With these, all his worldly possessions at the age of seventeen, Daja Wangchuk Meston caught an airliner to America, the unfamiliar land of which he was a citizen, and began his arduous personal journey to discover and mend his long-severed ties to his family, his country, and, in a very real sense, his own identity.
In this moving memoir, the author tells the incredible story of a young man who used his Buddhist upbringing and the love of a good woman his young wife to learn that forgiving others can play a critical role in healing a damaged soul.
Daja had much to forgive. In the early 1970s, at the age of three, he was taken by his hippie American parents to Nepal and left in the care of a Tibetan family. The Tibetans in turn placed him in a Buddhist monastery where, at the age of six, he was ordained to be a monk. There, in scenes reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens, he was ostracized by the other boy monks, who taunted him for his Caucasian physical traits, left so hungry he stole scraps of bread, and slept on a flea-infested straw mat. He was an outsider in an insular monastic world, unable to understand what had befallen him and longing for the warmth of his mother's embrace.
His mother became a Buddhist nun, and caring for a child, she thought, would impede her spiritual journey. Her occasional and brief visits with young Daja became increasingly rare. As he grew up, there were often years without a single maternal visit. His father, unbeknownst to the boy, had suffered a mental breakdown and returned, helpless, to Los Angeles.
The story of Daja's self-generated ouster from the monastery as an adolescent (he pretended to have slept with a prostitute), his eventual migration to his homeland, his lifelong attempt to understand and reconnect with his parents, and his eventual and dangerous work on behalf of Tibetan rights under Chinese oppression make for a compelling reading experience.
But more than that, the story of Daja Meston reminds us of the universal human need for roots and family bonds. It is ultimately an unforgettable story of love, hope, and forgiveness and of a gentle man with an enormous capacity for all three.
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About the Author
Clare Ansberry is the Pittsburgh bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and the author of The Women of Troy Hill. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, Matt Smith, and three children, Jessie, Peter, and Eli.
Read an Excerpt
Comes the PeaceMy Journey to Forgiveness
By Daja Wangchuk Meston
Free PressCopyright © 2007 Daja Wangchuk Meston
All right reserved.
I stood on the third-story windowsill of a hotel in a remote part of Tibet, said, "Here I go," and jumped.
Within seconds, my body landed fifty feet below in a dusty street. My heels shattered on impact. I crumbled on the ground. Peasants and pedestrians in gray-and-blue Mao jackets and caps likely gathered around me, wondering who I was, a white-skinned foreigner, my face unshaven, my hiking boots caked in red mud, my wire-rimmed glasses unbroken but askew. Thick-tired bicycles, their wire baskets heavy with fruits and vegetables, veered wobbly around me. Vendors in the street's open-air stalls abandoned their row of shiny apples and plums and rushed over. A handful of Tibetan monks in maroon robes, dotting the nearby green hillside like fallen rose petals, glanced up, their meditation broken. They wouldn't have known how alike we were, that their robes and prayers were mine as a child.
It was a dry, hot August afternoon in 1999. The sun seemed unusually bright. I had been sitting on the windowsill of my corner hotel room for more than an hour, staring at the marketplace below. When I jumped I had no intention of living. I was in a terrible situation and felt like death was the only way out.
I was in the custody of Chinese authorities, unable to leave my room or make phone calls. A stocky,clean-cut security guard was stationed in the hallway. When I opened the door earlier, he put his hands against my chest and gently pushed me back inside my room. He didn't speak English. I didn't speak Chinese. He pointed to the bed, directing me to sit. The room was more sanitized box than comfortable hotel room. The concrete walls, floor, and starchy sheets were white. A single fluorescent tube dangled overhead. There was no phone. I turned on the television set and flipped through the four channels. All carried the same government-controlled programs denouncing a popular religious group as a cult.
I was twenty-nine years old, without any real direction in my life, and had been living in Boston. I had traveled to a remote province in China on a humanitarian mission that had gone horribly awry three days earlier, when a squad of security officers from the Chinese foreign ministry had taken me and two companions into custody. I hadn't wanted to make the trip in the first place, because it seemed dangerous. The officers confiscated my Minolta camera, seven rolls of film, and notes.
