The Pain & Privilege of Being Tibetan

Being Tibetan is a personal reflection on the pains and joys of being a Tibetan. Aside from the physical discomforts of dislocation and poverty, I dig out and share the emotional and psychological scars of being stateless for many decades. At the other end of the spectrum, I explore reasons to celebrate being Tibetan.

Being a Tibetan in this day and age is both a pain and a privilege. The pain is more prominent – now, for over sixty years, we have been hounded from our homeland, driven into exile, stripped of our monasteries and even our dignity. We have no idea when even a beginning to resolving the Tibetan issue might occur. Therefore, we have no real hope that it will happen in our lifetime. Yet, among ourselves, we tell each other that we don’t even the right to lose hope, that somehow, we must preserve our culture and educate our children so that they, in turn, can have hope – hope for a culture if not a country!

Gathered in Prayers

There was a fantastic stretch of ten years, during which I traveled the length and breadth of this country, doing well over a hundred presentations on Tibet, Tibetan culture, and children’s educational needs in exile. I’ve often been asked this question: what is it like to be a Tibetan, be stateless, or even what does it feel like to belong to something as special as HH The Dalai Lama? I’ve answered these and other questions as best as I could, sometimes at the end of presentations but also in snatches of casual conversations. This year, when travel and other events are not possible, I’ve been writing about Tibet, Tibetans, and our culture. This is by far the most relaxed space I’ve had to tell what it is truly like being a Tibetan.

Sand Mandala Presentation

In my head, Tibet is a classic case of colonialism and repression. There are no grey areas – no conflicting claims from diverse ethnic groups over territory or resources, no dispute over a holy capital, no lingering historical conflicts to warrant occupation – but naked and sustained repression occurred simply because China could. Under Mao, they had the misguided zeal; the military and an international community almost complicit in this genocide through their deafening silence.

I’ve always felt that it was poignantly sad that Tibet lost our air of freedom in the second half of the 20th century when the rest of the world was finally shaking off the shackles of colonization and breathing new airs of freedom. In our neighboring country of India, after being under the British Raj for close to two hundred years, the country under Mahatma Gandhi found a way to freedom. In Africa, after being partitioned by the industrialized European nations since the 15th century, the entire continent comprising over 50 countries became free and independent.

After two gruesome and horrible world wars, the second half of the 20th century saw the world finally wake up, shake off colonization, embrace freedom for all countries and humanity. There was an atmosphere of hope, peace, and development. Hopefully, the world learned its lessons of wars and colonization. The United Nations Organization came into being. Tibet’s tragedy is that in this new atmosphere of global hope and freedom, we lost ours. Tibet’s tragedy is that China’s occupation went counter to the collective international thoughts and aspirations of that age.

So yes, I’ve experienced this pain myself, of crossing the Himalayan passes as a child, growing up as a refugee in exile, and being a stateless person for most of my life.

First Tibetan Refugees

Yet, my pain, the pain of Tibetans in exile, pales compared to what the Tibetans in Tibet had to endure. Earlier this year, I read Ama Adhe’s The Voice That Remembers – recounting twenty-seven years in prison during the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong. I’ve heard stories of Tibetan sufferings in Tibet from my childhood, but her story brought home to me page after page of vivid details of how absolutely horrible the pain and sufferings were. The pain is that almost a million Tibetans suffered what Ama Adhe remembers.

That is not to say that those who fled into exile had it easy. An estimated 100,000 Tibetans followed HH The Dalai Lama into exile. I believe no one was prepared or equipped for our new lives in India. In Tibet, we were nomads, farmers, or traders. No one knew the language or had the work skills required for new lives in India. So, almost all Tibetans began their new lives working as menial road construction laborers at minimum wage. Aristocrats, monks, nomads, and farmers were all equalized by our newfound poverty. I was only a child during those early struggling years in exile. HH The Dalai Lama touched my life, and I was sent to a great school. But, my parents struggled for years together. There is no doubt that one of the greatest pains of being a Tibetan is the utter poverty of our early years in exile.

