Tsering Yuthok: Born in Lhasa, Living the American Dream, Keeping the Tibetan Dream Alive (Mar. 30, 2012)
I met Tsering Yuthok for the first time about a year ago at a dinner in her honor upon her retirement from the City of Seattle. I have to admit that Tsering was the first Tibetan I ever talked to face to face. A brief conversation later, I knew I wanted to interview her.
Things got more urgent recently, with thirty or more Tibetans setting themselves on fire in protest of the Chinese rule. I couldn’t wait to ask Tsering for her thoughts on the situation. After months of trying, I finally caught a busy traveling Tsering in town between trips.
Tsering was so busy that she had just come out of a meeting in downtown Seattle with the Tibetan Association of Washington when I went there to meet her. We found a relatively quiet corner in a department store and did this interview. Amidst shoppers and noises not far from us came a picture of a Tibetan girl on horseback morphing into a respected American professional and community leader.
Part 1. From Lhasa to Taiwan to Bellevue
Wen: I read that you were born in Lhasa, Tibet in 1946. As you told the media once that when the Chinese authorities urged your mother to send you to school in Beijing, she sent you to relatives in India to protect you. You were nine years old. How did your mother tell you to make you understand that you had to leave home?
Tsering: Well, I didn’t know that we were leaving and never to go back. I was not told. Obviously my parents probably figured that we wouldn’t understand anyway. The whole family left for a pilgrimage to India. When the pilgrimage was finished, my sister and I were left in a boarding school in India, my parents and youngest sister went back to Tibet. I knew something was happening because my parents didn’t mention anything about us going back.
Wen: It was not easy to travel from Lhasa to India, as I read in the Dalai Lama’s autobiography Freedom in Exile how he made the journey, which included crossing rivers and climbing mountains. How did you make it to India?
Tsering: By 1956, there were automobiles, you know. So we traveled by one of the big trucks from Lhasa to Dromo (Yadong), which is the last town on the Tibetan side. From there we went on horseback across the mountain to Gangtok, Sikkim.
Wen: You were riding with your parents?
Tsering: I wasn’t riding with my parents. I rode by myself. We had to learn to ride horses at a young age. That was our main mode of transportation. When we had to cross a river, the truck went on some kind of a raft, I think.
Wen: Your father was a businessman and became a guerrilla leader in the in 1959 Tibetan rebellion against the Chinese rule. You had already left Lhasa. What did you learn later on from your father about that fighting, in which he was injured, after he and your mother joined you in India?
Tsering: Well, first of all, my mother came with my youngest sister in 1958. It had been two years since we had seen them. She came with my younger sister to spend the Tibetan New Year with us in India but wasn’t able to go back. We thought that he had been killed, because we heard the news that he had been killed. A Chinese mortar hit him, threw him off the horse and he was badly injured. There was no communication. So what we heard was what people were telling us. So we were very very happy and surprised when he came. He was injured but managed to escape and made it to India. He told us how difficult the journey was, traveling on unknown roads, with very little food, etc. His main objective, what he valued most, was the safety of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He said, without His Holiness, there was no point of living. So as long as His Holiness was safe, he was happy.
Wen: Was he out after the Dalai Lama?
Tsering: Same time. They came out together.
Wen: What kind of injury?
Tsering: When he was hit, he fell off the horse. His kidney was damaged. So he had a lot of kidney problems throughout his life. He had lots of shrapnel that went into his knees and arms they took out later on. Basically, his kidney failed him when he died in 1974. He was in his mid 60s, young by today’s standard.
Wen: Your family didn’t stay long in India before your father took the family to Taiwan. I read that Switzerland was also accepting Tibetan refugees and adopting Tibetan orphans. I also believe that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government had similar views towards Tibet as the Communist government. So how did your father make that decision to take the family to Taiwan?
