My Escape from Tibet and the Agony it Caused

Preface: this is the story of Dorji Tsering and it’s the second article in a series of interviews with Tibetan refugees and migrants who live on Sydney’s northern beaches. The stories reveal a great deal about growing up in a nomadic family in Tibet.

I’m helping get these stories published because few people appreciate the emotional pain of being forced from your country of birth. Secondly, these stories reveal the kinds of character traits that are often lacking in western democratic societies.

A final reason I want these stories told is that often the difference between surviving in a new country and thriving in a new country could be as simple as an introduction or some other modest assistance.

P.S. you can see examples of Dorji’s photography on a website that we helped him create: https://www.taanstudio.com/

Greg Twemlow, Founder of SEVENmile Venture Lab

This is the story of Dorji Tsering.

Where were you born? I was born in Yualgan, Tibet. Yualgan was the traditional name in Tibet for the area which presently is Henan county under China.

Why were you given the first (and middle) name(s) that you have?

Dorji pictured with his beloved books of poetry

My parents named me Dorji Tsering (Dorji means indestructibility and stability and Tsering means long life). It could be my parent’s prayer for me to grow into a determined and have a long life.

Later, I named myself as ‘Chenchab’ which means Tears. It is because the Tear is very much related to my sadness in life due to the invasion of Tibet. That sadness gradually changed into grief, a kind of depression and emotional burden; a kind of cancer. Hence, I named myself ‘Taan’ which means cancer in Tibetan. There are still other names that I won’t mention here for those are not related.

What’s your first, most vivid memory?

When I was 7 years old, my father took me to another town where one of my uncles was working as a school teacher. I was told that I have to join this school next year. They said that I have to stay for a few days to observe the things at that school and decide whether I can stay there or not. Those few days of at the school were my trial. It was the first time for me to see a group of children sitting together and studying, practising physical exercises and playing games like basketball. I was astonished to see these things, especially I was totally amazed by the way the basketball bounces into the air after hitting the ground. I was very excited to join the school.

Can you describe the home you grew up in?

The home where I was born and grew up was an ordinary nomadic home. But, we have heaven-like beauty of Tibet’s natural hills and rocks, rivers and streams, horses and yaks, cows and bulls, sheep etc. It is my elder brother who could not go to school since he had to help my father to look-after our herds from his childhood for our family’s subsistence. He also had to help my mother to do household things. My parents worked very hard to send the rest of us to school.

Tell me about your parents. What memories do you have of them?

My father is a genuine nomad man who values the truth so much, so is my mother. They don’t like acts of stealing, lying and hypocritical actions at all. It is fortunate that they both are literate. My father seemed good at maths as he was our town’s accountant. He knows the number of residents and herds very well. He was also an experienced doctor of cattle for 30 years.

I remember that he often goes to the houses with boiled needles wherever the cattle are sick. He was also a person with cultural skills about tailoring nomadic tents (a thick and dark tent, made from yak fur). He is very compassionate, he always goes to see the people who are blind, deaf and lonely. He helps them and tries hard to improve and recover them from their hardships. He is so kind-hearted and a genuine nomad man.

My mother used to make pretty and quality clothes for us as she is good at sewing and designing. For example; she makes white clothes for my father and elder brother, yellow for me and my younger brother, and colourful clothes for my sisters and herself. She can also make little shoes for me and my younger brother from sheep’s skin.

My parents have seen the Chinese government policy over Tibet in 1958. They call it ‘the black time.’ According to my memory, there was not a single old man to see. In 1958-the black time, the Chinese army had killed all the men who were 18 and above. There were many old women in our home town; like my parents’ mothers. I know them very well and they love me so much. But, I have never seen my grandfathers.

My parents had experienced different sorts of hardships in their life. It seems that my mother has worked as a nurse in her earlier part of life as well. When the kids of our town catch a cold and they were given the injections from the hospital, they bring the injection to my mother and have it done. She gives both the general and intravenous injections whenever people come to seek her help. She also teaches and helps other ladies to design the clothes and braid the hair.

My parents are very intelligent and thrifty kind of couple with high moral conduct. If my parents were objects, they are definitely the tools with multipurpose which would be indispensable and valuable for the nomad lives.

How many brothers and sisters do you have? What memories do you have of each of them from when you were growing up?

I have one elder brother, two elder sisters and a younger brother. They say that I was very aggressive when I was a little kid. There is a tale that my sisters always tease me and make me cry, but I cannot remember this clearly.
I started my schooling when I was 8. At that time, my second elder sister was also going to the same school. So, she looks after me. After she completed her primary school, my younger brother joined the school and then I looked after him.

At that time, we had only two school holidays, summer holiday and winter holiday. When I was at school, I missed my sisters a lot. My parents and elder brother visit us some times. When our elder brother comes to see us, he used to bring special gifts.

Generally, we the siblings were close to each other, we love and respect each other a lot. For example, I went with my elder brother to do the shepherding on a holiday. We played games for a long time and we lost our herd of sheep. Therefore, our father scolded us and when he was about to beat me, my elder brother defended me and said it was all his fault, and he let my father beat him.

