Jackson Heights, an area within the borough of Queens in New York, has become a hub for Tibetans in the US. 
Photo: Flickr / Aleksandr Zykov
Jackson Heights, an area within the borough of Queens in New York, has become a hub for Tibetans in the US. Photo: Flickr / Aleksandr Zykov

Twice removed: Tibetans in North America

For Tibetans in North America, maintaining links to the homeland presents unique challenges.

Tsering Shakya is the author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 and currently teaches at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia.

For many years now, I have regularly received calls from the immigration offices of various countries asking me to verify if an asylum applicant is Tibetan or not. This requires me to speak with the person on the phone and then inform the immigration officials whether the applicant seems to be 'genuine'. Recently, I was asked to interview a young man who was caught trying to enter the US at the US-Mexico border. After being detained by border authorities, the man informed them that he was a Tibetan escaping Chinese persecution and wanted to seek asylum in the US. The immigration officials needed to know if the person was legitimately Tibetan. On the phone, the claimant repeated a story I've heard many times – that he or she had been helped by a good Samaritan whose name and whereabouts were unknown, or that the family sold a priceless gem to pay human-traffickers to enable him or her to flee to safety.

Over the past two decades, Tibetans have been experiencing large-scale international migration for the first time. Although Tibetans have always engaged in migration of sorts, in the past their ambit of movement had been limited to Southasia. Even during the initial flow of refugees across the Himalaya in 1959 there was very little urge to migrate beyond India and Nepal. Like most refugees, the loss of the homeland was seen as temporary, and a return was believed to be a matter of time. But the situation has changed after six decades of statelessness in the Subcontinent: Tibetans are moving and North America has become the desired and coveted destination. They have joined a 'global flow' of people making the journey to new destinations through both legal and irregular means. The rush to migrate began in the year 1990, when the US Congress approved the resettlement of 1000 Tibetans, who then applied to bring family members to the country. Almost overnight, the size of the Tibetan population in the US swelled from a few hundred to several thousand.

There are no reliable statistics on the number of Tibetans living in the US and Canada, but my impression is that it is now well over 20,000. Because of the high visibility of Tibetans in the Western media, it is often assumed there are many more Tibetans in North America than the actual number. Even those who have sought asylum are hard to count: because Tibet is not recognised as a country, the Tibetan claimants are classed as having Chinese nationality, meaning that the data is buried.

Almost all of the Tibetans in North America have come from Nepal or India over the past two decades. They arrive as single men or women, and, once established and their status legalised, they bring their families to join them. Today, in places like Toronto and New York, we find small enclaves with concentrated Tibetan communities. In Jackson Heights, an area within the borough of Queens in New York, or in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto in Canada, it is not uncommon to see groups of Tibetans gathering in cafes and eateries. In these areas, Tibetan restaurants are common and Tibetan voices can be heard on the streets and on public transport.

Until recently, Tibetan communities in Nepal and India have lived in generally stable refugee settlements, giving them a strong sense of homogeneity and community, catered for and tended by the quasi-state structure of the Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. The refugee settlements and the education infrastructure arranged by the Administration enabled Tibetans to create and foster a strong and politicised collective identity.

The move to the West has created new opportunities and challenges for Tibetans. They have become part of a global diaspora and elements within the wider transnational neoliberal economy, where migration provides a source of cheap labour for developed economies. The term 'diaspora' is now generally differentiated from 'exile' or 'migration': rather than movement between two particular points on the globe, it implies dispersal, being scattered across multiple places. Today, we find the Tibetan population distributed across the world, with the desired destination being North America or Europe. Tibetan migrants are no different from other migrants seeking economic opportunities and a better life.