Tsering: He took a medical leave and came to where we were living in India. They had been at the border after crossing with all the men. So he took a medical leave to come home to the town in India where we were so he could see doctors and take care of his health. While we were there, he was approached by this person who said the Nationalist government in Taiwan was willing to provide assistance to the refugees. At that time, my father was very interested. This was probably six months after he had come over. Many of his men from his regiment were being sent to road gangs in India to work on roads. Because our people were not accustomed to the heat, many were dying. TB was a big factor. One of my cousins, my father’s nephew, who had been with him, died of TB at a very young age. It really affected my father very badly. He felt like if there was some way to get assistance to help the people, he was willing to listen.
When we left for Taiwan, we were supposed to be gone for three months. We didn’t go to Taiwan to live. We locked up our home in India and went for a three-month journey. We were supposed to return to India. But we never got back because when we got to Taiwan, my father spent three months in the hospital, with surgery and all that. By the end of the three months, our papers had expired. We had Indian travel documents. We didn’t have passports. We were stateless.
So when my father actually met President Chiang Kai-shek, they talked about Tibet… When the subject of our being an independence state came up, President Chiang Kai-shek told my father, I don’t have my country, you don’t have yours. Let’s not discuss this now. When we go back to China, to Tibet, the people can decide what they want to do. My father thought that was reasonable. And also my father felt strongly that we had a common enemy, which was the Communist Chinese. So after our travel document issued by the Indian government expired, and since there was no diplomatic relations between Taiwan and India, we were in a state of limbo. The Taiwan government basically sent an invitation to my father saying that if you like, you can stay here as long as you want. That’s how we ended up staying there.
Wen: So you grew up, graduated from college, married and had children all in Taiwan. That’s a lot more years of than you had ever lived in Tibet. So did you feel like a Taiwanese when you came to Bellevue, Washington?
Tsering: No. I never felt anything but Tibetan, even today. I am a Tibetan American, but I am Tibetan through and through.
Wen: Were there other fellow Tibetans with you in Taiwan?
Tsering: There were quite a few. We had a small community of Tibetans. We always got together. We always celebrated all the Tibetan festivals, His Holiness’ birthday, March 10th anniversary of our uprising. We celebrated all the holidays and all the special occasions. So there was a very close community.
Part 2. Managing Seattle’s Sister City Relations for Twenty-Plus Years
Wen: I first met you at a dinner by the Seattle-Chongqing Sister City Association honoring you for your twenty-three year career at the City. You were an original staff of Mayor Royer’s new Office of International Affairs in 1987 and retired last year as the sister cities coordinator from the Office of Intergovernmental Relations. How did you get the job in the first place?
Tsering: I applied. I was working at a private company in Redmond. I saw the job announcement in the paper and I applied for it. That’s it. (Laugh)
Wen: When you started, Seattle had 12 sister cities. When you retired, we had 21. What would be a brief description of your job, one you must have loved so much that you worked till you retired?
Tsering: Well, my title was International Programs Coordinator. So managing the sister city program was maybe 85% of what I did. The other 10-15% was dealing with all kinds of other international affairs, international protocols, and non-sister city international dignitaries visiting the city, as well as our elected officials visiting other countries, preparing them, and international correspondence. The mayor got letters from all over the world, they would come to our office. I loved my job because it was never monotonous. The office I worked in was originally International Affairs Office. It later merged with the Office of Intergovernmental Relations. Office of Intergovernmental Relations was probably one of the best offices to work in at the City government. Just fabulous staff, directors. I worked with and under many mayors, as you know, five mayors. Again I loved my job. It was not your typical government job, pushing papers. It was something new all the time. It was very very educational. I had to learn about different cultures, different protocols before I could actually prepare the mayor for what we would make recommendations to the elected officials. It’s a great job.
Wen: Seattle and Chongqing became sister cities in 1983. As the sister cities coordinator, you must have met or talked to on various occasions officials or representatives from China. Did you have mixed feelings when dealing with them? Did you ever let them know that you were from Tibet?
