The King and Us
WHEN I first told my son Ferran that the 17-year-old king of Tibet would be staying with our family for a week, he raised a 14-year-old eyebrow and said, “I hope he’s not expecting me to serve him.” My 17-year-old son, Alex, was more generous. “I think I should give the king my bed,” he said, wondering aloud if the king, who had been living in a Tibetan refugee settlement in India, would require security.
I didn’t think so, I told him.
A few days later Namgyal Wangchuk Lhagyari Trichen stood in the doorway of our West Village home. The king — he called himself Trichen — was dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt bearing a green silk-screened image of the Dalai Lama. I helped him carry his heavy suitcase and duffle bag upstairs, and ran to the grocery store to lay in royal supplies, like juice and potato chips.
Trichen (pronounced TREE-chin) had come to New York to attend the premiere of “My Country Is Tibet,” a 30-minute film that he directed under the auspices of BYkids, a group that pairs established filmmakers with youths around the world to make documentaries about their often-troubled lives. (A childhood pal of mine, Holly Carter, is the founder of BYkids.)
At the annual BYkids benefit, one donor jokingly told Trichen that, for guaranteed success with the ladies, “just tell them you’re a king.” No such introduction proved necessary. By the evening’s end a group of high school girls had flocked to Trichen’s side, offering to escort him to a jazz club or take him out for a night on the town. (Luckily for this chaperone, the king was tired.)
“I’m the king, so, of course, I’ve got lots of girls,” Trichen told an audience of high schoolers after a screening of the film a few days later. When the thunderous applause, hoots and whistles had finally subsided, he said: “Just kidding. I have three sisters. And you know how sisters are.”
“The hardest thing about being king,” Trichen added, “is that I can’t do whatever I wish, like you guys. You all have lots of — ”
Trichen couldn’t think of the word. But a teenager from the audience provided it: “freedom.”
The king screened his movie at schools around New York for two weeks, and he is scheduled to attend a documentary film festival in Washington that begins on June 22. While in New York, he also checked out various colleges, caught the Dalai Lama’s visit to Radio City Music Hall and met with Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University.
When he wasn’t engaged in these quasi-official activities, Trichen hung out with my family.
The first night, I was chopping potatoes, and my boyfriend, Alexis Rockman, was grilling a steak in the garden, when Ferran came home and told Trichen that his basketball game on the Lower East Side had ended in a fight.
Trichen smiled. “This happens in my school, too,” he said.
Ferran’s best friend, Alden, played lead guitar for a rock band, Bleecker Street, that had a gig that Sunday. Trichen, who plays drums with a band that has covered songs by the likes of Guns N’ Roses, was excited about going.
Ferran nodded and fired back, “Nirvana? Lady Gaga?”
Were the girls in Trichen’s school all crazy for Justin Bieber? Ferran wanted to know.
“The kid with the hair?” asked Trichen, making a sweeping gesture across his face. “Oh, yeah, they love him!”
Ferran said he was studying Mandarin in school. Trichen said “hello” in Mandarin. Ferran answered “hello” back. They both wrote their names in Mandarin, communicating peacefully in a language that Trichen undoubtedly associated with his own persecution.
A couple of nights later, after Trichen played the Internet games Tetra and Avalanche with Alex, he showed me Dehradun, the city where his family lived in India, on Google Maps. Though a direct descendant of King Songtsen Gampo, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the seventh century, Trichen had never seen his mother country; this, in fact, was his first trip out of India.
Trichen explained that after the Chinese took control of Tibet in 1959, his father — then king — had been sent to prison for 20 years. The queen died while he was behind bars, and the Dalai Lama urged the king to remarry and bear a son; he did. Trichen was in sixth grade at a Tibetan boarding school in Dharamsala when his father died.
According to Tibetan ritual, Trichen set fire to his father’s funeral pyre. His mother and eldest sister scattered his father’s ashes along the Ganges River. A year later, in 2004, Trichen was crowned.
“My family came to talk to me about all of my responsibilities,” he recalled. “It was really hard for me.”
After finishing high school last month, Trichen sought advice from the Dalai Lama. “His Holiness said I need a modern education,” he said. So he plans to attend an American university, then spend two years studying Buddhist philosophy. Then, he said, “His Holiness wants me to serve in the Tibetan community,” which he is excited to do.
Eventually Alex grew weary of sleeping on the floor of Ferran’s bedroom, and each of us, in our own way, was longing for a return to normalcy.
On Trichen’s last night with us, he decided to wander around Times Square with some Tibetan friends, and I had to pull rank on him, dialing his cellphone after midnight to say: “I cannot be up all night worrying about you. You have to come home right now.”
But during the 10 days Trichen stayed with our family — watching Jon Stewart; sampling his first Peking duck in Chinatown; playing tennis in Bedford, in Westchester County; and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge one balmy evening — we found ourselves repeatedly impressed by his composure.
One night, after discovering a flying cockroach in my bathroom, Ferran called down the stairs, “Hey, Trichen, could you help me out?” Like goofball policemen at a crime scene, they each held a sneaker, tapping a basket of towels and a pile of folded clothes trying to flush the bug out.
“Is it big?” Trichen asked.
“Yeah, it’s big. It flew in there,” Ferran said, pointing into my closet.
Trichen spotted the bug first, skittering from under a shoebox.
“Do you have a plastic bag we could put it in?” he asked.
“We’re going to kill it,” Ferran told him.
“O.K.,” Trichen said. “Sorry,” he told the cockroach, whacking it several times with a sneaker.
Ferran noticed it was still moving.
“I’m killing you again,” Trichen said. “Sorry.” He whacked the cockroach several more times. Then he wrapped it, tenderly, in a tissue and handed it to Ferran, who flushed it down the toilet.
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