Even when life seemed to have settled a bit, at some level, there was a sense of insecurity – a tenuous quality to our lives in exile. While Tibetans will always be grateful that India accepted us in the first place, it never gave us any firm or permanent resident status. We had to renew our refugee registration papers annually for all the years that I’ve lived there. So year after year, we would visit the local Foreigners Registration Office and have our papers extended one year at a time.

While on the one hand, we were building homes, schools, monasteries, and entire communities in exile, on the other, our legal status as residents had to be extended one year at a time. If anyone wanted to travel outside of their principal registered residence for 14 days or more, they first reported this departure and then filed another arrival report. Yes, we did have our freedoms – the freedom to practice our religion, celebrate our festivals, and lead our Tibetan lives, but all that within the constraints of being almost perpetual refugees. There was this lingering fear at the back of our minds: what if India decided to change its foreign policy? What if they no longer wanted to welcomed the Tibetans? Since our refugee papers were being extended one year at a time, legally, all they needed to do was refuse an extension. It was scary to think that my family, my children had no real residency rights in India and, for that matter, in any place in the world!
Being a stateless person, being a refugee, diminishes a person in many ways. Some of it is tangible, but other aspects are subtle, and one may not even be aware of it till some clarifying moments in life.

Prayer Flags

In the winter of 1985, HH The Dalai Lama gave one of his precious Kalachakra teachings at Bodh Gaya, the Mecca for Tibetans. That year my family made it to the teachings, and it was truly excellent in every way. Aside from Tibetan refugees, there were colorful tribal folks from the Himalayan belts and a fair number of Tibetan pilgrims from mainland Tibet who stood out. They were distinct because of their clothing but also because of their behavior and general demeanor. There was an air of freedom, abandon, and even cockiness, especially among the younger ones. In sharp contrast, the refugees in India seemed submissive, well behaved, and even cowed down. There was this one time when my wife and I were riding a pedal rickshaw. Two young men nonchalantly tried to get a piggy ride by hanging on to the back of our rickshaw! They were not being mean or threatening in any way. They were laughing their heads off, seemed not to have a care in the world, and for me, there was a certain amount of unrestrained freedom in what they were doing. I could not imagine a Tibetan refugee ever doing that on the streets of India!

I’ve always felt that I am not half the man my dad was, that somehow the refugee experience had diminished me. All those years of gratitude to India for refuge, all those years of being and feeling a refugee, had somehow impacted our very spirits. We had adapted to our situations, to our refugee status, and to be meek. That’s not to even remotely suggest that the Tibetans in Tibet had it better. On the contrary, I know they bore the brunt of the occupation and suffered more hardships. Still, there was a quality of audacity and freedom in those pilgrims from Tibet.

The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya

Stateless people have unique insecurities. Airports, for example, can be intimidating places. In 2012, after ten years of being in America, my family finally got an opportunity to travel back to India. We were delighted at the prospect of meeting all relatives and friends after many years. After a long journey, we finally arrived at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. It was in the wee hours of the morning. A long flight of stairs takes one down to the Immigration counters, and I was surprised at the number waiting in line. There were hundreds that morning, and all of them looked tired. Even after all these years, that old feeling of fear, that small knot in the tummy returned – the fear of a stateless person at immigration! As I glanced at the sea of faces waiting in all those lines, I saw tiredness, fatigue, and even some hints of irritation that the lines were not moving fast enough – but I did not detect any anxiety – leave alone fear. This fear was singular; this cross was for being stateless.

On that day, my fear was misplaced because immigration in New Delhi caused no problems at all. But my fears are all not imagined. I can tell you that immigration officers do not view refugee travel papers with the same eye as national passports. The refugee papers at once evoke interest and suspicion. Often they will check with fellow officers or even supervisors for clearance, and you are just sweating it out there at the counter. And, every once in a while, you may even come across an officer who wants a little something to give you clearance.
I believe that the Indian taxation system has now been overhauled and streamlined, making it better and simpler. In the past, there used to be a bewildering array of tolls, booths, and check posts that were a nightmare for Tibetan refugees. Tibetans can never travel light. Maybe our nomadic gene of traveling with our goods is kicking in or what, but among ourselves, we sort of know and acknowledge this. At these checkpoints and toll-booths, it seems we are constantly being pulled up – for the luggage we are traveling with but also because we are soft targets for bribery – refugees with no real rights, folks who would most probably not have a lawyer to call or someone higher up in the government to report to.

