Review: “Waiting for the Dalai Lama: Stories from All Sides of the Tibetan Debate”

“‘It’s better if the Dalai Lama doesn’t come back. Now he is working for Tibet’s independence, and he can only do this abroad. Here he would be put away in a monastery somewhere. It could even be dangerous…. I think that the situation in Tibet won’t change until China changes. As soon as they become more liberal and democratic, maybe we can find a solution. And until that time, all those who can stand to be in India should stay there, because their work is very important.’”


The above quotation comes from Kagya, a “returned exile,” a Tibetan who escaped into India only to later return to Tibet because of illness. He is now studying at a Chinese university and keeps his studies in India a secret.

These are the kind of people you meet in Annelie Rozeboom’s book, “Waiting for the Dalai Lama: Stories from All Sides of the Tibetan Debate”. Rozeboom was a journalist in China for 11 years.

The book is a collection of interviews and impressions, without a cohesive narrative thread. This can be disorienting at first, but the characters you meet in the pages are truly remarkable: Tibetan leaders in the Chinese Communist Party, resettled nomads, scholars in exile, Chinese individuals working in Tibet to improve the environment, even a Tibetan Mao Zedong impersonator.

Despite the title, this book doesn’t quite address the Tibetan debate “from all sides”—there is clearly a pro-Tibet bent. Rozeboom doesn’t go into heavy details about the history between Tibet and China, or the reasons China claims sovereignty over Tibet. The word “invasion” is used to describe China’s involvement in Tibet in the 1950s.

What sparkles in this book are the real people Rozeboom met while traveling in China, Tibet, and India. In the West, we tend to think of the Tibet issue as being black and white, but this book colors in a bit of the gray areas, and brings forth people who lives are often forgotten.

We tend to see every Tibetan exile as someone who was either climbed across the mountains or was raised in India. We think of Tibetans inside Tibet being all monks and nuns and in constant suffering. What we don’t see are those Tibetans who have prospered in their homeland or in exile, those working for change and trying to do so within the structure that the CCP has put into place in Tibet. We don’t see those Tibetans who are leaders within the CCP, either with good or ill intentions.

Every story is important when it comes to the Tibet issue, and this book does a great job at illustrating some of the many stories that get overlooked. Rozeboom also references a lot of important books and people (from Rinchen Lhamo’s “We Tibetans” to Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, who is important for a really different and ridiculous reason) that would be a great starting point for anyone wishing to further their knowledge on Tibet and society’s view of Tibet and Tibetan culture.

Props to Rozeboom for being aware of her white privilege, as well. As she explains, while she was in Lhasa she was not purposefully trying to cause a stir, because it could very well bring those she spoke with in danger:

“An American congressman once decided to carry out his own personal fact-finding missing in Tibet. He went on a tourist visa and kept his political identity hidden. Once back in the United States, he told the media expansively about the dire situation of human rights in the region. The Chinese were furious… It was the hotel owner who had rented a room to the congressman who was sanctioned. He wasn’t allowed to receive any foreigners for six months, and that while he probably had no idea of the secret intentions of the guest.

These kind of stories make me decide that I don’t want to visit Tibet secretly and unofficially. I’d prefer to wait for a year than go as a tourist and bring anyone I talk to in danger. Once in Lhasa, I also don’t look for dissidents. I don’t have the feeling that anyone is watching me or restricting my movements, but again, why endanger people when I can find enough refugees in India, in the community of Tibetan exiles?”

The congressman’s story is a complicated one. On one hand, it’s great that he went to Tibet and saw for himself the conditions and used his privilege to help tell the world. On the other, going so secretly means that he could have endangered a lot of ordinary Tibetans. A six-month ban on foreigners at the hotel he stayed at is perhaps the lightest punishment that could have resulted from his “good intentions.”

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in Tibet, from those who know very little to those who are more “seasoned.”

My gratitude to Peter at Blacksmith Books for sending me a copy of this book.

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