One Home One Dream: Exploring Tibetan Diaspora in New York City

From Lhasa to New York

“Since 1959 we have all been refugees. For over 50 years all Tibetans are refugees,” proclaimed a speaker at the Beijing Olympics protest at the United Nations in New York. In 1951 Communist China formally annexed Tibetan territory and in 1959, the People’s Liberation Army suppressed an uprising in Lhasa where 87,000 people were reportedly killed.  

While “we are all refugees” seems like a simple statement, understanding the identity of the Tibetan Diaspora in New York City is not a simple task. It is difficult to determine accurate figures on Tibetans, but according to several different Tibetan NGOs there are roughly 5,000 to 6,000 Tibetans in New York. Today, the community in the greater New York area makes up the largest concentration of Tibetans in the United States and the western world. In total there are at least 130,000 refugees scattered throughout the world. With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, the Tibetan community in New York and the U.S. grew exponentially. 

The community in New York City is comprised of a myriad of personal backgrounds and views: Tibetans from Tibet, asylum seekers and refugees from India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibetan-Americans, American born Tibetans. The Tibetan community in New York City is diverse and resilient—at times unified, at times individualistic. The community of refugees living in exile have enjoyed new freedoms, and have united in a common wish to preserve Tibetan identity as well as to promote their distinct religious and cultural heritage. 

Tibetan Paradox

Nationality, according to common western perceptions, is obviously linked to a country, state, or territory. However none of these concepts apply to Tibet. Currently the region, created in 1965, is known as “the Tibet Autonomous Region,” a province of the People’s Republic of China, or according to the Government of Tibet in exile, Tibet is “the areas consisting of the traditional provinces of Amdo, Kham, and Ü-Tsang.” Tibet is not a recognized state by the United Nations, and there is no consensus on the geographical locations of its frontiers.

No one can deny, however, that Tibet is unique, with its own language, culture, food, dress, history, and customs.  Some Tibetans in New York City were born in Tibet, later moving to refugee camps in India, Nepal, or Bhutan, but many were born in India, and have never even seen Tibet. “I can only imagine my home, it is beautiful, I want to go back,” says Dawa Tsering, a Tibetan translator for the New York City Immigration Court. Although he says he wants to go back, he was born in a Tibetan settlement in India and has never visited Tibet.  The concept of “going back” is prevalent among many of the India or Nepal born Tibetans. 

The only legal proof of being Tibetan seems to be the “Green Book,” issued by the Central Tibetan Administration, or the Tibetan Government in Exile. According to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, “the Green Book is a receipt book that details annual voluntary contributions made by Tibetans living in exile to the Tibetan Government in Exile.” The goal of this document, according to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is “to become a base to claim Tibetan citizenship.” Concerning eligibility, the CTA defines a Tibetan as "any person born in Tibet, or any person with one parent who was born in Tibet.” 

How long will this definition apply to those Tibetan refugees living and raising their children in the U.S., far from Lhasa and their Tibetan parents? Will eligibility for the Green Book be expanded for American born Tibetans who do not have one parent born in Tibet? These appear to be tough questions that many do not wish to consider since it implies the permanence of a Tibet that is not free, not recognized, and that has no flag flying outside the United Nations Building among the flags of other nations.

Helping Others

When Tibetans describe their community in New York they use words like “powerful, helpful, strong, unified.” Many Tibetans interviewed mentioned wanting to help others and wishing to give back. Dawa Tsering, a Tibetan translator, who was born and raised in a Tibetan refugee camp in southern India, says he wanted to be a translator to help other Tibetans gain asylum, in addition to translating at hospitals and for the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. Tsering’s parents faced torture and persecution, but were able to flee Tibet in 1959 when the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government went into exile in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, North India. The Chinese Government’s violence, mistreatments, and persecution were part of Tsering’s family history. 

Standing outside the Chinese Mission during a protest in Manhattan, Tenzin Namdol, a second year student at Hunter College majoring in education, also expressed her desire to help not only her community, but people all over the world.  “I want to help other people, I would like to work for that program that Kennedy started to send help to other countries,” referring to the Peace Corps. 

