My Journey to Freedom is the autobiography of Tsering Keyzom. Her story recounted through conversation sessions with Dr. Sanford S. Zevon at a local community college, begins in Amdo, a nomadic village in Tibet where she lived with her family, and ends in Westchester, New York way of Kathmandu, New Dehli, and Dharamsala. The language is simple and unassuming, the subject a heartrending and profoundly inspirational journey from the oppression of Chinese occupied Tibet toward the possibility of a traditional Tibetan education and the liberty to practice her Buddhist religion. Between text and photographs, My Journey to Freedom plunges you into the mentality of a young Tibetan girl, and through a story of physical toil, separation, and adjustment to a new country and culture, brings to light the reality of an occupied Tibet, and the hardships families must endure preserving their religion and way of life.
My Journey to Freedom opens with a quote from Buddha: “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” On the facing page is a portrait of the 14th Dalai Lama. Thus, the opening two pages frame the following account, at first glance more a refugee’s story than a story of a pilgrim, in the distinct framework of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In Chapter One, Tsering introduces us to the Chinese-Tibetan conflict, again placing the focus on the Chinese government’s intrusion into religious life in Tibet. “Because China’s Communist ideology regards Tibetan culture with disgust,” writes Tsering “it is doing everything in its power to eradicate it. Though the Chinese make strong efforts to hide their evils from the world, they have destroyed thousands of Tibetan monasteries and nunneries, burned religious scripts, and imprisoned, tortured, and even killed religious leaders and dissidents.” It is against this background that Tsering frames her family’s decision to attempt to smuggle her out of Tibet at age 12 along with another young girl from their village.
Tsering grew up in a village of only 70 families in the Ngawa county of Amdo, a region in the northeast of Tibet. She describes her life there, leading a nomadic existence throughout most of the year, changing the location of the tent she shared with her parents and four siblings whenever the family’s yak herd needed fresh pasture, and moving into a small permanent house near her grandmother in the village during the winter. Her parents always had high hopes for their children’s education, though it seems to be implied that they never received any themselves: they sent their oldest son away to a Chinese school which, though certainly not ideal, was the best kind of education available in that region. When Tsering was eight, her parents attempted to send her to a Tibetan school in Lhasa; however, she soon became distraught at the idea of separation from her family and was sent home. Thus, when she was 12, her parents informed her of the plan they had formulated to sneak her out of Tibet to Dharamsala, India, where the exiled Dalai Lama had set up a school for Tibetan children in a Tibetan refugee camp, where they could be educated in Tibetan culture and the Buddhist religion.
Keyzom was informed that she would be undertaking the journey along with Rinchen, another young girl from her village who was to be sent to India. The plan involved numerous family members of both girls: Tsering’s Uncle Tashi, who lived in Lhasa, was recruited to find a driver willing to take the girls to Dham, a border town on the Tibet-Nepalese frontier. From there, the girls would be handed off to Rinchen’s cousins who would, in turn, find them help to cross the border to meet Rinchen’s half-brother, Lobsang Choephel, who lived in Dehli, India. Unsurprisingly, the plan did not go off without a hitch. They made their way by jeep to Lhasa from Ngawa, where they spent the majority of their time gathering documentation to be able to continue their journey to Dham. They underwent increasingly careful scrutiny at the various Chinese checkpoints; aware of the outgoing stream of pilgrims and refugees, officials were wary of allowing people near the border. Finally, at the crossing point into Nepal, they were refused entry and their documents confiscated. The girls were then hidden from the police by Rinchen’s cousin in a carpet storage facility without windows, electricity, or running water for 30 days, suffering from malnourishment. Finally, after family members’ repeated attempts to regain the girls’ documentation failed, arrangements were made to hire smugglers to take them across the border illegally.
