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A Wire Fence

At age twenty-six, I saw my country for the first time. For fifteen minutes, I stood on its edge.

It was a seven-day trek to the border of Tibet and Nepal. I traveled on foot as my parents and grandparents had done some fifty years earlier, though I walked in the opposite direction, toward the place they could no longer speak of.

For the final ascent, I hired a jeep in case we were pursued at the border. As the tires pushed up the loose, desert road, I felt myself getting closer. I felt alone, uncertain, somehow unprepared.

You know you’ve arrived in Tibet when the ascent ceases. In my first minute, a white horse greeted me. She was not wild, and she was not a mirage. Her owner had placed a woolen garland around her neck. But as far I could tell, she had wandered here alone. I remembered the brass bell in my backpack. Something I’d found on a desolate stretch of road on day three.

Still I wondered: is it your bell that I’ve been carrying?

In the second minute, the horse began to gallop alongside the jeep, matching our pace. In my memory, we moved in unison.

The Nepali driver warned that he would not stay long in the forbidden border zone. He agreed to drive me only because his boss, a Tibetan, had insisted. I met the boss in the walled city of Lo Manthang, the last stop before the border on this ancient trading route. He didn’t need me to explain myself. He understood, and he made the arrangements.

Ten years earlier, the Karmapa had fled through this crossing. As the second highest Buddhist leader in Tibet, his escape was both unexpected and embarrassing for the Chinese state. After that, this border crossing became a no-man’s-land, fortified with a new Chinese barracks, stationed with a thousand soldiers.

The Karmapa made his escape in two days by car. Then, at the border, right where the white horse and I were speeding toward Tibet, the Karmapa had switched to horseback and ridden toward India. He was fourteen at the time.

In my third minute, the white horse turned and sped away from us. I watched her gallop back to Nepal. My father would have understood this as a message from the deities. The protector Palden Lhamo rides a horse.

My father had warned me to be careful in this region. There were spies, he said, a fear repeated by the locals, who spoke Nepali until they felt they could trust me. Then our conversation could continue in Tibetan.

In my fourth minute, I noticed the sky, so blue it seemed to peel back and reveal its core.

My country is on elevated land, a natural plateau marked by sharp edges. And just as the ocean settles, darkens, and shows its secrets the farther we sink, the sky shows itself as we rise to meet it.

In my fifth minute, as we passed around a bend, the mountains reappeared. Yet these were new. Giants of the earth, stretching suddenly as if they’d risen from a meal.

I grew up in Kathmandu, a city in a valley beneath the Himalayas. Most mornings, before the smog thickened, I could see Everest from my school bus. My husband tells me I am different in the mountains. Though we met in New York City as overworked graduate students, in the mountains he says my shoulders drop, my voice softens.

In my sixth minute, the jeep became small. I became small. For what stretched before us was the land and the sky. On and on, across my mother’s village, across my father’s ancestral pastures. Across the prison camp where my great uncle died, where many heroes remain bound. Up the steps of the Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama’s seat is occupied by a blanket twisted roughly into his shape.

In the seventh minute, we came to a stop. As I stepped down upon the dry earth of my country for the first time, I noticed dozens of palm-sized stupas molded from ash, some retaining a perfect conical shape, while others had nearly disintegrated. Relatives of the dead had transported their beloved back to Tibet. The earth itself was made of their ashes.

In the eighth minute, I saw a heap of objects: mass-produced gas ranges, crates of Lhasa Beer, piles of blankets, soda bottles.

Something rumbled. A small tractor approached us from behind and stopped at the heap. Two teenage monks leaped from the back. I greeted them in Tibetan and asked what brought them. As they quickly loaded the tractor, one explained that they make these pickups whenever they can buy from the other side.

A day earlier, I had met a young woman selling souvenirs in Lo Manthang with her baby wrapped around her back. When she learned I was a Tibetan living in New York, she invited me up to her home. Sitting in the one-room apartment, I worried about how I might disappoint her in whatever favor she was about to ask.

Instead she told me her story. She was born in Tibet and had fallen in love with a boy who lived in Mustang. This had happened when the border was still open. She married him and moved to Lo Manthang. But once the border closed, she could not return. Every so often, the Chinese would allow people to trade at the border. This was when she could see her sister, briefly. They cried often at these meetings, she said. Now her husband had moved to New York City to earn money while she cared for their child alone. She presented a letter addressed to him.

