Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Book Review: Sky Train -- Tibetan Women on the Edge of History

November 23, 2009

Sandip Roy, Special to The Chronicle
The San Francisco Chronicle, Section F-6
November 21, 2009

"Sky Train -- Tibetan Women on the Edge of History"
By Canyon Sam
University of Washington Press
271 pages; $24.95 paperback

Third-generation Chinese American Canyon Sam went
to China to find her roots in 1986. Instead she
found Tibet. At that time Tibet was still cut off
from the world. But Sam, a San Franciscan, found
a warmth and connection that had eluded her in
China. Tashi, a woman she met at the post office,
brought her home and moved her in with her family.

By the time Sam returned to Lhasa in 2007, much
had changed. The controversial Sky Train was
connecting Tibet to the rest of China. Lhasa was
choked with shopping malls, office buildings and
Las Vegas neon. But Tashi's family was still there, as warm as ever.

"Sky Train" is the story of the oral histories of
women Canyon Sam gathered in the 1990s as an
activist and her efforts to find the women again
years later to update their testimonies. The
monastery-looting excesses of the Cultural
Revolution might have subsided, but the women Sam
interviews live with the scars of that history.
Yet that trauma does not paralyze them. They
joke. They make dumplings. They pour tea. And they say "choe" (drink/eat).

One found fame educating Tibetan orphans. One
survived horrors in prison. One learned Chinese
and joined the Tibet Opera. They are all
remarkably resilient, telling their stories with
little fuss or fanfare. One was left behind in
Tibet when her husband fled because he was taking
a rinpoche (high lama) with him and the rinpoche
did not want to travel with a woman. In Tibetan
one of the words for woman meant "lower birth."

Ironically, the Chinese invasion might have
helped push women to center stage. Before the
invasion, says one, for upper-class women "every
day was a Sunday" - visiting friends, drinking
chang and playing cards. But when the men had to
flee or fight, Lhasa, as one of the interviewees
describes it, became a city of women. There were
prison camps made up predominantly of women. Men
were stronger physically, says one former
prisoner, but "women's mouths are more powerful."
She still has boisterous reunions with her former prison mates.

But this sisterhood, writes Sam, has found scant
attention in literature about Tibet. She
remembers realizing at the end of nearly 400
pages of John Avedon's acclaimed "In Exile From
the Land of Snows" that none of the profiles had been of a woman.

It's not just an issue of gender balance. As a
woman talking to women, Sam uncovers a much more
intimate Tibet, which survives stubbornly in a
tattered land. The passage of time between the
interviews gives their testimonies both richness
and preciousness. When Sam reconnects with Mrs.
Paljorkhyimsar in Lhasa, the old woman is 90,
bundled in a sheepskin robe near an electric
heater, unable to follow conversations. But she
still wheezes "choe" to her guests. She died soon after.

Many political observers feel the Chinese are
just waiting out the Dalai Lama. Sam's accounts
help you realize that these women's stories are
also disappearing, scattering with the Tibetan
diaspora. Sam feels that urgency acutely. It can
make her harsher and more unforgiving than the
women she interviews as if she has to make up for
the "karmic debt" of being ethnically Chinese
herself. Though she makes it clear that when she
uses the word Chinese she is talking about the
government, not the people, her anger is so
coruscating, few Chinese can emerge unscathed.

"I found the Chinese rude and unhelpful," she
writes sweepingly. Her views of Tibet and China
seem starkly black and white - "One society's
ancient philosophies hold a key to saving our
world, and the other is destroying it more
quickly than any other power in history."

But there are shades of gray. At Tashi's home on
New Year's Eve her brother-in-law invites Sam up
to the roof to watch fireworks. Soon she realizes
none of the other adults are there. The fireworks
are being set off all across Lhasa by the
Chinese. The brother-in-law is half-Chinese. It's
a poignant moment that captures the heart-rending
complexities of Tibet and China and how close to home they can be.

Sandip Roy is host of the New America Media radio
show "New America Now" on KALW 91.7 FM in San
Francisco. E-mail him at books@sfchronicle.com.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank