By Ugyen Gyalpo
On the bustling streets of Jackson heights, between the perimeters of 71st to 75th and Roosevelt Ave and 37 Ave, lies the biggest meeting point of many Tibetans here in New York. Ever since, my first walk down the strip, almost 17 summers ago, when I first came fresh off the plane, the place has seen a massive transformation of the migration of different nationalities. Gone are the Indian merchants, that once gave a “Karolbagh” feel for the area. Inundated by monsoon floods like that in Bangladesh, a huge surge of its people flooded that has but, set a bee hive kingdom and people dreaming Dhaka.
But beneath the surface and the whirlwind of the transformation, there has been the incremental surge and rise of this new migratory race. The diaspora of the Tibetan community, scattered all over the globe and now evidently established with the gradual emergence of magnetic pockets of small businesses and dozen dumpling restaurants amidst the thick air of Bangladeshi fish curry and the aroma of the delicious Nepali Thalis.
A junction of a kind, where Tibetans meet and greet and where singles tend to mingle and where at tea stalls and open public spaces, they indulge in whims of petty politics and often heated arguments to the dusk of night, coinciding to times, when the faranheit of Tibet issue is the highest and where the opinionated person, discuss wherewithals to lead a fight, and also talk about the whims, fancies and challenges of their advent to this new land.
Every Tibetan face walking, is a synopsis of a 57 year long ordeal, of a race without a country, yet has every conceivable component of a nation written across their visage, such as their allegiance to the Tibetan government in exile and their obligatory contribution of green book fees as tax for their democratic rights to vote, a prime minister at the helm without a country, religious schools of all the lineages and equal representation of the three provinces and religious sects in the Tibetan parliament.
Like the broken beads of a single rosary, Tibetans are scattered all over the world and every city they inhabit, whether it is New York, Toronto, Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich, London or New Delhi, they leave an impressive mark underneath, of a community which has lost everything but not their identity, dignity and aspirations of a pursuit for security, their sheer resilience and the power of adaptation and audacity to hope and tenacity to dream that one day their country will be free.
A shared common trajectory of losing a country is the paramount reason that binds them together. They always beam with bargaining confidence, perhaps consciously contemplating their bad times and trajectory of losing their country, to the workings of the causative wheel of karma.
A case of a unique diaspora clique, whose original populace of over 95 percent, still languish under the brutal chinese hegemony inside Tibet. A community who have now spent more than half a century in exile and a community 70 percent of whom, never had the opportunity to see their native homeland at the first place.
A community culturally bonded, yet heavily divided on their political approach to solve or salvage the Tibetan cause. A community formally and still deeply intoxicated and soaked into religious fervor and often times, blinded by faith and paralyzed by religious dogmas, on affairs coated by holy paint, to be able to make a self indulged decision, without any external influence.
Humans of New York, let me introduce the Tibetan diaspora community and add to the crucible it is already, and who have now descended in droves into the laps of lady liberty in the last two decades and filled the air in the rectangular part of Jackson heights, with steams of mouth bursting dumplings and clear broth Tibetan noodle soups. A race by nature, very humble, loyal, shy, rooted in compassionate beliefs, hard working and benevolent. Yet, when it comes to the affairs of the state, very vulnerable to herd mentality, still clung to religious dogmas and are feisty targets to manipulative power hungry political elites who often swing their charades honeyed with religious sentiments.
Along with their life long quest for a place that will guarantee security and stability, a fire burns on every Tibetan heart, a pain on every mind, that brings them closer as a unifier, of a common tragic fate of losing ones own country. A country they have never seen but embedded and tattooed into their consciousness through the folk stories, fables and archives and entwined strongly within the scopes of the figment of their imaginations.
A lot has changed since the late fifties. Unlike the seasonal migration of long necked cranes, to the plains of India over the Himalayas, thousands of Tibetans braved to cross the mighty frosty Himalayas to escape persecution and destruction of the invading Maoist Chinese that had had the besieged country under the covers of reign of terror. Diaspora quickly rocketed to thousands and many still thought, that their ordeal would be temporary and with the changing course of tide, that they will one day be able to go back home, only to find themselves falling into an eternal abyss of almost six decades of relentless suffering.
