Now that it’s almost twenty years since I left my homeland, I finally have to properly consider the question of whether I can ever go back home again.
There’s a Tibetan saying that an old man’s country is like an old bird’s nest. Although I am not as old as all that, I have now spent more years away from home as a wanderer than I have spent living in my home. Sometimes, for no reason at all, I feel that I am drifting farther and farther away from my homeland and my hometown. It’s a feeling that pierces the heart as if I have been separated from a beloved. I am someone who has a great attachment to his homeland. Some thirty years ago, the great writer Dhondup Gyal wrote in one of his essays, “Although I live in a city that is like a heaven, I can’t stop this longing for my beloved homeland.” In the same way, living my life in Beijing, I can’t stop missing and longing for my homeland. Every year, I look for opportunities—or rather excuses—to make several trips back home. These few days of return act like a temporary pain reliever, and for a little while, I am good again, the longing in my heart alleviated. However, as time goes on and my life continues far away from my homeland, the pain of this non-return has become like a tumor in my heart.
I am now finally facing the real issue at hand—when will I be able to go home forever? A permanent return?
A few days ago, I reread my favorite writer Milan Kundera’s 2004 novel, Ignorance. The first time I read it, I was a graduate student and I had only been in Beijing for a few years. Fourteen years later, reading this book again, I realized that I hadn’t understood it at all the first time. Kundera writes about leaving one’s country and then returning, and he creates a very vivid impression in the reader’s mind of people who are never able to return to their country. Kundera gave the name “émigré” to those who, due to geography or time, drifted further and further away from their homes. Of course, I see now why I didn’t understand this novel when I read it years ago. At that time, I had not become an émigré yet, so how could I understand an émigré’s story? How could I understand a novel that had been written by an exile? Now many more years have gone by. Now I have come to understand more and more clearly that I am myself an émigré and exile, I can see that this novel is like a mirror, reflecting the real joys and sorrows that come from a wandering life. I think I can say that I understand this novel on a deeper level now. The émigré is someone who cannot return, someone who cannot go back home but must live out the rest of his life elsewhere. And it’s not just this body made of flesh and blood that can’t go back home, but it’s the mind—the laughing, crying, and grasping mind—that can no longer go home.
I wonder if there is anyone in the twenty-first century who still dreams the “emigration dream.” Perhaps compared to before, there are even more such dreamers. Ever since human beings began, in every stage of development, searching or traveling or innovating, they are yet always unsatisfied. Whether it’s the mind or the body, it’s separated from something, it’s pursuing something; this pursuit is in our veins, our bloodstreams. History shows countless people have been separated from their homelands and have become émigrés and exiles. I think it’s something in people’s nature that leads them to become émigrés and exiles. However, in the old days, our culture, politics, and economy were all different, particularly, transportation. Transportation was not at all convenient, so that there was not then, as there are now, masses of people far from their hometowns. This mass of wanderers, they are a new phenomenon. In just one generation, there are vastly more people who started leaving their hometowns and seeking their lives and livelihood elsewhere—this is a strange new thing about people. It is in this context that I understood that I had also become someone who senselessly and unfeelingly left home to seek a living elsewhere, and I console myself by reminding myself of this general background.
