Little Tibet By the Bay
Richmond is now the hub for Tibetan Americans living in exile in the Bay Area.
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Photo by Lori Eanes
TANC President Kelsang Jungney says the East Bay has alwasy been a welcoming place to Tibetans.
Tibet lies in the Tibetan plateau of Asia on the northern side of the Himalayas, nicknamed “the roof of the world” for its tall mountains. It was once the home of the Dalai Lama. Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and was but a teenager when the Chinese communist revolution broke out. In 1951, China took over Tibet, and then eight years later, the Tibetan Uprising began, leading to the Dalai Lama and many others fleeing the country. Tibetans established an exiled government in Dharamsala, India, which is now called the Central Tibetan Administration.
To Tibetans today, Tibet is an occupied country with no United Nations representation. This remains a key point for many in exile, whose views range from fighting for Tibet’s complete independence from China to a more moderate view of wanting Tibet to be an autonomous region within China.
In the United States, there is an Office of Tibet, which includes branches of the Tibetan government in exile. The Office of Tibet in Washington, D.C., is connected to all of the Tibetan community organizations, like TANC, of which there are 30 or so across the country.
The United States is a third country for many Tibetan refugees, after leaving Tibet and resettling in Nepal or India. “Individually, I think Tibetans here are doing really well,” Jungney said. He notes that many East Bay Tibetans are entrepreneurial, opening small shops in Berkeley and elsewhere—even some former monks have opened small businesses.
But the struggle to maintain a culture is made more difficult by the fact that exiled Tibetans cannot return to home or even visit it. If Tibetans become U.S. citizens, they can apply for a visa, but may be rejected or persecuted once they arrive in China or Tibet.
Very few have successfully visited their homeland, and anyone who has been associated with the Dalai Lama or is considered an activist has virtually no chance of doing so. These are the same people who feel a deep sympathy for fellow Tibetans suffering from atrocities in the Tibetan region, including the Chinese government burning monasteries and imprisoning activists, and monks committing self-immolation (suicide as a sacrifice) in protest. Tibetan Americans interviewed for this story all said they feel it’s their responsibility to continue to bring awareness to what is happening in Tibet.
“We really want some freedom for Tibetans in Tibet,” said Tsering Choetsok, a mother whose children attend the weekend Tibetan school in Berkeley. “They are the ones who are suffering the most right now.”
Like many immigrant parents raising children in the Bay Area, Tibetan-American parents want their children to learn their language and culture. A core part of the community is the Sunday school, named Namchod Kyetsel (roughly translated to “garden of intellects”). About 175 children attend every weekend in Berkeley. The school was started by TANC in 2007, and kids start going there at an early age; there is a “0-5” program for the youngest ones. The Bay Area Tibetan school currently operates out of the Berkeley Adult School. The school is unique in that it focuses not only on language learning, but on learning traditional arts.
“I think they have more interest in music, song, and dance and traditional Tibetan instruments,” said Dhonyo Tenzin, educational councilmember of the Sunday school, referring to Tibetan-American school children. “They see a variety, so they are more happy to come to the school.”
The leaders and instructors try to remain relevant, not only by teaching language and arts, but by making learning fun. Anyone who has attended weekend language school knows that it can be a chore, especially when peers are relaxing or playing during the weekend.
In addition to using traditional folk music and art to teach language, parents and instructors say they’re using YouTube videos to share Tibetan culture. “There is no shortage of videos, from music videos to [Tibetan] opera and performances,” said Ugyen Tsering, a past principal of the school. Parents and teachers said that the internet has also allowed for a resurgence of interest and awareness of Tibetan issues for the younger generation.
For parents, the weekend school is also a way to stay connected to the larger Tibetan-American community. Choetsok, who is in nursing school, said that her kids don’t have a lot of Tibetan friends at their local school in El Sobrante, but every weekend, they get to see their Tibetan school friends. “It is like a family now,” she said.
She has even reunited with a childhood friend. Both attended the Tibetan Children’s Village school, a boarding school originally founded by the Dalai Lama for impoverished or orphaned Tibetan children in Dharamsala, India. “We didn’t talk much in India.” Now, they are best friends, reunited across the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to attending the Sunday school, her children take music lessons from Tsering Bawa, a renowned Tibetan-American performing artist who teaches the tungna, a stringed instrument.
On a recent Saturday morning, several children were practicing in Bawa’s studio, which includes outdoor space for kids to enjoy some sunshine, too. Most of the children, ranging from 6 to 12 years old, were beginners, and the songs they learned were in Tibetan.
Bawa was recruited to the United States to teach young Tibetans and to continue a tradition. He attended the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, or TIPA, in Dharamsala. TIPA preserves the community’s cultural arts, including folk music and dance, and many former students become teachers and are highly regarded as cultural-bearers of the Tibetan arts. Bawa has performed throughout Europe and the United States, and moved to the United States for better opportunities for his children. He is also the cultural consultant and choreographer for The Oldest Boy, a play by Sarah Ruhl that premiered in 2014 at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.