I grew up in exile without ever having met a single Uncle or Aunt from either of my parents side. Both my parents had brothers and sisters, who in turn had large families, back in Tibet. Still, after their escape into exile — separately, when they were much younger — in the 1960s and 70s, they lost all contact with their families until the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping decided to open up the borders and loosen the Chinese government’s tight hold over border security.
My Pa-la (father) went to Tibet then. He was reunited with his brothers and sisters for the first time since escaping to exile. My parents had saved up some money, from which my father took some back to Tibet. Before his trip home, he told me he bought two bicycles in Nepal to take to Tibet, bags of warm clothes and swathes of cloth to gift his large family and an ever larger circle of friends and well wishers. For his sisters, he bought soaps — soaps were a rarity in Tibet and considered quite a luxury to own before the Chinese invasion (and probably for a long while after too, given the Cultural Revolution and its impact on the social-economic conditions of Tibetans). For his brothers, he bought several “Western” watches, which were very popular, and yet hard to come by, in Tibet. (I’m not sure if the brand was called “Western”, or if this was just another instance of a Tibetan mispronouncing a non-Tibetan word and never really bothering to find out what the original word was/is.)
During that trip home, Pa-la met my maternal Uncles and Aunts, or my Ashang-la(s) and Somo-la(s), for the first time too. He went to my mother’s home in Tibet and introduced himself to them as my Ama-la’s husband. Pa-la was also reunited with his brothers and sisters, my Agu-la(s) and Ani-la(s).
There, at his home, he learned of the many changes that his family had been subjected to — changes that struck them too swiftly and too cruelly, without warning. As my grandfather, my Popo-la, had passed away before the Chinese invasion, my father’s eldest brother automatically became the next head of the house; following the invasion of Tibet and my Pa-la’s escape into exile, Pa-la’s eldest brother was accused for belonging to an aristocratic family and was subsequently, subjected to tham-zing, or public struggle sessions, in community centers and finally, imprisoned and tortured in prison. However, when Pa-la made his first trip to Tibet from exile, his eldest brother was back home from spending several years in prison and recounted many a tale of the horrors of Chinese prisons.
Pa-la also learned of how his brothers and sisters, and their families, were ostracized by the rest of the community, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, in keeping with the new government’s policy of ridding the Tibetan society of aristocracy and serfdom. To be sure, Pa-la’s family owned large pockets of land for cultivation and had entire families living on the lands owned by his family — these families, in turn, worked on these lands, although the arrangement with Pa-la’s family wasn’t on the condition of bondage. Many of these people, who had earlier worked for Pa-la’s family, later became the local government heads, appointed by the Chinese government in their effort to get rid of the old ways –“serfdom” — and in its place, install “the new fours” — new customs, new cultures, new habits and new ideas. Ironically, many of these newly-appointed local heads, who previously worked for Pa-la’s family, were lenient towards the family and would, in fact, secretly warn the family ahead of any raids or arrests that were likely to take place at their house, going so far as to offer tips on how best to avoid arrests and suggestions on where they could hide certain things — areas where the local heads would be sure to refrain from checking during the raids.
So, Pa-la heard about all the kind acts that were meted out to his brothers and sisters by the new local heads — several of whom pointed out that their kindness was mainly a reflection of the kindness that Pa-la had extended to their families each time they were in dire need of help.
For Pa-la, that first trip home from exile was a great reminder of what little acts of kindness could do and how you eventually, albeit indirectly, reap the rewards of being compassionate towards every sentient being. Pa-la found happiness in knowing that despite the physical distance, he was still able to make a positive difference to the lives of his brothers and sisters during their most difficult time of existence.