NYIMA DOKDA POURS ME his butter tea. Too salty for me. But it has the taste of mystery. Until now, I’d only tasted butter tea in books about Tibet. Salt plus wind on the tongue.
On the walls hang thangkas, pictures of the Dalai Lama, the 17th Karmapa. I am in Bushwick, on Gates Avenue. In the street below this room, transplanted from Lhasa, are bodegas, stores that wire remittances to villages in Central America. I am in a part of my city where worlds collapse into one another without touching.
I was told about Nyima by a mutual friend, who like him, was tortured in Tibet.
“How did an isolated yak herder (now a waiter in a Queens hotel) manage to upset the Chinese?” I ask him.
“Not isolated.” Nyima laughs, rubbing his pitted, leathery face. “Part of independence movement with other yak herder.”
His words get mangled by the elevated M train. Somewhere, someone is cursing someone in Spanish. I try to imagine Nyima thigh deep in the snow with his yaks, climbing the white silence. Could this man in his white I LOVE NY t-shirt actually be him? What, I wonder, are the odds of a Tibetan yak herder ending up on a street in Brooklyn with a Burger King, where his wife Chodron and their six-year-old son Tsewang are having lunch?
“The Chinese put me in jail three years. I was torture all the time. Electric shock, cigarette lighter. They want me to sign paper that say Tibet part of China. I tell them, ‘no, if you want to kill me, kill me.’”
He takes a defiant swig of his tea. Inwardly, he is tumbling back into captivity, his wiry body shifting from side to side on the crimson cushions, searching for a way out. I shift with him, searching for a way in. Is there a way in? How does a life rise up again from the Ground Zero of torture?
Escaping over the Himalayas to Nepal, he acquired a fake Nepali passport, a genuine Air India plane ticket, and wound up homeless in Grand Central Station in Manhattan.
“I see other homeless people. I tell them I need drink. They point where someone selling juice.”
I saw no Tibetans when I used to distribute food to the homeless in the tunnels and crannies of Grand Central Station.
Before the days of the globalization of homelessness in NewYork.
I ask him to tell me what his days and nights were like underground. He shakes his head, puts a finger of closure to his lips. Talking about torture is easier.
“Do you miss Kham?”
“I miss Kham. But Bushwick good. No Chinese soldiers.”