Personal Essay

My dad was the Tibetan 'Godfather' — what am I?

Rignam Wangkhang's father wasn't just a newcomer to Canada — he was a trailblazer.

'I grew up in Belleville having no idea how unique our first generation story was.'

Rignam Wangkhang with his father Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang and their dog Katu in Prince Edward County, Ont. (Wangkhang family)

A crow saved my father's life.

While he was escaping Tibet in 1958, my pala (father in Tibetan) Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang got lost and separated from his family in the Himalayan mountains — so he sat on a mountain peak hoping for a sign. It was at that moment a crow flew by and guided him through the Himalayas. That crow helped reunite my pala with his family.

This almost surreal story makes me want to believe there was a greater purpose for his survival, and in turn, my existence.

The Tibetan Godfather

I had always heard stories about my pala through my amala (mother in Tibetan), Tashi Wangkhang, and older Tibetans. But it wasn't until this year, when I decided to make a radio documentary about him, that I really dove deep into his life and legacy.

My pala had left an unfinished memoir about his escape from Tibet and life in India, but I had never read it before.

Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang, far right, attending one of many protests for Tibet. He often organized such demonstrations. (Wangkhang family)

In the memoir he vividly described his journey. It was heartbreaking to hear of the suffering my family had to overcome. But it was uplifting to witness how they had all maintained an optimistic outlook and how my pala used every chance he had to give back.

My pala was only 13-years-old when he escaped Tibet. He was forced to grow up quickly and provide for the family while struggling to get by in India. He didn't have a real childhood.

Later he became one of the first two Tibetans selected to immigrate to Canada in 1970. He moved to Trenton, Ontario, and worked for Bata Shoe Factory, walking hours to work everyday.

Most of the money he made was sent back to India to put his younger siblings through school, even though my pala never got the chance to pursue higher education.

My pala wasn't just a newcomer — he was a trailblazer.

He was a man of principle. He even once paid a parking ticket with a big bag of pennies because he thought it was unjust.

My amala used to say that other Tibetans would call him "The Godfather", because they would look up to him and seek guidance from him.

Because of my pala, Belleville became one of the first Tibetan diaspora communities outside of India and Nepal. 

He helped countless individuals and families settle in Canada and get jobs here.

He was a man that established many firsts: first Tibetan restaurant in Canada, first Tibetan community organization, first provincial Tibetan association, first international Tibetan conference in North America and the first Dalai Lama visit in Toronto.

Because of my pala, Belleville became one of the first Tibetan diaspora communities outside of India and Nepal.

Whenever I talk with community members and family about my pala, they always express deep gratitude and fondly recall tales of his enormous impact on their lives.

My pala came to Canada with nothing. When he passed away in 2000, our family was flourishing and the Tibetan-Canadian community was thriving.

My father's son

Until recently I didn't want to hear stories about my father because of long held grief over his premature death to lung cancer.

Tsering teaching his son Rignam the Tibetan language in their prayer room at home in Belleville, Ontario. (Wangkhang family)

Plus, as I got older, I felt some unspoken pressure. What would Tsering's only son end up like, and what would he do for the Tibetan community?

I have never developed my pala's resiliency. I was never forced to grow up. I'm still immature and lazy.

My parents came to Canada and fought to make sure I had a comfortable, carefree life.

Although I would visit family in Nepal every few years, which exposed me to poverty, I spent most of my peaceful childhood exploring forests and catching toads — not trying to escape oppression and struggling to eat in India.

I was born in Canada, and I grew up in Belleville having no idea how unique our Tibetan first generation story was.

I still find it astounding that a small, working class, mainly white town served as the birthplace for Tibetans in Canada.

We Tibetans had no country to go back to. We had to create our own sense of home and community in a foreign country. This was all I ever knew.

As I got older, I felt some unspoken pressure. What would Tsering's only son end up like, and what would he do for the Tibetan community?

My childhood and perspective was and is inherently different from my pala's.

I have a hybrid, hyphenated identity — Tibetan-Canadian. I'm not a Tibetan from inside Tibet but I'm also not an Anglo-Saxon Canadian. I'm more fluent in English than my parent's native Tibetan tongue. I think in English. I dream in English. I've studied French immersively since Grade 4.

I'm seen among Tibetans in my community as whitewashed.

Rignam today. "I'm seen among Tibetans in my community as whitewashed." (Tenzing Gyanatsang)

And sometimes I don't feel fully welcome in certain Tibetan spaces because amongst some more conservative Tibetans there's a culture of ridiculing those that don't speak the language. When I do try to speak Tibetan some people can't help but laugh because of my anglicized accent and childish mistakes.

I am sadly not able to properly communicate with my grandparents or other Tibetan elders. I recite prayers without fully comprehending their meanings. I also don't have a strong understanding of religious rituals, although I grew up going to the monastery.

I do have an understanding of Tibet's history and struggle but I have no lived experience of that time.

Tibetans of tomorrow

I carry a deep passion and love for Tibet, but my very existence challenges what it means to be Tibetan in the historical sense.

It's clear my standing in the Tibetan community is vastly different from my father's. But in the end I'm still Tibetan at heart.

Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang, left, and son Rignam Wangkhang. (Wangkhang family)

I'm in the process of reconnecting with my roots, but also branching out into my own story.

I carry a deep passion and love for Tibet, but my very existence challenges what it means to be Tibetan in the historical sense.

I plan to continue learning the Tibetan language while deepening my knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and philosophy, but I naturally approach Tibetan issues from a different vantage point than my father.

I come from a certain level of privilege he was never bestowed and I'm living a modern cosmopolitan life.

Still, I hope to carry his legacy into the future. It will be in a different way than he would have envisioned, naturally. I'm not sure what it will look like, I'm still figuring it out. But as I get older I've been thinking about how my future children will struggle with these same issues.

After reading my pala's memoir, I saw how necessary it was to keep our stories — even those still in progress — alive. My pala's memoir is so valuable, so important, and it's inspired me to write one for my future son and the Tibetan youth in Canada.

If it wasn't for that crow in the Himalayas, I wouldn't be here. My family's life would be entirely different.

I'm never going to be my father, but I don't have to be.

About the Author

Rignam Wangkhang

Rignam Wangkhang is a Tibetan-Canadian multimedia journalist and radio producer with CBC Manitoba. He previously worked with CBC North in Yellowknife and CBC's The Current in Toronto. He was born and raised in Belleville, Ontario.

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