But what worried Namdol most was in her words, the “Americanization” of Tibetan youth. “The young Tibetans growing up here can’t even speak their own language well, but I am teaching them.” Her four little cousins played on Gameboys and iPods as she protested and shouted “China is a liar.” Namdol described growing up in India and coming to the U.S. when she was in middle school. “My dad won the lottery to come to the U.S., and then he worked for four years until he was able to bring us over here.” Namdol still has a strong link to Tibet, she spends at least one day every month to protest and hold signs, and hopes that she will be able to help the younger generation preserve Tibetan identity and culture. 

“Everyday for the past 5 months”

On August 12, standing outside the Chinese Embassy in New York during pouring rain and lightning, Sonam Wangdue, a young Tibetan activist in a yellow poncho shouts “Down with Hu Jintao.” Wangdue works as the Director of Public Relations for the Tibetan Youth Congress of New York & New Jersey, which he says proudly is “the largest and the oldest NGO that advocates for the Tibetan cause.” Back in India, where he was born and raised, Wangdue was the President of the Tibetan Youth Congress chapter in Dharamsala. He has always been active in fighting for a free Tibet, but says he moved to the U.S. to protest more effectively and freely.   

“I had a hard time in India. I have been persecuted by the Indian Police.” Wangdue talks with vigorous hand gestures under his yellow poncho, and finally slips his hands out from under the plastic sheet—one finger has been cut off—and says “we are free to organize here and we have been protesting everyday for the past 5 months since the March uprising in Tibet.” 
 
Arriving in New York 18 months ago, Wangdue claimed political asylum, but the judge denied his case. The case has been appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, but Wangdue has not been able to locate an immigration lawyer to work his case pro bono. Tsering, who has vast experience as a Tibetan translator for Immigration courts, had warned about the difficult position of asylum seekers. “When they arrive at the airport on the American soil, they can put up their hands and say: ‘I am Tibetan, I was persecuted in my country, I am seeking asylum.’” However, they are often put in detention centers straight from the airport. Tsering says “detention judges are less lenient since you are perceived as committing a crime by illegally entering the American territory.” 

Jessica Glynn, who works for The Immigration Law Project at SafeHorizon in Queens, says asylum seekers have a better chance of winning their cases if they voluntarily seek asylum status. Tibetans, as Glynn contends, have a better chance of being granted asylum since judges are familiar with their situation; however, several Tibetans are denied asylum, and they often remain here illegally.  There are no accurate statistics on the number of Tibetan asylum seekers since they are categorized together with Chinese dissidents. The unofficial advice of immigration lawyers is “to disappear if you lose your case.” Indeed, Wangdue was not granted asylum. “They think I am a native of India, but I am no Indian citizen! I have my green book, I am Tibetan.”

Balancing a Cohesive Community with Individual Pursuits

Tibetans consider the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the spiritual Commander in Chief of the Tibetan community in exile. After 1959, realizing that this exile would remain a long-term situation, he organized in Dharamsala a “Little Lhasa.” He created a Tibetan education system in order to teach the Tibetan children the traditional language, history, religion, and culture. He supported the re-funding of 200 monasteries and nunneries in an attempt to preserve Tibetan Buddhist teachings and the Tibetan way of life. These organizations are made possible because Tibetans in India live together in autonomous and almost self-sufficient communities. Although neither Dharamsala, Bylakuppe or any other Tibetan camp in India and Nepal are closed and exclusively Tibetan, the Tibetan population still represents a cultural and ethnic majority.  

This is not the case in New York City. Relatively speaking when compared to other ethnic groups, Tibetans make up a small community. Here Tibetan refugees don’t have similar structures or capacities that allow them to preserve their culture  as easily. Thupten Norbu, who sits on the executive committee for the Tibetan Association of Northern California  (TANC) affirms that, “here in the U.S. you have to make a greater effort to keep the links with Tibet. People don’t live all together, they have their own apartments, they go to American schools. But their Tibetan fellows are the only things that reminds them of their home. That’s why they are and have to be really organized.” Additionally, Wangchuk Shakaba, National Coordinator of U.S. Tibet Committee, argues that “strong family connections play the most important role in keeping the Tibetan diaspora together and make them able to preserve their culture.” 

