In a recent conversation, Johnson talked with Terence Clarke about Tibet past and present.
TC: The story of the children that you brought out of Tibet is a kind of mini-novel in the Graham Greene mold, of a Westerner risking her life for three Tibetan children who, until shortly before the story begins, she had not even known. This was an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do. Where are the children now?
NJJ: There are three of them: Tsering Norden, a boy, who is 9; Lhakpa Dolma, a girl who is 13; and Tsering Dorje, another boy who's now 17. They're living in northern India at one of the Dalai Lama's compounds that is called a Tibetan Children's Village. There are many of these villages, and they'll contain schools, medical facilities and so on. So the children are getting an education in Tibetan, English and Hindi. The purpose of these villages is to ensure that the children maintain their Tibetan identity. The environment is entirely Tibetan, or as much so as possible without actually being in Tibet itself.
I plan to sponsor the higher-education studies of the children I brought out here in the U.S.
TC: Does the Tibet — or more specifically, the capital city Lhasa — that existed in 1950, or even as recently as 10 years ago, still exist?
NJJ: The fact is that the cultural and religious landscape of Tibet has lost its traditional basis, by now almost entirely. But there are many people who continue to believe that their children will be able to better maintain themselves as Tibetans elsewhere — in India or elsewhere. They worry that, if their children stay in Tibet, they will not have even the opportunity to know their Tibetan identity.
TC: But this wish for escape is not universal among Tibetans?
NJJ: No, not any longer.
TC: What's happened to change that?
NJJ: It's important to know that, from the 1950 Chinese invasion up to about 1989, 90 percent of the Chinese presence in Tibet was military personnel. Before 1989, the uprooting of the Tibetan culture had not really happened in the way that it has happened since 1989. So when I went there the first time in 1987 and observed the military occupation, the place still felt like Tibet in every way that we think about it: historically, culturally ... in the way that we've read about it. Even though most of the monasteries were destroyed in the occupation and during the Cultural Revolution, those few that did remain cultivated a religious activity that was more pure in the traditional sense than what is taking place there today.