Actress, model and activist Yangzom Brauen fights for her grandmother’s Tibet in her new book Across Many Mountains.
ISSUE: Fall 2011
DEPT: My Story
STORY: Yangzom Brauen as told to Elyse Glickman
Though I am lucky to have a thriving career as an actress in the United States and Europe, I feel especially privileged that what has fueled my interest in acting and politics is directly traced to the persevering attitude of my mother and grandmother, who were forced to flee Tibet in the 1950s when the Chinese occupied the country.
The early years in the life of Kunsang, my grandmother who I call “Mola,” were idyllic, surrounded by tradition, family and proximity to nature’s wonders. It was in this setting that she became a Buddhist nun, devoting her life to prayer and spirituality, while building a marriage and raising a family. (Tibetan nuns and monks are allowed to marry.) But this simple life that sheltered my family and their ancestors was shattered when Chinese leader Mao Zedong exerted his will on Tibet to bring it under his rule.
The valiant Tibetan resistance under the fourteenth Dalai Lama was crushed by the Chinese military in 1959, sending my family and thousands of other Tibetans into exile. As if it were yesterday, Mola recalls with a melancholy resolve how she, my grandfather and two small daughters were propelled into an uncertain journey across mountains and along the Pang Chu River in icy, treacherous weather conditions after Chinese soldiers destroyed the monastery they called home. They traveled with barely enough food, some clothes and blankets, as well as a heavy bronze mould for making tsa tsa, sacred Buddhist images, out of clay. They shouldered the burden with dignity, not only staying out of sight of the Chinese soldiers, but also fulfilling the responsibility of preserving their culture, now in grave danger of disappearing.
Though my family reached India about a month later, life continued to be a daily struggle for survival. There was constant shuttling from refugee camp to camp, few jobs other than manual labor, and the consistent threat of disease, which claimed my grandfather’s life seven years later. Making life even more of a struggle was the fact that the Chinese army staged invasions into India, and Tibetans were not allowed to integrate themselves into Indian society. What is most remarkable, however, is that in all of these faith-testing situations, Mola and my mother, Sonam, never gave up hope, maintained their spiritual practices and did what they needed to in order to survive.
My political activism is a byproduct of a romance that blossomed in the early ’70s between my father Martin, an ethnologist from a prominent Swiss family, and my mother, who by then was beautiful, clever and working as a waitress in western India. Martin was passionate and persistent, yet respectful. However, Sonam was understandably hesitant about getting into a serious relationship with a white man, especially since mixed marriages were almost unheard of in the Tibetan community. Tradition dictated that the suitor seek permission from my mother, so Mola turned to her guru for guidance. Eventually, the guru gave the union his blessing, but made Martin aware that he wasn’t just marrying my mother but also my grandmother and, by extension, the Tibetan community.
Growing up in Bern, Switzerland, I had a multicultural upbringing where we celebrated Christmas and Easter like every other Swiss family, but thanks to the insistence of Mola, who lived with us, we also celebrated Tibetan New Year and the birthday of the Dalai Lama. With these influences, I grew up with a widened view of the world that, in turn, put me on a very non-linear personal and professional path. I have often put acting aside to take up Tibet-related causes. However, I truly believe I have not sacrificed anything. After finishing my studies in Europe and establishing myself in German film and television, I put acting on hold to become the president of the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe, encouraging young Tibetans and non-Tibetans to get involved in demonstrations, cultural events and benefit concerts. As a Tibetan, and also due to my father’s ongoing academic pursuits in Asia, I consider Tibet a second home country.
Though my acting career in America started gaining momentum recently, when Mola turned 89, I realized how important it was to get the stories about the old world down on paper. Through my grandmother I realized that the old ways were fading, even back in Tibet, with monks and nuns now outfitted with laptops and cell phones. It was also important for me to document how my mother came of age as a refugee in India. Then in March 2008, a huge up-rising in Tibet added to my sense of urgency to preserve the traditions and stories. The attention of the whole world was on Tibet, which by then had been occupied for more then 50 years.
I ran the idea by publishers, who suggested I go a step further by not only telling my mother’s and grandmother’s life stories, but also my own, about how their lives shaped mine. The result is Across Many Mountains, the stories of survival that defined, sustained and fortified Mola and Sonam. It turned out to be quite the journey to create, as my mother and grandmother for the first time in years had to relive many of their most painful experiences. In turn, those events opened up a near century of Tibetan history, revealing just how much the world can change over three generations. While there are definitely some beautiful memories, there was also bitterness, sadness and turmoil that followed Mola and Sonam from Tibet, to India, and eventually to Switzerland.
As I documented these stories, it became increasingly important to me that people in the West understand more about Tibet. I am surprised that I still meet people who have no idea where Tibet is, that there are not only monks and a Dalai Lama, but also nuns and farmers. I also learned more about myself — that to be Tibetan, you are automatically born into a political life. My name is so unusual that I am often asked about the origins of my name, which leads to political discussions about Tibet’s current state of affairs.
Even though my mother and grandmother endured so much pain and loss, the one thing they never lost, and passed along to me, was the ability to believe and have faith. It doesn’t matter what you believe in — for us it is Buddhism, while for others it could be Christianity, Hinduism or something else. What ultimately matters is that faith gives you the strength to survive any tragedy. I hope younger generations of readers will be prompted to dig a little deeper into their own family histories, because everybody has a family story worth telling and sharing.
Yangzom Brauen has appeared in the films Aeon Flux, Pandorum and Wilde Salome. Her next film is Escape from Tibet, due out this fall. Across Many Mountains: A Memoir ($24.99) will be released September 27.
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