It is clear from the very beginning of this fast-paced memoir (published in March 2007 by Free Press) that the author has had an unparalleled life. As a young man hoping to further his education he seeks the advice of a counselor. With no precedents to follow in advising Meston, the counselor tells him he is, quite literally, “a group of one.” I was fascinated, as I think any reader would be. I was especially interested because much of the geographical landscape he covers is familiar to me--I’ve been to Xining, China, where the book begins; I visited Kathmandu in the late ‘80s, shortly after Meston’s departure; I even went to grad school in Boston at the time Meston was a struggling student at Brandeis.
Meston was born to wandering hippie parents, Feather and Larry Greeneye, who eventually arrived with him in India when Meston was still a toddler in the ’70s. When his father suffered a mental breakdown and his mother invested herself completely in the Buddhism she came there to study, the little blond boy was placed with a Nepalese family in Kathmandu. Eventually he became a boy-monk in a monastery there and was raised there, knowing that he didn’t really belong. Not surprisingly, the shifting relationships with caregivers and the abandonment by his mother confused the young Meston, and left him with a lifelong resentment that he has only recently been able to overcome.
It is not hard to share Meston’s astonishment at his mother’s detachment, which can’t entirely be explained by her devotion to Buddhism. In fact, the family history suggests that her own childhood—the offspring of an unstable mother and a famous father—fostered her low self-esteem and addictive predilections. Her way of coping was to withdraw from people, which the monastic life abetted, and that meant also cutting ties with her son. The result, though, was a deeply insecure child, one who struggled in the monastery and, later in America, in the classroom and in most of his human interactions.
Especially after Meston returns to America, his story reads almost like a science fiction account of an alien come to earth, confronting a strange language, inexplicable customs, peculiar food. (Hot dog? What a concept, after you’ve just met the pets of your host family!) It even occurred to me as I was reading that if this story were fiction I might not finish it because it is just too implausible. Imagine, a Caucasian child, born in Europe to American parents, who speaks only Tibetan and Nepali, arrives in California. And then what? How will he react? How will he survive? But it’s all real and very readable.
Eventually, through hard work and despite his insecurities, Meston earns an education, including a degree from Brandeis, acquiring a Tibetan wife along the way. As he matures he also gradually comes to understand his mother and father and even connect with them, although forgiveness will only come later. Supported by his wife, armed with his new education and his Tibetan skills, Meston begins to work for Tibetan causes. And that’s what gets him into trouble.
This trouble—at the hands of the police in the Chinese province of Qinghai—provides the book with its underlying tension. The book in fact begins with the adult Meston in custody, contemplating suicide to evade his captors, and his life history is delivered as a way of explaining how he came to that point. I suspect that very few readers will be familiar with World Bank-financed project that Meston was in China to investigate, and of the few who are probably only those who worked for the World Bank’s China Department at the time—as I did—will be put off by Meston’s characterization of the Project. The planned loan by the Bank, known to us as the “Western Poverty Project,” had several components, one of which was to assist in the relocation of extremely poor farmers (some Han Chinese, others of minority nationalities) from dry, high-elevation, untenable land to an area in Qinghai Province that could be supported with irrigation for agriculture. Also part of the Project were schools, community centers and health clinics that would have aided both the relocated farmers and the native population consisting partly of ethnic Tibetans. As a result of the actions of well-intentioned foreign activists such as Meston, who in writing about both the Project and his captivity comes across as naïve and somewhat uninformed about the Project’s objectives, that component of the Project was scrapped. The activists claimed victory, as Meston notes, but of course the losers were not the Chinese government or the World Bank. The losers were some of the poorest people in the world who did not get the assistance and services that they desperately needed.
Also glossed over in this discussion is that the Project was to take place in Qinghai, a wide open area that once was part of “Greater Tibet” in that many of the people who live there are ethnic Tibetans, but which has been under Chinese control for a very long time. It is not part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region which is the subject of Tibetan independence movements, but, unfortunately, most readers will be unaware of the distinction.
But these are technicalities that do not, really, detract from the astonishing story that Meston is telling. His life as a child in a Buddhist monastery struggling to understand why his mother has left him, and then his later struggles to fit into an American world he barely comprehends, make for a thoroughly enjoyable read.