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I. Ancestors and New Identities

Tradition and Identity among Tibetan Americans

Molly Gilbert-Chatalic
p. 31-42

Abstract

Au fil des siècles, ceux qui ont choisi les Etats-Unis comme destination finale semblent avoir été motivés par deux attitudes principales : ils sont soit mus par un esprit d’entreprise ou ils cherchent un refuge. De plus, le gouvernement américain a souvent été impliqué dans l’effort de répandre sa vision de la démocratie dans d’autres pays du monde. Après la deuxième guerre mondiale, les Etats–Unis ont assoupli les lois d’immigration afin d’inclure un plus grand nombre d’Asiatiques en particulier. Leur implication au Tibet pendant les années cinquante et leur création par la suite de quotas pour les réfugiés tibétains a eu pour conséquence la création d’une petite communauté tibétaine très active aux Etats-Unis, dont la plupart des membres de la première génération, n’ayant aucune citoyenneté reconnue d’un pays quel qu’il soit, sont devenus américains. Aujourd’hui, les Etats-Unis sont la destination de rêve pour la plupart des jeunes réfugiés tibétains, qui continuent à chercher à s’éduquer et à trouver des opportunités économiques en quittant le Tibet ou l’Inde.
Nous nous pencherons sur l’identité hybride des Tibétains-Américains et sur leurs efforts pour maintenir à la fois leur identité traditionnelle et la nouvelle sur un même pied d’égalité, Les tensions qui existent entre leur rêve américain et le rêve de retourner au Tibet un jour sont peut-être typiques d’autres communautés réfugiées aux Etats-Unis, qui n’ont aucune patrie. Dans la mesure où la force de leur identité peut être liée à une terre spécifique, ainsi qu’à certains symboles et valeurs, comment ceux-ci s’harmonisent-ils avec leur allégeance à un nouveau pays ? Au fur et à mesure que les Etats-Unis deviennent un refuge et une base pour la survie et l’activisme, les considérations économiques l’emportent souvent. Un autre aspect qui est en jeu dans la survie de leur identité culturelle est l’importance du bouddhisme tibétain qui est en cours d’institutionnalisation, d’organisation et de mise en pratique à grande échelle par des non-Tibétains.

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1To state that the United States is eminently characterized by the huge diversity of its various ethnic communities is a truism but one that holds lasting interest because of what it has to say about the country’s relationship to the world at large and its internal dynamics in integrating immigrants of very different origins. The change in immigration laws in the 1960s (with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act in particular) opened the U.S.A. to Asian immigration in an unprecedented manner. This movement was reinforced by subsequent laws concerning refugees passed from 1975 on (1975, 1980), Amerasians (1987) and the increase of quotas with the lottery system (1990). Among recent Asian immigrants, small groups such as the Hmong, the Tibetans or Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese origin have found shelter in the U.S.A. Arriving as political refugees, they have no widespread nor long and well-established community to fall back on. Their first main concern is of course economic survival which depends to some extent on federal or state funding and support. Among these three groups, Tibetans arriving from exile in India usually have the advantage of speaking English, and of having acquired some education and skills which makes integration easier for them.

2This paper focuses on the identity of Tibetans in the United States and of Tibetan-Americans to determine to what extent they have integrated American values or a long-term vision of themselves as permanent citizens of the U.S.A. I am also interested in generational differences and in the role Tibetans’ foothold in the U.S.A. may play in wider world politics in the long run. The assumption at the start of this research was that Tibetans see America as a temporary stop, a stepping-stone towards freedom, towards going back to the homeland (phayul in Tibetan), a fertile ground, or cradle for maintaining their Tibetan identity in exile. But this leads to other questions such as "To what extent are they American?" and "What makes an American American ?" It cannot be denied that immigrants transform the U.S.A. as much as it transforms them. The scope of mutual influence also depends on localization which is one of the first points to investigate.

3In the framework of research on cultural or social topics, one enduring question also has to be taken into consideration: the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity, or the  "outsider-insider debate". What legitimacy, or degree of authenticity can the researcher claim when speaking of questions of identity from (in most cases) an outsider’s academic viewpoint? The difficulty of defining identity is an issue I have had to deal with in most of the research I have done. Indeed, as an English, French and Tibetan speaking French-American citizen raised in an American-French-Tibetan milieu, I can never be certain of my degree of objectivity concerning the object of my research. In trying to define American Buddhists for example, I have found that the way they identify themselves is the most authentic definition. If they consider themselves as Buddhist, even if they do not meet all the criteria that would define a Buddhist for an insider, this self-identification takes precedence. The question of self-identification is a premise I have also applied in this study of Tibetans and Tibetan-Americans and should be kept in mind.

