By Lobsang Wangyal
ON THE WEB, 19 April 2017
At the age of 13, Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang fled with his family from Tibet to escape the brutal Chinese occupation. He came to Canada in 1970 as one of the first two Tibetan refugees.
His son, Rignam Wangkhang, was born in Belleville, Ontario, and is now a Tibetan-Canadian journalist working for CBC based in Toronto.
Rignam has made a radio documentary, Fleeing Tibet, released on 18 April 2017, to tell the story of his father’s escape from Tibet. The basis of this documentary is the unfinished memoir left by Tsering before he passed away.
The documentary features Rignam’s cousin Dasey Wangkhang, born in Belleville, and his uncle Yeshi Khedup and aunt Yeshi Wangmo.
A story of hardship, suffering, and hope
Rignam’s father passed away from lung cancer in 2000, when Rignam was only 10 years old. At the time, Rignam didn’t know much about his father and his struggle. The only time Rignam heard anything about the family’s escape was through sparse recollections from family members.
Before his passing, Tsering had handed over to Rignam’s eldest cousin an unfinished memoir detailing the family’s dramatic escape through the Himalayan mountains into Bhutan and India.
After 17 years Rignam was able to muster the courage to pick up the memoir. Rignam read his father’s thoughts as the family wrestled with the decision to leave everything they knew behind. He witnessed the immense pain and sorrow of a harrowing voyage through knee-deep snow and howling winds. Carrying their babies on their backs, with empty stomachs, in the biting cold, the family was somehow able to navigate through the mountains to freedom.
But fleeing the Chinese would not be the only difficulty. Life in India would prove to be an immense adjustment. The food was foreign and the climate was unbearably hot. Many Tibetans died there from starvation, malnutrition, and disease.
Tsering, only 13, was not able to attend school. He had to work to help the family, in construction and shops, while other children his age were able to have some education.
One day while working as a letter carrier and houseboy, he served tea to an English teacher who wondered why the boy was not in school. This teacher later accepted him into his school, and Tsering was finally able to get an education.
Tsering was later chosen to be one of the first Tibetans to settle in Canada. He became known as a leader in the community who was always willing to help others. He helped to found the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario, which later built Canada’s first Tibetan-Canadian Cultural Centre. Tsering went on to open the first Tibetan restaurant in Canada, The Oriental Wok and Himalayan Cuisine, in Belleville, Ontario.
This documentary could have been a story of sadness, but it is a story of people who survived and thrived.