Gao A-qing: Nepali language translator in Tibet

Interviewing Gao A-qing

Gao A-qing, female, was born in Qingdao in July 1955. Her ancestral home is in Anhui. In June 1972, she was admitted to the foreign language training class at the Tibet Autonomous Region Foreign Affairs Office to learn Nepali language. At the end of 1974, she was assigned to work in the Foreign Affairs Office of the Tibet Autonomous Region. In 1988, she was transferred back to Yangzhou and worked in the Foreign Economic and Trade Committee of Hanjiang District.

The following content is written according to Gao A-qing’s narration:

I was born into a military family. My grandfather was a senior engineer of the North Sea Fleet. In 1952, he was transferred from Yunnan to the Beijing Navy Logistics Department, and then again transferred to the Qingdao North Sea Fleet. I was born in Qingdao. My father Gao Qixiang is also a soldier and he participated in the revolution in 1938 and participated in many large and small battles in Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu and other places. In February 1949, he was transferred to the headquarters of the 18th Army of the Second Field of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. In 1950, he followed the 18th Army into the Tibetan plateau. My mother, Li Shuqin, started working in 1949. In 1950, she was admitted to Southwest Public Security School in Chongqing. In 1953, she entered Tibet with the 18th Army.

In 1957, the Party Central Committee decided to establish a university for Tibet, and my father and mother were sent to participate in the establishment of the school. After several twists and turns, the final location of the school was decided in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province. After more than a year of preparation, Tibet Public School was formally established, and later changed its name to Xizang Minzu School, which is the predecessor of today’s Xizang Minzu University. After the University was completed, my father served as the deputy dean, and my mother worked in the human resource department of the school. After my parents got a stable job, they took me from Qingdao to Xianyang before I was 16 years old. I basically grew up in Xianyang, Shaanxi.

In 1972, the Foreign Affairs Office of the Tibet Autonomous Region recruited a group of foreign language cadres at the Xizang Minzu University. After passing the examination and selection process, a total of 8 people were recruited, 3 girls and 5 boys and I was one of them. In June of the same year, we embarked on a journey to support Tibet and build the frontier.

At that time, the foreign affairs cadres in Tibet were very scarce, and the construction of the talent team was in a stage of inadequacy, so we recruited a group of young people to train them. After arriving in Lhasa, we studied in the training class organized by the Foreign Affairs Office. This training class was similar to the nature of a technical secondary school. It was divided into two classes, learning English and Nepali respectively. I was assigned to a Nepali class and studied for two years.

In 1974, after completing the Nepali course, the teacher thought that our level was not good enough for the job, so we were arranged to go to the border for an internship. The internship site was Zhangmu Port, which is located at the southern foot of the Himalayas on the Sino-Nepal border, at the bottom of Zhangmu Port in Zhangmu Town, Nyalam County, which is the closest place to Nepal, and has the only road between China and Nepal. There were many merchants.

A group of more than a dozen of us, including troops and students from other places, boarded a large open truck to our destination. The mountain road is rugged, with mountains on one side and steep cliffs on the other. If you are not careful, you may be buried here. On the way to Namtso Lake, a car suddenly drove across and rushed down the cliff in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, the driver was skilled. He slammed on the brake, told us to get out of the car, and then reversed the car. Fortunately, there was no danger.

On the second day, halfway through the road, there was a sudden snowstorm, and the driver didn’t bring a tire chain, so he couldn’t drive up the ramp. We got out of the car and took off our coats, and spread them on the ground to prevent slipping. At three o’clock in the night, the car still couldn’t go through, and I fell to the ground with cramps due to lack of oxygen. In the panic, my classmates took turns pinching my jaw and people. On a snowy night, everyone struggled until five o’clock in the morning. When it was daylight, the car climbed up the slope with a distance of only more than 100 meters. The road ahead was much easier. When we arrived at the accommodation, it was already dawn. After a short rest, we went to the study site and practiced there for three or four months. After the hard work, our oral Nepali had significantly improved.

At the end of 1974, after returning from my internship, I was officially assigned to the Foreign Affairs Office of the Tibet Autonomous Region, where I was mainly responsible for receiving foreign guests and working with the Nepali Consulate General in Lhasa. The Foreign Affairs Office and the consulate had a lot of work together. They met almost every week, and they often invited each other to participate in some activities, such as large monthly banquets. At this time, I mainly did translation work. Because of this, during the foreign affairs office, my life was much better than that of my husband and friends, and I could attend banquets from time to time and taste delicacies.

Since I was learning Nepali, I mainly worked as a Nepali translator at first. Until 1982, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a group of English training courses specially for in-service cadres at the China Foreign Affairs University. I passed the exam and went to China Foreign Affairs University to study English, and it took two years to get a junior college diploma.

After 1978, more foreign friends came to Tibet to visit and travel. There were official groups, some tour groups, and some visit by themselves. Our Foreign Affairs Office only received official visitors. During this period, I also participated in the reception of many important foreign guests, such as former US President George W. Bush, the princess of Iran, the king and princess of Nepal, etc. I remember that when King Birendra of Nepal came to Tibet for the first time, I happened to be working in the countryside. The second time I went to Shigatse, I participated in the reception work that time. At that time, the Protocol Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also sent staff to receive them as first-class protocol treatment. The standards were very high and the lineup was very large. Even the guard of honor from Beijing was received.

During my tenure in the Foreign Affairs Office, I had the honor to travel abroad with the friendship delegation of Tibet Autonomous Region twice as a translator. The first time was in April 1980, when I visited Nepal with a goodwill delegation and stayed there for 15 days. The second time was in late 1985, when I was part of a delegation that visited Nepal and Thailand.