In the West, without the institutional framework that created the sense and experience of 'Tibetanness' in India and Nepal, the community must craft its own solutions to express and nurture what it means to be Tibetan. A perceptive young Tibetan in India posed an interesting question on her Facebook page: "How is [it] that I see so many Tibetans celebrating Halloween in the US and not a single one celebrating Dussehra, a common Hindu festival, or any other? The Tibetans living in India for so many decades, and so familiar with Indian culture, fail to embrace Indian celebrations, whilst actively participating in American popular culture?" The question raises much deeper issues regarding the construction of identity and values and the ways we link to different cultural norms, including the expectations of host countries and their willingness to accommodate diasporic cultures. In North America, the success of an immigrant community is judged by its readiness to assimilate, while in India there is considerably less demand or expectation for assimilation.

These questions also centre on community and institutional practices. For Tibetans in India, the expression of Tibetan identity is fostered in formal schooling and cocooned within refugee settlements. In North America no such collective opportunity exists, and these tasks are mostly left to individual families. Already, Tibetan families are voicing anxieties about the loss of Tibetan awareness among their children and their diminishing sense of 'Tibetanness'. The primary pressures facing the children come from the need to learn the language and values of their new host culture and their wish to fit in with their peer group. The first generation of migrants will retain a strong link to their former home either in India or Tibet, and at present, the consciousness of the homeland is kept alive and fostered in every conceivable way – the Tibetan communities throughout North America celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday, commemorate the 10 March Uprising and celebrate Tibetan New Year. Ceremonies like these have become an important form of a collective expression of ethnicity and culture. But as time passes such links will inevitably weaken.

The key commemorative rituals bring Tibetans together in remembering their homeland. Although most of the present generation has no direct experience of Tibet, they inherit memories and narratives of an oppressed history. A young Tibetan student from Canada recently wrote an article for her university newspaper about Canada's Remembrance Day, which marks those who died to defend Canada and its allies. For the student, Remembrance Day raised questions of identity and loyalty. She noted that, while her friends were posting photos of their grandparents or of past generations who had a direct connection with Canadian history, she had no direct or indirect link to this past. So, like many diaspora communities, she viewed her new host country as a gift of refuge and safety:

My mom and dad came here as refugees with very little and have grown so much because of the opportunities provided to them here in Canada. The freedom that they did not find in Tibet but have found here is all thanks to those countless faces and those souls who I will never meet but who I remember and appreciate this year on Nov. 11.

The double story here of the wounded homeland and the safety-endowing new land provides an important symbolic structure for the Tibetan diaspora. Scholars have made a distinction between diaspora communities formed from existing nation states and those who previously were stateless. These differences lead to contrasting ways of reshaping identity. Stateless diaspora communities like those of the Kurds and Palestinians hold diverse forms of citizenship and live in different spaces, and they conceptualise belonging through rituals, commemorations and shared narratives of their homeland. The Tibetans, also stateless and lacking nationhood, similarly seek to recreate a nation in the mind, and the memory of the homeland therefore becomes essential for fostering a Tibetan sense of collective identity. This is what is conveyed when you see such questions posed on social media as, "Our brothers are dying in [the] homeland, what are you doing?" The sense that the diaspora has a moral responsibility to engage in the salvation of the homeland becomes an imperative, even though Tibetans from India and Nepal now migrating to the West had already been displaced and may never have set foot in Tibet. For those coming from India, 'home' means both Tibet and India: India is the immediate experiential homeland and Tibet is the mythic one.

The idea of the homeland for the Tibetan diaspora, then, is a shifting one in which a nostalgic longing for the place of origin alternates between the mythic land of Tibet and its material embodiment in Nepal or India. For most Tibetans in North America, their remittances are sent to India or Nepal, not Tibet, and their family links are stronger with Delhi or Kathmandu, than Lhasa. Their taste and fashions are tied to those dominant south of the Himalaya whether through subscriptions to cable-television channels showing Bollywood movies or shopping in Indian supermarkets. Their news and information about Tibet is mediated through India and Nepal, and politics for them means the politics of the Tibetan diaspora in Southasia.

