“People change over time. People’s lives, and loves, are ever shifting, never permanent. But everyone has one goal that never changes: the pursuit of that word “happiness”. Everyone has the right to pursue a happy life, and no matter what people do to pay the bills, it’s always a happy life they’re striving after.”
By portraying the traumas of young women at the start of their so called best years who are trying to find their place in the world, Flowers of Lhasa by a Tibetan writer, Tsering Yangkyi, offers a compassionate image of fragile lives marred by lack of opportunities, poverty, and resignation.
“When us poor country girls come to the city, we fall in love with the bright lights and the last things we want is to go back home. I had to keep living somehow, I had no choice.”
Tsering Yangkyi imbues the story of these four women with compassion, understanding, and care, showing the resilience of human spirit that many people in real life have to adopt.
Above all the essence of this book lies in its universality – lives portrayed in Flowers of Lhasa are not typical only for Tibet but also can be witnessed in many other corners of the world.
Flowers of Lhasa is a powerful tale of four young women, migrant workers : three Tibetans, and one Chinese, who leave their close-knit rural communities behind to look for a better life for themselves and to support their impoverished families in the city of Lhasa, a religious and cultural capital of Tibet. The titled ‘flowers of Lhasa’: Drolkar known as Dahlia, Xiao Li known as Cassia, Yangdzom known as Azalea, and Dzomkyi known as Magnolia live in a small rented room, their temporary shelter, their home where they share their joys and sorrows. They are like a family and always look out for each other.
When they first come to Lhasa, lowliest odd jobs are the only employment they are able to find. Their income is not enough to cover their own basic bills, let alone allow them to support their elderly parents in the countryside.
“Ever since leaving her job at the restaurant, she hadn’t even managed to stave off the daily hunger, let alone eat a nutritious diet.”
Their life circumstances lead them to accepting work in the nightclub called the Rose where they earn a better income by selling their bodies for money.
Throughout the novel we learn about these young women’s struggles, abuse they experience on the hands of the ‘luckier ones’, more privileged ones when they initially work as waitresses, housemaids, shopkeepers and then when they work at the Rose.
“There is no escaping the miseries and hardships life throws at us. We have to keep going, no matter what.”
We witness how they navigate that tragic life which was given to them, how they try to fulfil their dreams, longings, and hopes with always having the obligations towards their families on their mind. We see them constantly battling the social status quo.
With an enormous level of empathy, the author portrays the human toll of poverty, lack of financial support on people’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being, especially women without financial resources, and born without privilege.
“Of her pitiful monthly salary of one hundred and fifty yuan, she spent a hundred on the cheapest toiletries and necessities she could buy, then she scrimped and saved so she could send the remaining filthy back home to her family. She wore old clothes handed down from her cousin, and for hair ties she used elastic bands discarded by the customers at the beauty parlour.”
In addition, Flowers of Lhasa illuminates a variety of social and cultural issues, one of them being the critique of the inequalities and how they affect women. The novel also portrays the tension between tradition and modernity, division between rural and urban reality, rural community and urban solitude, and how soul-destroying jobs in the place like the Rose can provide an adequate level of income for those coming from the impoverished background. Despair and stress levels caused by lack of money or not enough money has been present throughout the book. One of the women’s health and her hospital treatment was dependent on money showing how the most basic needs are connected to one’s ability to earn a fair income.
“And now that I’m sick, I really need the money. Doesn’t matter if I want to or not, doesn’t matter if I love it or hate it, I just have to keep working. But I need to think about others as well.”
“If someone like me died right here on the street, this city wouldn’t shed a single tear. That’s the difference between the city and the country.”
There are plenty glimpses into modern Tibetan life, culture, and language. We as the readers feel fully immersed in the city of Lhasa, the Holy City, an important religious place as well as a modern, vibrant city with all the problems and complexities of the contemporary metropolis.
Throughout Flowers of Lhasa, the concept of karma is referred to by all four women which has an impact on how they view their own life and suffering they experience.
Needless to say, I highly recommend this little gem of Tibetan literature.