Bottom Line: Ann Tashi Slater‘s latest book Travels Within and Without, is an incredible and inspiring journey into her family’s history, which she discussed at this month’s Himalayan Heritage event at the Rubin Museum of Art.
Review: It begins seemingly as a familiar tale of a child born abroad of mixed heritage or immigrant parents. Anything but typical, Ann Tashi Slater’s personal story, however, is even more remarkable. She was born in Spain of Tibetan and American heritage, lived in India and Nepal, then raised in the U.S. and later became a resident of Japan.
Growing up in America, Ms. Slater like many first generation children did not embrace her foreign ancestry until later in life, when she began researching into her family’s history. She discovered an amazing story of her great-grandfather and her grandparents and their relationship with the 13th Dalai Lama and the British colonial government. The more she learned the more questions she asked. Her research led her back to India, Nepal and even in Chinese-occupied Tibet.
Her family’s past was also intertwined with the British Raj. Although Britain may not have directly occupied Tibet, it used its colonial muscle to create a buffer zone between India and China. In order to stabilize the region, the colonial government asked Ms. Slater’s great-grandfather to organize a local police force. It was no easy feat, but he persevered in spite of several attempts on his life. And he became a crucial liaison between the British and Tibetans, partly because of his ability to communicate fluently in the ten local languages.
Her account of her grandparents’ life in Darjeeling, India is equally interesting. During colonial times, it was the perfect summer retreat from the sweltering heat, and an ideal location for the British-run tea plantations. For many Tibetans, Darjeeling was also a sanctuary from the threat from the Chinese, who even long before Mao Zedong’s invasion in the 1950s, had their sights on taking the plateau.
Darjeeling became both a refuge and an international community of fellow Tibetans, Indians, British, Nepalese and others. Her grandparents’ ability to engage a plethora of different nationalities made their home an epicenter of cultural interaction, and of course, they threw amazing parties that went on through the night. I could almost imagine what it must have been like with dancing, drinking and laughter at one of their soirées.
The final chapter of Ms. Slater’s discussion dealt with the death of her grandmother and a vanishing culture. The Chinese-occupation of Tibet may brought development but at a cruel price with the gradual eradication of its culture. And although exiled Tibetan populations in India and elsewhere have preserved much of their heritage, they, too, have changed and adopted new customs. Ms. Slater discussed traditions such as those for Tibetan funerals (which last for days) also have vanished with her grandmother’s cremation. Many Tibetans today may not know of these ancient rituals, but thanks to Ms. Slater’s book, it is both a very personal family story and a testament to Tibetan cultural preservation that future generations can enjoy.
Listening to Ms. Slater’s lecture, I saw some similarities in my own background. Both our families were uprooted from their homelands because of war or partition. Like my grandparents, hers were well connected, affluent and hard workers. And when it came to the finer things in life, both were quite at home with the comforts of a traditional cup of tea but also enjoyed a gin and tonic. And finally, both were very worldly, and neither seemed to have boundaries when it came to engaging people of different cultures.
In celebration of his holiness the 14th and current Dalai Lama’s birthday, Ms. Slater generously donated copies of her book Travels Within and Without to everyone in the audience, which she later graciously signed.