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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Spy for Tibet finds karma in Tennessee -- As told to Henry Hamman

June 22, 2010

Jamyang Norbu's life story sounds like the plot
for an over-the-top thriller -- guerrilla
fighter, spy, writer, cultural impresario and
international activist for the cause of an
independent Tibet. He is the author of ‘The
Mandala of Sherlock Holmes’, a novel that won the
Crossword Book Award (India’s version of the Man
Booker Prize) in 2000 as well as numerous
non-fiction books, essays and scholarly articles
about Tibet. His blogs, Shadow Tibet, and Rangzen
Alliance, are read by Tibetans, Chinese and a
broad global audience. He lives in Monteagle,
Tennessee, a small town on the Cumberland
Plateau, with his wife, Tenzing Chounzom, and their two daughters.
Financial Times
June 21, 2010

Jamyang Norbu -- I was born in 1949 in
Darjeeling, India. I arrived in Tibet three or
four months after I was born, with my nanny, my
mother and my father all on horseback. We
returned to Darjeeling when I was three years old, after the Chinese invasion.

My first memories of Tibet were of problems in
Darjeeling because of the friction and conflict
in Tibet, after the Chinese invasion. My memories
have been fortified by stories my mother told me.
A lot of my memories are not reliable.

I was educated at a Jesuit school in Darjeeling,
St Joseph’s, the usual kind of English-language
school in India at the time. I was there with the
Dalai Lama’s youngest brother and other Tibetans.
Our most exalted alumni was Lawrence Durrell.

I became involved with the Tibetan resistance
because of my father. He was the editor of the
main newspaper for the Dalai Lama’s older
brother, the national paper, which existed
because of CIA support. All the resistance people
who were in Darjeeling at the time were involved
with my father, so I got to know quite a few of
them. I ran away from home because my father
didn’t want me to join the resistance. I tried
three times to join. I was kicked out two times.
The third time I was accepted by our chief of
operations, Lhamo Tsering – my wife’s late
father, incidentally. I became involved in
espionage because when the Americans pulled out
their support, the Tibetans didn’t have much
money to keep up their networks in the Himalayas
and Tibet. This was near the end of the Cultural
Revolution and it was really important that we kept those networks open.

Going from India to Japan changed me
tremendously. When I was working for the Tibetan
government I was making nothing and suddenly I
was making real money, saving quite a lot, and
still living quite well, even keeping a house out
in the country. In Japan the stationery alone was
amazing -- huge stores with so many colours, so
many things people managed to think up. You saw a completely different world.

I knew an American crowd. We all were into
betting on sumo. My teaching schedule was very
light and I made a lot of money. At the same time
I had a lot of Japanese friends, people who I’d
helped. The Japanese have good memories. If you
help, they feel obliged. They wrote about me. I
don’t have a degree worth speaking of but these
guys wrote that this great Tibetan philosopher and writer was coming.

I lived in Scotland when I was married to an
English girl. I’d lived in England a bit and
there was always that "hail fellow" attitude.
When I got to Scotland, what I liked about the
place was that it was much more dour. But when
you get to know Scots your relationship can be
much more substantial. I used to go to Burns
Nights and one thing that really appealed to me
was the fact that Scotland’s national hero was a
poor poet. It really was very Japanese in one
sense – the humbleness of it. Sometimes I would
read “Ode to a Haggis.” You know, Tibetans eat haggis too.

I came to Monteagle because my wife wanted to
practice medicine in the US. Doctors get a visa
to stay in this country if they agree to serve in
what they call “under-served areas”. Grundy
County needed a doctor at that time, so after she
finished her residency in New York we came here.
My wife often goes to work early to do her
rounds, so first thing in the morning I brew a
large mug of tea and write for an hour or so.
Then I get my girls ready for school. I do some
household chores and write until about one or two
o’clock in the afternoon, and go to the gym. In
the evenings, I try not to work too much but read or watch a movie.

I’m really grateful that I’m here in Monteagle
and not in New York, where there would be a whole
lot of Tibet stuff going on. I need solitude to
write. Writing comes doesn’t come easily to me,
so I would do anything but write.

I always loved southern writers, starting with
Mark Twain. I always wanted to eat catfish after
I read about Huckleberry Finn on that island with
Jim. They got some catfish on a stick and grilled
it on an open fire. That has always stayed in my
mind: what a wonderfully delicious thing to do,
to eat catfish and have some cornbread.

There are those words you never bother to look
up; for instance, the word "chiffarobe." I read
it in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Suddenly it struck me when I was buying furniture
to ask the lady who was selling me furniture what
in the world a “chiffarobe” was. It’s basically a cupboard.

All my good karma is settling here. When I take
my kids to school there’s an old policeman who
guides them across the road and kids jump up and
smack him on the hand. You don’t lock your car
door or your house. It’s a strange world – the
old oak trees and all. I have this sense that I
have been here before, that there was some
connection I was longing for, and it’s here.

Expat tips: Broad horizons

- We’re privileged here -- the school system is
really wonderful and we have none of the problems
of big cities. Our older daughter is in St
Andrews-Sewanee, an Episcopal school, and her
younger sister goes to the Sewanee elementary
school. They’re both doing very well. We try not
to buy anything made in China. The children have
accepted this and the fact that nearly most toys
these days are made in China. But they get to buy all the books all they want.

- Don’t talk politics the first time around with
people you meet. We are at the intersection of a
lot of different political thinking in this
country and I think it is better to let other
people talk about their ideas first. But don’t
confine yourself to one group of people,
especially in a place like Monteagle. Get out of
your little group. To understand this place, you
have to move around a little more.
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