Little Tibet By the Bay

Richmond is now the hub for Tibetan Americans living in exile in the Bay Area.


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TPhoto by Lori Eanes

Students learn Tibetan music, art, and language at the Sunday school.

For younger children, learning the language and dance of their homeland keeps them connected. Tsering, the former principal, said most of the children who attend the Sunday school are fluent in Tibetan. “Ninety-five percent of the school children can speak and understand,” he said. He added that although there is fear that members of the third generation will lose their culture, the younger generation is actually more interested in learning.

“I think the most important thing is that they grow up feeling like they are Tibetan,” said Dechen Chonzom, whose children take language and music lessons at the Sunday school and with Bawa.


Courtesy of Chungppo Tsering

"When the Air is Thin" by Chungpo Tsering.

Many Tibetan Americans remain politically aware or active. Artist Chungpo Tsering said he sees himself as much an artist as an activist; he’s been chronicling the politics and culture of his people.

The artist, who lived in El Cerrito until earlier this year, has held international art shows. Born in Tibet, Tsering was brought to India by his father when Tsering was a toddler. His father promised to pick him up from the orphanage, but never returned. Tsering does not know what happened to his father, but heard his mother died when he was about 5 years old. He attended the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala.

After India, he lived in Nepal, before coming to the United States in 2012 because he feared for his safety. “If you look at my art, most of my work is activist,” he said. He sees his role as an artist as “sharing my story, and also relating to the 6 million Tibetan people around the world and their suffering.”

He said that even though he struggled a lot as an orphan, escaping threats and persecution from the Chinese government, he feels as if he’s one of the lucky ones, because he escaped Tibet. “We are kind of like the successful ones,” he said about how his father was able to smuggle him out of Tibet when he was a child. To do this, they had to take a dangerous path during winter in the high peaks of the Himalayas, a journey that took many lives, he said.

Courtesy of Chungpo Tsering

"Asylee" by Chungpo Tsering.

Tsering uses his art to represent the struggles of Tibetans. Several years ago, he helped produce the documentary Bringing Tibet Home, where his friend and artist Tenzing Rigdol, whom he grew up with him in the Tibetan Children’s Village, smuggles dirt from Tibet to bring to the elders to touch.

In recent months, they’ve collaborated on a new project called The Roadbuilders; the first Tibetans in India after 1959 helped build the northern state highways there. Much of that history has been forgotten, he said, and the elders have never had an opportunity to tell their stories. Tsering said that is unfortunate, especially for the elder generation that was born in Tibet and whose final life wish would be to go back to the homeland. Tsering and Rigdol have interviewed more than 80 Tibetan elders across the globe.

“They dream one day to go back and die there,” he said. “They want to go to Tibet, but it’s impossible. For me, I know it’s impossible, too.”


Four years ago, the Dalai Lama separated himself from politics. He is no longer the political leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile and instead focuses only on being the spiritual leader.

The lingering question for many in the Tibetan diaspora is what will happen to Tibet after the Dalai Lama dies—and by extension, what will be the future of Tibetans across the globe. When the wildly popular global figure visited Sacramento in May, TANC organized a group of 200 to see him. During the Dalai Lama’s birthday this July when he turned 81, there was a large gathering and celebration with food, music, and dance at the center. He is the glue that holds the dispersed communities together.

“Every Tibetan has this concern,” said Jungney, president of TANC, referring to life without the Dalai Lama. “We worry a lot about what will happen, because he binds all Tibetans together.”

Much of what holds the diasporic population together, beyond language, culture, and YouTube videos, is the Dalai Lama himself.

Jungney believes that Americans can learn from Tibetans living here, in part because the community is proud of its heritage and plans to maintain it for generations to come. “Tibetan culture has a lot to offer in terms of dealing with stresses of life and to gain happiness,” Jungney said.

Artist Tsering said that as long as the Sunday schools keep operating and the dharma centers like the Gyuto Foundation exist, there will be hope for Tibetan culture and the future of Tibet. “Tibetans in exile are strong in preserving culture,” he said. “Even if we have a country or not, we will have a culture, and people will believe that we have a country.”

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