Truth and consequences

Truth and consequences

I have shared life stories of women from Tibet and given talks on human-rights issues which do not portray China’s role in Tibet in a positive light. The Chinese government has decided I am no longer welcome in China.

WESTMINSTER — In late May, I was hired to coordinate student activities at Tsinghua International School in Beijing, China. I gave notice then for my job at Youth Services, where I had worked for nearly five years, and prepared to move abroad for at least a year at the beginning of August.

I had a signed contract to work in Beijing. A work permit was issued in the city, as well as a formal letter of invitation from Tsinghua, my school.

But without a work visa issued by the Chinese consulate in New York, none of these certificates or documents would matter.

I was scheduled to fly to Beijing on Aug. 3. I would wait a month before an email would inform me that no visa would be granted.

My connections with the Middle Kingdom are long and deep. I speak Chinese. I lived in Taiwan as a secondary student and in China as a college student in the '80s. I have led groups of students to China and Tibet three times since 2002.

But over the past 15 years, I also have developed a strong interest in the plight of Tibet and those living in the Tibetan diaspora.

I was chair of the Monadnock Friends of Tibet (MFT) for nearly a decade. We had 300 members in southern Vermont and New Hampshire and the films, talks, and other cultural events we sponsored drew between 20 and 50 people, though occasionally up to a couple of hundred.

MFT lightly dabbled in political issues, primarily encouraged our members to write letters on behalf of political prisoners (like Middlebury College student and ethnomusicologist Ngawang Choephel, who spent eight years imprisoned in China for filming folk music in his homeland, Tibet).

But our group's primary focus was humanitarian projects, education, and cultural preservation.

As chair of MFT, I gave occasional public talks about human rights in Tibet at schools and colleges, particularly around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. As part of a practicum project for my master's in international education at SIT, I planned and led a cultural immersion trip, which took 13 high-school students from the Compass School to India, including to the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala.

On that trip I interviewed Tibetan refugee women for my capstone project, “To Life in Exile: Tibetan Women's Stories.”

So, yes, I have shared stories of life in Tibet which do not cast a positive spin on China's role. Does this mean I should not be allowed to enter China to work with international students?

Apparently, the Chinese government thinks so.

* * *

The day after I missed my flight, I went to the Chinese Consulate in New York, hoping to plead my case in person. As I approached the consulate on Broadway and 12th Avenue, I recalled the only other time I had been there, on the 50th anniversary of the day the Chinese “People's Liberation Army” bombed Norbulingka, the summer palace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On that day, March 10, 2009, I participated in a solemn march with hundreds of others across the Brooklyn Bridge, past the United Nations, and by the Chinese Consulate. We stopped across the street from the consulate waving Tibetan flags (which are outlawed in Tibet), pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (which can send people to prison in Tibet), and a signs advocating Human Rights, the “Middle Way policy” (giving true autonomy to the people of Tibet), and more.

I was standing beside two Tibetan nuns. They told me they had been imprisoned at Drapchi in Lhasa and asked me about my interest and involvement with Tibet. When they thanked me for my support of Tibet, tears came to my eyes. I had done so little. They had suffered so much.

While we stood on the street corner looking up to the consulate windows, numerous people inside pointed large-lensed cameras at us.

* * *

When I got to the consulate this August and approached the entrance, I looked across the street to where I had stood with the nuns five years ago. There were a dozen or so Falun gong practitioners doing meditative movements in unison - the same movements that have gotten hundreds of people arrested and imprisoned in China.

As I turned to enter, I looked back to the protesters. My mind was with them, but my legs were carrying me inside. I wanted to go and talk with them, but I did not. The oppressive Chinese laws that do not allow freedom of expression apply to foreigners who want to live in China, too.

With mixed emotions and a heavy heart, I went into the consulate, where I was eventually sent to “Line 1 for Diplomatic and Special Visas.” I should have known this was a bad sign, as my visa should not have been “special.”

I was told “some visas take longer to process than others” and was handed a meeting request form. When I informed the consular worker that I had driven nearly five hours from Vermont to meet with someone, she wrote “Urgent” on the top of my application and then told me they would notify me when an appointment became available.

After waiting two nights and three mornings, I gave up and returned home.

For several weeks, I lived out of suitcases. I was planning to leave as soon as my visa came. My new employer was sure that would happen any day, as none of the dozens of the school's international staff had ever been denied.

Moment by moment, I kept myself engaged. I enjoyed long days with my grandbaby Lydia, petted my cats, and waited. I did not leave my house for over two weeks during business hours, waiting for visa news.

* * *

A week after my visit to the consulate, I got a call, asking me questions initially about “my publications.”

I paused.

He added, “...books or articles?”

Surely, the consulate could not care about the piece I wrote this spring on links between marijuana and mental Illness, but I mentioned it. I had written a few other letters to the editor on local issues, such as the skateboard park and fundraising for homeless youth.

Did the CCP care that I wrote a single letter to the editor in Newsweek in 2009 which raised concern about economic prosperity in China leaving behind many from the so-called “minority populations” in China?