But even if they run the risk of losing part of their identity, the Tibetan refugees have resettled here in order to make a better life or just to simply survive. This issue mainly deals with the diverse reasons why the Tibetan refugees in New York City decided to leave their homes. Individualism plays a great role in this decision and contrasts the notions of community implemented in the settlements in India and Nepal. In the 1970s His Holiness the Dalai Lama requested that Robert Thurman, Columbia University professor, often regarded as the pre-eminent scholar of Tibetan Studies, create a Tibetan cultural institution, now known as Tibet House.  The institution introduces Tibetan culture to people through films, publications and raises funds to support Tibetan cultural projects like art departments in schools. Currently, one project under way that could encourage more unity is the creation of a community center that would provide Tibetans an opportunity to meet in one place—to have a common “home” again. Such a project is very expensive, and Tibetan associations are raising funds in order to purchase a meeting space. 

Education

When asked for the reasons he left India, Thupten Norbu mentioned education as a decisive factor. The Tibetan boarding school system in India has transformed a society of exiled Tibetans into a highly literate group; many Tibetan refugees in India have sought higher education in both India and the U.S. 

Traditionally monasteries offered a route to acquiring an education. “Tibetan monasteries are the equivalent of your western universities,” affirmed Kunga Tseten, a former monk born in Nepal who arrived in New York seven years ago. Tseten, who walked with a limp because of a soccer injury he experienced during his time in the monastery, says Tibetans view religion differently. “Religion for Tibetans isn’t the same as it is for Americans. In my experience Americans can get uneasy about religion, but we look at it as a way of life, a way to educate ourselves.” 

In Exile as Challenge, Bernstorff, a professor at the University of Munich, found that the Tibetan exile community has remarkably transformed literacy levels. Bernstorff writes that traditionally “Tibetan lay society was largely illiterate, but within two generations the literacy level among 15-24 year olds had risen to 97%.” Education has been regarded highly within the exile community. Thupten Jigme Norbu, the eldest brother of the 14th Dalai Lama, was one of the first high-profile Tibetans to go into exile and is often cited as the first Tibetan to settle in the United States. In 1950, he decided to leave Tibet and attempt to educate the world about the atrocities in Tibet. He served as Professor of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. In 1979, Thupten Jigme Norbu founded the Tibetan Cultural Center (TCC) in Bloomington, a center devoted to preserving Tibetan culture and religion. 

But in New York, Tibetans are growing concerned with how to educate younger children about their culture and language.  As a result, they have organized school classes over the weekend for the new generation. Shakaba explains, “That is the place, apart from the home, where they teach them the language as well as give them the knowledge about Tibetan values, traditions, beliefs, and attitudes.”

Recreating a Home in “Little India”

In Jackson Heights, Queens the heart of “Little India” is on 74th Street between Roosevelt Avenue and 37th Avenue.  Here you find  gold shops, TV screens showing flirting Bollywood characters, and curry houses. Though the streetscapes are dominated by Indian and other South Asian ethnicities, Tibetans have found a place that gives them comfort. “I like to eat in Jackson Heights,” Tsering says with an excited face.  Wangdue explains, “so many of us grew up in Tibetan settlements in India. We can speak Hindi, the food is comfortable and good.” 
It seems that the neighborhood life has truly become a substitute in the place of Tibetan settlements in India. A few Tibetan entrepreneurs dot the street, and colorful Tibetan prayer flags hang among the Indian jewelry and Sari shops. There is the Yak Restaurant where you can eat Tibetan food and drink the po cha, a Tibetan tea with yak butter and salt. The Tibetans say this tea was very practical in their lives back home—it provided lots of calories and is particularly suited for high altitudes. The butter also helps prevent chapped lips. In the restaurant you find people sipping tea and eating the doughy Tsampa, a Tibetan staple food. This extremely diverse district forces the Tibetan community to mix and to adapt, but on the other hand, it respects the strong cultural identity of the Tibetan diaspora. 

