Tibetans in New York Raise Funds to Preserve Tibetan Culture in Exile

by Amy Elmgren, The Tibet Post International, 11 December 2010

New York, USA -- Karma Khadup no longer eats yak, a tender red meat that is a staple in his native Tibet, where the bison-like animals roam alongside nomadic herders in the region's vast high-altitude grasslands.

While dining at the Himalayan Yak Restaurant in the New York borough of Queens, Khadup said he didn't believe that the "yak meat special" on the menu could be authentic and ordered beef dumplings instead. "Have you seen any yaks here?" he asked, shaking his head incredulously.

Khadup and his 12 fellow volunteer board members at the Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey have no hope of raising or eating yaks in New York City. They are nonetheless working hard to preserve the native language, religion and cultural traditions of around 5,000 Tibetan immigrants who reside in the area.

Tibetans are some of New York's most recent immigrants. Virtually all of them have arrived in the decades since the People's Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1949 and asserted its political authority over the isolated Himalayan region, home to 6 million ethnic Tibetans, a centuries-old religious and political system grounded in a unique form of Mahayana Buddhism, and an army too small and ill-equipped to fend off the P.R.C.

When Tibet's political and religious leader, Tenzin Gyatso - more commonly known as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama - fled to India in 1959, over 100,000 Tibetans followed him into exile. The flow of emigration continues today, as Tibetan and international human rights groups cite increased political repression since the March 2008 Tibetan protests against the Beijing Olympics, as well as efforts to replace the Tibetan language with Chinese in public schools, to suppress the public practice of Tibetan Buddhism and to encourage Han Chinese migration to Lhasa and other traditionally-Tibetan cities.

With Tibetan identity at home in limbo, members of a global exile community estimated at 150,000 have taken up the task of preserving Tibet's religion, language and cultural traditions in the countries where they now reside. Residents of New York, which hosts more Tibetans than any other city outside Asia, are no exception.

The Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey, established in 1979, provides Tibetan language classes every weekend, hosts Tibetan Buddhist prayer sessions and teachings, and organizes cultural performances and Tibetan holiday celebrations. But Khadup believes that the organization's members will be able to do much more if they can open up a Tibetan community center to host all of their activities under one roof.

Khadup is one of two project coordinators working to secure funds for the proposed center. Together, they have raised more than half of the $4.75 million needed to buy a two-story, 2,600-square-foot apartment in Queens, the focal point for New York's Tibetan community.

The money came "little by little" over the last ten years through contributions from individual Tibetans and Western supporters. They hope to raise the remaining funds through loans and fundraising events, the next of which is scheduled for the Dec. 10 anniversary of the Dalai Lama's receipt of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.

This fundraiser, like most of the Tibetan Community's events, will be held in a rented hall in an Armenian church in midtown Manhattan. Celebrations for the Tibetan New Year - "Losar," the most important holiday on the Tibetan calendar - also take place in this church.

For three days in the beginning of every Tibetan year - which starts in late January or February on a Gregorian calendar - Tibetans wear their best clothes as they play games, tell stories, listen to the shrill wails of traditional folk music, feast on fried dumplings and stews heavy with yak meat, chicken and beef, and wash them down with an oily, salty tea made from yak butter and a rice wine called changkol that tastes a bit like Japanese sake. After enjoying time with their closest loved ones and paying visits to the immaculately decorated homes of friends and extended family, they head to their local temple to receive their lamas' blessings for the New Year.

In New York, Tibetans have substituted a modern church for their ancient temples with walls that depict stories from the Buddha's life through elaborate paintings and wooden prayer wheels that, if you spin them hard enough, are said to speed up your journey to enlightenment. In lieu of such a temple, a community center just might be a more fitting accommodation.

Jigme Gorap, Khadup's fellow project coordinator, described how the center will offer more than just Tibetan cultural events and programs. "It will also be a place to provide English classes for recent immigrants, after-school programs and counseling programs, etc.," he wrote, in an e-mail.

