It started with a hug from the Dalai Lama. In 2008, Amy Yee ’96 was working in Delhi as a Financial Times correspondent when she was sent to Dharamshala—the Himalayan town that is home to the Tibetan government in exile—to report on protests in Tibet. Arriving late to the Dalai Lama’s press conference, Amy sat on the floor in the front, grabbing His Holiness’s attention. Afterward, the Dalai Lama approached her, asking if she was Chinese. Amy explained that she is American but her parents are from Hong Kong. The Dalai Lama gave Amy a hug and said: “Tibet and China must discuss. It is between us.”
This scene opens Amy’s new narrative nonfiction book Far from the Rooftop of the World: Travels among Tibetan Refugees on Four Continents, which has a foreword by the Dalai Lama.
“I was fascinated with Dharamshala,” says Amy, who eventually moved there. “You can see what Tibetan culture would look like if allowed to flourish freely.” In Tibet, it is illegal to keep a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, Dharamshala is home to over 10,000 Tibetans: some refugees, some born in exile in India.
While Amy was trained as a journalist, when writing her book, she realized she sometimes wasn’t a “fly on the wall” but a “fly in the soup,” she says. “I couldn’t not write about the fact that I am Chinese American,” explains Amy, whose identity affected her interactions. She was surprised to find Tibetans excited to chat with her in Mandarin. “The Dalai Lama encourages good relationships between Tibetan and Chinese people. Tibetans can distinguish Chinese people from the Chinese government, which is more than what many Americans can do,” says Amy, referring to the violence toward Asian people in the U.S. during the COVID pandemic.
An English and history double major, Amy credits Wellesley with her first experience in Asia. She received the Elisabeth Luce Moore ’24 Wellesley-Yenching Fellowship, and she moved to Nanjing after graduating. “In 1996, China was not a place people wanted to go,” says Amy. “You only went there if you were very adventurous. … Thank goodness I took Mandarin at Wellesley!”
Amy encourages everyone to study a language at Wellesley and to travel abroad. “Honestly, I took the Nanjing fellowship because I didn’t get a job,” says Amy, laughing. But it changed her life and the course of her career.