Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills in for Marco Werman and this is The World. We're going to start the show today by talking about China and Tibet, but not in the way you might expect. Over the years, we Americans have heard a lot about China's iron rule over the region. You know the slogan, "Free Tibet." But details about the lives of Tibetans themselves and how they live in China today, those are harder to come by. That's what pushed veteran journalist Jocelyn Ford to introduce herself one day to a Tibetan living in Beijing, a woman named Zanta, who was selling jewelry on the street.
Jocelyn Ford: The day I stopped to talk to Zanta, I had an ulterior motive. You see, China tries to stop foreign reporters from traveling to Tibetan places. So I bought a bracelet as an excuse to talk to her.
Hills: That's a scene from an extraordinary new documentary film titled "Nowhere to Call Home." Zanta is the central figure in the film but Jocelyn Ford says at the time of their first random encounter, she really just wanted to talk to her.
Ford: Little did I know that that gave her a very different signal. She concluded that since I was the first foreigner to stoop down and talk to her and sit down on the pavement, that we must have been related in a past life.
Hills: Zanta is an interesting woman. She's Tibetan, she's uneducated, she's a young widow, yet she makes this choice to leave her family and village in western China. She moves to Beijing with her young son to give him a better life. Tell us about her personality.
Ford: She is very headstrong, she is very determined and she's conflicted because she both wants to be a good daughter-in-law and a good Buddhist, which means she must serve her in-laws. But at the same time, they are Draconian, they don't want her son to go to school at all. More than anything, she wants her boy to get an education because when she left her village not knowing anything about the bigger world - when we first met, she'd never even heard of the United States - she is determined that his life will be different. She went to Beijing, couldn't read at the time - she taught herself, she's very smart - she said "If he's going to get ahead in life, he needs to learn Chinese, he needs to be literate." So she broke tradition and took her son with her and ended up in Beijing.
Hills: A lot of the tension in the film is around her incredibly heavy sense of obligation to her family, to her in-laws and her in-laws, let's face it, they're not very nice. I think what you really reveal in this film is the incredible sexism and the really horrible treatment of women in these Tibetan families. Did that surprise you?
Ford: It did indeed because there is so much information around the world about Tibet but nobody ever talks about this. I'm afraid that the political issue has often been given first class status and people have not considered the wellbeing of half the population, in my view. I was even more surprised when I learned that the word in Tibetan for "Woman" is "Inferior Birth," which says it all. So why hasn't the world talked about this?
Hills: I notice in the film at one point, I think you were visiting her village with her, there are a lot of women in her family, so they're sort of treated badly by other families because there's not a lot of men and at one point a man is speaking and someone says "A woman can't speak if a man is speaking." It's really upfront, personal, visceral, sexism. Did you hesitate at all at revealing this piece of the story?
Ford: Not at all. That was one of the driving forces that made me determined, despite being independent and on a shoestring budget and facing great difficulties posed both my financial reasons and the government there, to pursue the story because I felt it was very important for this to be heard. To be frank, I too was totally caught off guard when I learned that women were not supposed to speak in front of men because these things were so internalized by Zanta. She had never questioned them. It wasn't something she was about to explain. For example, in her family there are four sisters and they are bullied because they don't have able bodied men to protect and it was years after I knew her that she told me that of the four sisters, three had attempted suicide because of abuse by in-laws. She said it wasn't there husbands necessarily - in some cases it was. But I just met a young Tibetan social worker in New York City who says the issue of domestic violence is serious in this country as well in the Tibetan community and a lot more needs to be done about it but so far these issues have been kept under wraps.
Hills: Of course one of the central tensions and it's quite - as a viewer, you get really wrapped up - is throughout the film the question is whether she's going to relent and send her son back and/or whether the father-in-law will keep her son and not return him when he goes for visits. It's very dramatic and almost scary and at one point you intervene because Zanta is going to let him go visit the child's grandfather and you're worried that Zanta should intervene and sort of protect him. Did you hesitate? What was that like to sort of suddenly say "What a second, he's your son, he's young, protect him."
Ford: I was trying to be a journalist and stay out of it for a long time and not impose my views on Zanta, just let things unfold. But at one point, I just could not stand it any more because nobody in Zanta's family was standing up for her and I'd already invested a lot in trying to help the child and help Zanta get him an education and suddenly it was going to evaporate because she was so beholden to her in-laws. So I said "No, Zanta. I'm going with you to meet these in-laws." Now, she didn't want me to meet them because she thought they were too abusive of me, that they were insulting me. Basically my conclusion was that they saw me as their rival, that I was taking their grandson away from them and that I had become, in some ways, her second husband. I wasn't quite a woman in their typical sense. She belonged to them, she was essentially regarded as their property but here I was, I had a little bit more of a power base than she did.
Hills: What's also interesting is how almost everyone in the film treats Zanta differently if you're with her and you are a figure in the film and there's a dramatic scene where Zanta is yet again trying to find a place to live in Beijing with her son. A Chinese landlord promises her that he'll rent her a room and we're talking about basically Beijing slums, very crude places to live. He says she can rent and then she goes back and he reneges and there's this confrontational scene where she's yelling at him, really defending herself, defending Tibetans, defending her son and you're there and remarkably you're filming this whole encounter but the Chinese police who show up and the Chinese landlord - it seemed to me anyway that they treated Zanta better because you were there.
Ford: Absolutely. In fact, at the root of this film is the issue of ethnic prejudice in China. The fact is that Caucasians tend to be treated better even than fellow Chinese often, we get the benefit of the doubt. Whereas Tibetans or often times people from Africa, they face a lot of discrimination and prejudice. So I felt that I should share some of this positive favorable treatment with Zanta and to be frank, I did get more involved in her life than I had initially intended to. But in part that was because I thought it was so grossly unfair, the treatment she received, both as an ethnic minority in Beijing and as a woman in her own village and that I had this power base due to no good reason, just the fact that I come from the United States and that I really should try to do what I could to help her son get an education.
Hills: How old is the son now?
Ford: He is now 14. He is going to a public school and that was a huge accomplishment. In China, it is very difficult for children of poor migrants from the countryside to get into urban schools at all but we were able to do that. It is still a struggle but he has been doing better. I'm very pleased to say as well that there were two 15-year-old ethnic Chinese girls who had been tutoring him and they did wonders for him. It was truly amazing.
Hills: And I hope our listeners get to see this film. It's just stunning visually and very gripping. Jocelyn Ford is a freelance radio and video correspondent based in Beijing. Her film "Nowhere to Call Home" debuts this week in New York City. Thank you Jocelyn.
Ford: Thank you.
Hills: We posted a trailer for the film on our Facebook page. Just go to Facebook.com/PRITheWorld.