From Hemlock to Douglas Fir: A Migration Story of Tibetan lumberjacks was a show that I curated for the Tibet Fest in Seattle, WA (August 23-24, 2019).
Since the show was based on the Tibetan lumberjacks- I interviewed Wangchuk Dorji la but I couldn’t resist not adding a few questions for his wife, Sonam Dorji la at the end. I am so grateful for them sharing with me details of their experiences in Maine. Parts of this interview was published in the festival’s magazine- but this is the longer version. It follows Wangchuk la’s migration from Tibet to Maine. His memory is sharp and detailed and translating his Tibetan sentences to English was both pleasure and pain. I never realized the process of translation required so much empathy and patience.
**All photographs in color are by Don Messerschmidt and Sonam Nyatsatsang (Wangchuk Dorji’s son-in-law) contributed the archival photos in B&W. **
How old were you when you fled Tibet?
I was around 15 years old. It was 1959.
So you probably remember the time when your family decided to leave your home in Tibet?
Yes- very clearly. My uncle from my mother’s side was the chief (chikyap) of Shey-kar province in Tibet. We had two governors: one was a monk and the other was an aristocrat from Lhasa. The aristocrat was ruthless and there were a lot of complaints from the locals about him. As a chief of his province, my Uncle had to go to the capital city of Lhasa to file a case against him. This was in 1957. My uncle used to spend many months in Lhasa since it was the political capital of Tibet. And each time, he would take one of his sons or nephews along with him. Through these trips, we got some exposure of the city and got an opportunity to study in Lhasa. I didn’t get to study a lot but the exposure in itself was great.
How long did you stay in Lhasa?
For about two years. I was there during the battle of Lhasa in 1959. I was with my parents and my Uncle. The rental house we were staying in happened to be right between the Tibetan and Chinese soldiers. All day and night we could hear the deafening sounds of guns and heavy artilleries being fired. It’s a miracle that none of us were shot. Every half hour or so, it would stop and we’d look for opportunities to get away. There was a little tunnel that we could escape through, but only one at a time. I remember, being stuck in it together with another girl. As soon as I managed to pull myself out of the tunnel- the entire family that got out before me were killed on the spot. So I ended up hiding back at the tunnel until it became quiet again and managed to escape to a safe place.
The next day, we all tried to go back home. It was chaotic and confusing. On our way back we saw countless dead bodies in the streets- it was horrific! It was clear we had already lost. All the Tibetan men were summoned together in the streets of Lhasa. You could see Chinese soldiers everywhere. One of the soldiers, poked me with his gun and told me to stay back. But they took my Uncle and my father away with the others. There was no way to find out where they were sent. They were sent to separate internment camps. It took me over a month to find them. When I finally found my Uncle, he told me to go back home to Ponrong. Little did I imagine at the time that he would end up spending twenty years in prison. I went back home shortly after seeing him. After three-four months, my father was released from the camp and he joined us. Since the situation in Lhasa was only getting worse, my family and most of our cousins left our village on our yaks. We started our journey down south to Nepal- some of us making it, some of us dying on the way.
Where did you stay in Nepal?
Most of our family stayed at the border of Tibet and Nepal in Tato Pani. We thought that this would be a temporary situation and we were hoping to eventually go back to Tibet. The elders stayed in Nepal so they could be closer to Tibet. But the younger ones amongst us went to India. We were hoping to get into school in Dharamsala. Unfortunately, I was too old for school. So I went to build roads in Kullu Manali. I did that for about 7 months and then went back to Dharamsala in the hopes of finding some training opportunities.
Did you eventually find one?
Yes. I used to constantly ask the people working in the offices for job- training opportunities. But before my training I also worked at a restaurant for about two months.
How did you get a job at the restaurant?
At the time, most Tibetans were in Upper Dharamsala. Lower Dharamsala were mostly Indian locals. One day, after work I went for a stroll to lower Dharamsala. I only had a tsurug (a rug) and a nambu chuba with me. There was a place called Lhasa Hotel. Since there were hardly any Tibetans in this area- it was easy to spot the two Tibetan men there. One of them asked me if I needed a job. Since he spoke Hindi fluently- he helped me get work at a restaurant. My job was basically cleaning and running errands for the owner. This really opened my eyes. I learned basic Hindi words like pani, roti, chawal, etc. But even while working here, I was always making visits back to the Home Office pleading with the government officials to send me for any kind of training or school.