We had come to look at the site of a proposed project, to be funded by the World Bank, that would involve bringing fifty-eight thousand mostly Chinese farmers into Tibetan areas. Our aim was to gauge local Tibetan sentiment. Since the Chinese government had promised unfettered access, I thought we would just explain to the officers what we were doing and be released.
Instead, we were loaded in separate jeeps and taken on a thirty-hour drive to Xining, a city on the northeastern border of China and Tibet. Along the way, I tried to explain that we had done nothing wrong, that we were simply interested in the project. The guards listened in stony silence. At 2 a.m., we pulled up in front of a dimly lit vacant hotel. We got out and were escorted to different rooms.
A series of interrogations followed. I felt I was being ordered to confess to crimes I didn't know I had committed.
I was led down a tiled corridor to room 301. Inside, the curtains were closed. Against the far wall, a thin, light-skinned man in a dark green military uniform eyed me from behind a desk, where his folded hands rested. The medals pinned to his uniform glistened. Around him, a handful of men stood on chairs and tables, their faces hidden behind cameras with bright lights beaming at me. The one with the still camera moved from one corner of the room to another, snapping photos of me from different angles. Two men huddled on a couch, smoking cigarettes. A cup of black tea cooled on the table in front of me. The window was open. A hot breeze blew in. The curtains puffed.
An empty chair directly across from the officer was waiting for me. An ugly woman with cream-colored pants and deep-set eyes, the interpreter, sat next to me. The corners of her thin mouth drooped in an angry frown. A tape recorder whirred quietly.
I stared at the uniformed man, waiting. He spoke deliberately and slowly in a low, gravelly voice. The translator waited until he was done, then relayed his message.
"What is your name?"
"When did you come to China?"
"Why did you come to China?"
"I came to see the World Bank project site."
"What places have you been to?"
"My flight landed in Beijing. From there I went to Xian, Xining, and Dulan."
"What did you do in these places?"
"Not much. I went to visit the monasteries and to see the grasslands where the Tibetan nomads are."
He paused and leaned forward. "You have broken the laws of the People's Republic of China," he said.
My offense, he said, was taking photos of an abandoned prison labor camp in an area that was off-limits to foreigners without a permit.
I remembered a few days earlier. We wanted to see land connected with the World Bank project and hired a local man to drive us. On the way, he stopped on the road outside the prison to stretch his legs and get a drink of water. I took some pictures because we had stopped and I was taking pictures of every place we stopped. I had no idea it was off-limits. No signs were posted. Coming back on the same road later that day, I saw a sign nailed to a tree outside the prison grounds that had not been there earlier. "Restricted Area. Foreigners without a permit not allowed beyond this point." I wondered later whether the new sign was put up to trap us into breaking the law.
"I didn't ask to be taken there," I explained. Blaming the driver was a perfectly reasonable explanation and true. I was confident that this questioning was all just a formality that would end with me being scolded and sent back to the United States.
Instead, he pressed further, his tone growing angry and impatient. "Why are you really here? Who sent you?"
I lied. "No one sent me. I'm a student researcher. I came on my own." My heart pounded. I prayed they could not tell I was lying. The organization that paid for my trip was the leading opponent of the World Bank project and well known internationally for defending Tibetan rights and criticizing China. Any association with it would incriminate me and my two companions, including an innocent, soft-spoken Tibetan man who had agreed to be our translator. He was the one I was most concerned about. I remember the terrified look on his face, his eyes widening and the color draining, when the security guards took us into custody. I knew he had a family. At least I had an American passport and a plane ticket home. He could be thrown in jail for life. In theory, according to Chinese law he could even be executed. Anything I said could be used against him. I couldn't take any chances implicating him.