Tsering: I have not only worked with so many people from Chonqing, the Chongqing Mayor’s office, the Chongqing Foreign Affairs Office, I have many good friends from Chongqing. I have also worked with all the Chinese dignitaries, delegations, including the Consul Generals and Ambassadors. I have always made a very clear line between my professional life and my private life. In my private life, I do what I want. When I was working, I represented the City of Seattle, not myself. There was never a mix. All the Chinese dignitaries knew that I was from Tibet and I was Tibetan. They would look at my name and ask me and I would say I am Tibetan. There were a couple of times I thought the visitor was out of line in telling me that some of my country people were ignorant, doing protest marches and things and that they should know better. Before I could respond, the elevator door opened and they left. That was what basically I did, keeping my professional life and my private life very separately. I would go out and march on my own time. On my personal time, representing myself, I would march with my fellow Tibetans. But when I was working, I was representing the City of Seattle.
Wen: Sichuan, of which Chongqing is a part, has Tibetan areas. Have you over the years met any Tibetans from Sichuan or Chongqing or anywhere in China among the Chinese groups you worked with? What was it like?
Tsering: Yes. It was very guarded. I met them at conferences, here in Seattle, and in different cities in the U.S. Whenever I spoke with one of them, other delegation members (Han Chinese) would be close by, listening to our conversations. I would never discuss politics per se. We talked about how are you, I am Tibetan, etc. They were very happy to meet me. I was very happy to meet them, too. Actually one time I even met a relative whom I didn’t know. You know, very simple conversations, very superficial. In fact, sometimes, because someone was standing there and listening, I would purposely speak Mandarin, so they could understand what we were talking about, so the Tibetan individual would not get into any trouble. You know, I don’t have to go back and face any consequences. I live in a free country to do what I want to do, say what I want to say. They had to go back and I certainly would not want to get them into any kind of trouble.
Wen: You worked under five mayors, Charles Royer, Norm Rice, Paul Schell, Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn. Did you see any differences in terms of sister city policies under various mayors or did you have a favorite mayor?
Tsering: Well, I mean each one was different. Of course I liked working under some more than another. But you know, as far as sister cities go, most of the mayors were favorable to our sister city program and gave me a lot of support. When you had the mayor’s support of what you were doing, you felt good about it.
Part 3. On Tibet, Self-Immolations, Independence
Wen: I read that your father told you to do something for Tibet when you grew up. You have been a very good daughter of your father’s. In 1996, you were given the Spirit of Liberty Award by the Ethnic Heritage Council for your work in preserving Tibetan culture. Now, thirty or more Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese rule. If you could do something about the situation, what would it be?
Tsering: I feel that there really is not much I can do that would have an effect. I wish I could say, Please don’t do this. I feel that it is such a tragedy. Just recently, a young Tibetan killed himself in Delhi, protesting Hu Jintao’s visit to India. I think that obviously these are all acts of desperation, because nobody is listening, nobody is paying attention to the plight of the Tibetan people and the Tibetan issue. What could I do? How could I help? I often ask these questions myself. I feel hopelessly inadequate because I don’t know what I could do, except pray, praying for their quick rebirth and that they would be born into a happy environment, good family, with good, kind and loving parents. When we lose someone, that’s what we pray for.
Wen: Like many people, I was really shaken by the image of a young Tibetan standing in the street engulfed in flames. I really would like to know how you see this method of protest. Has self-immolation ever been a practice for any purpose in the Tibetan tradition or Tibetan branch of Buddhism?
Tsering: I certainly am no expert on Tibetan Buddhism or Tibetan history, I personally had never heard of anybody doing that prior to these happenings.
Wen: I understand that you support Tibetan independence. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, however, do not. They say they seek only genuine autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. But the Chinese government does not believe that. They believe that the Dalai Lama wants to split Tibet from China and also that he has been behind the self-immolations. Do you think it is possible to solve this huge mistrust between the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and Beijing?
