Review of: A Tewo Tibetan Childhood

By Harrison Vincent


A Tewo Tibetan Childhood is an autobiographical recounting of Dorjé Tsetan’s (Rdo rje tshe brtan) aberrant Tibetan childhood in Têwo County, China. His story begins with his birth in 1988 and culminates upon receiving his Masters Degree in Anthropology from Silliman University in the Philippines in 2010. It is an inspirational story of how an ordinary Tibetan boy from an underprivileged family was able to overcome his ascribed status through his commitment to education. Through Dorjé Tsetan’s adolescence he persevered through contradictory pressures from his family; his mother, Jeeshi Tso, expected him to maintain a traditional Tibetan life of staying at home and supporting the family, while his Young Uncle stressed further education. “Education will help you get a job and have a splendid life in the future. You can use your knowledge to bring prestige to our family reputation,” (23) Young Uncle told Dorjé Tsetan as his family contemplated his enrolment in the village school. The dichotomy between a traditional Tibetan existence, which Dorjé Tsetan’s older family was accustomed to, and an academic oriented life that leads towards job security and monetary wealth is the main theme discussed in this book. Dorjé Tsetan illustrates through his autobiography how he retained his Tibetan cultural heritage while also pursuing rigorous academic endeavors. Dorjé Tsetan finished his autobiography in 2013, at the age of 25, and discusses his motivation to work for the local government so that he can preserve Tibetan cultural heritage and improve local education for the next generation of Tibetans (120). This book offers a unique perspective on the struggle impoverished Tibetans faced in China after the Cultural Revolution. Rdo divides the autobiography chronologically with 28 chapters of different anecdotal situations that he and his family get into and how they cope with adversity.

Rdo grew up in Dredzé Village, Yiwa Township, Tewo Country, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, China without a father figure. Instead, his mother, accompanied by his uncles and aunts filled the void of the missing paternal figure in Dorjé Tsetan’s life. The family worked together plowing and harvesting food for survival as a cohesive unit; familial cohesion was of the upmost importance for Dorjé Tsetan and his family. Dorjé Tsetan’s stories are filled with how his mother and uncles took great care of him. Within his family each member had a specific role to perform; the family survived based on each individual members successful selflessly performing for the collective. This unity was also spread to others within his community; whenever children from other villages confronted Dorjé Tsetan, children from his village would stick up for him. The Tibetan communities were described in the autobiography almost as if they were separate cults; Dorjé Tsetan recounts at times that the discrimination he faced from other children was solely because he spoke in a different Tibetan accent, and students reacted by laughing at him and making fun of him for not being able to speak their village-specific dialect.
Dorjé Tsetan’s family lived in impoverished living conditions; they lacked the necessary access to medical care and struggled to come up with enough funds to pay for medical procedures. Dorjé Tsetan describes the death of his Elder Uncle, Wande Tar, as one of the most struggling experiences during his adolescence. Once Elder Uncle showed symptoms of sickness the family responded by: chanting scriptures, lighting a butter-lamp in front of their family shrine, and offering conifer needles on the altar and attempted to resolve the sickness through naturopathic processes. However, the illness deteriorated and Elder Uncle needed to receive an expensive operation, which Dorjé Tsetan’s family could not afford. They went door to door asking individuals for money to help fund the operation; however, they could not come up with enough funds to pay for Elder Uncle’s treatment and he passed away. This experience taught Dorjé Tsetan a lot about the world at such a young age; it demonstrated the important role money has in their society, while also challenging his beliefs in the strengths of traditional Tibetan culture, as the naturopathic processes were unable to save his uncle. The reader is also introduced to the family’s poverty through their lack of clothing and poor living standard. Dorjé Tsetan constantly mentions that he only received one outfit for each year, and discussed his satisfaction when he receives new apparel.
The biggest factor that threatened the strong familial cohesion of Dorjé Tsetan’s family came about from their decision of whether or not to support his future education. It is true that education can change the lives of the underprivileged from Tibet; however, Rdo’s mother did not care much for his studies. Instead she hoped that Dorjé Tsetan would return home and care for the family just as the other local boys did (91). Additionally, it cost a lot of money for his family to fund his education, which could have been allocated more efficiently. Ironically, the only family member who pushed Dorjé Tsetan to further education and towards job security was his Young Uncle who was a great monk in the local monastery before the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution his Young Uncle stopped men from smashing Buddha images, beating the monks, and burning the monastery; however, over time he became a layman (25). Though still spiritual, he introduced Dorjé Tsetan to the importance of economic power. The autobiography does not go into significant detail of the events of the Cultural Revolution but it is clear that it significantly impacted Young Uncle, which directly effected the life of Dorjé Tsetan, as Young Uncle was the figure that took the place of Rdo’s missing father.
It was shocking to see the importance of material possessions in Dorjé Tsetan’s autobiography and the insecurities towards the lack of it. While waiting in line to be registered for kindergarten, Dorjé Tsetan, at age six, was embarrassed that the other children in line had newer clothes than he did and this caused him to be frustrated and almost burst into tears (25). However, at the age of ten, while registering for primary school, instead of feeling insecure in the line with the other student, Dorjé Tsetan proudly wore new clothes and new shoes and carried a new schoolbag (49). These were strange segments from the book as it depicts Dorjé Tsetan as a materialistic child that cared a lot about what others thought of his looks rather than his personal qualities. Additionally, it was surprising as to the amount of historic Tibetan Culture that Dorjé Tsetan chose to include in his autobiography, specifically with respect to deities and old mythical tales. It was assumed that Rdo, after being introduced to the world of academia, would be more skeptical with respect to the validity of the various deities - especially after witnessing his Elder Uncle pass away without any divine intervention after his families’ many sacrifices.
Aside from the historic Tibetan rituals, the book’s setting and events can be applied to practically any impoverished community in the world. If this book were taken as a source for the history of Tibetan culture during the late 20th century to the present in Têwo County, it would be a good resource, as the author does not seem to have significant motivation to embellish his story. The only area of the autobiography that could potentially be embellished, in my opinion, would be the prevalence of Tibetan rituals, as the author made it clear that one of the main goals in writing this book was to preserve and promote Tibetan cultural heritage. The moral of this story is universal; it is a story of a family that selflessly sacrificed their own possessions for a better future for their youngest son. These American dream-esque stories of rural Tibetans are inspirational, and will hopefully continue to be told from Rdo’s generation to the next in order to promote the further education of Tibetans.