In 2005, Wen King, a Taiwanese-American, visited Tibet for the first time. In Lhasa, many locals perceived her as a young Chinese tourist, and she felt palpable tensions as she toured the city.
In 2008, King returned to Tibet, this time travelling on a special, Chinese-issued travel document for Taiwanese citizens (China does not recognize Taiwan’s independence, therefore, it will not accept Taiwanese passports.)
King was working with a local environmental group to document climate change. Her Taiwanese travel papers allowed her access to areas that, in the lead up to the Olympics in 2008, were closed to all non-Chinese tourists. She quickly became a police target. They visited her in her room in the middle of the night to interrogate her, ultimately arresting her under the charge of “illegally possessing state secrets.”
Differing cultures meeting one-on-one
Though she was ultimately released, these intense personal experiences led King to Dharamsala, India, to work for the Tibetan cause. In 2009, she opened an ambitious social enterprise called Common Ground. Sitting just above the town square in McLeod Ganj, Common Ground is exactly what its name implies: a common space for people of different cultures to come together to share ideas on positive change, face to face, one on one.
The beautifully-appointed main room is a restaurant, serving both Tibetan and Chinese food. On any given day or night, young tourists and activists can be seen eating together, working away on the Internet, watching movies, or attending discussions.
King has entrenched herself in the community, and has earned a stellar reputation as a friend to many — including some she barely knows.
One special activist
In 2010, King came to know a new arrival, a young man named Tsewang Dhondup who had recently fled from Tibet. Dhondup’s case was extreme; in 2008, during the uprisings in Kardze, he had pulled a monk out of the line of police fire during a protest. He himself was shot in the arm, and was added to China’s ‘most wanted’ list. Through the help of villagers, he was able to hide in the mountains for a year, but his wound grew gravely infected. When he gained strength, he crossed the Himalayas on foot into the safety of India where he was treated.
Dhondup had to leave behind his young daughter, and after he was settled, he sent for her — intensely aware of how dangerous her life had become as a result of his actions. This came at a high price: the guide who brought his daughter from Tibet asked for a premium price because of the risk, $2,197.
King, without a second thought, helped pay the guide’s fee, and began a fundraising effort with LA Friends of Tibet. If you would like to learn more about this effort, please visit LA Friends of Tibet.
To learn more about Common Ground, please click here.
Photo credit: Common Ground Project