Girl From Tibet By Tseten Dolkar as told by John Windsor
Girl from Tibet is an autobiography narrated by Tseten Dolkar and written by John Windsor. The autobiography is of Tseten’s life, narrated when she was still in her twenties. She was born in Lhasa right around the time Communist China colonized the country. Her father, fortunately, had enough savings to move his family to India once the war became dangerous. There Tseten studied at a Catholic school and with good marks was invited to study in the United States at Marquette University in Wisconsin. When she finished her studies, Tseten moved back to Tibet where she put her skills to use in order to help her oppressed people.
Tseten Dolkar was born in Lhasa right around the beginning of Communist China’s occupation of Tibet. She was born in the summer of the Fire-Pig-Year, 1947 (4). Her father, though she claimed was very smart, followed a life of trading as opposed to education because his own father was a trader, and one simply joins the family business in Tibet. Tseten and her family were able to escape Tibet right before the fighting between the Tibetans and the Chinese became dangerous. As a refugee in India, Tseten pursued her education at a catholic school. There, with good marks and reviews from her teachers, she was invited to study in the United States at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With an education in medical engineering completed at a western university, Tseten moved back to India to help bring justice to her people. This new chapter of her life is where the autobiography’s chapters come to an end.
Tseten’s autobiography does not follow a strictly linear timeline. She uses anecdotes of her life to interest the reader in Tibetan culture as a whole so the storyline of her actual life appears very thin and sparse. She introduces her life writing with an excerpt about her meeting the Dalai Lama before she goes to study in the states, prior to her self-introduction. Throughout the autobiography, she refers to her journey as one from the “twelfth to the twentieth century” indicating the incongruent timeline right from the beginning as well as introducing the main goal of her publishing: bringing the beautiful traditional culture of Tibet to the eyes of the twentieth century to show all the struggles her people face and the incredible society that may be lost due to China’s occupation (1). She then continues, as many autobiographies usually start, with her background. She introduces her parents and describes Tibet, the land, and the animals.
Tseten was second-oldest, her older brother being from her father’s first marriage. When her younger sister was born, though she was loved, her parents were disappointed by her gender. Females were considered a lesser gender, sometimes even caused by demons who steal the gender of a male. To ensure the birth of a son as their next child, her father and her went on a pilgrimage to a Chorten known for granting sons. Sure enough, the next sibling Tseten received was a brother (22). Boys were generally looked at more fondly because prospects in life were greatly influenced by their sex. Females on the other hand were prepared for marriage starting at a very young age. As a young girl, Tseten was raised, as many other Tibetan girls were, to be “obedient and hard-working” in order to find a husband (45). When she gets acne on her face, her most pressing question is: “will I get married?” Her parents and grandmother reassure her that she will, and go out of their way to ensure her face is cleaned properly using both eastern and western medicine in order to remove the blemishes, all for the sake of finding a husband.
The timeline of events is hard to follow since Tseten rarely uses dates in her narratives. But, when the family business makes enough money to leave them in a stable spot financially, her father begins preparation for the next pilgrimage, this time with the entire family to India (57). The second pilgrimage of her story was not for a specific reason or specific prayer. Rather it was more of a vacation to gain a blessing from the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama as well as visit the many sites of religious importance in India. The trip to India was planned to be much longer than the first, approximating a year of travel; however, money ran low quicker than expected and the family had to travel the treacherous path back to Tibet on the New Year. The shop they owned had started to lose profit, and they worried for the future of the shop and the family. Tseten’s father, upon returning back home to Tibet, started to plan his next trip: a trip to China in the hopes of bringing back precious silk to trade. During the first visit to China, her father “had neither liked nor been impressed by what he had seen” though Tseten admits it may be his biased opinion due to China’s occupation of Tibet (79).
Months later, her father returned just in time. Those who stayed in the shop had barely any money left. Food was in such short supply and all the family members looked frail when he returned. Had his trip delayed him, Tseten expressed worry of death by starvation (80). The trip by all accounts was considered a success. Her father brought money, food, and silk to be traded. With the family once again financially stable, Tseten began her education. She was critical of Tibetan education, writing, “It did not matter whether we understood what we read or wrote, but only that we read and wrote well. Basically, I suppose, it was a system designed to produce clerks for a medieval society but certainly not trained men and women for a modern world,” but for the most part was appreciative of it (87).
After her favorite teachers passed due to an outbreak of chickenpox, Tseten ended her school life as was expected of a young Tibetan girl (which wasn’t much), Tseten was allowed to leave school by her parents. During those years, political unrest among Tibetans was ever-increasing. Her family decided it would be best for Tseten, who was old enough to be more independent of her family, to move to India with her father while her siblings, granny, and mother stayed to watch the shop. In India, Tseten pursued further education at a catholic boarding school. But all the while, the danger of being Tibetan in Tibet was increasing. After a dream of blood-soaked streets, Tseten’s father decided to give up on the future of his trade and the shop in Tibet and moved the entire family to Kathmandu.
After a few years in school in India, Tseten was invited to study at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She moved there and studied for multiple years before returning to India with the hope of liberating and bringing Justice to her fellow Tibetan people. This is where her autobiography concludes.
Buddhism promotes a selfless and humble life. Lamas, even when the populace views them as reincarnations or enlightened, never outwardly claim their significance, as that would be going against the Dharma. In this sense, Tseten’s autobiography is written with a humble attitude. She spends most of her pages writing about the country, the traditions, and the history of Tibet. For instance, rather than detailing her specific experience in school, Tseten only uses her time and space to introduce the practice of education in Tibet. The customs she explains are not related to her specifically but are kept to inform the reader as much about Tibet as she can teach. Tseten explains exams as tests of “ability, the emphasis being on the elegance and clarity of penmanship.” She goes in-depth about the beautiful artwork some students would have street artists decorate their paper with. She ties her broad education back to her life story by mentioning her “good average grades” but this is all she adds to herself. In this chapter, it is clear to the reader that she uses herself to introduce Tibetan customs rather than the other way around as most modern autobiographers seem to do (84). However, her writing style does not only reflect her humble nature. Tseten’s deliberate use of language really shows how she is using her autobiography to teach the western world about the beautiful culture of Tibet in order to help promote all that may be lost with the increasingly hostile Chinese occupation. In a way, her literal act of writing her goal of “helping her people” in her last chapter is a concrete step towards achieving the said goal.
Tseten very much caters her autobiography to the western reader, sometimes even pulling the reader into the conversation by talking directly to them. When she describes the colorful aesthetic of Tibetan clothing she states “our ideas of the way to wear colors is quite different from yours in the West” (38). She is very aware of how to entice her reader into becoming more interested in Tibetan culture and skips the parts where she feels they may be uninterested by adding “there were many months of negotiations, [but] I will not bore you with the details” (29).
Though Girl from Tibet is an autobiography by Tseten Dolkar about herself, the main themes of the book do not revolve around her. She uses her stories in order to promote the beauty of Tibetan culture and share the negative impacts of the Chinese occupation. She does so in order to help the struggles of her nation’s tragic occupation come to light in the other parts of the world that are often overlooked.