In the years that I spent as a journalist based in South Korea, I often found myself rankled by “parachute journalism.” This is a practice favored by large, often prestigious international news organizations, when a reporter with strong institutional backing but not a lot of regional expertise is dropped into a locality, often in times of crisis or conflict, and expected to churn out stories. The results are frequently banal, surface-level coverage that, at its worst, is riddled with inaccuracies and errors, yet still finds real estate on the most widely read front pages, both digital and analog.
I’m pleased to share that in her inspiring debut book, “Far From the Rooftop of the World: Travels Among Tibetan Refugees,” and throughout her impressive career, veteran reporter Amy Yee has produced the very opposite of parachute journalism.
For 14 years, Yee, an alum of the Harvard Kennedy School and Wellesley, diligently followed her subjects to provide, as she describes, “a close-up look at the lives of ordinary Tibetans in exile who make their way in the world far from their homeland.”
Although she initially connected with the Tibetan community while covering conflict — the Chinese government’s deadly 2008 crackdown on Tibetans protesting against China’s rule — Yee’s devotion to her subjects goes above and beyond the standard journalist’s call of duty.
Months after she files her initial stories on that instance of Tibetan suffering, she leaves her prestigious post as a foreign correspondent for the UK-based Financial Times to live for nearly a year in remote Dharamsala, northern India, immersed in the community where the Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans live in exile.
Yee renders her subjects on the page with energetic prose that focuses foremost on their humanity, not the tragedies that have befallen them, individually and collectively.
There’s Topden, a young monk who’s “crazy about basketball” and has a penchant for wearing layperson’s clothes over his religious robes. “[He] wore a dark T-shirt with a hip design, jeans, and shiny leather shoes… a good-looking young man — a startling fact that one defused or ignored when he wore his monk’s robes. He looked tan and robust,” Yee writes.
There’s Deckyi, one in a group of Tibetans whom Yee helps through a labor dispute. Her frame “suggests steady solidity,” and she’s the kind of person who loves Sichuan hotpot and insists on treating the author to a Punjabi-Chinese meal in gratitude for her help. With these sources and others, Yee forges genuine friendships that span years and borders — her affection for each individual feels real as she remains in touch with sources who migrate to areas as far-flung as Belgium and New York City.
“I deliberately focused on them rather than high-profile leaders, elites, or activists,” the author writes, explaining the focus of her book. “Society usually fixates on celebrity, rather than the fundamental connective tissue of everyday people, their everyday trials, tribulations, and triumphs, and how they preserve culture and identity.”
Yee makes sure to note in her introduction that the book is neither an academic history of Tibet, nor a memoir. Instead, she succinctly and clearly offers readers context about the Dalai Lama’s flight to Dharamsala, the continued influx of other Tibetan refugees who followed after their spiritual leader, and how China’s continued oppression of Tibetans and other ethnic and religious minorities affects her interactions and perceptions of her sources, especially as a Chinese American woman.
“Topden and every other Tibetan I had met in Dharamsala did not seem at all rattled by my Chinese face,” Yee writes. “In fact, some Tibetans wanted to speak in Mandarin with me or cheerfully called out ‘Ni hao!’ as I roamed the few streets of this small town. They had no idea I was born and raised in America and happened to speak Mandarin because I had learned it in college years before.”
In addition to relaying the facts about China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet and its persistent persecution of its people, she also shows the real-life, human stakes. She takes the reader through the network of Tibetan Children’s Villages, the community-in-exile’s network of schools for youth, and very directly reflects their sense of purpose in her reporting.
“We give an education that allows our children to grow up as Tibetans,” she quotes a TCV administrator as saying. “The Chinese are destroying Tibetan identity. If Tibet is to survive as a race and a nation, our hope is our children.”
Packed with rich details and distinctive personalities whose descriptions deserve to be relished, “Far From the Rooftop of the World” is by no means a fast read. It’s a deeply researched and empathetic look at a people who remain largely unknown or misunderstood to American readers, akin to fellow journalist Barbara Demick’s excellent book, “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Readers who seek to understand the plight of our fellow humans in other parts of the world should hang on every word.
Books like these are the product of truly personal and professional investment combined. I hope Yee’s contribution to the field is held up as an outstanding example of journalism done right, particularly for those who aspire to enter its corps.
FAR FROM THE ROOFTOP OF THE WORLD: Travels Among Tibetan Refugees on Four Continents
By Amy Yee
University of North Carolina Press, 280 pp., $23
Hannah Bae is a Korean American writer, journalist, and illustrator and winner of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.