Facts and historical background: identity in exile

4A quick overview of the historical background of the ethnic group we are focusing on is in order. Tibetans are considered as one of the 56 nationalities of China (Ch. minzu). In Tibet today (which extends over the provinces of Xizang (or the Tibet Autonomous Region), Qinghai, parts of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan), they number around 6 million (5, 400,000 according to the 2000 Chinese census, or 6 million according to Tibetan Government-in-Exile statistics). After 1950-51 and the “peaceful” liberation or forceful occupation of their homeland (depending on one’s viewpoint), and the flight of the Dalai Lama into exile in March 1959, around 80,000 Tibetans followed the latter to India, fleeing from the Chinese troops. A small number had already settled in India, foreseeing a difficult future in Tibet. Today, Tibetans in exile represent 4% (200,000) of the worldwide Tibetan population (125,000 in India, 60,000 in Nepal and 4,000 in Bhutan, the closest countries where they find refuge). More than 1 million are known or thought to have died from famine during the Great Leap Forward, in 1958-61 or 1959-62 depending upon sources, and tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed during uprisings in 1956-1958. Since the beginning of the 1980s, a steady trickle of 2,000 to 2,500 refugees a year have continued to make the long journey to Nepal and India, more than half of them children and teenagers seeking education in exile, but this has become much more difficult recently with the change of government policies in Nepal (which is a transit point to India) and in China. This was shown most dramatically in the 2005 Nangpala Pass shootings which made international headlines and were witnessed first-hand by a party of Western mountaineers. In this incident, among the group of refugees trying to cross the border, a 17-year-old nun was shot in the back and killed by the Chinese border guards and the other Tibetans were taken prisoner, all in full view of the Westerners.1

5Among the other countries where the Tibetan diaspora has established communities, the main ones are in Europe (the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium and France) and North America (the United States and Canada). Taiwan, Australia and Japan also have representative communities. The Central Tibetan Administration (of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile) has offices in ten major capitals around the world and acts as a consular service to Tibetans in exile. In 1991, it became a founding member of the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization (UNPO) which is an international and democratic organization whose members are indigenous peoples and minorities of unrecognized or occupied territories which lack international representation. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile, at the behest of the Dalai Lama, has decided to turn towards a democratic system, and the first democratic election in Tibetan history took place in 2001 for the position of Prime Minister in exile. In April 2011, Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan born in India and a 43-year-old Harvard law scholar, was elected as the new Prime Minister and sworn in as the head of Tibet's government-in-exile on August 22nd, taking over from the Dalai Lama, who announced his retirement from his political role.

  • 2 In one case, two newly arrived members of a Tibetan family were put on a train going from France to (...)

6For Tibetans in exile, the question of identity is posed by the issue of identity papers. Tibetan refugees in India or Nepal are considered as such and only have papers stating their refugee status. They cannot hold an Indian passport while retaining their refugee status, hence their reluctance to apply for Indian citizenship. Those born abroad in most Western countries acquire the nationality of their birth country and are able to travel more easily with a regular passport. Being stateless can be quite complicated and finding a sponsor or making one’s way to the West, especially the United States, is a dream for which many are willing to take some risks. Fake sponsorships, name changing, fake papers, as well as illegal border crossing are often involved.2 The Central Tibetan Administration provides a Green Book to Tibetans which gives them an identity number. Among the various items to be filled in on the "Identity Certificate Form" is their Phayul, the village or province from where they or their parents come. This can be seen as a continuation of essential traits which determined one’s identity in Tibet before Chinese rule: one was not Tibetan per se, but from a certain area or region. This continues to be true in exile to a certain extent, except that the general Tibetan identity factor is superimposed on these different origins and makes for a unified Tibetan people. The Green Book serves as a receipt book for the "voluntary contribution" (chatral in Tibetan, a sort of tax) which Tibetans in exile are called upon to pay (in Western countries, this represents $96 for an adult, and $46 for an unemployed person or student in 2009). Payment of the chatral is a requirement to be able to participate in Parliamentary elections and is also evidence of the person’s claim to "Tibetan citizenship", Tibetans being defined here as "any person born in Tibet, or any person with one parent who was born in Tibet". Due to a lack of documents attesting this, eligibility is usually established through an interview. In the next decades, this definition will probably have to evolve to include Tibetan grandparents.

