Tuesday April 18, 2017

The night my father escaped Tibet

The Wangkhang family fled Tibet in 1958 and walked for months through the Himalayas to Bhutan and, eventually, India.

The Wangkhang family fled Tibet in 1958 and walked for months through the Himalayas to Bhutan and, eventually, India.

Listen to Full Episode 27:30

By Rignam Wangkhang

My father, Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang, was one of the first two Tibetan refugees to come to Canada in 1970. His long journey from Tibet to Canada was full of hardship, suffering, and hope.

Rignam and dad

Tsering teaching his son Rignam the Tibetan language in their prayer room at home in Belleville, Ontario. (Wangkhang family)

Tsering was only 13 years old when his entire family uprooted their lives and fled from Tibet in 1958, to escape the Chinese occupation led by Communist leader Mao Zedong.

I was only 10 years old when my father passed away due to lung cancer. I couldn't truly remember my father and his struggle. The only time I heard stories of the family's escape was through random anecdotes and vague recollections from family members.

Before his passing in 2000, my father left an unfinished memoir detailing the family's dramatic escape through the Himalayan mountains into Bhutan and India. Only after 17 years was I finally able to muster the courage to pick up the memoir my father handed over to my eldest cousin.

In the memoir, I was transported to Tibet. I read my father's thoughts as the family wrestled with the decision to leave everything they knew behind.

Rignam dad lap

Rignam Wangkhang with his father Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang and their dog Katu in Prince Edward County, Ont. (Wangkhang family)

I witnessed the immense pain and sorrow of a harrowing voyage through knee deep snow and howling winds. Carrying 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 from starvation, malnutrition and disease.

Although my father was young, he was not able to attend school for quite some time. He had to work in construction and manage shops while other children his age learned English.

Wangkhang extended family

The producer's cousin Dasey Wangkhang, uncle Yeshi Khedup, aunt Yeshi Wangmo, and uncle Sonam Wangkhang. All four can be heard in the documentary. (Rignam Wangkhang)

Then one day while he was working as a letter carrier and houseboy, he served tea to an English teacher who was bewildered that my father was not in school. The teacher later accepted him into his school and my father was able to receive an education by chance.

My father was later handpicked to be one of the first Tibetans to settle in Canada. He became known as a humble leader in the community who was always willing to selflessly help everyone around him.

Tibet banquet

Tsering attending a conference that he organized in Canada, sitting in front of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. (Wangkhang family)

He spearheaded the creation of the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario, the organization responsible for building Canada's first and only Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre. He also organized the first ever North American Tibetan youth conference in Belleville.

He later went on to open the first Tibetan restaurant in Canada, The Oriental Wok & Himalayan Cuisine, which is still located in Belleville, Ontario. There are now over 4,600 Tibetans living in Canada, most of whom reside in Parkdale, Toronto.

My family has suffered so much. Tibetans inside Tibet and around the world have suffered even more. But this documentary is not a story of sadness, it is a story of resilience — because we have survived, endured, and thrived.

Family on shore

Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang, Yeshi Wangmo, Yeshi Khedup, Tsering Phuntsok and Goekey Rhidar (all relatives) overlooking the Bay of Quinte. (Wangkhang family)

Rignam mom and dad

Yeshi Wangmo and Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang in their home in Belleville, listening to vinyl records in the 1970s. (Wangkhang family)

Tsering Wangkhang with Pierre Trudeau

Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang meeting with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. (Wangkhang family)

Music in the documentary is by Tenzin Choegyal.


About the producer

Rignam Wangkhang

Rignam Wangkhang

Rignam Wangkhang is an award-winning Tibetan-Canadian multimedia journalist and producer. Rignam's work has been featured in CBC Radio, TVO, AJ+, OZY Magazine and the Toronto Star. He is currently a production assistant with The Current on CBC Radio and former consultant with the UN Refugee Agency in New Delhi, India. Rignam will be moving to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories as a reporter and editor with CBC North in May.