I remember this one story very clearly at the restaurant. The owner of the restaurant asked me to go buy hara mirch. I had never heard that word before. I repeated the words to myself the entire way to the vegetable vendor like my life depended on it. As soon as I got there, I asked for hara mirch. He pointed at the green chilies. It was such a relief that I didn’t forget the word. But more importantly, it felt good that he understood what I said. When you don’t know the language, it eats at you like a disease. I used to listen in amazement to the few Tibetans who’d visit the restaurant and talk in Hindi. I would watch closely their lips and the way they enunciated the words- wanting so desperately to sound like them. I found the pronunciations very hard and wondered how the sounds came out of them so easily. I even found myself a Tibetan-Hindi dictionary and learned some basic Hindi, but when I spoke it, they wouldn’t understand me at all. But slowly, I began to understand whatever they were saying.
Not too long after, I lost my nambu chuba. I hadn’t felt a loss that deep. It was the only thing I had to keep me warm and that too I lost. At night I slept in the doorway of the restaurant, and during the day I would hide my things so it wouldn’t get stolen. It was a very difficult time, I had no one to talk to, I couldn’t even speak the local language to communicate with anyone. It was a very lonely experience. But, in hindsight, that experience taught me a lot.
Luckily for me, not too long after, a position opened up in Delhi and I got a chance to go training. The Tibetan government official gave me some paperwork and about forty-fifty rupees to go to Delhi. I went to the restaurant and told my employer about it, too. He gave me some money which must have been a gift or perhaps just my salary- I don’t remember. I had no idea how to get to Delhi but somehow, I got there. I remember taking the bus to Pathankot and getting on a third-class coach train to Delhi. Along with six others, we got training for about a month for social work. After the training, we came back to Dharamsala. We all lived together as roommates, but it was a big relief to finally have shelter and a fixed ration for groceries.
What kind of work was it?
That was social work- it was very hard. We saw hundreds each day for basic medical aid and helping with interpreting for Tibetans who had to visit a doctor’s office. Even though my Hindi was very limited- it was better than most of those arriving from Tibet. People were dying of various sicknesses, mostly diarrhea. We had to clean all of that. Then we had to burn the dead bodies but didn’t have money to buy wood. That meant we had to literally plead for money from local residents so we could buy wood to burn the bodies- it was no easy task. We also had to handle the dead bodies ourselves. That was hard both physically and mentally. Two years passed doing this. It was around this time, I was asked if I wanted to work for a mobile unit hospital. There was an NGO in San Francisco called Dr. Tom Dooley Foundation. The founder of this organization met His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Mussoorie and promised a mobile medical unit. That was really helpful since Tibetans were scattered around many areas in Northern India. The main office was in Dharamsala. We had a trailer full of medical supplies along with a cargo van that would travel around to provide basic medical aid to Tibetans especially the road- builders. This is where I first met Sonam (whom I would eventually get married to later). We were a team of about six-seven of us including an Indian doctor. Sonam was the only Tibetan nurse. She has just finished her nurse training in Kalimpong. We also had two drivers, a few translators and a lab technician.
Where and how often did you travel for this?
We would go visit the places every month. Tibetans were building roads in Chamba, Kulu Valley and Dalhousie. Most Tibetans were coming to India from Tibet mainly to get blessings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They had lost everything: their country, their home but also family members along the way dying from sicknesses or hunger. Getting a chance to see their spiritual leader in Dharamsala was their only hope that gave them some solace. After that, the Home Affairs Department would help relocate them to road building projects. While children were sent to school and some for training jobs- majority of the adults were sent to build roads.
Was it around this time that you heard about this opportunity to come to Maine?
Yes, as soon as I heard of it, I went to the Home Affairs Office and put my name down. We had to go to Delhi to be interviewed- I think there were about eleven-twelve people who applied- out of which six of us were selected.
I wonder how your family reacted to this. Did you get a chance to discuss this plan of leaving for the United States with your family?
My parents were in Orissa. I didn’t really ask anyone for permission or for a second opinion. I made the decision to leave by myself- it felt like the best choice at the time. We obviously knew of the United States. But we had no concept of how far it would be. We’d try to understand the distance between the two countries through time differences: night time in India would be day time in America.
It was like going to outer space or to the moon? And you’d never flown before?
Yes, you could say that. No one knew anything about the place. But there was nothing I could do- I had already made my mind to leave.
What did your family think of your decision?