Later, my younger brother and I went to Labdrang Monastery and stayed there for a long time and we had not gone home for years. When we went home for the first time after five years, our first elder sister could not come to see us as she had already gone as a bride. But, we can see her on the side of the other hill.

On the next day, she came to see us on horse and said that she was unable to sleep that night because of her excitement and eagerness to meet us. When she reached our home, she dismounted from the horseback. But, didn’t enter the home, stayed outside, staring at us and crying.

It was due to her nostalgia and longing to see us for a long time. Mother had sensed it and said, “Your elder sister is unable to come in, can you please go and help her to step in?”. So, I went out to get her. Her expression and inability to look at my face, the streaming tears and the sad sound of groaning made my feeling sadder and I became more emotional. Likewise, we have a very strong bond and the love and affection for each other are beyond words.

What responsibilities did you have at home when you were young?

At the age of 8 I began school and since then I learned to look-after myself. The school was a bit far from my home. Therefore, I had to stay in the school hostel. I can go home only during the Summer and Winter holidays. When I was 15, my younger brother and I joined Dhomey Labrang monastery. Our parents provided us with all the facilities and we took all the responsibilities of health, study, hygiene, food and clothes etc. I feel we were especially good at cleanliness and cooking according to that circumstance.

What kind of school did you go to? Were you a good student? What was your favourite subject?

When I joined the school I think it was not the start of new session because we had a midterm exam just two weeks later. At that time, we had only two subjects to study, mathematics and the Tibetan language.

I can still remember that my first-time result was very poor. After that year, I became the class monitor of year five, received many prizes like the first position in exams. I had also won the title of three excellences (study, character and cleanliness). My favourite subject was maths.

Dorji is an accomplished photographer

What was the best gift you remember receiving as a child?

I was happier to receive the three excellences than other prizes. It was around my fourth year that I found a wristwatch from the water tank side. It looked really good and after inquiring about the owner, I came to know that it was our school storekeeper’s wristwatch.

I personally handed it to him and he insisted to leave 25 yuan in my hand. At that time the amount of 25 yuan was not a small amount of money, but I don’t remember that I was very happy to have it.

A few days later my name was announced at the morning assembly and I was praised for my honest and good character of giving back the wristwatch to its owner. The compliment was made about my deed and praised among all the teachers and students that I was a practically good conducted student. That was the best gift that I received in my life.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

From a very young age, I wanted to be a person who can help others. I might be influenced by my parents. The schools that I have attended were very poor in education, economic and facilities. For instance, the teachers of religion of my school in Tibet have not any salaries.

The schools in India where I have gone had no clean water to drink. It was hard to get even a glass of hot water to take medicine. There are places where people can not afford to get three square meals. I think about things like that and I always pray for the day to become an able person. When such a day arrives, I believe that I will be able to provide the facilities to those destitute.

How did you decide what you wanted to do with your life?

From the very young age, I wanted to be a person who can help others. I might be influenced by my parents. The schools that I have attended were very poor in education, economic and facilities. For instance, the teachers of religion of my school in Tibet have not any salaries.

The schools in India where I have gone had no clean water to drink. It was hard to get even a glass of hot water to take the medicines. I used to think about things like these and I always pray for the day to become an able person. When such a day arrives, I believe that I will be able to provide the facilities to that kind of poor schools.

When did you get married? How old were you? Where did you get married?

My wife and I started to live together since 2011. But, we didn’t have any special wedding ceremony. Generally, there should be a wedding ceremony atmosphere, but we are refugees who have lost freedom of their country.

Moreover, there were many other reasons, for example; Tibetans in Tibet were setting themselves on fire to protest the Chinese government actions at that time. Hence, our marriage was just a legal marriage with documents, not with the special kind of wedding ceremony.

How many children do you have? When were they born? How did you decide what to name each?

I have two sons and both were born in India. As they were born in the place called Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives, I have asked for the babies names from Dalai Lama before they born. I have done that just for the sake of safe delivery (It is very rare to hear an unsafe delivery after getting the name when the baby is in mother’s womb).

How did you feel about raising your children?

Generally, it is mentioned in child education that starting from the child’s psychological wellbeing, it is important to listen to pleasant music since the baby has formed in mother’s womb. Specially, it is important to be gentle and present respectful conduct in front of the children.

The most important thing is, we should always explain the things to them accurately and in simple way. By telling the truth without lying gains their trust in their parents. To have the total trust in their parents is best for the psychological wellbeing of the child.

What kinds of things bring you the most pleasure now?

Although, it has been only one year since my elder son joined the school in Australia, the speed and level of his study makes me very happy. In addition, during this short period of time, I met people like Dr. SID to whom I respect a lot and Mr. Greg who has a kind heart with pure motivation and many others. The guides and helps that I get from them also makes me feel very happy.

Do you have any hobbies or special interests?

I have great interest in love. I am a person who can highly respect, value and trust the friends and relatives who have pure love. I am also a person who doesn’t hurt others even if I can’t help them. According to hobbies, I love cleaning, cooking, writing poems and shooting the photographs.

a poem by Dorji Tsering. Translation: Daramdala; Mountains that wear the suns rays - Daramsala; buildings that eat the darkness.

