The strange thing is that very few people were aware that women were marginalized in Tibet and then brought to the forefront after the Chinese occupation. You realize it reading through Sky Train. Most tellingly in the story of a Rinpoche who refuses to travel in the company of women, despite being accompanied by the woman’s husband and son as well. He calls the husband aside to tell him this and the result is that the family ends up being separated as the husband tries to escort the Rinpoche safely to the Indian border and the Chinese move in and arrest the two women, sisters, who share the same husband.
Canyon Sam is a third generation Chinese American who visited China in an attempt to discover her roots. However she found it a cold country and, instead, was drawn to Tibet. There she met a woman called Tashi in the post office who invited her home with genuine friendliness. Intrigued by Tibet, she became an activist and delved into the way the Chinese occupation and the Cultural Revolution had affected lives, documenting horrifying tales of torture and survival throughout the 1990s.
She returned to Lhasa two decades later to find the famous sky train in operation and a modernized city with high rises and shopping malls blocking the mountain views that the Tibetans had so painstakingly preserved. However Tashi and her family are as welcoming as ever and though the excesses of the Cultural Revolution are over, they have other irritations to deal with in their daily lives. Like the harassment of officials ready to levy fines for perceived insults that many Indian readers may find familiar. Or the influx of cheap Chinese beer which has created a race of drunks and undermined the young people, much in the same way that the native Americans were bought over by alcohol by settlers in America.
Tashi’s family has expanded to include a Chinese brother in law. Which implies that the next generation has its influx of Chinese blood mingling with the Tibetan and that perhaps one day pure bred Tibetans may be a thing of the past. As Canyon Sam stands on the roof with the brother in law to watch Chinese fireworks exploding across Lhasa greeting the Chinese New Year, she realizes that none of the other Tibetan family members are there.
Tibetan simplicity and religious fervor has, it is obvious, lost out to Chinese materialism. And there is the anti Dalai Lama feeling which is encouraged, though monasteries still exist. The age old holy Jorekang, however is now surrounded by a ‘hellacious’ market and tourists bustling in search of souvenirs.
One by one, Canyon Sam revisits the women whose stories she collected earlier and discovers that the women have survived in different ways, one by looking after Tibetan orphans in Dharamsala, another by migrating officially to China after years in Australia. All the women agree that after the men fled Lhasa they acquired a new strength. This in the face of the fact that one of the Tibetan words for woman translates as ‘low birth’. Some of the women cook, drink tea and organize rowdy reunions with their former prison inmates. The upper class ladies are more focused and serious, concentrating on cooking and activism instead of leading lives where ‘every day was a Sunday’, spent in visiting friends and drinking chang.
Because the story of Tibet is told through the lives of women, it is a more intimate, fascinating account, though it tends to travel backwards and forwards in time a little more than is comfortable.
Oddly enough, given the subject, the most involving part of the book is set in Dharamsala where Canyon Sam tries to carry out an errand set her by Tashi, which involves handing over a gift to the Dalai Lama. In the jostling growing mess surrounding a prayer meeting she finds herself discriminated against for being Chinese by suspicious Tibetans. Perhaps the conclusion some readers may reach is that it is not possible for a world to be as entirely black and white as Canyon Sam tries to paint it. There are shades of grey somewhere.
Sky Train – Tibetan Women on the Edge of History by Canyon Sam
Published by Tranquebar in India
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