"Whatever people want, we will help with what they need," Khadup asserted, whether that means helping Tibetans fill out the paperwork required for political asylum in the U.S. or checking up on community members who are "suffering in the hospital." He said that if the Tibetan Community ever "becomes rich," they hope to provide financial support such as college scholarships for young adult Tibetan refugees, many of whom work full-time in construction, hotel, nanny or retail jobs and can't find the time or money to pursue their educational goals in the U.S.

When asked how large the group's membership is, Khadup replied, "We don't have membership cards. Every Tibetan should be a member."

"The center will be open for anyone interested in the Tibetan culture," Gorap said. "We would like to stay connected with New Yorkers and various organizations that may have interest or concern for Tibetans."

Bruce Payne, executive director of the New York-based Ruben Foundation, which gives grants to organizations involved in preserving Tibetan and Himalayan culture, said that Westerners are drawn to Tibetan Buddhism and the culture that surrounds it for several reasons.

"On the one hand, it's an interesting and well-developed artistic and intellectual tradition that dates back 800 to 900 years," he said. But he emphasized that Tibetan traditions have a more practical relevance as well.

Payne said that many people in the U.S. and other Western countries are currently searching for "ways of living in the world that are in harmony with nature and embody humane values," and have found that Tibetan Buddhism offers such a path.

This form of Buddhism stands alongside Japanese Zen and Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism in its number of U.S. adherents, according to a 2007 Pew Research survey that ranked Buddhists as the fourth largest religious group in the U.S., after Christians, agnostics and Jews but before Muslims and Hindus.

Many Americans with little knowledge of Tibet or Buddhism are eager to attend teachings by the Dalai Lama, who tours the U.S., Western Europe and Australia annually to lecture to packed venues on ethical solutions to the world's dilemmas. While Tibetans consider their leader to be an incarnation of the Compassion Buddha, TIME Magazine listed him first in its 2008 feature on the world's 100 most influential people.

Meanwhile, Tibetan leaders in New York hope that a community center here will also help to increase the visibility and influence of a Tibetan minority that Office of Tibet liaison Tsewang Phuntso calls "insignificant" relative to New York's total population.

New York's Tibetan Youth Congress President Ngawang Tashi said that it can be hard to get Tibetans in New York to come out to events such as cultural parades and the March 10 protests that mark Tibet's 1959 uprising against China, because they live far apart from one another and have a hard time coming together on a daily basis. "In New York, Tibetans are not in a particular place. They are separated, all over the city," he explained.

"Everyone is busy trying to make money to pay rent," Khadup added.

He said another challenge is that many Tibetan children born in the U.S. learn English before they master their native language. To help preserve the use of Tibetan among this generation, members of the group opened the Tibetan Community School in 1996. The school's principal, Pema Dorjee, described how the school's 12 teachers work with 160 students ages 5 to 18 on Tibetan language skills each Sunday morning, and in the afternoon teach traditional Tibetan dance and music.

Dorjee notes that it's hard for students to retain their Tibetan when they don't learn the language in public school. In the future, he hopes to develop the Tibetan Community School into a full-time bilingual school like the many Spanish-immersion and other dual-language schools throughout New York. A community center could bring this vision closer to reality by giving the school a regular meeting place, so it would no longer have to move locations every few months.

Phuntsok said that beyond facilitating language classes and cultural events, a community center would serve to empower Tibetans in New York. He pointed out that communities make up an important part of life in this cosmopolitan city. "People say this [city] is a melting pot; but if you closely observe, then [you see that] people do integrate, but they don't melt," he emphasized. Instead, the Irish, Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese, Arab and many other communities have made New York the diverse city it is today by preserving their native languages, religions and cultures, just as Tibetans like Phuntso and Khadup are now trying to do.

For more information on the Tibetan Community in New York and New Jersey and their current projects, visit: http://tcnynj.org/

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