Tibetan/American Exceptionalism

The waves of Tibetan immigration have been recent and slow. “Tibetans came so late to the U.S. In the sixties, there were ten to twelve Tibetans here; in the seventies around a hundred, and in the eighties a thousand, and now there are many,” estimated Tsering, the Tibetan translator. Many Tibetans feel welcomed and accepted in the US since they don’t face as much criticism from native populations as other ethnic groups.

The U.S. government offers certain opportunities to Tibetan refugees. “People who are fleeing from Nepal, India, and Tibet prefer to go to the U.S. because here they are welcome.  The U.S. Congress gives them grants to come to the U.S.  It is quite easy for them to get asylum status, especially in New York, because the judges are very sensitive to them,” contended Shakaba, National Coordinator of the U.S. Tibet Committee. 

This American affinity for Tibetans and their cause was also reflected in the recent decisions of the Congress to award the United States Congressional Gold Medal to the 14th Dalai Lama on October 17, 2007. Tibetans have even affected local elected officials and policy makers in New York. On March 29, 2000, the New York City Council adopted a resolution which recognized the sovereignty of Tibet (including the Tibet Autonomous Region and all Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan Provinces) as an occupied country, and stated that Tibetan people have the right to control their own economic development, and proclaimed that China should enter into good faith negotiations with representatives of the Tibetan government in exile. 

Politics: A Dirty Word?

Tibetan organizations are especially active and visible on the streets of New York. Since March 14th 2008, in response to the riots and unrest in Tibet, Tibetans living in New York have been protesting every single day, regardless of weather conditions in front of the Chinese Embassy located in Manhattan between 12 Avenue and 42nd Street. But the Tibetans do not view what they are doing as political. 

Tseten, exclaimed outside the Chinese Embassy, “This is not politics, this is human rights. I’m not political—the word is dirty—I am for the lives of others as well as mine.” The community of Tibetans are so active in protesting to the extent that five of Namdol’s friends have been fired because of missing work too many times. 

The resistance against Tibet’s colonization is a part of the Tibetan identity. There is no doubt that it defines an authentic core of Tibetan culture based deeply in Buddhist principles. Buddhism embodies the interconecctedness of the community, combining cultural mores and daily life practices. Kunga Tseten says “It is our way of life. Buddism believes in love and compassion. If you don’t follow it, you don’t practice it.” Adding political weight to these connections is part of establishing national unity. Tibetans living in the United States started to organize themselves and set up community-based organizations which afterwards created a worldwide network. Now in New York there are at least five very active Tibetan organizations: Students for Free Tibet (SFT), Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), U.S. Tibetan Committee, Tibetan Women's Association, and the Tibetan Community School of New York & New Jersey. These Tibetan organizations play a crucial role in advocating for their interests, concerns and integration.

Tibetans reiterate that the political project of freeing Tibet is a collective and nonviolent goal, but that individuals perform personal  acts of identity and political engagement. Sonam Wangunde at the Human Rights Convention in Geneva conducted a fourteen-day hunger strike to garner international attention and to call for a self-governing autonomous region. He strongly believes that each action is important and is happy if he can attract even five new people to join the Tibetan protest in New York City. 

Tenzin Tsundue, writer-activist and figurehead for the “Free Tibet” movement, pointed out that Tibetans are waging the “last peaceful struggle for freedom in the world.” Tibetans believe in peace and follow the words of the Dalai Lama. The recent episode when a protester broke the window of the Chinese consulate during the protest reflects a concern that the struggle for freedom will become violent one day. Kunga Tseten said, “they who are acting in violence are frustrated, angry. Tibetans are human beings after all.” Tseten lamented that “the future of the nonviolent movement is questionable, especially after His Holiness.” Shakaba, however, said that Tibetans “are not going to turn violent, but people are anxious since the Dalai Lama is aging.”

Perspectives on U.S. Presidential candidates 

Though the community largely does not consider themselves political, Tibetans are quite savvy about U.S. politics and its realities. Tseten said he enjoyed talking about politics with the old man who he assists to make a living. “I think I like Obama, and the old man I take care of does too.”