So, yes, as refugees, we’ve faced many instances of micro-aggression, prejudice, and discrimination. We think we’ve taken then in our strides, but somewhere deep inside our psyche, I think it has diminished us – made us smaller human beings – and that is again a pain of being a Tibetan refugee.
In the context of these pains, is there a privilege of being a Tibetan, can there even be one? The privileges may not be that transparent, but my own experiences suggest there are. I can tell you that I’ve felt truly special here in America for no other reason than that I’m a Tibetan.

Tibetan Butter Sculpture

Some years ago, I was driving from Helena, Montana, to Bismarck in North Dakota to present a Tibetan cultural event at the University of Mary. Around 10 AM, our party pulled into a diner at Miles City, Montana. It was an all Tibetan tour party: two Tibetan monks, my wife, and myself. We had a lovely brunch, and when I went to pay our bill, I was politely told that someone had already taken care of it. That was so amazing – I mean, none of us had ever been to Miles City leave alone know anyone there – but they recognized the monks’ robes, and this was that person’s way of saying our empathy is with you or that you’re special because you’re Tibetans.

Another time, my wife Gensang and I were taken to dinner by a lovely Chinese-American couple in San Jose, California. They supported the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation (TCEF) that I worked for, and they were genuinely good people, kind people with empathy for the plight of Tibetans. During our dinner conversation, my wife and I were taken aback when they confessed how jealous they were because we are Tibetans. “The whole world loves you guys,” he exclaimed. “Not so much the Chinese,” he carried on ruefully!

Our tragic situation of being in exile, having lost our country, and struggling to keep our culture and identity can add meaning to our lives. Here in America, I’ve met an amazing cross-section of people from all walks of life during my travels. This included people whose lives were empty, bereft of meaning, without a cause to inspire them or a struggle to sustain them. Viewed from this lens, as Tibetans, we have such a personal and worthy cause. This cause is ours by birth, tailored for us, and bequeathed to us by our collective karma. In my work in the nonprofit sector, well-meaning people have sometimes nudged me to do something for genuinely needy people and causes in other parts of the world. True, there are so many worthy causes worldwide, but somehow as a Tibetan, I feel like I’m married to the Tibetan cause. It gives my life this added meaning – and I know that, in turn, my work has added to my sense of happiness and completion.

His Holiness The Dalai Lama
His Holiness The Dalai Lama

One of the greatest joys and privileges of being a Tibetan has got to be our spiritual tradition. I believe, is second to none. Added to that is the pleasure of living during the era of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Dalai Lamas of all time. Our spiritual tradition and His Holiness are so much in sync; they convey this message of compassion, altruism for inner happiness, and global peace with such conviction that it blesses all our lives. Even in the darkest of times, our religion and our spiritual masters have been our most significant sources of strength and comfort. Having them in our daily lives is a massive privilege as a Tibetan.

Our shared experience as Tibetans in exile has instinctively and organically enveloped us together. Without even trying, we are an organic community, and that is a huge blessing. The Tibetan schools we built in exile are special because there is a special connection between the teachers and students. A sense of community, a sense of purpose is inbuilt. I know this because I’ve been a part of this, and I know it is quite remarkable. Other more significant organizations like the Tibetan Youth Congress or the Tibetan Women’s Association again give Tibetan youth and women opportunities to experience a close-knit community – and that too, with open acceptance only because we are Tibetans.

For any young Tibetan growing up in exile and understandably feeling a bit lost because you are growing up without your deep roots, I would with all my heart suggest that you dive into one of the many Tibetan organizations. I believe it will give you a sense of purpose, involvement, community, and friendship, and if you’ve been on this planet for as long as I have, those things are truly precious. They can be that foundation you felt was missing because you are stateless. They can provide you with genuine happiness – and that, in my opinion, is the very purpose of life itself.

A personal reflection by KarmaTensum