  • 3 The first wave of immigration to the US dates back to the first settlers during the 17th century, t (...)
  • 4 In 2010, a bill (H.R. 1340 The Tibetan Refugee Assistance Act) was introduced in the 11th Congress (...)

7Tibetan immigration to the United States is a recent phenomenon and belongs to "fourth wave immigration",3 in particular during the 1980s, although a few Tibetans had settled there from the beginning of the 1960s. The Tibetans trained by the CIA in the 1950s were based in Colorado and a few Tibetans employed as lumberjacks were also recorded. In 1985, there were 524 Tibetans living in the U.S.A. Compared to other Asian groups, they still represent a very small minority group since they are currently estimated to comprise only around 9000 members, based principally in the main cities along the two coasts (although unofficial accounts place the number of Tibetans in New York City and state alone at 10,000). They benefited in particular from special quotas or a special program entitled the Tibetan United States Resettlement Project (in consultation with the Tibetan government-in-exile), which was passed by Congress in 1992 (with reference to section 134 of the Immigration Act of 1990).4 Through a lottery system, one thousand Tibetans were allowed to settle in the United States in 22 cluster groups, and in 17 states. They were sponsored by Americans who provided them with temporary homes, and assisted in their adjustment. One finds Tibetan communities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York state, Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Vermont on the East Coast, in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio for the Mid-West or Great Lakes region, in San Francisco and Los Angeles for California, in Seattle and Portland for the North-West, as well as in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and finally Austin, Texas. Compared to other recent immigrant groups, their localization is quite spread out, especially if one considers their numbers.

8Despite being spread out over the United States, Tibetan communities in themselves are still compact, and transmission of the language and knowledge about culture and customs is still strong. Very little intermarriage with other groups is apparent. Spouses are sought within the Tibetan community in exile. There is a sense of responsibility to the Tibetan community or identity, and no real sense of belonging to the larger Asian-American group. Interestingly enough, they are classified as South Asians in the U.S. Census, along with Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans. The Tibetan community in the U.S.A. continues to grow in numbers, especially through family reunification. Tibetans having settled in the U.S.A. do not seem to be fully aware of the patriotic or loyalty implications of becoming American citizens in the long term. They are encouraged to take American citizenship by the Tibetan government–in-exile who sees them gaining a political voice to become representatives of their lost homeland. Compared to other Asian groups (regarding economic conditions and racist attitudes), Tibetans have had it "easy" in the United States and have not suffered from overt racism or discrimination.

Networking: groups and associations

9With the arrival of Tibetan refugees in India and their encounter with American citizens, whether officals of the State Department, scholars, ordinary Americans "on the road" in the 1960s and 1970s, or American Buddhists, a growing interest in Tibetan culture, literature and religious philosophy or practice developed in the United States. As early as 1960, the Rockfeller Foundation established 8 centers for Tibetan studies and 17 Tibetan lamas were invited to teach in the U.S.A. Tibetan studies now exist in major American universities. The ACIP (Asian Classics Input Project) program is devoted to preserving Tibetan and Sanskrit texts by having them scanned and data-processed by monks and Tibetan women refugees. Tibetan Buddhist centers have been established throughout the U.S.A., often directed by a Tibetan teacher surrounded by a non-Asian American community, some of whom learn the Tibetan language to be able to communicate with their teacher, but more often to read the Buddhist texts in their original version.

10This interest has been followed up recently by more activist efforts, especially since the opening up of Tibet at the beginning of the 1980s and the subsequent upheavals in 1987 and 1988. The U.S.-Tibet Committee was founded in 1977 to support the nonviolent struggle for an independent Tibet and to educate Americans about the occupation of Tibet. Its administrative board includes both Tibetans and Americans. Tibet Fund, which started in 1981 as a humanitarian assistance organization, has sponsored Fulbright scholarships and has funded grant programs for Tibetan students and professionals since 1988. ICT (International Campaign for Tibet) was established in 1987 in Washington D.C. to defend Tibetan issues within national and international legal boundaries.

11The U.S. government has been involved in the Tibetan issue since 1959, albeit only covertly or quite discreetly until recently. The story of the CIA’s training Tibetans in guerilla warfare was only published in 1999 (Knaus, 1999). In 1991, the U.S. State Department designated the Tibet Fund as the administrator of U.S. humanitarian aid to Tibetan refugees. In October 2009, Under Secretary of State Maria Otero was appointed as the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. The American government also funds radio transmissions into Tibet through Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Tibetans inside as well as outside of Tibet greatly rely on these sources for international news. Finally, the recognition of the Dalai Lama by the United States Congress, which awarded him with the Congressional Gold Medal on 17 October 2007, added to the impact of the Noble Peace Prize he received in December 1989, is a source of enduring pride for Tibetans both inside and outside of Tibet. It is an especially meaningful gesture for Tibetans living in the United States. It has also reinforced the positive image of this country in every Tibetan’s eyes (in Tibet or abroad).

12Tibetans themselves are active in establishing associations and support groups, as well as in networking. Associations such as the Tibetan Association of Boston, the Tibet Community of Washington, the Wisconsin Tibetan Association and the Tibetan Association of Santa Fe are all active in organizing weekly and monthly cultural events. There are 30 such associations in the United States registered as 501(c)(3) non profit organizations. They include non-Tibetan sympathizers as well in their membership. As representative bodies of the Tibetan-American community, they are also essential in establishing contacts with political representatives. They have thus participated in the recently created Tibet Lobby Day. Commemorative marches and walks are regularly organized to commemorate important dates in Tibetan history.

13Other groups are more focused on activism, such as the Tibetan Youth Congress and Students for a Free Tibet who do grassroots campaigning, and employ peaceful, non-violent methods in their communication and information campaigns. Their members are mostly of the younger generation. Older members of the Tibetan resistance movement are represented by the Dokham Chushi Gangdruk, which keeps the memory of the history of Tibetan resistance alive. These different associations and groups are proof of the political concerns of Tibetans in the United States, but these concerns focus on keeping traditions and memories alive, or on trying to change the status quo of the situation of Tibet by denouncing abuses and restrictions. Even the lyrics of the political rap group Yeti Crew which is made up of young Tibetans center on the Tibetan issue. In another way, numerous smaller, unofficial groups, organizations and business companies bring direct help to Tibetans inside Tibet, and maintain links among the extensive network of the Tibetan community in exile.

Tibetan in America or Tibetan-American?

14Given the success of Tibetans’ adaptation to life in the U.S.A., are we speaking about Tibetans in America or Tibetan-Americans? The primary assumption was that the older generation would be grateful to be offered exile in a richer country than India, while remaining bent on maintaining their traditional Tibetan identity without giving up the hope of going back one day to their homeland. The second hypothesis was that the intermediate generation, 20 to 40 year-olds, of working age, was mainly keen on the economic and educational opportunities, and the youngest generation, born in the United States, would be closest to having assimilated American values and ways of thinking because of their having been through the American educational system.

15When speaking to Tibetans in the United States as in other countries of exile, it is obvious that this Tibetan identity is still extremely strong. Whatever the generation, even after fifty years of Chinese political sovereignty, and even in the American context, which favors assimilation and Americanization, this holds true. To quote Buchung Tsering, a Tibetan living in the United States:

One of the challenges to the small Tibetan-American community in the United States is having to adapt to our new hyphenated identity. The feeling of Tibetanness is so strong amongst the Tibetan Americans that in many cases even though several decades may have passed since they have immigrated to this country many continue to regard themselves only as being ‘Tibetan’.5

  • 6 Han refers to the identity of the largest ethnic group in China (and in the world, with 1.3 billion (...)

16This strong singular identity expresses a sense of exclusivity, of "us versus them" (especially in the case of the Chinese), and can be linked to the effect of exile and of loss of country. Recent immigrants from Tibet itself manifest this very strong sense of Tibetanness as well, despite official Han6 discourses of belonging to one motherland. Hyphenization or a dual identity would mean letting go of a fifty-year old dream: that of returning to a free Tibet one day, or of regaining equal status in Tibet with the Han minority, which is gaining territory demographically. A recent YouTube posting which has enjoyed a certain notoriety in the Tibetan community is a short video showing Tibetans of different ages and walks of life, in Amdo (north-east area of Tibet), simply stating "I am Tibetan" or adding a reason while looking directly at the camera. Being considered as second-class Chinese citizens, barbarians or "darkies" (Ch. hei) is no longer tenable. This overt manifestation of pride in one’s identity is reminiscent of the Black Power and Black is Beautiful movement in the 1960s. Ironically, the term "barbarians" is also used in Tibetan Buddhism to designate all those living in countries outside of the sphere of Buddhism, Buddhists being called ‘insiders’ (nangpa) in Tibetan.

