There are over 10,000 Tibetans living in Beijing, many of them migrant workers that have moved to the Chinese capital from impoverished regions where the illiteracy rate lies at about 45 per cent.
With many migrants lacking language skills and facing discrimination, their chances for work are limited - particularly in areas predominently filled with Han Chinese.
Nowhere to Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing  is a new documentary that highlights the life of one such migrant.
“The more I learned about Zanta’s life, the more I felt it was important to tell her story," says Jocelyn Ford, director of the documentary.
Ford was no stranger to story-telling in China. An American expatriate who had lived in East Asia for three decades, she was an award-winning journalist for multiple radio programmes and a board member for the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China.
But never before had she found herself smack dab in the midst of a Tibetan family dispute.
Watch: Nowhere to Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing Trailer
Nowhere to Call Home culminates in such a feud, but the story begins with the introduction of a Tibetan woman named Zanta. Coming from a village where women are treated like second-class citizens, Zanta lost her husband at the age of 28.
Defying her tyrannical father-in-law, who forbade her from sending her seven-year-old son Yang Qing to school, Zanta took the boy and went east, settling in Beijing as a street vendor of Tibetan jewelry.
What followed was a hard life, with Zanta frequently encountering ethnic discrimination from many Han Chinese who had become distrustful of Tibetans in the wake of the region’s numerous protests and violent riots.
Low on money and without a proper place to stay, Zanta was at her lowest when Ford happened to stop by her jewellery stand one evening in 2005.
“When I initiated the first conversation with Zanta I had no intention of telling the life story of a Tibetan,” Ford says. “I thought it my responsibility as a journalist to know what brought so many of these Tibetans to Beijing, and I wanted to get a Tibetan contact should I need it in the future for a story.”
After that initial conversation between the women, there was no communication for two years. Then, one day Zanta suddenly contacted Ford, begging her to take Yang Qing as her own child. Zanta was low on money, unable to find a new school for her son and without options.
Ford didn’t take Yang Qing, but she did agree to help pay for his schooling.
What blossomed next was a friendship where Ford became a constant companion and confidant for Zanta and her son. Yang Qing even began calling the American woman “Mama Joce”.
“[I helped her because] Zanta faced adversity as an impoverished migrant street seller in the nation’s capital… at a time when national media was vilifying Tibetans,” Ford says. “I felt so incensed and angry when Zanta called in desperation because the chengguan street police were being brutal with her in front of her young son. The uniformed authorities stuffed her into a police vehicle as Zanta pleaded with [them] to be gentle because they were scaring [Yang Qing]. No child should experience this.
“Once you know what someone like Zanta is up against, and you know that it is within your power to make a small difference, how can you close a blind eye? I think what I did was quite normal. As a Caucasian foreigner I am often extended special undeserved privileges by Chinese society. Though it wasn’t always convenient, I felt I should share those privileges with Zanta.”
Eventually, thanks to encouragement from friends and the purchase of a camera, Ford was able to turn Zanta’s story into a feature-length documentary.
“I decided to give filmmaking my best shot after I realized that voices of people like Zanta, and the issues she was dealing with...had not been heard, and few were in a position to help her voice reach a wider audience.”
The day-to-day interactions between Zanta, Yang Qing and Ford became the backbone of Nowhere to Call Home, and eventually the trio traveled together to Tibet for Chinese New Year.
There, Ford came face-to-face with Zanta’s father-in-law, and through a long process of back-and-forth communication, eventually managed to convince the man to allow Yang Qing to continue his schooling in Beijing.
“When I traveled to Zanta’s village I had no idea I would be considered a kind of heavenly spirit who dispenses good karma,” Ford says. “I never ever imagined I would land myself plunk in the middle of a rather hairy Tibetan family feud.”
Despite the surprises that came with filming Nowhere To Call Home, Ford considers the experience well worth it, particularly for the chance to witness the challenges that rural Tibetans must face when transitioning from their secluded villages to modern urban environments.
“[Zanta] was brought up with no exposure to TV or the movies in her formative years… When we first met she’d never heard of America and was unaware of the intense international interest in Tibet. She often asked why anyone would be interested in her life—especially since she is an ‘unimportant’ woman."
Zanta’s plight and struggles are shared by many, and Ford hopes that the film can raise awareness of the tribulations of Tibetan migrants, many of whom only possess a barebones knowledge of Putonghua and have no means of reading Chinese characters.
“Saying ‘illiteracy is bad’ is a no-brainer, but I never really understood the depth of the tragedy of illiteracy until I met Zanta’s sisters,” Ford says. “They are not only illiterate; they don’t know numbers. They can’t dial a phone and depend on customers to make change on the streets… I’m hoping the documentary can be used as a tool to [teach] about the need for effective education opportunities in Tibetan areas.”
Nowhere to Call Home premiered at the Millenium Documentary Film Festival in Belgium and will be screened in Germany on May 10 and 12, with other festival appearances and an online screening possible in the future. The film has attracted a positive reception from both international and Chinese audiences.
“It’s important to remember that a large percentage of the Tibetan views that make it into the mainstream are representative of literate people, who represent only about half of the population,” Ford says. “A senior editor at a state media company joined a screening, and then asked me to screen for about 40 editors. He said Chinese don’t know what’s happening under their noses, and the film could go a long way toward improving understanding between Han Chinese and Tibetans.
“[Meanwhile], international audiences have been shocked to see that Tibet is not the fabled Shangri-la, but a society with...issues like any other society.”
As Zanta’s story transcends political boundaries, the Tibetan woman and her son are now living better lives, and Zanta is making ends meet selling jewelry at Beijing international bazaars.
The experience of meeting an American journalist and becoming the focus of a documentary has made her more aware of the world, but certain facets of Zanta’s “self-made” personality remain the same to this day.
“Zanta is a smart, principled, charismatic and resourceful woman who had an unfair shot at life,” Ford says. “[She] is still…living in a tiny room she rents for 500 [yuan] a month…But she is financially more stable than before, and this has reduced her stress and given her confidence to overcome other challenges that would once reduce her to tears.
“I expect Zanta’s understanding of the potential impact of her story will evolve as the film is released, and she observes the ripples I anticipate it will generate around the world.”