Steppe Children

After more than 50 years in exile, Tibetans are grappling with a new wave of diaspora no longer content to remain in South Asia. But can those coming of age in the West help preserve a culture under siege?

By , the Europe editor at Foreign Policy from 2015-2017.
Photo courtesy of Tashi Dondup
Photo courtesy of Tashi Dondup
Photo courtesy of Tashi Dondup

Today, the language is just a hazy memory: snatches of a few familiar phrases floating through a sea of foreign noise, and an arcing, incomprehensible script. But once upon a time, Tashi Dondup could speak Tibetan. 

Today, the language is just a hazy memory: snatches of a few familiar phrases floating through a sea of foreign noise, and an arcing, incomprehensible script. But once upon a time, Tashi Dondup could speak Tibetan. 

It was 1985. The 5-year-old Dondup and his parents had moved from his mother’s hometown of Boise, Idaho, to Dharamsala, a small city on the Indian side of the Himalayas that’s home to the Tibetan government in exile, and where Dondup’s father, whose name is also Tashi Dondup, spent his childhood. The younger Dondup didn’t speak any Tibetan when he got there, but he went to a Tibetan-language school with other Tibetan children, made friends, and learned fast.

Then, suddenly, it was over. Dondup’s parents, who’d met in India when his mother was working on a documentary on the Tibetan government, were worried about their long-term prospects in a small Indian city, and about their son falling behind in school. So in 1986 they returned to Boise, where Dondup’s father was the only Tibetan, and Dondup the only half-Tibetan.

Today, the 34-year-old is living a life he calls "basically fully Americanized." He camps; he surfs; in 2012, he got his MBA from the University of Oregon, in entrepreneurship. After graduation, he moved back to Idaho, where he works for a sports media company. He still has his old workbooks from his days in Tibetan school — he just can’t read them. "We know that part of who we are is Tibetan," Dondup said of himself and his brother Neddy, 24, who also doesn’t speak Tibetan. "But there’s a disconnect between knowing what you are and actively feeling that way." 

Mixed-race Tibetans coming of age in the West like Dondup and his brother are grappling with issues that an increasingly dispersed community will face more of in the future: how they fit into the Tibetan cause, how to preserve a sense of connection to a far-flung homeland now several generations removed, and how to handle the perception that they are contributing to the dissolution of a community that still feels like it must fight to preserve itself.

It’s been more than 50 years since the first wave of Tibetans fled the plateau for Dharamsala, following a failed uprising against Chinese Communist Party rule and the subsequent brutal military crackdown, in which the Chinese government executed or imprisoned tens of thousands suspected of supporting a Dalai Lama-led government. As exiles, this first wave expected to return home quickly once Tibet gained its independence, said Emily Yeh, who researches Tibet at the University of Colorado, Boulder. So instead of dispersing like other diaspora communities, the roughly 85,000 people who first fled Tibet mainly clustered around a central core, built around Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama, in the mountains of India, Nepal, and Bhutan, next to their homeland. 

But the past three decades have seen the start of a new chapter for Tibetans living outside of the plateau, a vast landmass of about 965,000 square miles in southwest China. As the decades in exile wear on, and the prospects of returning to the plateau have dimmed, more Tibetans are exchanging refugee life in South Asia for the West. Western countries, won over by the lobbying efforts of the Tibetan government, have arranged for large-scale resettlement programs that bring in hundreds of immigrants. Like Dondup’s father, some of them — there are no good estimates on the number — have married Westerners and raised families with half-Tibetan children. 

They’re leaving at a time when a community that’s always fretted about cultural preservation — about how to maintain a strong sense of itself even though Beijing has destroyed many of the hallmarks of its culture — faces increasing questions about what, exactly, constitutes "authentic" Tibetan-ness today. Parents in Dharamsala worry that their Hindi-speaking children are too Indian, while new arrivals from Tibet to Dharamsala struggle to fit in, considered by their first-wave counterparts too Sinicized to be truly Tibetan. Meanwhile, Han Chinese settlers continue to flow onto the plateau, in what the Dalai Lama has called an ongoing "cultural genocide."

Amid all this, some mixed-race Tibetans have struggled to find their footing. There are enough of them asking the same questions about their collective identity that a group of about two dozen organized a conference in June in London, where they received messages from Tibetan Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay, Tibet’s representative to Northern Europe, Thubten Samdup, and even the Dalai Lama himself. Intermarriage for Tibetans was "inevitable," the Dalai Lama wrote. What was important, he said, was "the preservation of the Tibetan language and culture." 

Samdup, who addressed the attendees in person, was more blunt: "If we are not able to bring together this generation of Tibetans of mixed parentage into our community, the next generation is lost," he said.

There are an estimated 130,000 Tibetans living in exile, and fewer than 20,000 of them currently live in the West, according to the most recent survey conducted by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the main body of the Tibetan government in exile, in 2009. (The CTA estimates the total number of ethnic Tibetans in the world at about 6 million.) Most of those living in Europe are based in Switzerland, which is home to an estimated 3,500; roughly 10,500 live in Canada and the United States. Some came as individuals, like Dondup’s father. Others were part of larger-scale resettlement programs, lobbied for by a Tibetan government in exile eager to send more of its citizens to the developed world to act as ambassadors for the Tibetan cause, writes University of New Mexico anthropologist Julia Hess. Hess is the author of Immigrant Ambassadors, a 2009 book about a program that resettled 1,000 Tibetans in the United States in the 1990s.

