Tibetans at Berkeley HS Search for Identity
UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism[Saturday, November 20, 2004 19:29]
By Ling Liu

BERKELEY - Sitting on a bench at Berkeley High School, Tenzin Yougyal looks like any other 17-year-old. But he lives in two worlds.

Yougyal, a Tibetan American, was born in northern India in Dharamsala, headquarters of the exiled Tibetan government. His family moved to the United States seven years ago. Today there are approximately 10,000 Tibetans in the country, 1,000 of whom reside in the Bay Area.

Though Yougyal has never set foot in Tibet, he takes pride in Tibetan culture. He goes with his parents to Tibetan community activities, where he often joins them in prayer. "I wish one day Tibet could be free to live in peace," he says while laughing and looking around with an antsy energy.

A senior at Berkeley High, Yougyal says he only enjoys gym class and doesn't get along with any teachers, but last year he held a 3.0 grade point average and played on the varsity baseball team.

Of the 3,200 students at Berkeley high, 48 percent are white, 32 percent black, and 12 percent Hispanic. Of the Asians, who make up 8 percent, there are only seven Tibetans.

At age 13, a friend told Yougyal about T.I.B., or "Tibetans in Blue." Since then, he has joined Tibetan teenagers from Berkeley and neighboring East Bay cities by dressing in blue. Of the seven Tibetans at Berkeley High, four call themselves T.I.B.s. "Anyone can be in [T.I.B.] as long as you wear blue," Yougyal says, while dressed in an oversized blue t-shirt, baggy sweats and black sneakers with blue shoelaces.

The East Bay is home to two major Southeast Asian gangs - the Color of Blood and the Sons of Death. The C.O.B., which began in the 1980s as a Khmu (a Laotian ethnic group) gang, wears red. The S.O.D., which started as a Mien (also a Laotian ethnic group) wears blue. Though Yougyal swears that he and the other T.I.B.s aren't part of S.O.D., he admits that he gets along with the S.O.D. and avoids the C.O.B.

But the school district's spokesman, Mark Copland, says that gangs don't have a presence at Berkeley High. "If they have these affiliations in their neighborhoods, it's not something they bring in. We're not seeing it in the school. The real issue at the high school is outside influences," says Copland.

But Frank Onciano, the Berkeley Police department's school resource officer and gang specialist, disagrees. "You're talking about denial, that ‘we don't have these things,' but we do. They have their own homegrown gangs here in Berkeley," he says.

Berkeley High's red school color makes it difficult to discern gang colors from school pride. "Some of the students who are affiliated can get away with these things because they claim they're wearing school colors. You just can't assume that because you're wearing these colors you're a gang member," says Onciano.

Onciano, one of Berkeley's two police gang specialists, says he had not heard of the T.I.B.s. "That's something new to me," he says. But given the T.I.B.'s suggested alliance with the S.O.D., Onciano assumes that the S.O.D. once approached the Tibetan students and earned their loyalty in exchange for protection.

For Yougyal and his friends, the color lines extend beyond the Asian gang scene. Last year, Mexican Norteno gang members jumped Tenzin and a Mien friend because they were wearing blue. "They thought we were Scraps," Yougyal explained, using another term for the Norteno's rival, the Mexican Sureno gang.

Last year Yougyal got in a fight with a Pakistani student who called him Chinese. "They don't even know where Tibet is. I ain't no Chinese. If I was in Tibet I would kill all the China people," he says defiantly. But his serious tone disappears quickly. "I like Chinese people - they help me with my homework. I get along with everyone," he says with a smile.

When asked about the T.I.B., Sonam Topgyal, Joint Secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey, responded with surprise and concern. "I'm not aware of this. None of our board members are aware of this. This is something I really must look into and see how it must be tackled," said Topgyal.

Yougyal's jovial demeanor has earned him many friends at school. "I love Berkeley High. I don't want to graduate," he says. But he's already made plans to join the Marines next June. "Because I want to train," he says enthusiastically, while flexing his bicep. But Yougyal's idea of the armed services seems as naïve as his grasp of gang life. "Wait, what's Marines? Which is that?" he asks.