Review by Tony Senatore
A Nomad Girl’s Changing World is the autobiography of Sonam Doomsto (Ch. Suolang Dongcuo). Her story begins with her birth in early winter in the Year of the Rabbit in 1987, and culminates in Sonam receiving her Associate’s Degree from Qinghai Normal University in 2008. It is an inspiring story of how a typical Tibetan girl from a nomadic family was able to overcome her ascribed status through her pursuit of education. The story is set largely on the grasslands of Sichuan province, but shifts to Lhasa and Xining City as Sonam goes through adolescence. For the native Tibetan or Chinese citizen, as well as the Western reader, this book is a beautiful reminder of our similarities and not our differences, and the realization that we do not need very much in the way of material possessions to be happy. As our world races towards globalization, we learn through Sonam Doomtso story that happiness and seeking the love and respect of our parents is what links us all together and gives us our humanity. We all aspire towards these simple and basic necessities, and they transcend time, place and ethnicity. We learn the prejudice must be avoided at every juncture, and that education is anyone’s best hope in pursuit of a life of autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Sonam Doomtso was born in Kunub Village, Lhasgan Township, Kangding County, Karze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China in 1987. Her name was given to her by a great lama, as this was the tradition. She was the first child of her father Padyang, who was a local farmer, and mother Tsering Chotso. Sonam had three siblings (cousins?)—Dorji Dondrup (by her mother’s older brother), Tsering Lhamo and Yangdrol (who were her mother’s sisters’s children?), and three brothers—Lhodrul, Cheme and Dorchu. Padyang shirked his duty as a father and did not hide his disappointment that his first child was born a female. Sonam’s mother was the moral exemplar, the backbone of the household. Sonam found the father figure that she needed in her maternal grandfather, Tsewang Paljor (Tsepal), who made a pilgrimage to Lhasa on foot. Sonam would derive courage from her grandfather’s journey when she embarked on her own journey from Beijing to the United States many years later.
Soon after Sonam was born, her family moved to Walang, where her family herded calves on a shared summer pasture. In this simple setting, the herders did not need much to be happy. Beneath the idyllic backdrop of picturesque mountains and streams, joy could be found in enjoying each other’s company while boiling tea and eating tsamba. Joy proved to be elusive, as a group of rifle-carrying outsiders called the Sakag Land Stoppers overtook a large tract of land, which forced out the poor local herders. They were a violent group who would cut off the tails of yaks that roamed on to the land that they had claimed. This was Sonam’s first experience with violence. A report that claimed that the Sakag Land Stoppers had left the area enabled Sonam to convince her mother to resume herding with her best friend Dolkar. This report turned out to be false. While the Land Stoppers agreed not to harm the trespassing yaks, they ended up raping Dolkar as part of the deal that had been forced upon her. It was not until a few years later that Sonam understood what had actually happened when she encountered Dolkar looking haggard and old and caring for a fatherless boy.
Sonam’s mother became pregnant in the Year of the Sheep with her brother Lhodrul. This captured the attention of her father for a few days, but before long he disappeared to the county town as usual. As Grandmother noted “hair would grow on stones and flowers would bloom in the sky when father really understood how to care for his own family” (35).
Sonam and her family were visited by a very old monk who convinced her family that they should make a religious pilgrimage to a sacred place called Gyalmo Ngodor Mountain, which was a five-hour journey on horseback. This would ensure that her family would remain free from sickness. Sonam was the first to proclaim that she would attempt to reach the mountaintop, even though her Uncle Dargye told her that reaching the summit was impossible for mortals, as it would take a lifetime of effort to achieve and the path to the summit was the way to Paradise. Sonam quickly realized how unrealistic her expectations when she almost passed out from exhaustion, but eventually she reached a large stupa, which she circumambulated 150 times. After some offerings and prayers to the Buddha, everyone made their way back down the mountain and enjoyed a family meal made possible by a borrowed teapot from a family living near the Bon monastery. It was a successful outing in which Sonam and her family bonded.
Losar is the Tibetan New Year, and it is celebrated beginning with the first day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Sonam noted that her father was not present, but her mother kept her busy helping her to cook fried bread, and jyoma cake, and preparing the ninth noodles, which are traditionally cooked on the evening of the twenty-ninth day of the twelfth lunar month to celebrate the coming of the New Year. Sonam asked her mother if any of the family yaks would be killed for Losar like some of the other families. Her mother replied that she would not, stating that she “raised her Yaks with tears and sweat. They’re like my relatives and I pity them”(46). Padyang eventually made it home, and Sonam was given the task to fetch the family water at 5 a.m. (tsechu) on the first day of Losar, which would bring luck and happiness to the family. She retrieved the water in a bucket adorned with a khadak, which is an auspicious strip of silk.