The girls were handed over to two young Nepalese boys to escort them across the Himalayas to Nepal. Traveling only by night, the girls followed the boys for some days, until they were handed off to another guide. Because of the language barrier, the girls were not able to communicate with their guides and had to blindly trust that they were escorting them in the right direction, and would not abandon them. They continued their journey, traveling in the dark, plagued by insects, and leeches, and hiding from any other people they saw. Finally, they reached a place where they could see the lights of a Nepalese border town, and after crossing a river, met a woman who brought them to her house where she hid them in the overheated attic, safe from any potential raids by Nepalese police. They spent four days there before being disguised in Nepalese clothing and taken by two men on motorcycles to another house, a day’s drive away, where Rinchen’s brother picked them up.
Rinchen’s brother took them first to Kathmandu, to visit a Buddhist shrine, and to a Tibetan refugee office to fill out documents to permit them to travel to India. Their travels to India were delayed by public turmoil caused by the massacre of the Nepalese royal family. However, after several months they managed to reach New Delhi, and from there drive to Dharamsala, the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama. In Dharamsala, both Rinchen and Tsering were enrolled in the Upper Tibetan Children’s Village School, run by the sister of the Dalai Lama, where they studied for five years. For three years, Tsering heard nothing from her family, until in 2005 her father came to meet her in Delhi and informed her that he had found work in the United States, and was making plans to move the entire family to New York. After an arduous process to obtain documents, in 2007 the family departed for the United States, where they settled into a new home in Eastchester. Once in New York, despite the language barrier, Tsering was able to complete high school while working on the side at a Tibetan restaurant, and continue on to community college, fulfilling all of her parent’s dreams of continuing her education.
My Journey to Freedom is no doubt an inspirational tale, and fortunately one with a happy ending. Tsering recounts events so matter-of-factly, and, it must be said, with the self-admitted naiveté of a 12-year-old girl, that it is easy to forget the backdrop of immense danger of both discovery by the authorities and potential exploitation by the strangers to whom the girls entrusted their lives throughout the journey. Looking back at the story, it’s amazing that no terrible twist of events occurred, and the girls made it relatively unscathed over numerous borders to their destination of Dharamsala; no less amazing is the great optimism and gratitude with which Tsering confronts her new life in the United States. During her time in high school, despite being faced with the challenges of an immense cultural and linguistic shift, the only regret Tsering mentions is not being able to attend the prom, as she did not make any friends in her senior class. It is important to note, however, that this tale might be self-censored by Tsering, considering the story told is through the lens of a man she did not know very well, thus a more personal or traumatic aspect of the journey could very well have been left out.
It is unclear how much editing power or input the co-author, Sanford S. Zevon, had in Tsering’s story. In his forward, Zevon describes how he joined the Conversation Partners program at Westchester Community College, a program intended to help non-native English-speaking students improve their language skills. It was within this context that Zevon met Tsering, and was told her story: “After a few weeks of listening in awe to details of her escape from Tibet” he writes, “…I suggested that she write down what she had told me as a means of helping her with her English writing. Reading her account of the extraordinary events she went through prompted me to ask her if she would be interested in writing a book, and obviously, the answer was yes.” This suggests that these are, actually, Tsering’s own words. However, the attribution on the book cover makes this unclear. “One Girl’s Survival Story” reads, “by Tsering Keyzom as told to Sanford S. Zevon.” The murky authorship, though typical of many Tibetan biographies, is an interesting lens through which to examine the way the story is presented. The book is written in first person and is printed in a childish font, which though perhaps meant to invoke Tsering’s youth during these events, seems to belittle the contents of the story and be unfitting for the words of such an accomplished and inspirational woman. A positive note is added to the book’s presentation, on the other hand, by the pictures woven throughout the text of Tsering’s family in Amdo; she and Rinchen at the Upper Tibetan Village School; and her family reunited in the United States. This brings the story to life, putting a face to the narration. The final photograph, a graduation portrait of Tsering from Westchester Community College, is an uplifting final glimpse of the author. All in all, My Journey to Freedom is very much a worthy and inspirational read, combining the harsh realities of the Chinese occupation and oppression of Buddhism in Tibet, with the unfailing optimism and heart-warming success of Tsering Keyzom.