Giovanni Vassallo, an executive coordinator at UCSF, now 40, was just 10 years old when his father shipped him off to a monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. There, he and his brother studied Tibetan Buddhism, taking vows as monks before returning to the Bay Area about a year later.
Though Sicilian American, Giovanni’s father had been one of the first to practice – and teach – the Tibetan religion stateside. When Giovanni, whom his father had renamed Norbu Dorji Chan, returned to the Bay Area, he lived in his father’s Forestville monastery, attending elementary school classes in traditional robes. But of course, when he hit his teen years, he rebelled. “My father,” he says, “was … strict.” But he went back to being Giovanni.
For the next dozen years, he left all things monkish and lived in Louisiana and Texas, at first with his Cajun mother. At college he joined the ROTC, and later the Army, and served in the first Gulf War. But eventually he felt a void, a lack of solid ground, and was pulled back to California. “It took me a long time to reconcile the experiences of the Buddhism I had with my father,” he says. By 1995 his father had died, and the next year his attraction to the religion took him back to a Sebastopol center that some of his father’s followers had joined.
There, in 1997, he met Tsering Dolma, now 34, a Tibetan whose family had escaped from Tibet during the 1959 uprising against China and had resettled in India. In America as a tourist, Tsering met Giovanni after prayers one day. At first, the connection was about Giovanni helping Tsering with visa extensions, but love bloomed quickly. “Our hearts knew our fate before our brains,” Tsering says. In 1998, they married, and six months later were unexpectedly expecting. Tenzin, now 9, was named – as is tradition – by a Buddhist priest. Auspiciously, he was given his name by (and was named after) His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Both work full time (Tsering as a personal caretaker), but evenings and weekends are spent working for Tibetan rights and independence. Giovanni is president of both the Bay Area Friends of Tibet and the Committee of 100 for Tibet.
“My Tibetan friends and family were shattered by the Olympic torch coming through the city,” Giovanni says. “I have compassion for what they felt; I once wore the same robes as the monks recently shot down by the Chinese government.”
The family’s sweet-faced dog, Joel, wanders the living room of their Fillmore condo while dinner is being prepared by Tsering’s mother. Pictures of monks flank an altar set with flowers and statues of the Buddha. “I was lost until I found Tsering,” Giovanni says with a big smile. “I totally lucked out.”
“Me, too,” says Tsering, grinning. “He’s a good man.”
On how religion affects their relationship:
Giovanni: “We believe that we live multiple lives – at one time we were each other’s mothers. So … we care for each other like … a mother cares for her child.”
Tsering: “With unconditional love.”
Giovanni (laughing): “At least we strive to!”