The questioning continued for six hours. A security man kept refilling my teacup to keep me awake. My muscles began tightening. Trying to be cooperative, I signed a half-dozen statements written in Chinese. My hand shook as I did so. I dipped my thumb in red ink and fingerprinted each page as they demanded. I gushed, "Thank you," in Chinese every time they offered some tea. The video cameraman got on top of the bed with his shoes still on and directed the flood of camera lights on me. I wanted to look away but everywhere I glanced, eyes glared at me.
I had had only a few hours of sleep in the last forty-eight hours and eaten nothing but a couple of stale crackers stuffed inside my waterproof jacket. My eyes burned from fatigue. I couldn't concentrate on my answers. In my mind, I replayed what I had said in the last three days so I didn't contradict myself. Did I say I was an undergraduate student or a graduate student, that I was studying international development? What if one of my companions mentioned that an organization sent us? I would be caught in a lie.
As the hours passed, any sense of privilege I had, of being an American, having a passport, of being involved, albeit as a critic, with the prestigious World Bank, of being right and innocent, evaporated. My neck developed a nervous twitch, jerking sharply to the left, as if it were rebelling against my decisions. No one back home knew that I had been arrested and taken here. Everything I said or did haunted me. I began regretting the picture taken days earlier by a passing tourist: I was stupidly grinning and flashing a defiant peace sign in front of a mural of Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square. I kicked myself for signing the papers because I had no idea what the statements really said. For all I knew, they had tricked me into admitting that I was a spy.
Scenes from the movie Red Corner played through my head. I became the character played by Richard Gere -- an attorney captured in China, tortured, and thrown in a dark prison cell -- with the Chinese authorities running after me. I get caught. They put me through the corrupt legal system without any legal representation. I am found guilty of espionage and spying. I imagined myself walking past the thick main gate of the prison. A guard in the prison tower above, looking down on me, watches every step I take. A metal door slams, leaving me alone in a dark, dirty cell, where I am tortured, spit upon, beaten, and forgotten. To me, it was a very real possibility. A friend of ours, a musicology student, had gone to Tibet to record folk songs three years earlier. He visited us a few months before he left. We had not heard from him since. He had been arrested on charges of espionage and was still serving an 18-year jail sentence, in spite of efforts by his family and the international community to get him out.
"Why are you treating me like a criminal?" I asked. "I am not a criminal."
When there was no response, I made the ultimate demand. "I am an American, and I have the right to representation from the U.S. consulate. I need to make a call to my embassy." I had scribbled the phone numbers of the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou and the embassy in Beijing on a small piece of paper and tucked them in my wallet.
The chief interrogator responded, "This is not important now. You have not told us everything. You need to think carefully and tell us everything."
I stared at his uniform and began sweating. As a young boy, whenever a police officer walked by, I hid under benches and behind clusters of bamboo until they passed, afraid that they would arrest me. I'd forgotten how terrified I was of authority figures until that moment.
With that, the interrogation session ended and I was led back to my room. I turned off my lights and climbed into a starchy white bed, my eyes wide open staring at the dark above me.
I had dreaded this trip. I had received a telephone call only two weeks before I left from the head of a human rights organization, asking if I was available to travel to Tibet to see whether Tibetans, as well as some Mongolians and other indigenous peoples from the area, were being pushed out of the lush, vast, flat grasslands where they fed their herds of yaks and sheep, to make room for the Chinese. By talking to Tibetans, I would find out whether they supported the World Bank project, as the Chinese claimed. I knew that having the World Bank fund a project that involved the transfer of populations from China proper into lands historically claimed by Tibet would legitimize Chinese occupation of Tibet and push Tibetans further into the margins. This wasn't just any piece of land either. It was not far from the birthplace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which made it more high-profile and controversial. Trying to salvage the project, the Chinese government had promised that outsiders, like me, would be welcome and be allowed to freely see for themselves that the Tibetans were happy. That's what I was going to do.