Hess writes about the anxieties of those left behind: Tibetans in the West would grow too concerned with money; they would give up on the goal of eventually returning to the Tibet; Tibetans would be "scattered like beans around the world," in the words of one member of the exile community, Nawang Dorjee, writing in 1992 in the New Delhi-based magazine the Tibetan Review, as quoted in Hess’s book. Once assimilated, he worried, they wouldn’t look back. 

Tenzin Tara Haines-Wangda, 20, a student at York University in Toronto, grew up in Ottawa with her Canadian mother and her sister. Her parents gave both children combined Tibetan/Western names; her 23-year-old sister, a Toronto-based photographer, is named Lodoe Laura. Her Tibetan father, Jurme Wangda, worked in Japan on behalf of the Tibetan government; for most of the sisters’ childhood they didn’t see much of him.

As a child, Haines-Wangda felt a strong connection to her ancestral homeland, she says — her family had a prayer room in their house, and said Tibetan prayers before meals. She would try to incorporate Tibet into her school projects — she wrote poetry about Tibet in English class, and brought Himalayan salt to science class, for instance — and was quick to talk about her heritage. "When I was growing up, we were the only Tibetan people in Ottawa, and I felt like it was my role to represent them as a people," she said. "That was very important." 

But as she grew older, her relationship to her "Tibetan-ness" grew more complicated. She had unsettling encounters with other Tibetans, who told her to make sure to marry a Tibetan, or that they would never marry a non-Tibetan themselves. Others peppered her with questions on her unusual name. And there was always the ever-present question: Can you speak the language? (She can’t.) "It’s the first question Tibetan people ask you," she said, as "a gauge of a kind of level of Tibetan-ness."

Both sisters are politically active on behalf of Tibet — a habit long-instilled in them by their father, who was once a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama. They lobby the Canadian Parliament on Tibetan issues when back home in Ottawa and talk to MPs in Toronto, where both sisters currently live. But the pride in her heritage that came easily to Haines-Wangda as a child is trickier now. "On some level, I still want [Tibet] to be really important in my life," she said. "But now, I’m almost scared about how other Tibetans will react." It offends her when other Tibetans weigh in on her future marriage choices. At the same time, she says she thinks about these questions a lot herself — how Tibetan she wants her future children to be, and whether she’ll be able to instill a sense of cultural identification in them if she marries someone who isn’t of Tibetan heritage. 

The half-dozen mixed-race Tibetans interviewed for this story all said they don’t really speak Tibetan, a language with about 8 million speakers that’s in the same family as Burmese. Almost all of them feel at least a little guilty about it. (For more on the politics of speaking Tibetan in exile, see this post on the website Lhakar Diaries.) A few, like Dondup, spoke some as children, but lost it as they grew up in communities with few Tibetans. Many said they were trying to relearn — but that Tibetan, with its many dialects, a grammar very different from English, and few other speakers around to practice with, continued to elude them.

I’m half Chinese — a personal fact I was sometimes a little nervous to share with those I interviewed. But I brought it up because I wanted to discuss how we were different. I don’t act particularly Chinese, but when I don’t cook Chinese food for weeks, when I don’t know what to do at a Chinese wedding or a funeral, or when my cousins tease me for not speaking Cantonese, I do feel embarrassed, even a little un-filial. But I never feel that I’ve let down a whole nation. Many of the people I spoke with say they do. "The nature of the political situation in Tibet has really enforced this notion of staying true," Lodoe Laura Haines-Wangda told me. "I understand the feeling of people who came from Tibet wanting to hang onto that purity. But you feel that kind of guilt and shame from them; your parents also feel that guilt and shame." 

In late March, Voice of America Tibet, a branch of the U.S. government-funded broadcaster, posted a short report on young Tibetans of mixed race on its website and Facebook page. The piece sparked a flurry of comments. Some were delicate on the question of cultural preservation and mixed marriages: "Soon the 50/50 Tibetan children will become 1/4 Tibetan, then less and less Tibetan from generation to generation. Just a fear of mine…" wrote one commenter. Others quickly turned ugly: "If [the] upcoming Tibetan generation feels that this new phenomena of mix parentage [sic] is acceptable then people like me has [sic] to resign from Tibetan social life in order to survive…. And we are going to do it even at the cost of Tibetan unity because it is worth doing."

The steady flow of Tibetans to the West shows few signs of slowing. The Tibetan government continues to lobby Western governments to take in more of those currently living in South Asian settlements. Ottawa is in the midst of a large-scale project to resettle 1,000 Tibetans from the northern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh to Canada, while May 2013 saw an attempt to attach an amendment to U.S. immigration reform legislation that would have provided 5,000 Tibetans with visas.   

For Dondup’s father, the decision to resettle in the United States wasn’t difficult. But he regrets not speaking more Tibetan with his sons at home. He urges other Tibetan families new to the United States to keep up the language with their children and make sure they remember where they came from. He still holds out hope that his sons will meet some nice Tibetan girls and marry them. "But I know," he says, "chances are quite small."

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer was the Europe editor at Foreign Policy from 2015-2017. Twitter: @APQW

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