For the diaspora of Tibetans, years evolving into decades, their fight for the freedom and the independence of Tibet, also took a nose dive, when a new path was laid to embrace, a conciliatory approach, where on a compromise, to shed off the calls for independence, enthuse the idea of a genuine autonomy within the framework of the chinese constitution.
Almost three decades to the day, when this path was formulated, nine rounds of failed dialogue has evolved, without any fruition but suffered assaulted tempered insult and condescension from the Chinese side and on the darker side, has resulted into 152 self immolations, a manifestation of a suppressed race that has chosen this painful selfpolitical crackdown and hawkish surveillance both on street and on the net.
Every Tibetan mindset, through the abrasion and flux of cultural mix and long time away from the homeland, has slowly felt the cultural erosion and many of the third generation born after 1959, breathe Tibetan through the thick air of infectious alien culture, many were either born into or raised in. Despite, their diligent efforts in safeguarding their cultural heritage and civilization, both in exile and at the brink of extinction in Tibet. It’s become increasingly urgent and imperative that the Tibetans, try to stay united as much as possible, where ever they go, until a solution is deemed fit. And, always permeate Tibetaness and Tibetan isms through the kind of cluster living, just like the Jews of Williamsburg, Brooklyn and refuges settlements in India, and now slowly centripetal build up of our community in and around Jackson Heights.
At any global events, whenever free countries are represented, it’s painful to watch, say the Olympics, where every free nation on earth are represented and even the newest free county like South Sudan gets to hoist their newly minted flag, and here we are, shackled in post Second World War colonialism, at a time and age, starting from “India’s tryst with destiny”, that many members of the United Nations quadrupled, breaking free from the shackles of imperialism and we went one notch north to the scale of the annals of colonized countries.
On an introspective disposition, with a soul searching conversation and candid rumination with numerous Tibetan elderly back in India and some here in New York, who were about 25-30 years old during the annexation of Tibet in 1959, I have come to an educated and unbiased conclusion and I get a sense, of how badly, our country Tibet was run and how brutal feudalism had people on its ugly edge and at their cruel mercy. And how, aristocrats and bureaucratic elites, siphoned all the wealth and fed parasitically upon the back breaking landless and toiling nomads. And how, powerful the monasteries were in wielding and influencing politics. And how, there were no social,economic and educational welfare in return for the huge taxes that were forcibly levied and how failure to pay tax would result in public humiliation , a practice as medieval as of icy whiplashing. I have been told by many that were in contemporary and old enough to put things into perspective, that they felt, it was a blessing in disguise when the Chinese invasion dawned. But that is not suffice to bolster China’s claims of liberation and serf emancipation, when they never left Tibet at the first place.
What could have happened on a wishful thinking was a “renaissance” like revolution within the borders of Tibet and I wished feudalism would have fallen off the cracks of our society in our own evolution just like it happened in Europe and a new emergence was to take place. Now these were all wishful thinking.
But to say, Tibet was equally responsible for our lost land and that our leaders excluding His Holiness, who was barely a teen, had failed us and reduced to this level of oppressed and stateless humanity, is not a far cry from reality. But that does not in anyway justify the occupation of Tibet and the emancipation of the serfs and their genocidal imperialist campaign. China coined Tibet as Xizang, meaning the western treasure and so here goes the self explanatory motive of the occupation at the expense of the destruction of a civilization, holocaustic loss of lives, loot of natural resources, dehumanization, ethnic cleansing, mounting surveillance ,suffocating censorship, rape of all basic human rights such as religious expression and practice.
I urge everyone to share this not so comprehensive insight, but still justifies a candid and truthful introduction of our community, so that our non Tibetan friends anywhere can embrace you with dignified grace and educated stance and not take you granted for a Mexican, Chinese or a Phillipino or worse without an identity!
The writer is a Tibetan who migrated to the west 17 years ago, and currently lives in Woodside, NY.