On a blustery day last December, my 78-year-old Tibetan father stepped out of customs at John F. Kennedy Airport into the unforgiving air of his new home. After eight years apart, his family was reunited in a land where he could find the freedom and independence for which he spent the better part of his life fighting.
I first met Wangyal (many Tibetans use only one name) as a student 13 years ago when I lived with his family, who were among the thousands of Tibetans who had fled Chinese control of their homeland and ended up in Kathmandu, Nepal. A Jewish kid from Pittsburgh, I soon took to calling him what everyone else did, “Pala”—father.
Pala had never been to America, but he was no stranger to it. He listened to the nightly Voice of America broadcasts in Tibetan, drawing false hope that America would somehow renew its silent promise to stand up to the Chinese, who had invaded and occupied Tibet since the early 1950s. While uttering mantras to the Buddha of compassion during his daily circumambulations of the holy stupa, he wore gifts of Steelers sweatshirts and Yankees hats from students like me. He knew the feel of a U.S.-military-issued rifle and knew of a place called Colorado, where hundreds of his fellow guerilla fighters were airlifted to C.I.A. training camps.
The day I went to live with my Tibetan family in their two-room apartment, I was ushered immediately into the shrine room, where I was to sleep under the protective gaze of the Buddha and the lingering calm of incense. Pala soon came in to empty the water bowl offerings, followed by my 11-year-old Tibetan brother, who stroked the hair on my white arm and asked if I wanted to see a picture of Pala with the Dalai Lama.
I was expecting to see a Tibetan standing deferentially next to the man Tibetans treated as a living god. Instead it was a photo I had seen before, from the Dalai Lama’s first autobiography. I remembered the young Dalai Lama, in the clothing of a layman, sitting astride a horse. This time, however, my eyes focused on the young man standing in the photo, his high cheekbones now unmistakable, wearing dune-colored traditional dress with a rifle slung over his back. Pala was 29 when he fulfilled every Tibetan’s lifelong ambition of meeting the Dalai Lama. Only he was helping the Dalai Lama escape Tibet.
The circumstances could not have been more acute. Wangyal was a trader from Kham in eastern Tibet when Mao Zedong’s so-called peaceful liberation of Tibet turned violent. The Khampa men of Chatreng fought for nearly three weeks until the Chinese called an airstrike that lasted for 10 days, decimating the village. Revolt spread throughout Kham, and eventually the men formed a unified militia. The C.I.A., seeing an opportunity to destabilize Communist China, began providing covert training and supplies. By 1959, though, the Chinese controlled Lhasa and threatened to depose the Dalai Lama. Wangyal was chosen to protect the Dalai Lama as he fled over the dangerous Himalayan mountain passes into India.
The success of the escape proved a powerful recruiting tool. Thousands of Tibetans made their way back to the Tibetan border to try to push the Chinese back. Wangyal took his knowledge of trading routes and became a courier, clandestinely crossing between Tibet, Nepal and India to ferret messages from the front lines to the combined operations center in India.
Beginning in 1964, C.I.A. funding slowed as the American government began committing itself elsewhere in Asia. Ammunitions and food became scarce. The Khampas lived in caves in the highlands of Nepal and staged night attacks against the Chinese in Tibet. Wangyal and his comrades boiled the hides of yaks for days just to squeeze out some sustenance.
Ten years later, the Nepalese government, pressured by China to pacify their border, attempted to crush the Tibetan resistance. Not until the Dalai Lama intervened in the name of nonviolence did the Tibetan guerillas put down their arms and pick up the strands of a life delayed, marrying Tibetan women half their age, starting families and moving into the Kathmandu Valley. A group of veterans built a carpet factory and, above it, an apartment building, where years later I would live with a generation of Tibetan warriors.
I hadn’t seen Pala since the carpet factory closed down eight years earlier and his wife, Tsamchung, made an escape of her own, to New York City. She followed a wave of Tibetans, including many from the apartment building in Kathmandu, who sought in the United States the rights and economic opportunity they could not find as stateless people in Nepal. Tsamchung worked to clean houses, worked to learn English. She chose the American flag logo to decorate her first credit card. She sent money to her family so Pala could spend his retirement improving his karma through prayer and ritual. She hired a lawyer from Chinatown and was granted political asylum. She planned a future for her family, worked and waited. What was worse than the news of her daughter’s death from tuberculosis was the pain that came from having missed her so much already.
The reunion at J.F.K. was a triumph of perseverance. Tsamchung draped khatas, white ceremonial scarves, over the necks of Pala, her son and her remaining daughter. They celebrated with dumplings and butter tea in their Queens apartment.
Pala looked frail. Perhaps it was the cave’s close quarters or the heat and humidity of Nepal’s lowlands; the doctors I took him to at Bellevue told him that tuberculosis, an epidemic in the Tibetan community, had decimated his lungs. June’s heat wave in New York sent Pala to Elmhurst hospital. For the next four weeks he was never without the company of family. When he died, his body lay untouched until monks who work days at Subway sandwich shops could arrive to perform prayers that would ensure a good rebirth.
The family will spread Pala’s ashes in Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha.