Return to Tibet

“You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes and reservations.  Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadsides. You will play golf and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stickshifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They have said do not trust the pilgrims. And for all of these reasons, I have decided to stop you and burn your village to the ground.”
-Burn Your Village To the Ground, A Tribe Called Red

I want to cry.  I want to call my mom.  But there is no cell service, and what would I say?  In what language would I speak? My entire body is shaking.  I left New York City over 24 hours ago, and have slept only to awaken to my heart slamming my in ribcage, unable to bear this suspension, this away-ness any longer.  Flying at hundreds of miles an hour, I could not reach this moment fast enough. Now that it has arrived, all of my senses are heightened. I realize that I have stopped breathing.  What will happen if I faint? Will this pilot, my fellow passengers know what to do with me? Maybe I can pass it off as altitude sickness. They do not know who I am, and for a brief moment I wish I was someone else.

I am about to enter my homeland for the first time in my life. I am older than twenty and younger than thirty.  It does not matter how I got here, what combinations of institutional funding, months of saving from meager paychecks, visa appointments, background checks, and luck culminated into this moment.  For the first time, I am going to see home with my own eyes. I will greet the gods that live here and protect the land.

I have been to Himalayan areas that may once have been part of Tibet, in histories past or during border disputes when we used to be an empire.  Now I am entering the contemporary borders, such as they are, for the first time. I started from my feverish attempts to rest just before the pilot announced our descent, at least from what I could I decipher from my barely passable Mandarin.  I think my body knew what was happening. Perhaps some ancient genetic material residing in my body awoke for the first time in this life, bringing the rest of me along with it.

My family has only been away for two generations, although if me or my sister have kids it will become three, each birth leading us farther and farther away from the land we come from.  My grandparents remember Pemakoe, where they were born and where they began their lives. My grandfather’s father died somewhere on this land, we don’t know how or where. He escorted my Popo la to Arunachal Pradesh, returned to Tibet, and never came back.

All of the work I have done for Tibet pales in comparison to this impending reunion.  When interviewing for my Chinese visa, I had to give a reason for my application, my desire to visit Tibet.  What I did not say was “I am Tibetan.” I did not say “This is my land. I don’t need a reason.” I did not chronicle for the visa officer the dissonance of watching Tibetans survive in America, entering into exploitive and punishing labor, and knowing that we have a place to belong.  I said that I came to study, and that might have been true.

Having been born in America to a citizen mother and a father who became one before I reached age five, I had never personally known the agony of waiting for a document that would determine my future.  I had only empathized with friends and family, stood in solidarity with people from around the world who felt the impersonal violence of empire. When my turn finally came, I wished I had done more for each of them.

I worried that I would not hear anything at all, would enter into the limbo into which so many stateless people experience.  Given my outspoken politics about Tibetan identity, futures, and communities over the years, I was certain that I had already been branded a troublemaker, blacklisted in some secret way that I could only guess at how to circumvent.  Perhaps my American citizenship won out. Perhaps it was my college degree, or my partial Tibetanness masked by my mother’s last name, given to me because “Tibetans don’t have last names,” a fact which, like Tibetanness itself, turned out to be much more complicated than a single sentence could explain.

My parents were not married when I was born, and when the Dalai Lama visited their college campus for a talk, I was photographed in a group of Tibetan students surrounding him, red-faced and screaming, held by my father.  Tears are still not an unusual reaction to His Holiness by Tibetans of any age.

We have landed.  Seatbelts unbuckle around me, and like so many other times in my life, I hear a flurry of languages that I do not or only partially understand.  I force myself to get out of my chair, file into the line of shuffling people in the aisle.

Tears begin running down my face, and like so many other times in my life, I brush each of them away in hopes that no one will notice.  I put one foot in front of the other, convinced more than ever of the fleeting nature of reality because this cannot be happening, this cannot be how it’s happening.  Why is my return to homeland not more momentous? Can no one around me tell that I am, in this very moment, fulfilling my destiny? Passing the members of the crew, I smile and nod, offering the polite “thank you” in Mandarin, hoping that they don’t notice my accent.  I pinch the myriad required documents between forefinger and thumb and mentally rehearse the Mandarin I will use to the police and military. I have practiced this. It is my turn to exit the plane. I am still crying.

Drawing deep, unsteady breaths, a sound like wind rushing past fills my ears.  Shaking from head to toe, I step onto the ground.

The author is a Tibetan living on Piscataway lands.