Tibetans feel that the Presidential candidates, John McCain and Barak Obama would both support Tibetan issues. Thupten Norbu showed this optimism as well: “I believe that both candidates will be for human rights and religious freedom. Both have shown interest and compassion for Tibet. Even Bush, though he has done many things where people have dissented, on the Tibetan issue he has done work. Both presidential candidates will work for Tibet says Richard Gere, but it is hard to know without seeing what they have done before.” 

Kunga Tseten agrees, but stresses Tibetans must consider the character and integrity of politicians. “Well if you are a clean glass, then what you pour in and out will be clean. I have a monk view of politics.” He added later his support for Obama. “Barak Obama is bringing people together and from my view this is a good thing. But Bush was not bad to us Tibetans, I am not speaking about his other policies—I realize he divides people.” Sanom, the P.R Director, shared his views as well, saying, “We don’t know the system, but I believe our sympathies are with the Democrats.”

Tibetans have various views on U.S. presidential candidates, but it is interesting that while the most recent AP/Ipsos poll shows President Bush’s disapproval rating at 66 percent, the Tibetan New York City community shows a much higher approval rating for him. 

Persecution and Torture

Some left Tibet not as an individual choice, but because they were forced to leave to save their lives. This is the case of Mr. Lobsang, a Tibetan asylum seeker who fled Tibet in 2002 to escape persecution and torture. We met him at the New York Federal Immigration Court, where Norbu, the translator, helped him to defend his case. Mr. Lobsang was not an activist. His crime was simply possessing a Tibetan flag and a videotape of the Dalai Lama given to him by a traveling monk. 

On an early morning in June, the Chinese police burst through the door of his house, and after finding the two “illegal” items, they brought him to jail. While in jail, the 26-year-old man described to the judge the mistreatments he underwent. He was kept in a small cell, and was beaten everyday for several hours for two weeks. To escape, he lied to the police, saying he could lead them to the monk who had given him the flag and the tape. In fact, he knew that the monk had already left for India, but he needed to make that promise to get out of jail and flee from the police. 

While the police were looking for the monk, they stayed one night in a hotel. That night, Mr. Lobsang escaped from the room while the three policemen were sleeping. He went to the house of friends, and left for Nepal the next morning, leaving his wife and children behind. From there, he flew to New York City, arrived at JFK, and claimed political asylum in the airport. He still believes his wife is in Lhasa, but has had no news from her since he arrived in 2002. 

Beijing Olympics, “A Genocide Olympics”

Tibetans, at the “Light a Candle for Tibet” event, believed that their light proclaimed  they would not let Tibet be forgotten during the Olympics. Pierre de Coubertin in Paris, father of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, said, “The games have always brought people together in peace to respect universal moral principles.” He believed that the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part. Tibetans don’t’ have this opportunity.

The Beijing Olympics which began on August, 8, 2008 epitomized the different stories being played out on an international stage. Thupten Norbu said before the Olympics that this “is a time for Tibetans to tell their story. The world is focused on China right now, and we want to maximize the attention.” The Dalai Lama and the government in exile considere the Olympic Games as a way to open the eyes of the world to the current situation in China. However, Sonam Wangunde disagreed with this official statement, believing that  accepting the Olympics gave the world an impression that China embodied this Olympic spirit.  According to Wangunde   China did not deserve “this certificate” since  the Olympic Games are “about peace and brotherhood” and such an outstanding event should not have taken place in a country that notoriously violates basic human rights.

Wangunde exclaimed that, “The Chinese tell lies—it is not communism.  Only a few people reap the benefits from that powerful economy.”  The Dalai Lama is more committed to principles behind communism than the Chinese government is.”

Wangunde feels strongly about the dynamics at play between China and Tibet: “Certain things may never work.  Mice and cats cannot coexist together with compassion for each other. The same is true for our situation with China, the Chinese are uncivilized people. We have to be separate, but be very good neighbors.”

At the international “Light a Candle for Tibet” event in Union Square, Qristina, a participant, said, “I guess I actually feel like a person, someone who's perhaps useful and able to make a difference. I think that not only are we lighting candles for Tibetan freedom, but perhaps just as much for the freedom we've found on the journey getting here.” 

Divided Loyalties?