Apparently, my graduate school capstone project in 2004 was also of interest to them; a synopsis does show up online with a simple search of my name.)

The Chinese Communist Party certainly did not like the occasional newsletters I sent out as chair of Monadnock Friends of Tibet. The consular man asked about my involvement with the MFT and told me to email him more information. He quoted a phrase from one newsletter: “60 years ago, the Chinese occupied Tibet.”

Did I write that? I don't honestly remember, but I expect I did. Regardless, that phrase was true in 2009, and it is true now (except that it should read “65 years ago”).

* * *

During my weeks of waiting, the events in Ferguson, Mo. occurred, prompting much discussion in the news and in social media about the importance of standing up for what is right. Quotes about people keeping silent when they witness or know of wrongs sent pangs of guilt into my soul, as I had sealed my lips on political issues for months.

I have plenty of opinions about issues that China would consider its internal affairs, and I have weighed in on them in the past. But in preparation for living in a nation with a tightly controlled state media, I have self-edited. I knew my email messages would likely be reviewed and my Facebook audited.

Being spied on, so to speak, comes with the territory in 21st-century China. When the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square arrived on June 4, I had just signed my work contract with Tsinghua. I talked about the anniversary with a few friends but neither wrote nor posted anything to commemorate the memory of the last time thousands of Chinese citizens dared to stand up for freedom, and often paid with their lives.

I intended to limit both self-expression and advocacy on behalf of others in ways I have not had to do since I lived there as a college student in the mid-'80s. I was prepared to live as a visitor in a country where stating the “wrong” opinion, engaging in debate, or even having a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama could get you deported or imprisoned (depending on your nationality).

I intended to avoid causing trouble for myself and others by avoiding sensitive issues to get a visa, and to keep my opinions to myself as long as I would be living there.

Did I feel good about my silence? No. Did I think it was necessary in order to live in China? Yes.

* * *

I think of my friend Pema Y., who was the first person I interviewed about her flight from Tibet into life in exile during my capstone project. Tibetans have suffered gravely since 1949. I know a good bit about their situation.

Pema told me as she, her husband and 13-year-old son walked over peaks of the Himalayas in deep snow while carrying their newborn son each day, she thought she wouldn't make it.

She would tell her husband and older son to go ahead with the baby and leave her. Her husband wanted to turn back because he feared one or more of them would perish, but she insisted that they continue toward India.

“If only one of our sons survives to have a life in freedom in India, it is worth it,” she told me.

All of her family made it safely to life in exile, though both she and the baby came close to death.

Pema was willing to risk everything - even her life and even the life of one of her children - in order for one child to have a chance at a life where he could be educated in his own language, have access to the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and be able to grow up with others who valued these opportunities.

I saw Pema this summer. Her older son is trilingual and a graduate student in Europe. Her baby is now in high school.

There was a time where I shared the true stories of Pema and the other Tibetans fairly often. Their stories were even made into a theatrical play that was partially written and entirely performed by students from the Compass School in 2006.

So it feels somewhat shameful to have been silent for even just a few months about what I know. I should find ways to share these stories again.

* * *

Now that I am unwelcome, I do not know when or if I will return to China or Tibet. Certainly, I am not going anytime soon and not for this school year.

What does one do when carefully made plans unravel and there is no clear path to step back onto? It is disorienting but also exciting to be in this open place without commitments or obligations.

I just reread Comfortable with Uncertainty, by Buddhist nun and teacher, Pema Chödrön. I am gradually getting better at accepting each moment as its comes. Chödrön reminds us that each person really only has control over each moment: we cannot change the past nor control the future. I am doing my best to remember that I have only control over the present, and even that is not complete.

Enjoying the crisp approaching autumn air, relishing the fragrant pesto I did not expect to make, and to indulging in each hug and nuzzle I get from Lydia, my delightful granddaughter, are all treats I did not expect to experience this August. Uncertainty has its perks.

* * *

The last week in August, I got two job offers within 10 minutes.

I accepted a social studies teaching position in southern Vermont in a program that will begin in early November. Until then, I will serve as a volunteer teacher and teacher-trainer at two small schools in Bodh Gaya, India, working daily with dozens of children in the town where the Buddha was enlightened.

Two weeks before those offers, I expected to be moving to China any day so that I could begin working with an international group of privileged children of business people, academics, and diplomats, breathing some of the world's most polluted air, and keeping my opinions on many issues to myself. And one week before, I was unemployed and did not know what my future held.

Now I am spending the better part of two months working with children Mother Theresa would have called “the poorest of the poor” in northern India and preparing to teach talented student athletes in Vermont when I return to the U.S. I could never have predicted the twists and turns my life would take this past summer.

My Buddhist teacher, Geshe Ngawang Singey, asserts that sometime the most difficult people in our life can be our best teachers. Perhaps this is also true of difficult governments, nations, political parties, or other circumstances.

Challenges that we are not expecting force us to delve deeply into ourselves to consider what is most important and to recommit to living in the best way we can. I find myself feeling gratitude in a strange way to the Chinese government.

I did not want them to reject my visa, but in doing so, they have made other opportunities possible and reminded me of what my priorities should be.

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