Sonam’s grandmother had the ability to predict the weather based on cloud movements, but on one particular night, she felt doom in the air rather than severe weather. The townspeople of Walang were buzzing with the news that a group of Han Chinese marmot hunters had found their way into town. Everyone was repulsed by the barbarous methods used by the hunters, and soon a group of men headed by Sonam’s father Padyang, who spoke excellent Chinese, decided to try to solve this problem amicably. Zhang Dong was the leader of the marmot hunters, and he was not very receptive to the objections to the marmot slaughter:
What? You mean we must stop killing marmots because of your silly reasons?
We don’t believe what you believe. We don’t think it’s a sin to kill, it is the way we survive. (58)
After a short altercation, an agreement was reached, and the marmot hunters left with the marmots they had killed, and vowed never to return.
In 1995 when Sonam was eight years old, Sonam and her family moved to Lhasgan Township Town, where she attended Lhasgan Hope Primary School. Sonam studied math, as well as books written in Tibetan and Chinese. Sonam and her family stayed until 1999, and the high point of this time period was her participation a religious teaching held by a great lama, and her successful double fast.
On December 26th 1999, Sonam’s family decided to move to Lhasa once they got word that Sonam passed all of her exams at the Primary School. It was difficult to find a private driver, but they were finally able to arrive in Lhasa, after first making a pit stop in Chengdu. After marveling at the Potala Palace, Sonam took note of the large population of Chinese and Muslims which disappointed her, as she imagined Lhasa to be a Tibetan-only place, “a land filled with Buddha’s compassion” (109). She was told by her elders not to be friends with Muslims, and soon she started to view Chinese and Muslims as “demons rather than ordinary people” (106).
When Sonam started school as a teenager, she found out what it felt like to be on the receiving end of the type of prejudice and hasty generalizations that she was learning from her elders: “I heard from my father that Khampa are like wild beasts and kill people without blinking and eye. I heard Khampa stab people with knives” (114).
Once in Lhasa, Sonam’s mother and father split up. He quickly remarried, and he took his youngest son Cheme to live with him. Sonam was very grateful for her mother’s sacrifice: “She buried her life in dirt and hard work because she valued our education and believed that her hard work would provide a bright future for us. I knew that all I could do was study to make her proud and happy” (119).
Sonam excelled as a student in junior middle school. In 2002, she won the “outstanding student cadre” prize given by the Tibet Education Department, and in 2003, she got the opportunity to travel around Tibet in her role as countryside student journalist. In 2004 she entered the English Training Program at Qinghai Normal University in Xining City. She noted that her foreign professors were more open minded and liberal as compared to the typical Tibetan. She encountered the subject of gender discrimination through a feminist teacher from America. Sonam had a hard time understanding this, as she noted that she had more privileges than her brothers. Although that might be true, it should be noted that her father was never around, and her mother ran the household. The clash of eastern and western traditions can cause problems. Sonam has a valid point when she claims “sometimes certain foreign ideas bring problems to a community—something you never considered to be a problem may become a problem”(124).
Sonam’s beloved grandfather passed away while she was attending school in Xining City. Sonam and her family held their tears, because crying over the death of a loved one prevents the soul from finding the right way according to Tibetan tradition. He was taken to the sky burial ground where the vultures took the skin from his face, which signified that he was a good person (132).
Sonam graduated from Qinghai Normal University in 2004 with an Associate’s Degree in Tibetan and English languages, and at the end of the book was studying for a BA in Environmental Studies and Economics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts
Quoting Sister Mariam Joseph, “education enables a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth,” Sonam comes to this realization instinctively and learned that she can best preserve Tibetan culture and the plight of her fellow Tibetans through her pursuit of education. Cultures, languages and locations may differ, but at the very core, the story of Sonam Doomtso is timeless, and can be recreated anywhere in the world. It is a story of a mother that sacrificed her life for a better future for her daughter, as other family members stepped up to fill roles that others were not fulfilling. The story is never ending, and it will continue from generation to generation. tory).