In the eyes of many, everything about me made me uniquely suited for the trip. I am an American who grew up among Tibetans and spoke Tibetan fluently. I had made three trips to Tibet in the last few years, acting as an interpreter for reporters and a congressman looking into human rights abuses of Tibetans. I had married a Tibetan woman, Phuntsok Dolma. Through her, I learned the hardships facing exiled Tibetans. She spent her childhood living in refugee camps in India after the Chinese made her nomadic family flee their Tibetan pasturelands. After leaving all of their animals behind in Tibet, her father rummaged through the garbage of local Indian armies to feed his family. Although she came to Boston when she was sixteen, most of her family still lived in the camps and relied on us for money and clothing. "You're the only one who could do this," she had said. A soft-spoken but relentlessly persuasive woman, she rattled off several reasons why I should go: You've been there before. You know the people, the history, and the language. People would open up to you. They would feel safe. No one else could do that. It would be too risky for a Tibetan to go. Plus you're American. The Chinese government wouldn't jeopardize the project by arresting an American for talking to people. This is a golden opportunity, a chance to affect a nation and a people.
Everything she said made sense. I seemed to be the only person who wasn't convinced that I could handle it. That had often been the case in my life. To others I seemed self-assured, calm, and capable. Little did they know that inside, I battled private demons of insecurity and fear. A friend had told me he thought those trips with the congressman landed me on a blacklist kept by the Chinese government. What made me even more edgy was that this time I was going on my own. I was not acting as someone else's interpreter. The significance of this trip had been so drilled into my head that I was terrified of not getting the information needed or, worse yet, getting arrested. I felt totally ill-equipped. I didn't know much of the history of this particular region of Tibet and had little time to study up or make contacts. What if I failed? If I missed a historic opportunity? I would be letting down my wife, her father, the organization, and, some people might say, the entire Tibetan nation. Yet if I backed out, who would go? It would seem to many people that China would score another victory against indigenous people because I was a coward. If nothing else, going would prove to me that I was capable of offering something worthy to the world, something I had been unable to accomplish so far.
I was almost thirty, sitting around doing nothing much except obsessing about doing nothing. I'd had a string of lousy jobs: mowing lawns, making salads, and packing and shipping boxes of fancy paper napkins. Since we couldn't afford a place of our own, my wife and I lived in a complex for students and missionaries. We shared a communal kitchen with twenty other people. My wife worked fifty hours a week at bagel shops and a jewelry store to support us and her family in India, as well as pay for my college tuition. I got the degree I wanted and had done nothing of substance with it. I seemed incapable of accomplishing anything, as if a critical part of my body, like its motor, was broken and made me completely inoperable. At times, my arms and legs seemed too leaden to move. My wife was a doer. Why couldn't I be like her? Get a job or even two? Work hard? I didn't have any idea what I was supposed to do or even where I belonged.
In the days before the trip, I hoped privately that my visa from the Chinese consulate in New York would not be granted. When it arrived in the mail, I considered tearing it up. The night before I left, my wife and I were driving home from the store and had an argument in the car. I wanted to back out at the last minute. She said I was being paranoid. I tried to reassure myself. My wife was right. People could get run over by a car on their way to the supermarket, but that didn't mean they didn't go. Other people who were more active in the Tibet movement had managed to get in and out without being arrested. Compared to them, I was small potatoes, hardly worth anybody's attention.
The morning I left, Phuni's father, a deeply religious man, rose at 4 a.m. and began burning juniper incense on the fire escape of our tiny one-bedroom apartment. He strung colorful prayer flags along the railings of the fire escape for good luck and my safety. I looked at him as I walked out the door and felt unsettled, as if he knew how dangerous this was.
Just after midnight, a man dressed in a suit and tie came into my room and flicked on the lights. I was startled, and my heart started pounding. He told me to get up and be ready in one hour for more questioning. I fumbled for my clothes, putting on a khaki shirt and baggy blue pants. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I stared blankly at my watch, growing more paranoid. Their ominous warning rang in my ear: "You need to think carefully and tell us everything."