Tsering: Most of the Tibetans, I would say, are following His Holiness on autonomy, I am no different. What His Holiness says, we would follow. The Chinese government, however, they don’t believe him, don’t trust him. I don’t know how that could change unless we have real dialogs. Tibetan government in exile has sent many delegations to Beijing to have dialogs with the Chinese government. But nothing has happened all these years. The Chinese government keeps saying these horrible things about His Holiness. Even to somebody as simple as myself, it is such a ludicrous thing that when His Holiness says he is for autonomy, the Chinese government says you are not telling the truth. How do you know? Why don’t you talk to him? Why don’t you sit down and have a real discussion, dialog and exchange, instead of just saying the negative, the untruth?
But I have always felt that whatever the Chinese government media says on television, in print, I don’t think the target audience is the international community. The target audience is the people in China, their own people, to say, look what we are doing. And of course, the people believe their government because they do not have other information. But that’s changing, right? I was watching CCTV after the protest happened in Lhasa in 2008. They were interviewing some people in China. The common thing a Chinese citizen would say was that we have been so good to the Tibetans, how could they do this to us, which was basically the government’s propaganda. The citizens believe that. They don’t understand that when you are occupied by a foreign power, no matter how good the economy may be, you are still occupied by a foreign power.
If the Chinese government is not effective in having a real dialog with the Tibetan government in exile, how can anything happen? If the Chinese government is not receptive, does not want to listen, what do you do? The only possible way out, not a solution, is that we can at least have individual dialogs, or diplomacy. Like I am talking to you, for example. I have Chinese friends I talk to and tell them about the way it was and it is and how we became refugees. In fact, we had several meetings here in Seattle with members of the Chinese community. If we can talk to the Chinese citizens, perhaps there could be a change from the bottom up instead of top down. I don’t know.
Wen: You traveled back to Tibet in 1992 and told the Seattle Times that you were saddened by the broken spirit you saw in people there. I know many Tibetans would like to worship the Dalai Lama openly but can’t. Similarly, there are many Han Chinese who would like to promote democracy in China openly but can’t, either. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, is in jail for his beliefs. So do you think there is some kind of parallel in terms of freedom of expression between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese?
Tsering: Of course, of course. We have no issues with the Chinese citizens. It is the government that we have issues with. The Chinese citizens, you know, they suffered through the Cultural Revolution and all that happened in China. Which individual wouldn’t want to be free, to have freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Who would not want that as a human being? I think we are all in the same boat.
Wen: On Wednesday, March 28, in Lhasa, China celebrated the Tibet Liberation Day, the liberation of hundreds of thousands of serfs as the government stated. Padma Choling, Chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, said that the Dalai Lama and the so-called Tibetan government in exile represented the old Tibet and attempted to restore the feudal serfdom. How would you respond to that?
Tsering: Tibet Liberation Day, I have often had conversations about that. Who are they liberating and from what? Taking our peaceful way of life from us? Killing thousands of Tibetans? I don’t think anybody can liberate us Tibetans except ourselves. You remember during the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese said the same thing to the Chinese: We are going to liberate you. I don’t think the Chinese people cared for that any more than we do. I don’t think any foreign power can come in and liberate us. As to what this gentleman in Tibet said, what choice did he have but to state the Party line? Does he have the freedom to say what he really wants? I don’t think so. If he wants to keep his job, he has to say what he is told to say, and repeating exactly what the government wants him to say.
Wen: Before we end, could you maybe tell readers the meaning of your name Tsering and how to pronounce it correctly?
Tsering: It means long life. If you read the way it is written, it is “tse ring.” Colloquially, we never say “tse ring.” We say “tsering.” It’s gender neutral. It can be for a boy or a girl. It depends on what the second name is. My first name is Tsering. My middle name Choden, which means Tara, a goddess. So you know right away that I am female.
Wen: Thank you so much Tsering.