In the Tibetan diaspora, His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds a central position. Through his global profile, and  Tibetan  transnational political structures, he creates images of Tibet, builds community and works toward Tibetan self-determination. Tibetan diasporic identities are contested, complex and rooted in not one but many narratives of struggle. A female college student, Tenzin Namdol still has a strong concept of where home is. “Home is Tibet, though I have never seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen pictures. It’s beautiful.  I want to go back some day.” Though she has never lived in Tibet, she still says, “go back” as if she will return one day to a place she knows solely through photographs, stories, and imagination. However, her position differs from Sonam Wangunde. Though he considers himself Tibetan, home for him is in India where he was born and grew up. 

If returning to the homeland is an option, several Tibetans in exile say they would still live in the U.S.  They would not necessarily give up the lives they have created to move to Tibet.  Tseten says they are fighting for the freedom of Tibetans in the TAR and for their relatives. According to professors Houston and Wright “return does not invoke a physical return to a homeland, but rather a repeated revisiting to the concept of homeland via texts, imagery and social and religious rituals.”

Citizenship is very important to the Tibetans in New York; for many it represents security. Tseten described his feelings about citizenship: “I was born a refugee.  I am very excited to become a citizen of a country for the first time in my life.  Refugee sounds cute to many people, but it is not at all.   As a refugee America represented freedom.” 

Citizenship for the Tibetans does not necessarily mean a change in how they identify themselves.  For many, including Tseten, the Tibetan identity is deep rooted: “It’s not what you eat, what you wear, it is who you are inside that defines your identity.” 

Even though Tibetans have doubts about U.S. society, most apply for citizenship if possible. Sanom Wangunde is not only a Tibetan activist, he is also an actor and his dream is to act in films.  Perhaps the exiled Tibetans living in the U.S. are carrying out an important aspect of being human, an aspect that the Dalai Lama stresses: creativity. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “I believe that an important aspect of being human is creativity and that to be  able to exercise creativity, people need to be free. Those of us in exile have experienced that freedom, and, even as refugees we have learned something of its value.” The exiled Tibetans living in New York have demonstrated remarkable resilience, and even happiness, during times of tragedy, and they are now learning what it means to be free, a freedom that  they do not take for granted and that is a  continual source of hope. 

References

Books

Bernstorff, Dagmar and Hubertus von Welck. Exile as Challenge: The Tibetan 
Diaspora. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2004.

Online Journals and Publications

Houston, Serin., Wright, Richard. “Making and remaking Tibetan diasporic identities.”, Social & Cultural Geography 4, June 1, 2003. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14649360309062

Parker, Karen. “Understanding Self-Determination: The Basics.”, First International Conference on the Right to Self-Determination (2000), http://130.94.183.89/parker/selfdet.html

Street, Crystal. “Peace, War and Defense.”, Visual Communication (2006), http://cf.unc.edu/our/surfprojects/street06.pdf

Thurman, Robert. “Tibet House.”, Weblog, February 6, 2008. http://gothamist.com/2008/02/06/robert_thurman.php

U .S . Tibet Committee, " Resolution 1299 – The City Council of New York by Council Member Avella”, NY. August 2, 2008. http://www.ustibetcommittee.org/#res.%201299

Newspapers

Kristof, Nicholas. “An Olive Branch From the Dalai Lama”, New York Times, August 6, 2008.  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/07/opinion/07kristof.html?ref=opinion

Personal Interviews

Tsering, Dawa. Translator and Interpreter, New York City Federal Immigration Court, Bellevue Hospital. August 6, 2008. 

Glynn, Jessica. Lawyer, Immigration Law Project, SafeHorizon. Queens, NY, August 4, 2008.

Namdol, Tenzin. Hunter College Student. NY, August 8, 2008

Norbu, Thupten. Executive Committee Member, Tibetan Association of Northern California. San Francisco, CA. August 12, 2008.

Shakaba, Wangchuk. National Coordinator, U.S. Tibet Committee. New York, NY. August 8, 2008. 

Tseten, Kunga. Participant of protest, NY. August 11, 2008.

Wangunde, Sonam. Public relations, Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of New York & New Jersey, NY. August 11, 2008. 

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