THE TRISONG CAFE OF LHASA
A Novel About Millennial Tibetans Born in the PRC
Real Tibet wasn't at all the way it's portrayed in the Western press when I first traveled there in 2008. I feel that way as clearly today as then even as I do not dispute the violent conquest of the Kham rebels and the later politically coerced re-occuptation of Tibet proper into the People's Republic in1950, or of the many atrocities committed against monks, nuns, and the general population during the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1975.
But in 2008, Tibet was neither a dystopia of poverty strickened shanty-town with Tibetans in rags and lorded over by the Han nor was Tibetan Buddhism banned and shoved underground. If anything, the streets of Lhasa were full of busy, healthy, and cleanly dressed Tibetans running businesses, shopping, and dashing off to jobs and school. Monks and nuns in red robes were everywhere. You had to step over scores of pilgrims who had postrated across Tibet to reach their Holy of Holies, the Jokhan Temple in the ancient Barkhor district, Monasteries were wide open with daily chanting by pilgrims from all over rural Tibet and crowded with foreign tourists.
Economically, the streets were clogged from morning to evening with new cars, buses, motorbikes, and pedestrians jay-walking, Police and armed soldiers in raised kiosks were ever-present, but mainly in the touristed areas. Yet, they
rarely stopped people and rarely check IDs. I have no doubt that they could be quickly galvanzied and reinforced by military units at a moment's notice, but for the summer I was there, they were more part of the scenery than menacing.
These optics were so contradictory to the dystopia described in the west, a well-motivated but essentially propaganda.
The Chinese government was just as propagandistic from the opposite direction: Tibet was also not their 100% happy, chanting socialist utopia either.
This PPG playbook is familiar to me as my mother is a political refugee who escaped Maoist China by marriage to my Chinese American father. The overseas Chinatowns were nationalist and I grew up believing that Taiwan was a free democractic China (it was a dictatorship from Year 1) and idealized as the legitimate government of China in temporary exile (it wasn't). Moreover, that China was a brutal, authoritarian dictatorship (it certainly was during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution) that must be overthrown to free the great Chinese people.
So I decided that I needed to investigate Tibet and come to my own conclusions.
Luckily, in 2009, when I started teaching university students at the Ethic Minorities University in Beijing, a surprising number of Tibetan students were enrolled in my classes. Then I volunteered to co-teach an English corner for Tibetan students on Sunday mornings. Later, I joined the Friday night Tibetan folk-dance circle on my campus, a social magnet for Tibetan students from all of Beijing's colleges.
Through these new friendships, I was invited to teach university level oral English in Lhasa at an English language school. It was the summer of 2010 and that's when I delved into the psychology, daily lives, hopes, fears and aspirations ofmodern Tibetan millennials, born and 100% raised in the PRC.
I have made several trips back to Lhasa as well as other Tibetan cultural areas and have carte blanche to guest in one monastery I spent some time in, whethere as visitor or practioner, that's up to me.I
WHY A NOVEL AND NOT A JOURNALISTIC EXPOSE?
What intrigued me the most was the individual psychological and acculuration adaptions of what me as a remarkably awake, empowered, and confident cohort. Inspired by the writing of my mentor Alice Walker, I know that fiction is often a better teller of the truths of the human condition and there was never a question in mind to I this novel.
The Trisong Cafe of Lhasa introduces us to these moderns,the millennials, who live in three sensibilities: Tibetan, Chinese, and the English west (internet). We see this through the eyes of five characters and three generations of their family lineages.
Dolma the college graduate returns to Lhasa to rediscover her roots and becomes a Bon Tantric Priestess of an underground women's circle.
Her partner, JIgme, another college grad, refuses the easy life of a civil servant and risks it all on opening the Trisong Cafe, where his generation's cohort gather to define, express, and live as the New Tibetans, born in the PRC. A scion of an aristocratic family and son of a scholar with a PhD in English from Presideny College, Kalcutta, Indi, yet Jigme was raised to be believe he is the son of a simple tea shop owner, a tea shop he bussed tables in as a boy.
Chodok, the Thangka painter raised in a nomad family, is told in a dream to find this Cafe. He arrives in Lhasa with his Boddhisatva Tibetan mastiff, Dancing Sun, who had roamed with him to Buddhist Temples, throughout Tibet during his years as an apprentice.
Dharghey the modern Rinpoche who lives as in much in his dream state as in "reality" keeps them centered on their Buddhist roots. He and his father are part of a rejuvenation of Tibetan Buddhism for today's Tibet including the elemination of the Doctrine that a female cannot attain enlightenment in this lifetime: only humans in male form can.
You will get to know these rare individuals and more.
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HOW I DISCOVERED THAT I AM ON CHINA'S WATCH LIST FOR WRITING THIS NOVEL
After informally sending early versions ofThe Trisong Cafe of Lhasa to a number of friends for their critique, both Han and Tibetan,I started to get indications that whichever ministries monitor independent foreigners who write about Tibet has me on a watch list.
The first clue was when a number of Tibetan friends inexplicably stopped responding to my emails, Wechat messages (China's FaceBook), and even phone calls. I was never blocked, they just never responded. I continued to see the progress of their lives in photos on WeChat, but, if I send a "Like ❤️" or commented in writing, there's never a response.
Then, my application to the Tibetan language and culture program for foreigners at the University of Tibet, Lhasa campus was declined twice even though I taught as a University Professor at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Language University and at Beijing"s Ethnic Minorities University.
An official friend was able to check into the situation and confirmed my suspicions: "Even though I know you, they don't, and they are concerned that you may write something the officials may not like." This of course could result in Tibetan friends being "invited to "tea." While these teas are interrogations (as described in my novel), yet they are unpleasant, can last for hours, and with follow-up teas.
Finally, during my last year of teaching at Beijing Foreign Language University, one of my lecture courses - Introduction to the Bible, Chrisitianity, & Exceptionalism - was cancelled without notice to me. I had taught this course for 4 years free of oversight and without incident. I was also assigned to teach a course we had agreed that I would not be asked to teach and which I would not if assigned. An administrative disaster followed of course. I decided to leave before they decided to not renew my contract.
Yes, I fully expect that if this novel gets widely read, it will pissed off both sides: the ideological true believers of the diaspora Free Tibet Movement and the ideological fundamentalists within China's ministries of information.
There is a certain kind of writer's higher calling, which is to kick over the bullshit, clear the way for truth, and position us to solve the problem.
This novel, The Trisong Cafe of Lhasa, is that kind of writing.
To educate myself on the Tibet-China situation, I read a lot of books, researched on-line for articles and videos, and as you know, lived in Lhasa one summer, and traveled into several Tibetan areas during my decade teaching in China.
I felt that if we could all somehow cooly understand the real situation instead of exaberating the polarization by passionately believing only in one side, it could increase the probability of finding a the proverbial sword that cuts through the Gordian knot.
In 2010-2011, I created a website TibetChinaAccuracyProject.com to share my preliminary findings and resources to assist others interested in an open-minded understanding of the situaion. The site invites us to:
Let's Journey into the Realm of Espistemology
CAUTION - Fair Warning: The site invites you to set aside any preconceived beliefS, to freshly reconsider the verifiable facts, and to open-minded reflect on the difference between polarized ideological passion and facts. It's tough work, as I found out, and I would suggest that you read several of the moreobjective books listed in this website to familiarize yourself with Tibet's history and the current impasse.