What would it take to satisfy them? I had already admitted I'd made a mistake, apologized, and signed confessions. Why was he all dressed up at midnight? Were they taking me somewhere? Why at one in the morning? I had no idea that interrupting sleep was a tactic in questioning. I read it as unsettling urgency.
I stared at my Casio, watching the minutes change. It was 1 A.M. I looked up at the doorknob, waiting for it to turn. No one came. Another hour passed. Still nothing. I took a small narrow spiral notebook out of my black backpack and ripped out a page. Sitting at the bottom of my bed, I wrote a letter stating I was innocent and that my captors were part of an oppressive state. Then fearing what further problems the letter might unleash, I chewed it up and swallowed it. I was too afraid to try to wash it down the sink or flush it down the toilet. When I ran water in the sink, I could hear it falling into a bucket on the floor below to collect whatever I might have tried to get rid of.
I walked around the room, trying to figure out what to do next. Inside my backpack was a Swiss army knife I had stolen from my mother when I was a boy. I picked it up and pulled the small, thin silver blade out. Sitting on the bed, I studied my wrists for the most visible vein. Clenching my teeth, I dug the blade slowly and firmly into my wrist until I bled. I did the same with the other wrist. Capturing the dripping blood on my fingertips, I smeared it on my shirt. My plan was for them to open the door, see the blood, stop everything, and take me to the hospital.
Exhausted, I lay back down in bed and waited for them to return. I kept repeating to myself: I am not a criminal. I have nothing to be afraid of. They are the ones who are wrong. Every once in a while I dozed off, only to awake in a cold sweat from nightmares of prison doors locking behind me, and of me staring through the bars of a tiny dark cell.
The next morning, a young security officer knocked on my door and handed me sticks of fried dough bought from the street vendors outside. The two small wounds on my wrist had already closed. He said nothing of the blood on my shirt and walked away.
I bit into the crunchy stick and tried to swallow but couldn't. It felt as if I had a stone stuck in my throat. A thermos, left from the day before, still had some warm water inside. I poured it into a cup and made some black tea. I took a few sips and decided to shave, wanting to continue my regular routine and show I wasn't so defeated that I didn't care how I looked. I turned the razor on. The batteries were dead.
Looking for any diversion, I flicked on the television set. Images of Chinese police arresting and beating members of Falun Gong flashed on the screen. I looked at the terrified faces and began feeling sick. I paced the room and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the large mirror. I saw my neck twitching. For the first time in years, I prayed for help, asking for the blessings of the Dalai Lama and reciting the mantra of the Green Tara, the goddess of compassion. "Guide me and remove all obstacles," I prayed.
I had recited those same prayers thousands of times when I was a young boy. My parents were quintessential hippies, living in communes in the 1960s before trekking across Europe in a green VW van. I was born along the way, and barely walking when my parents were swept up in a generational tide of young people seeking spiritual fulfillment and decided to head to India and Nepal to study Buddhism. My mother was so enraptured with the teachings that she took the full plunge and became a Buddhist nun. My father, who relied on my mother for everything, had a breakdown. I was two years old at the time and essentially parentless. My mother found a local Tibetan family with ten children, two mothers, and one father who agreed to take me in. Four years later, my mother decided I should follow in her footsteps and arranged to have me sent to the Buddhist monastery to spend the rest of my life as a monk, wearing a maroon robe and chanting mantras. From the start and throughout my childhood and teen years, I was an outsider. The little white boy in a Tibetan family. Then the white boy monk. My parents were distant figures. I really belonged to no one. After ten years in the monastery, feeling quite alone, I left and made my way to the United States to get an education. After standing out for most of my life, all I wanted was to live a quiet life.
Now I was at the center of a hostile investigation that I still didn't understand. Naively, I had thought they would realize I'm a nice person.
From the moment we were arrested, I had been trying to figure out how to get out of this mess. Apologizing, signing confessions, cutting my wrists, demanding a phone call to the embassy. Nothing worked.
I paced the room, trying to divine what they were thinking and anticipate their next move. Could they really be preparing to pursue a full espionage case against me? Did they have enough evidence? If they didn't, did it matter?