In addition to being engaged in reception at the Foreign Affairs Office and working with consulates, I also worked in the countryside for a whole year during my stay in Tibet. I still remember those difficult days vividly. It was the end of 1975. I went to Zuogong County, Qamdo Prefecture, where I ate, lived and worked with the common people in the front line of the countryside. During the day, we worked in the fields with the local people, carried a basket on our backs, picked up the stones and put them into the basket while digging the ground, and transported them to another place when it was full, and the cycle repeated. At that time, there were no tools, we had to rely on manpower. When the wheat is sown, how it grows is up to heaven. After dinner in the evening, we went to the team to participate in political studies. The local dialect is not the same as that in Lhasa, so we can only understand the general meaning, and we had to ask the accompanying translator from time to time.

When I first arrived, I lived in a room with two other female comrades. We built a bed on the floor, and the three of us slept in a corner. Later, when I went down to the team, I lived alone in an old man’s house. The house of the old man’s house was made of wood, and it is erected in the air, with cows, horses, sheep, etc. on the bottom, and people sleeping on the top. There was a main room on the upper floor. In the middle of the main room, there was a pot platform with pots on it, and butter tea is usually boiled. When they sleep, they surround themselves by the stove, spread their locally woven rugs, and cover themselves with the clothes they usually wear. There was also a daughter in his family. He slept on one side when he rests at night, and I shared space with his daughter on the other side, giving me a corner near the window. That year was very difficult. Looking back, I don’t know how I got through it.

The old man was very kind. Besides the tsampa and butter that he often ate every day, he would occasionally make me some doughball and turnip soup, which was already very good at that time. He would also give me a cup of yogurt every day, so I bought some sugar myself and mixed it in the yogurt to drink. It is this cup of yogurt every day that gave me great energy.

During the year, I was deeply impressed by the simplicity and kindness of Tibetans. Once I got a sudden illness, the working group found a local Tibetan and sent me to the county to see a doctor. He earnestly pulled a horse, let me sit on the horse’s back, and then pulled the horse for three days. Sometimes I was embarrassed to sit on the horse all the time, and he also didn’t want to ride, so I can only dismount and accompany him for a walk. Thinking about it now, that kind of simplicity was really touching.

In 1979, I also participated in the work of border demarcation, and boundary post repair between China and Nepal at that time. This work took half a year, and the environment at the border between the Tibet Autonomous Region and Nepal, near Gyirong County was very challenging. There were very few women in this job, and I went as an interpreter with another female comrade. At work, we are divided into seven or eight groups and work on different hills. We walked between the boundary pillars there. Whenever we reached a more suitable flat area, we would set up tents in the wild after negotiation between the two countries. The tents of the two countries were separated, and there was a boundary in the middle. When we had common affairs to negotiate, we would go to the tent specially set up as a conference room to negotiate, and then return to our respective camps.

In the past six months or so, some things are still vivid in my mind. What I remember most clearly is that one afternoon, I suddenly heard a rattling sound from the mountain. The Nepali staff was very experienced and immediately called me: “Miss Gao, the avalanche is coming, let’s go down the mountain quickly, hurry up and withdraw!” When I heard this, I hurriedly reported to the team leader. Everyone was a little hesitant at first, thinking it was unlikely, but the Nepali side moved very quickly, and immediately started to retreat after telling me. I said to the team leader: “Look, they are all gone, it seems that it can’t be a fake!” At this time, we started to pack up our things and evacuate. When we were only halfway there, an avalanche happened. Ice and snow poured down from the top of the mountain, making a rumbling noise, and instantly submerged the mountain where we were originally. It was very thrilling, and several people were almost buried under it.

I remember another time, when I was sleeping at night, teacher Wang who was in charge of drawing from the Foreign Affairs Office called me: “Little Gao, get up quickly, there seems to be something wrong, please get dressed quickly and don’t move, if there is anything, we will hurry up and retreat!” As I agreed, I was so frightened that I hurriedly got up to pack my luggage. There is no way to bring quilts, but only important items such as dictionaries and books. After waiting anxiously for a while, teacher Wang came again to tell us that the alarm was lifted. It turns out that the place near the border of Nepal in Gyirong County had a different climate from most parts of Tibet. The temperature here is very high, the birds are singing and the flowers are fragrant, and there are trees and rhododendrons all over the mountain, which is very beautiful. Tonight, a group of fireflies happened to come from the mountain. From a distance, they shot over like the light of a flashlight, which caused this misunderstanding.

In 1988, my husband and I were transferred back to Yangzhou to work. My husband also entered Tibet in 1972. He was a part of a group of confidential cadres trained in Tibet. He successively worked in the confidential department of the Tibet Autonomous Region Party Committee Office and the Secretariat. When I was transferred back to Yangzhou, it happened that Hanjiang set up the Foreign Economic and Trade Commission and needed English-speaking professional. I was introduced as an English-speaking professional and worked until I retired.

From setting foot on the vast land of Tibet in 1972 to leaving in 1988, during the 16 years, there was excitement and longing of youth when first arrived, there was also the hardships and fatigue of working day and night, and the thrills and challenges on the way forward. There is also the pride and satisfaction of completing each work task. Translation work is a bridge connecting China and the rest of the world. As a member of the translation work in the 1970s and 1980s, the work experience of the past ten years and the details of life in Tibet are an unforgettable part of my life. It is a nostalgia hidden deep in the heart.