I recognized myself in her. Though our lives were so different, we were both suspended between Tibet, Nepal, and America.

Edward Said wrote, “Exile is a curious thing to consider and terrible to experience.” He noticed that literatures of exile are lauded for their edifying powers. But an exile, Said argued, a person ripped from her home, is not a romantic figure. She is a being caught in a moment of inhalation. Someone who lives as though everything around her is a placeholder, inherently temporary.

In minute nine, I saw the wire fence cutting the mountains and the vast plain. It was off in the distance, spanning the horizon from left to right. Just beyond, a blue dot was pinned to the landscape. An army camp with nothing to do but watch the fence.

As I journeyed to the border, an artist was preparing to smuggle twenty tonnes of soil from Tibet. Tenzin Rigdol would spread that soil on a basketball field in northern India. For three days, Tibetans in exile walked on the bed of earth, kissed it, smelled it, even consumed it. Rigdol had placed a microphone nearby, inviting people to speak their stories. I would watch the livecast from my apartment in Brooklyn, stunned at the display of emotions from my otherwise stoic community.

In minutes ten and eleven, I stood and wept. I had come as close to home as I could.

Somewhere beyond the horizon lives an aunt I’ve never met. I heard she was a doctor.

Two years earlier, I had tried and failed to enter China. Leading up to the Beijing Olympics, I had planned to meet with other human-rights activists in Hong Kong and deliver a press conference on the suffering of my people. Thousands of Tibetans had spontaneously erupted in protest across the country that year. In response, the Chinese government sealed the black box around Tibet.

When the young border agent scanned my passport, his eyes actually bulged. He quickly led me into the belly of the airport. After multiple checkpoints, I reached a windowless room filled with poor migrant workers from Southeast Asia and African nations. While some had been held for months, I was questioned for just five hours and returned on a plane within the day.

I considered the crookedness of the whole thing. Beijing had invited the world to come. But a Tibetan like me was not allowed in. To the Chinese state, we Tibetans are savages—sometimes noble and ethnically exotic, sometimes primitive ingrates who don’t appreciate their civilizing project. In either case, they say we are of them but we are not them.

In minute twelve, I stared at the blue army station, wishing someone would come out. I looked around for a pebble I could fling.

Once, Edward Said had thrown a stone at a wire fence at the Israeli-Lebanon border, an act captured by a French photographer. The fence was erected at the end of Israel’s eighteen-year occupation of Lebanon. In the ensuing controversy, Said wrote that many threw rocks simply “to see if . . . they could reach the barbed wire.”

Said also called this a “trivial act”—something I don’t think even he believed. For what could matter more than to know your reach?  There was no way I could throw so far. But that wasn’t the point. I wanted to catch their attention. I wanted them to see me.

In minute thirteen, I went behind a boulder and peed. As I looked at the stream between my legs, I remember thinking: will I ever pee in my country again?

Minute fourteen, I heard the engine start.

“Time to go,” the driver shouted. “A little longer,” I begged in Nepali. He would not listen. The soldiers were watching us, he said. He was driving away. They would come to question us at any minute.

I took a final look toward the fence. I don’t remember much else. My body did the work it had to do. My hand opened the door, my legs hoisted me up, my lips remained closed.

For these minutes, I stood on the jagged edge of my country. I stood a stone’s throw from this thin, wire fence—knowing that all it held, it cut in half.

• •

I love the HBO series High Maintenance, which is like a Tolstoy novel set in New York City.

Photo of Tsering Yangzom Lama
Tsering Yangzom Lama is a Tibetan writer who was born in Nepal and has lived in the United States and Canada. A 2018 Tin House Scholar, she has received grants and residencies from Canada Council for the Arts, Barbara Deming Fund, Banff Center, Hedgebrook, Lillian E. Smith Center, Omi International, Catwalk Institute, WildAcres, VSC, and Playa Summerlake. She earned her MFA in writing from Columbia University, and has published in the Malahat Review, Grain, Vela, LaLit, and Himal SouthAsian, Old Demons New Deities: 21 Short Stories from Tibet, and House of Snow: An Anthology of the Greatest Writing About Nepal.