Hybrid lives
Diasporic identity is often described as 'long-distance nationalism'. Often it takes the form of establishing channels for articulating the community's politics. In the US, Tibetans gather in Washington DC to lobby their congressmen or senators; they are there as 'Tibetan Americans'. The Tibetan community in Toronto was at the forefront of the campaign to force the Toronto School Board to terminate ties with Confucius Institutes sponsored by the Beijing government. But in Nepal or India it is more or less unthinkable for Tibetans to engage in local politics, and lobbying there is left to established bodies. For example, many Indian colleges and universities where Tibetan students study host Confucius Institutes, but Tibetan students often remain silent. This is not because of Tibetans' disinterest, but because host countries vary in their receptiveness to diasporic activism. Tibetans in North America can easily adopt a hybrid identity as 'Canadian Tibetan' or 'Tibetan American', but calling oneself 'Indian Tibetan' or 'Nepali Tibetan' would bring censure and ridicule from both the Tibetan and host community. Adopting citizenship in India is often regarded as a rebuff to one's patriotic duty, but taking on the citizenship of a Western country is now regarded as a mark of status. The premium placed on Western hybrid identity and citizenship is in part pragmatic, but it is also the display of a new status that has been acquired: those who made it to the West are often viewed as the fortunate ones who have escaped the hardship of refugee life in Southasia.

The mass migration out of India and Nepal is also transforming the life of Tibetans in the Subcontinent. A study being carried out by Namgyal Choedup from Washington University in St Louis has found that in one Tibetan settlement in South India, 41.8 percent of households are receiving remittances. Those who have relatives abroad experience a transformation of their economic status in India and Nepal in terms of better housing conditions and their ability to purchase consumer goods. As in many developing countries, going abroad to a richer country is viewed as a means of economic advancement both for oneself and for one's family. In addition, the new generation growing up in India is better educated than earlier ones and finds itself unable or unwilling to work the way the first generation did, either in agriculture or selling woolens in urban areas.

The visible economic change fostered by migration has in turn created a fever among the Tibetans remaining in Southasia to seek a new life in North America. This is more than individual sentiment, as resettlement in the West is now seen by the Tibetan refugee establishment in Dharamsala as a viable alternative to resettlement in Southasia. In 2007, the Dalai Lama approached Canadian authorities and (successfully) requested the country resettle 1000 Tibetans from Arunachal Pradesh, where Tibetan refugees were most disadvantaged due to isolation and a lack of economic opportunities. In such cases, the long-term objective is not to support the home community through remittances, as with many Indian migrants, but to establish a path for future migration by relatives and friends. Sponsoring one's relatives or friends becomes a mark of prestige: the person who has managed to bring all his or her relatives is seen as capable and resourceful. 'Pulling' one's relatives and friends to North America is spoken of among Tibetans as an explicit goal and moral obligation.

In the long run, as with other diaspora communities, Tibetans will be caught between the lure of economic betterment and the need to maintain their cultural identity. The lack of institutional frameworks for perpetuating and transmitting cultural identity creates tension between the desire of the parents' generation, which seeks to transmit their norms and values through, for example, language and dance classes, and the expectations of host country institutions, which tend to devalue the diasporic heritage and perceive it as culturally incongruous. Children regard weekend language schools and cultural activities as an extra burden and the Tibetan community in North America is not large enough to create an ethnic ghetto, where a new, organic sense of ethnicity and cultural identity could emerge. Tibetans may initially take advantage of their networks of relatives and friends to congregate in urban areas where there are sizeable Tibetan populations, but once securely settled, those who can move to the suburbs for better educational opportunities for their children. This leads to a weakening of community ties.