Is the present better or worse than when you were younger?

Generally, the present is better than the times of my childhood according to the living. But, the unstable jobs and status shows that I haven’t achieved the dream that I had from my childhood.

What do you do for fun?

For fun, I play different kind of games with my friends, my wife and children whenever I get time. I also read many poems and stories from Tibetan websites. Sometimes, I also do write poems and lyrics and upload them on social media. In brief, this is how I enjoy or have fun in my life.

What things are most important to you now? Why?

I am trying to adapt to the new surroundings, new language and culture for the present. Because, I find it crucial to get used to this new country by heart for I have to live in Australia.

Do you think about the future and make plans? What are your concerns for the future?

Generally, as we have lost the freedom of our nation and we are in exile, we have heavy responsibilities over our shoulders. Especially, I am especially worried about the valuable culture of Tibet which is based on compassion as it is now fading away.

Nowadays, there are appearing non-stop issues like disease, famine and war all over the world. If we look for the causes, the main causes are the humankind due to lack the inner value like love, compassion and kindness.

It is all because of the persistent thought of selfishness. Hence, this world is in the need of altruism, benevolence and the perception of ‘others before self’, and I think more about preserving the rich and essential culture of Tibet. But now am not very sure about my living situation. So, I am trying to work hard and at the same time I am planning to own a small business.

What’s your most cherished family tradition? Why is it important?

Our most cherished family tradition is to respect elders and care for the young among family members. We also value the most unique Tibetan tradition which is loving kindness.

The reason is, I feel nowadays many children lack the parent’s love and care. Hence, they have brutal nature, they always fight as they can’t adjust with others and they even talk back to their parents. When they gradually grow up, they start to steal, rob, murder and even threat people.

Therefore, the children who have received good care and love from their parents are naturally more likely to be peaceful, very patient, good at dealing with people, more tolerant, open minded and compassionate. Therefore, I find it very important that the way of Tibetan parents care and love their children.

What’s the most difficult thing that ever happened to you? How did you deal with it?

Generally, whatever we do we find the things that are hard to decide and unable to sacrifice sometimes. For instance, when I escaped from Tibet to India, my parents and siblings didn’t know about it. But, at that time the moral and advice of past scholars helped me a lot.

For example, a western scholar once said: “Something that obstruct people from moving forward is something that he can not sacrifice anything” and “Give more, get more.”

What do you think the turning points have been in your life?

When I was a little kid, many people couldn’t go to school because of the poor facility and far distance. But my parents diligently sent us to school and I also did not drop out from school, yet studied passionately.

This is a huge turning point in my life. There are also many other turning points in my life like I became a monk later by joining the (Domay Ladang Tashi Khel).

There, I was able to learn important religious things from great scholars and besides that, I also became passionate about poetry and started composing poems.

There are two parts in religious doctrine which are theory and practice. At that time, I was able to realize the importance of the practical part. Then I came into exile in India, worked and gradually had the wife and children, published my some books, chose to live in Australia and started the schooling again.

What advice did your grandparents or parents give you that you remember best?

My parents are not the kind of people who are good at speaking and frank. But, they always love to help other people. They used to say, “Wherever you go and whatever you do, always try to help others according to your ability. Even if you can’t help others, never hurt them.’ Specially, they advise us to help and be generous towards poor people as much as we can. It is impossible for me to forget these words.

If a young person came to you asking what’s the most important thing for living a good life, what would you say?

I think, to live a good life, one must maintain the honesty and do things with passion and diligence without ignoring the basic human nature. For instance, if we keep doing something lawfully, it is sure that one day we will achieve good results, which is also a truth. Likewise, we do something illegal, it may make some money and bring some happiness for the time being. But, later it will be a source of regret for sure. This is what I would like to say here.

If you had the power to solve one and only one problem in the world, what would it be and why?

I will solve the internal or mental problems of people. Because, most of the mental problems are created by ourselves, especially our way of our thinking.
In Buddhist philosophy, anger and patience are exemplified into thorns and leather. It is said: “If the whole universe is covered by thorns and you want to cover it, you won’t have enough leather to cover. Instead by covering your feet with the leather to cover the whole universe”. Here, our own mind is indicated as the main thing.

What do you see as your place or purpose in life?

The purpose of life is happiness. The happiness comes from motivation and way of thinking. So, for me it is important to identify level of happiness that you attained and be contented with oneself. My purpose of life would be helping others who are poor and less fortunate to attain happiness.

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SEVENmile acknowledges the help of Multicultural NSW and Northern Beaches Council along with Northern Beaches Community Centre in Brookvale.

Greg Twemlow, Founder, SEVENmile Venture Lab

About SEVENmile Venture Lab:

SEVENmile Venture Lab is a For-Purpose Enterprise, supporting our community in launching new enterprises, focusing on women and men who want to design their future, young adults (16–25 years), diversity, migrants and over 50s. We were founded in Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches in late 2018.

We work to empower individuals to design their lives and livelihoods and to contribute to the economic development of their communities.

sharing what I’ve learned from 35 years as a citizen-of-the-world, parent, corporate executive, entrepreneur and since 2018, CEO of a registered charity