My father had gone to speak to his lama and see whether my decision to go to the United States was a good one. Luckily, the lama said it was a great decision. So my family was happy with my decision. It wouldn’t have made any difference to my decision anyways but at least hearing that from our lama gave my parents comfort. My cousins were very happy for me because they knew it was going to be a better life. At the time, we never got a meal that filled our bellies. Since we were all highland nomads, we didn’t know how to work the fields. So there were no jobs for my family in Orissa. They could only rely on the limited ration they got everyday which was barely enough to feed the whole family. I also went to visit my Aunt in Dharamsala. My aunt couldn’t sleep at all when she heard the news of me leaving- I was like her own son. Her husband, brothers and two sons were already in prison at the same. She used to say, life is only full of suffering. She was very concerned that I was going so far away to a complete unknown place. It was her worrying about me that made me most sad about leaving.
Were you anxious about going away? How was your experience flying for the first time?
I was not anxious at all. I was very excited. We flew to Bombay, then to Karachi, Frankfurt, London and finally to New York. When we arrived to London- I heard we still had about six-seven hours more to fly. I remember thinking, wow- it’s really far! You see, we had no idea how far America was. It was such an abstract concept. But I enjoyed the plane ride a lot. There was plenty of food to eat and such great service. We had never rode on a plane before and being young- we were curious and just in awe of everything. As refugees, we had never eaten a full meal and here we were being served a rich variety of meat and fruits. When we landed in New York, we met a few Tibetans who were already in the US: a few monks, students and some government officials working at the Office of Tibet in New York. They had a news conference set up for us along with a Representative from the Great Northern Paper Company. But we didn’t really say much since most of us didn’t speak English.
How did this company in Maine decide to sponsor six Tibetans?
America during that time was doing very well economically but there was a shortage of laborers. The company that recruited us- The Great Northern Paper company had difficulty finding lumberjacks because it was hard physical labor. They had spoken to their advisor, who was a professor in New York. When this Professor was visiting Bhutan and India during a trip, he’d seen a lot of Tibetan Refugees building roads. He immediately thought of the Great Northern and made a suggestion of sponsoring Tibetans as lumberjacks in Maine. They agreed to first sponsor only six Tibetans and if they were satisfied with their work, they would hire an additional twenty-one. They were happy with us so after two years- we were a total of twenty seven Tibetans in Maine. We were the first group of Tibetans who came to the United States for work. We got a green card by the time we got here to the United States.
I also heard you almost got drafted to war?
When we went to Delhi to get the visa, on the application form it did say that if called to war, it was our civic responsibility and we couldn’t object- something like that. When we arrived, two amongst the six of us were excused because of their age. But four of us were called for further questioning and physical check-up. Once we were finished with that, they put us in a category. I think it was a low category. The Great Northern also went to request them to excuse us. Either ways, our names weren’t called. We did get a paper from them that had our category number. They said if called, we would have to show up. Luckily, for whatever reasons we were never called. But if we had to, can you imagine? We fled the Chinese, came to Nepal and India and went through a lot. We come here to the United States for work but we’re sent to war instead- that would be tragic, wouldn’t it? (laughs) But at the time, we didn’t even give it a thought. Everyone was going through so much, there weren’t even options available. We had to do whatever we were asked to do, we couldn’t afford to think twice.
Were you nervous that you’d be drafted?
Not really. We were just waiting to see what would happen. But eventually the war came to an end. We weren’t called, so…
How was your experience in Portage, Maine?
We were only six of us- the only Asians in town. Our neighbors would always check on us. It was a small town- there was one grocery store, a post office, a bar and that’s about it. We used to stay in town on the weekends and go back to the campgrounds during the weekdays. The first month, we got a ride- but after a month or so we pooled in money and bought our own car and drove together to work. At the campgrounds, they had a cook so all our meals were arranged for. There was a lot of food- buffet style. They had butter, peanut butter & eggs. They used to give you a lot of eggs. Our co-workers, the locals used to waste so much food and I remember that was such a big culture shock!
This makes me think of another story. When we got our visa to come to the US our translator said that he would take us to celebrate. We went to the American Embassy’s cafeteria and he bought us all a coke each. That was all we could afford and it was such a luxury for us. But the Americans in the cafeteria were eating these big sandwiches. The size of that sandwich was a sign of abundance for me. Most of us barely got to eat a full-meal in those days. I remember feeling very convinced that about my decision to go abroad.
How long did you work in Maine?
We were under contract for two years, but I worked for about three years.
Did any of you injure yourself while at work?
I broke my foot because a tree fell on it. So I remember I couldn’t go to work for some time.
How many months of the year were you working as lumberjacks? Did you take/get any time off?