Wanderers preserve a dream in their hearts—the dream of their return, someday, to their home. But this home, this home that they so dream of recedes to such a distance that return becomes impossible, and this is the great tragedy of the exile which must be lived out. Having lived this long in Beijing, both my body and mind have grown accustomed to the people and environment and life in this big city, to the streets and avenues, the parks, the crowds, the nightlife, the air, and not only these but also the food and other material objects, along with the rules and regulations, the busyness of life here and the exhaustion that comes with city living. After many years of resisting and rejecting the uniform customs and conventions of life in Beijing, now I not only accept them, but they have become a habit with me. Man is a strange animal, containing such contradictions! The home where I lived my earlier life was a farming village blooming with spring greenery and houses surrounded by hills, with the joy of cuckoo songs in summer and the sweet smell of fresh air rising from the waving green wheat fields, with a blue autumn sky, the neighing of horses and the grunting of yaks, the bleating of sheep, the barking of dogs, the crowing of cocks, and, in winter, a white world covered with snow. Then there were the leisurely ways of the villagers, lingering on the roads, their greetings when they ran into each other, their smiles of humility amid the fragrance of sang offerings—I left all these behind me and yet they keep crowding into my familiar life in Beijing. I usually try to dismiss the nuisances and disappointments of my familiar life here, returning instead to the nostalgic memories of home, consoling myself with a sigh of relief. This quality of one person having two faces is common to all exiles. I have become a two-faced person, with one face completely adapted to the life of Beijing and the other face still an exile who is passionately attached to my beloved country. I must confront and accept the city where I live for my livelihood; the faraway country of my birthplace has become a resting place, which I keep in the depths of my heart. Beijing has become my present and future while my country has become the past and distant from me. In this paradoxical situation, like most exiles, I too have become a third category that does not belong to either side. It is difficult to find the concept of a home within or without. In the end, like a cloud, I am completely seized by an unsettled thought.
Nevertheless, in reality, can I return home by sacrificing my present life? Do I even want to return? If I take my love for my parents and family, my love for my homeland, my love for my people—is the weight of this collective love strong enough to summon my wavering soul back home? Until now, it seems I haven’t seriously considered this thought. In my nearly twenty years of this itinerant life, I have been trying to avoid this question as far as possible. I don’t want to face these questions. Like pebbles inside my shoes, they give me pain as I walk on the road. I spent years and months, one piling on top of another, amidst these contradictions. After these fragmented years piled up higher and higher, finally I became comfortable or at least I looked fairly comfortable from the outside. Now I realize the meaninglessness of the question of whether I desire to return or not, and I have to think about whether I am actually able to return or not. This is likely the most significant issue confronting wanderers like me after many years.
Irena, the most important character in Milan Kundera’s meticulously created Ignorance returns to the Czech Republic after twenty years. The Czech Republic has experienced a lot of disasters in recent history. It was ruled by Germany under the treaty of 1938. After regaining independence in 1945 with the help of the Soviet Union, within three years, a communist government was established, and the previous capitalist system was abolished. Then in 1989, after more than thirty years, it regained freedom from the Soviets and restored the capitalist system. Irena’s character went into exile in France as soon as the communist system was implemented in her motherland. She returned to her country within the first one or two years after the Czech Republic regained freedom from Soviet rule. When the author writes about the protagonist returning to her country after more than twenty years, he sets up the following reunion scene between Irena and some of her childhood friends, “In the beginning, they did not say anything about her life abroad and in that manner, more than twenty years of her life was cut short. At this time, through a question, they tried to combine her past and present life, which she had left a long time ago, together. That was akin to trying to cut the wrist and then paste it directly to the shoulder or attempting to cut the ankle and then paste it directly to the knee.” With this example, the author shows the difficulty faced by Irena, the protagonist, of not being able to return to her motherland. In fact, though there are differences in individual circumstances, this is the shared difficulty faced by all exiles who were separated from their motherland long ago.
In 1999, when I left Tibet and went to Beijing, the people in my hometown were a relaxed and cheerful bunch, despite having hardly any modern amenities and facilities available. Their lives were still untouched by the profit motive, business, and capitalism. The women wore Tibetan chubas and wore their hair in braids; they washed their hair with the liquefied bark of elm trees. The men walked with yellow hats on their heads. Only those in mourning went around without hats.