Although most Tibetans now find themselves in jobs with low socioeconomic status and live in relatively less affluent neighbourhoods, like most immigrants they aspire for upward mobility, and life in North America does provide possibilities of social and economic emancipation. Many families see ownership of a car and new consumer goods as a demonstration of their success. 'We could have never afforded to buy a car in India' is a remark I often hear from Tibetans settled in North America. This coexists with a tension between newly found economic independence and concern about the perceived loss of a moral community. The elders often speak of a lack of respect from the younger generation and the menfolk speak of the moral 'looseness' of 'their' women. The perceived moral decline is a conservative reaction towards the growing independence and social freedom that women enjoy in the West. For many Tibetan women in the diaspora, life in North America is often experienced as a liberation from the strictures of conservative norms and values. If we examine their achievements in terms of both jobs and educational success, Tibetan women fare much better in the West than in the Subcontinent.

In my own visits to different North American universities, I have found a greater number of Tibetan women engaged in higher studies than men, and it is no coincidence that the two Tibetan winners of Rhodes scholarships are both women. Similarly, Tibetan women are the leaders of the most imaginative of the Tibetan community groups – Machik and Students for Free Tibet. In contrast, for many men it is hard to adjust to a new life in which they may have to take up manual labour and cope with a loss of status. As a result, some return to India and wrap themselves in the mantle of patriotism as staff in the Tibetan administrative system, while the wives work in the West and provide economic security.

Despite the migrant families' desire to maintain their Tibetan cultural values and identity, they face major obstacles. It is almost impossible to survive unless both parents work long hours to earn their living, meaning children are often left unsupervised, thereby leading to a loss of parental control and influence. Many try to resolve this problem by sending the children back to India or by bringing grandparents to take care of them. But then the cultural gap between grandparent and child emerges. Life in North America brings new values and norms, requiring Tibetans for the first time to address such issues as personal independence, sexual orientation and gender equality. A huge gulf appears in the experience of politics and social life between the home generation and the new diaspora.

Consolidating favour
In the past, migration was seen as a final break with one's homeland, and acculturation and assimilation marked a total loss of links with the past. However, global transformations in communications and the development of social media mean that remittances do not only flow in the form of money. Now ideas and norms, too, are remitted to the homeland through visits and via the circulation of images and sounds within the virtual community. The music created in the West becomes an instant hit in Tibetan communities in Nepal and India, and the affluent life displayed on Facebook serves as an enticement to others to migrate and seek a new life in the West.

The formation of the Tibetan diaspora community in North America is relatively recent; the community is still consolidating itself. For Tibetans, migration hasn't yet become a corrosive agent that dilutes their sense of cultural and ethnic identity. Both roots and routes form an important narrative for fostering Tibetan identity in North America. However, the way Tibetans perceive themselves is shifting. It is useful to consider the shift through Stuart Hall's conception of the distinction between a sociological subject (whose identity is shaped by 'significant others') and a postmodern subject (whose identity is in permanent flux). As noted earlier, in India the Tibetan subject is fashioned through formal schools and refugee settlements, but in North America there is no coherent structure for representing the self within a singular, unified identity. Hence, multiplicity and hybridisation are possible and easy. We now see people describing themselves as an American or Canadian Tibetan, and in the near future a person may describe himself or herself as ethnically Tibetan but culturally American.

Some Tibetan migrants have achieved social and economic success, while others are marginalised and find themselves trapped within the life and limits of a migrant community. We can see the tensions produced by such disparities in the way failure and dishonour are handled by the community. In 2013, four young Tibetan men were arrested for credit card fraud in Toronto and one Tibetan youth was murdered by another. These events, although widely covered in the Canadian media, were almost totally absent from Tibetan websites and news portals. Even sharing the news on social media was frowned upon – it was seen as embarrassing the community. We can see from this that Tibetans think of the move to North America as being about more than economics. It is perceived as part of a self-essentialised image of Tibetans as peaceful Buddhists, and the strong need to 'perform' this image becomes an essential aspect of being a Tibetan in North America. In this vision, the wish to make it possible for new migrants to follow in their footsteps to the West is combined with securing support for the political struggle for the original homeland. Thus for the new Tibetans in the West, despite the multiple sources of obstacle and pressure that they face, fostering a positive image for their community becomes an overall priority.

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