Spring time is when the snow melts. It’s not safe to drive then because the forest becomes very muddy and slushy- so the roads are closed. Those two months, we have our time off. Other than those two months- you’re working throughout the year. Winters were rough- it used to get 20-30 below. When we’re working, we’d wear double gloves, layers over layers. The first year it was very harsh. We had to cut the wood four feet and pile them four feet high- we weren’t strong enough to lift them unless we were two people. Then we’d load the logs into a carriage that was drawn by these huge horses who couldn’t understand us. It would snow about 3-4 feet high or more sometimes. We also had to take our chain saw and fuel along. It was very hard the first year but the second year, they got tractors to replace the horses. Then it was a lot easier. We didn’t have to cut the logs into so many pieces since the tractors were more powerful than the horses.
So eventually you moved to the Pacific Northwest with the help of an American couple: Don and Kareen Messerschmidt. How did you meet them?
When we were in Northern Maine, there was an article published about us in a local newspaper in Oregon. Don read that article and immediately got in touch with us. He was a PhD student at the University of Oregon, Eugene and had already been to India and Nepal for research work. He was aware about the situation of Tibetan Refugees there. He contacted us and asked if he could come and visit us. He stayed with us all summer after which we became very good friends. After we worked at Maine, it was with Don’s help that most of us moved to Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. They told us the weather was milder and more enjoyable and offered to help us look for new jobs.
Kareen’s father had a lumber company in Warrington, Oregon. Few of the lumberjacks went to Oregon after working two-three years in Maine.
I moved to Vancouver from Maine. I worked at a factory that made trailer houses. I didn’t work there long- I think I was very uncomfortable and a little nervous since I had already injured my foot before. So Don helped me find work at a church and I worked there about a year or two.
Then I joined a wood treating lumber company in Washougal, WA. Most of the Tibetans from our group were in Warrenton, Oregon. We used to visit Warrenton for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration, but in Losar (Tibetan New Years) we got together in Vancouver. I worked at the same company as a client manager for thirty years till my retirement.
Momo Sonam, I’m also interested to hear about how you came to the United States.
Momo Sonam: I came separately for school to study nursing. We worked together for three years in India so we’d already met before. After finishing school, I didn’t have a green card. Since Dr. Dooley’s Foundation had sponsored my education, they asked me if I wanted to continue helping Tibetan refugees. My response was obviously “yes” but it so happened that the mobile unit couldn’t continue because of political problems. Also, the mobile van got into a fatal accident in India so there was no funding to buy another one. So they asked me if I was open to go to Shanta Bhawan Hospital in Kathmandu. But I didn’t want to go to Nepal since I didn’t know anyone there. In any case, since I knew Wangchukla in Maine- I went to visit him. I was still planning to go back. But I ended up staying and we got married. What a big mistake (laughs)!
Popo Wangchuk: You mean the best decision you made in your life? (Laughs)
Momo Sonam: When we were in Portage, I was everybody’s interpreter. If anyone had to visit the doctor, I tagged along. Anyone gave birth, I was called. Finally, I decided to work. My first job was in a nursing home 18 miles away in Eagle Lake. It was run by nuns, they were so delighted to have me. I didn’t always punch in my time- they could see that I also enjoyed being there and worked hard. I used to take good care of the elders. Most of them were French. Then one day, they asked me if I wanted to do some training for activities for the seniors. After taking the training, I became the Activities Director. I taught them to sew, knit, exercise, etc. It was fun! The patients really enjoyed it. First, they saw me as a foreigner, but slowly they warmed up to me. I stayed with a family there during week-days and paid them rent on a weekly basis. They were very kind. Initially I didn’t know how to drive, but later especially in the harsh winters- it made sense to continue staying since it wasn’t safe to drive. We were only met with kindness in Maine. Even before I started working, my neighbors would always check on me since I’d be by myself when the boys went to work on the weekdays. They called me Sue. Every small problem, they were there to help.
We were the first couple that got married in Maine. After our marriage, we went for a honeymoon to Quebec over a long weekend. It was six boys and me! Our friends had a good laugh. We always hung out together. They used to go to bars in the evening, I always tagged along with them. They loved to dance. I wasn’t much of a dancer
Did you get a chance to visit Portage since you left?
Momo Sonam: We went back to visit when Tsering (daughter) and Sonam (son-in-law) were living in Boston. Portage is still a small town. We met our old friends from back in the days and also went to look at our old apartment. We met a person there, perhaps the manager of the apartments. After hearing about why we were visiting, he happily showed us around. We took a stroll at the local beach where we used to hang out and went to a restaurant after that. It was only after eating we realized that it was already paid for by a couple who was eating there. They must have also heard our story. Isn’t that very kind? So we asked the restaurant owner for their home address and sent them a small gift when we got back home.
What a sweet story!