In my more than twenty years of absence, a huge transformation has taken place in this remote area. Recently when I visited my country, I witnessed big and small vehicles constantly blowing their horns and continuously running on the tarred highway. On the street, I saw many young ladies with their hair dyed and hanging loose, I met many fashionable young people, similar to the ones that I might meet on the streets of Beijing. They walked with an Apple iPhone in their hand, earphones dangling from their ears. Sometimes, when I looked around me, even when I was back in my hometown, I felt as if I were still in Beijing. If Beijing were a person, then that person has now arrived at my birthplace. In fact, it seems he has been here for some time. During this twenty-year period of my absence from my place of birth, my mountain village home has transformed like a snake shedding its skin.
What transformations took place here? Did it change naturally or was it changed? What are the pros and cons of such a transformation? I really don’t know. My ignorance in this subject is akin to the ignorance of the human race about some of the unanswered questions that still remain. But what I clearly realized was that my hometown now was not the same hometown that I couldn’t stop thinking about in Beijing. The country in my mind was the country that I left when I first began my journey, it was the country that existed twenty years ago. I have no familiarity with the transformation wrought about in this remote area during this twenty-plus year period. From this most important historical transformation of my country, I have been completely detached, an actor unable to get on the stage of cultural transformation. After a span of twenty years, it is very difficult now to match my countrymen in keeping the same tune as they sing and performing the same steps as they dance.
I think that every exile wishes that the image of one’s beloved birthplace, fixed in one’s heart, may remain the same as when he first left on his journey. Nonetheless, in this world where everything is impermanent, it is impossible to find anything that stays the same forever. Moreover, after these things are carried away by the river of time, what permanent and unchanging thing awaits you? This transformation of my country makes me feel that I have lost touch with it. I no longer find that sense of restful peace in my hometown memories. It no longer feels possible to find the genuine smiles of old on the faces of locals. My behavior and outlook, my perceptions and my lifestyle, my values and my aesthetics—acquired during my more than twenty years away—seem to have become barriers to my return. In brief, the longer I become habituated, adapted, and addicted to my life in exile, the more difficult it is for me to come back home and find loving handshakes, tight hugs, and deep conversations that never needed any explanations.
Even though that’s the frustrating reality, during the entirety of my long stay in Beijing, my wish to go back home has never changed. My wish to return and my inability to actually return have become the primary contradiction of my life. Within this contradiction, the limited time remaining in my life is slowly diminishing, passing in this way. In the end, this may be my karma. This may be the unavoidable karma that always confronts all exiles like me. The relationship between an exile and his country is like the relationship between a kite and the kite flyer. However high a kite flies in the sky, it still remains attached to a string. The kite flying higher and higher into the sky is like a man going further and further away from his country. The country is like the kite flyer who, even as he flies the kite higher and higher in the air, wants the kite to remain forever attached to the string. How wonderful is that string-like link between exile and homeland! Can we call this link “nationalism” or love for one’s country?
As for me, even though I have realized now my return may be impossible, yet I always find myself still trying to go back to my homeland. Although this life in Beijing is the path in front of me and my future, I have always been a person who walks looking backward and toward the past. The reason I left may have been to pursue a faraway place or future career, but now I think that my life cannot be freed from the vision of my country. It seems the string in the hands of my country has already decided the length of my life’s journey.
Kundera writes at the end of Ignorance: “At the university, she used to be seduced by the dreams of voyages to distant stars. What pleasure to escape far away into the universe, someplace where life expresses itself differently from here and needs no bodies! But despite all his amazing progress, man will never progress very far in the universe. The brevity of his life makes the sky a dark lid against which he will forever crack his head, to fall back onto earth, where everything alive eats and can be eaten.” And so he has summarized the karma of all exiles. However far we may go, we are unable to go very far in the end. If this is true, then I can accept that my life is also a life that cannot travel too far from my motherland and yet at the same time is unable to go back home.
At any event, if there is a next life, I pray that I may be reborn again in my homeland, the land of snows!
“The Man Who Can Never Go Home,” from The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays. Copyright © Lhashamgyal. Translation copyright © 2023 Tenzin Dickie and Pema Tsewang Shastri. Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.