials in Osaka. “As I am under application, that means I am temporarily released [from custody]. It seems that the immigration office has been checking into whether my passport was forged or not, and that has taken a lot of time. My ability to work and other activities are limited in the meantime. Studying is the only thing I’m allowed to do by the immigration office until the final judgment is made on my application.”

“I hope the Japanese government will continue to follow their own laws and international law when it comes to granting refugee status — and to shorten the processing time. Of course, I understand that it depends on the situation of the applicant and there are difficulties with getting the refugee status. I believe the Japanese government will judge my case appropriately, and I appreciate the Japanese people for allowing me to live under the social welfare of this country.”

Living a life in limbo in Japan, with restrictions on seeking work in the country or traveling outside the country, Kalsang Dorjee decided to make the best use of his time by helping Japanese people understand more about Tibet, its people and its history. He started giving a series of lectures at benkyo-kai study meetings in Kyoto, with a different theme selected each month. In one of his recent study meetings, resembling more a subdued Japanese university lecture than a fiery polemic, he shared with the audience some of the history and culture of Tibet. During the question-answer period, the Japanese audience brought up issues of religion and politics, human rights and the lack of democracy in China.

“I would like people in Japan and around the world to understand the Tibetan issue, because resolving the problems in Tibet can play an important role in bringing peace and stability not only to Asian countries but also to the world,” he says.

A blazing figure ravaged by flames
A human pyre of supreme patriotism
Half limping, half jumping
Half dying, half exulting
Straddling across the frantic stage of Now
His hands joined over his head in supplication
His cackling lips shouting one more time, one last time
“Bhod Rangzen” “Free Tibet”

Topden Tsering — “Pyre of Patriotism”

Kalsang Dorjee received word that on the very day of one of his recent study meetings in Kyoto, yet another Tibetan back home had committed suicide by setting himself on fire. News reports here and there mention in passing the latest casualty of self-immolations in Tibet, a 30-year-old Tibetan mother of four children being just one of the more recent ones. The current wave of self-immolations, especially among young Tibetans — and young Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in particular — rose sharply from 2009. That was when the government of China cracked down on Tibetan protests during the 50th anniversary year of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in 1959. The number of self-immolations in Tibet since 2009 stands today at around 115.

Especially shocking in the context of Buddhist doctrine, self-immolation was a potent symbolic action taken by monks during the Vietnam War, and has been used since the late fourth century CE as a form of protest by Buddhists in times of suppression of their religion within China.

Although Kalsang Dorjee wants Tibetans to stop killing themselves this way, he understands why they do it. “One reason is out of a sense of hopelessness.” Another reason is a lack of patience that the Dalai Lama is still not recognized by China and allowed to return to Tibet after all these years. “Setting themselves on fire sends a strong message to the world,” he says. “For me personally, I would like to see them stop doing it, but I think probably more and more Tibetans will follow them.” Like many Tibetans, he calls on the Chinese government to hold an official inquiry into how and why these suicides occur.

If violence of many kinds is now the order of the day in Tibet, Kalsang Dorjee thinks, then a peaceful resolution is the only answer for the future: “If the ends are peace, then the means have to be peaceful. It cannot be violent.” In 1989 the Dalai Lama outlined a five-point plan for a future Tibet after liberation: Tibet would become a “Zone of Peace” where respect for human rights and environmental protection would have top priority, and where military weapons and nuclear power would have no place. Kalsang Dorjee fully agrees.

“Also, the Tibetan language has to be been maintained,” he adds. “If the language dies out, Tibetan culture will die out. And in order to build up a stable economy, Tibet will need education about science, technology, economics, politics. Education is a key factor for the future of Tibet.” As a researcher himself who has specialized in Tibetan literature and Buddhism, the 37-year-old Kalsang Dorjee envisions the day coming when he will be able to bring everything he has learned, and all the hardships that he and his people have borne, to help pave the way for the Tibet of the future.

In the meantime China remains the biggest trading partner of Japan, the country that Kalsang Dorjee calls home for now. But the Japanese government is known for treading lightly on Chinese feet, both politically and economically; what can Japan do for Tibet in the future? “The situation in Tibet may get worse,” he replies, being careful with his words, “and if the Chinese government commits some kind of genocide, Japan and other countries could take some steps in changing their political policies toward China.”

Unfortunately, he may be right that it would take even further catastrophe to rally effective world-scale political support for Tibet. The reality is that Kalsang Dorjee is just one of 140,000 Tibetans that the Central Tibetan Administration — Tibet’s government in exile in Dharamsala — estimates are living today as exiles around the world, and their voices and their calls for international solidarity often seem to go unheard and unheeded, even in the host countries in which they are living.

And while Kalsang Dorjee’s tale is unique, it is also painfully similar to tens of thousands of other Tibetan exiles like him who have felt forced to sever ties with the past in the hope of reaching a better day in the future. “Tibetans, over a thousand years, have sacrificed the nation to build up this culture,” Kalsang Dorjee says with pride. “Tibetan culture is so unique in the world.” Whatever happens, he says, it must never be lost.

In the distant days when you were only a child
You used to dream of being a man of war
Now after losing all the battles you have fought
You still long to be a better soldier

And after years of escape and separation
You still recollect those native hills
Those prayer-flags, the echo of
the conches and highland dogs
Disturbing the still night
of the nomad valley

For long have you wandered over alien seas
Singing alien songs; stoned in discotheques.
But in your eyes I see the longing
for the Cold Mountain songs and
The long march back to our long lost home

You are a bridge to the future
for the poets and patriots:
You sing songs of sacrifice
And you beat the drums of destiny

And who comes to you
Must search for inspiration
In the very few lines
Of an injured poem

K. Dhondup — “A Poem of Separation”


UPDATE: After a long and patient wait, Kalsang Dorjee recently received refugee status in Japan. He says he is the first Tibetan exile ever to be granted such status in Japan.


*All passages in italics are excerpted from the book Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry (Paljor Publications, 2004), a collection of poems originally written in English by exiled Tibetan writers living in various countries of the world.~

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Brian Covert

Author's Bio

Brian Covert is a writer, editor and university lecturer based in Kawanishi, western Japan.


Photos by Brian Covert