Review by Linnea Westerkam
24 March 2014
A Zorgay Tibetan Childhood was written by Kondro Tsering. He grew up in a rural village in Amdo and wrote the story of his childhood while studying in an English Training Program at Qinghai Normal University in Xining City starting in 2003. The autobiography was published in 2012. Kondro Tsering takes the reader through many important memories. He does not tell his life story step by step but rather gives flashes into his life that highlight key events and demonstrates the life he has led up until this point in college. He attends an English Training Program and therefore wrote this story to practice his English writing and to tell a not commonly told story of a Tibetan boy growing up in a remote farming village in Amdo.
Kondro Tsering wrote his autobiography because of encouragement from his teachers to practice his English writing and to tell others the story of his life in a rural village in Tibet. While he does not provide detailed accounts of any particular aspect of life, economically, socially, religiously, etc., he gives telling insights into the daily life of a farming Tibetan family and a student in Tibet. Kondro Tsering brings the reader on a journey of meaningful memories in his autobiography, A Zorgay TIbetan Childhood. He does not provide an explanation or explicit details of his way of life growing up in a farming family or of his life as a student. However, each chapter is a new memory that provides insight into what could be important to a young Tibetan boy growing up in Zorgay County (Mdzo dge, Ch. Ruoergai). Themes evident throughout his autobiography are family life and traditions, education, and modernization. Family life is shown through his jokes with his older brother, the death of his mother, and stories he hears from his grandmother. Several Tibetan traditions are expressed, such as the circumambulation of a mountain, the expelling of ghosts, and the lack of education for most in his family. Education is a significant component in Kondro Tsering’s life, and the reader gains insights into education for a young Tibetan. Finally, modernization occurs through the introduction of the television to his village. Modernization affects how villagers interact with one another and what they are interested in.
Kondro Tsering begins his autobiography by telling the first events in his life: his birth and his naming. While Kondro Tsering does not provide many details into various ways of life in his village, he does explain certain aspects if they are relevant and important to his life; for example, how he received his name. Originally a respected lama gave him the name Renzen Tsering. However, after his naming, the young Renzen Tsering would not stop crying. Therefore, the family visited another lama, and the name was changed to Kondro Tsering. Unlike an anthropological or historical account, his autobiography does not explain this naming tradition, but the reader does gain some insight into the importance of lamas in daily life in Tibet.
Kondro Tsering then describes some of his first memories at the age of four. He explains several events that would be important to a young child, such as his first toy and humorous jokes he shares with his older brother. Up until this point the author led a carefree life. However, one day he snuck out with his brother to play in the ice and snow. As he chased his older brother he slipped and fell on his brother’s leg, breaking it. This was the first tragedy in Kondro Tsering’s life and marked the end of his untroubled childhood.
In the middle of Kondro Tsering’s childhood his mother became ill and suffered for months, but his village did not have access to a good medical facility, as is the case with many remote Tibetan villages. He still does not know what caused her illness. For months she was in a hospital but did not receive effective treatment and so returned home because nothing else could be done for her. Kondro Tsering spent much time with her during these months, not fully realizing his mother’s situation. One day he returned home from school, and she passed away shortly thereafter. He was devastated, as was the rest of his family. For months he openly expressed his grief of losing his mother.
Kondro Tsering then became ill and would not improve. A lama told his father that unless Kondro Tsering became a monk, he would die. However, Kondro Tsering wished to attend school rather than become a monk. He defied the lama and returned to school. This was a great dilemma for his family. His grandmother believed they should do as the lama said because of her deep faith in religion. His father, on the other hand, did not push Kondro Tsering in either direction because he did not want to force Kondro Tsering into something he did not want. Ultimately Kondro Tsering was allowed to decide. He returned to school and eventually his health improved.
Later in his autobiography Kondro Tsering gives more insight into daily life in a farming village, such as care of animals and rituals. Even in the late twentieth century traditional methods of prayer were still prevalent. Kondro Tsering discusses different religious practices in which he participated or witnessed, including the circumambulation of Heart Mountain to bring him maturity, the banishing of ghosts, and the women’s praying to bring rain. Kondro Tsering expresses his confusion with regards to some religious teachings he learned. He was taught the importance of all life, and yet his grandmother killed lice and the village dogs were treated poorly. He shows not only the the villagers’ deep faith, but also the contradictions present in every day life.
At an early age Kondro Tsering attended his first day of school. His excitement quickly became boredom. He expresses how little he enjoyed his first year of school. He says on page 38 in chapter 9, “The teachers taught us little and beat us a lot.” However, after his first year of school, his enjoyment and his learning both increased, especially when he was taught by Chinese teachers rather than Tibetans. He found the Chinese teachers’ goal was to ensure learning while Tibetan teachers were stricter and strived to cover as much material as possible, unconcerned with what was being absorbed by the students. He therefore enjoyed and seemed to profit from his Chinese education more than his Tibetan education. After several years he became one of the best students.
Kondro Tsering then entered middle school and began to mature. He no longer played children’s games but became an adult. He became determined to achieve his goal of completing his schooling and providing a better life for himself and his family. Kondro Tsering mentions throughout his autobiography the importance of his education to himself and his family. Because an education is costly for a family, Kondro Tsering was the only member of his family to have the privilege of continuing his schooling into the university level. His brothers had to work in order to provide for the family. By Kondro Tsering attending school he was not providing income for his family, only using their resources. However, he attended in the hopes of finding a job after graduating and providing an even better income in order to take care of his family. Many Tibetan families do not have the means to allow all of their children to attend school.
There are several memories in the autobiography that include the story telling of his grandmother. As a young boy Kondro Tsering greatly enjoyed hearing her traditional Tibetan tales. However, as he grew up his village became modernized. His grandmother’s stories could no longer compare to the action present on the TV screen. This feeling was not just changing in him, but in the entire village. Everybody, young and old, became enthralled with televisions. Action movies replaced traditional folk stories and new TV show gossip and episodes replaced mantras. Television brought modernity to this remote village, changing aspects of life for the people. For example, on one New Year’s Kondro Tsering noticed the villagers did not come out to the streets and to celebrate with one another but rather stayed in their homes and watched television. The villagers had become a less social. They no longer interacted with one another as much and were less aware of what was happening in their neighbors’ lives.
While Kondro Tsering’s life is marked by tragedy and hardship, he is not overcome by them. He tells his childhood story in a light, refreshing, and humorous way. One moment the reader will be crying from a tragedy and the next moment will be laughing from a joke Kondro Tsering shared with his brother. Kondro Tsering takes the reader on a whirlwind ride which allows readers to experience the excitement and sorrow in Kondro Tsering’s life. Through his memories he gives insights into aspects of Tibetan life: from poor medical care to the changing traditions in his village, from farming to the treatment of animals, and from rituals to schooling. His themes of family life and tradition, education, and modernization in Tibet are expressed through his entertaining memories of life growing up in his remote farming village.