The interrogations would only get worse. I knew that. They wouldn't let up until I told them who sent me and who I talked to. I wouldn't budge on that.
I had already failed by being arrested. I wouldn't fail further by putting other people in danger. Most were nomads, mountain people much like my father-in-law, who slept with newborn sheep next to his skin in his sheepskin chuba, keeping both him and the baby animals warm until the sun rose. The terrified face of our Tibetan translator kept flashing in front of me. I felt like I was going to throw up.
Since I was not going to cooperate and give them the answers they were looking for, the next logical step would be prison. They would torture me to try to get me to talk. They would win because they had me in prison, where I was terrified of being. I wanted to deny them any victory.
Shouting came from the television. I glanced up. People on the screen were cowering beneath the blows of the police. As disturbing as the scenes were, I couldn't stop watching. The government was demonizing these people just as it did the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers. I don't know what I was more afraid of -- prison, or failing this mission and jeopardizing innocent people's lives.
If only I could pick up the phone and call someone. My heart ached for a friendly voice. I saw an image of Phuntsok sitting in our tiny living room, her long, dark hair and kind, heart-shaped face. I wanted her there with me. She was always stronger than I. She would move mountains for a cause. As she grew up, her father would advise her to "grow a bone in your heart" -- be strong. I wanted to hear her gentle and assuring words. The more I thought of her, the more frustrated I was at my powerlessness.
I wondered if my mother knew that I was in Tibet. She was in India practicing and teaching Buddhism. We saw each other every few years and kept in touch through e-mail, letters, and phone calls. It was better that way. I had spent most of my childhood missing her, my teen years embarrassed by her robes, and my adult life angry at her for leaving me. I was in my mid-twenties the first time I remember her saying she loved me. Whether she said it before, I don't recall. I imagined her, with her head shorn, meditating and chanting, moving more slowly with age. Though we were never close, over the years I'd send her atomizers and warm slippers. I worried about her. I always have.
Same with my father, a big bear of a man. I knew he had no idea where I was or what I was doing. On medication for schizophrenia, he lived in a Los Angeles home with older people with dementia. Medication had dulled his emotions. Our conversations were short. He never asked questions and usually answered mine with yes or no. I have only one childhood memory of him. We are playing peekaboo, his bushy, bearded face close to mine. I used to fantasize about a perfect family, sitting together around a table, talking and laughing.
My thoughts returned to the present. I was desperate to get out of there. I had already tried to leave my room and was stopped by the security guard. I couldn't imagine myself wrestling with him, trying to take his gun or overpowering him. I'm not that strong. I'd likely get killed in the process. At one point during the thirty-hour jeep ride, I thought of jumping out the door and running like hell, but I was afraid I might get into more trouble or they might actually shoot me.
After about a half hour, I looked at the huge window. The curtains were open and the sun was pouring in. The sounds of rattling bicycles, heated bartering, and chickens squawking melted together in an indiscernible din.
It was the only way out. No one would know whether I jumped or was pushed. I didn't expect to live. The American government would demand an investigation into why a U.S. citizen died while in Chinese custody. Tensions between the two governments would be further strained. The human rights group that sent me would protest and the World Bank would have to look more closely at the project. I had already failed by being arrested. Maybe this could make things right.
I was tired of thinking and trying to figure out what my captors would do or what I should be doing. I didn't dwell on my body landing. I didn't think of actually dying or of never being able to see Phuntsok again or having a family. I just thought of getting out of there.
I put on my Gore-Tex hiking boots. For some reason, it made sense. I was going out. My hands trembled as I tied the laces.
Up on the windowsill, I stared out. Blinded by the blistering sun, I took what I thought would be my final step.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my jump that hot August afternoon marked the beginning of another journey.
Copyright 2007 by Daja Wangchuk Meston and Clare Ansberry
Excerpted from Comes the Peace by Daja Wangchuk Meston Copyright © 2007 by Daja Wangchuk Meston. Excerpted by permission.
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