17In the case of those refugees coming directly from Tibet, there seems to be more acceptance of the status quo, since the situation has existed for so many decades. Their attitude is more pragmatic, and they are not interested in political independence so much as in economic equality. On the other hand, in exile, as there is often no first-hand knowledge of reality in the lost homeland, Tibetans cannot but be more political. Emily Yeh, a Chinese-American who can pass as a Tibetan due to her physical appearance or her language skills, has studied the rift between Tibetan-Americans who came directly from Tibet and those arriving from India (Yeh, 2002). Among these two groups of Tibetans, the term gyami which means ‘Chinese’ is used to express the ultimate otherness of having turned one’s back on one’s real (ie. Tibetan) identity or on having assimilated too well into modern society in Tibet under Chinese domination.

  • 7 Although the contrary seems true in view of the lyrics of most of the songs posted by young Tibetan (...)

18Despite their long history of being stateless or second-class citizens, Tibetans continue to uphold their Tibetan identity and to transmit their culture, language and traditions to their children. The United States is considered as the most desirable location by Tibetans in exile as it is seen as a safe haven, and a place for economic advancement, activism and strong State support. Adaptation and assimilation in the United States (because of the importance of the English language and of networks) is easier than in other Western countries, but may have insidious effects on Tibetan identity in the long term because of the loosening of community ties. In India, the Tibetan community remains very tightly-knit because of the social environment. But even in the West, there is very little intermarriage and the extended family is still the model when family reunification immigration laws make this possible. For the younger generation who immigrated at a young age or who were born in the United States, language transmission is difficult. Young Tibetans assimilate very fast and in the long term may move away from their communities.7

Conclusion

19At the beginning of the 1990s, studying Buddhism in the United States would be met with looks of disbelief or mild amusement. That is no longer the case. In time, the subject of Tibetan-Americans will certainly also become commonplace. The third generation of Tibetans, those raised in the United States will begin to answer the question of what it means to be Tibetan-American. Although their numbers are small, their efforts and networking make them a dynamic and largely successful community.

20Essential values for Tibetans such as the family, education, religion, compassion, being beneficial to others, gratefulness, a concern for others and for the environment, and an enterprising spirit can all contribute positively to American society, although they stand in contrast to other common values of their host society, such as individualism, competitiveness, profitability, the right to self-defense and a certain sense of pride or self-righteousness. Nevertheless, for those Tibetans coming from China, individual freedom is extremely appealing and they do not see it negatively, while others see the right to carry a gun everywhere as a sign of freedom. Another difference from the mainstream is religion since the great majority of Tibetans are Buddhist and are not converting en masse to Christianity. The common point between the United States and Tibet in that case is a strong religious faith, even if the faith is different. This is still an essential part of Tibetans’ identity. And even in the United States, their focal point is still the Dalai Lama whom they look to for guidance and whom they consider as embodying the Tibetan essence. The impact of his activities, teachings, and tours on the Tibetan-American community are undeniable.

21In some ways, the experience of Tibetans does not appear to differ from that of most immigrant groups who have sought refuge in the United States, for religious or economic reasons, over the centuries. Their adaptation and assimilation has been favored by language and a generally positive international image. Like most immigrant groups, they focus on getting ahead and in acquiring education and skills. Their relations and interaction with American society point to a certain degree of assimilation. One cannot yet speak of acculturation however, since they continue to maintain a strong sense of belonging to a particular group of people: the Tibetans, who have another, albeit occupied and not easily accessible homeland, far from the temporary refuge of the United States. The decades to come will be of primary interest for the evolution of this sense of identity, when its main representative or embodiment, the 14th Dalai Lama, eventually passes away. Much will depend on the politics surrounding his future reincarnation (Sullivan, 2010). No other immigrant groups in the United States are linked in such a manner by a spiritual head, and a travelling monk.

22When Buchung Tsering asserts that "[no] Tibetan immigrant can afford to choose becoming merely an American.  Everyone has to be Tibetan American, at the least, for the survival of our community", the two keywords which stand out are "merely" as if American nationality was not nearly enough, and "survival", which has been an ongoing issue for Tibetans for fifty years now. As far as their American identity is concerned, when Tibetans gain citizenship or are naturalized, it appears that their primary loyalty is still to their Tibetaness. Acquiring papers, a passport, and having the right to live and work in the United States are seen as opportunities of pragmatic value, but do not replace their core identity. Those born and raised in the United States will perhaps experience things differently, growing further away from the dream of returning to a lost or inexistent Tibet one day. Physical distances are greater than in the case of India, and American social norms may streamline them and integrate them much more efficiently than does a still predominently caste-dominated country such as India, with its strong religious and social divides, which keeps Tibetans apart.

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Bibliography

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Notes

1 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1285035/A-murder-shadow-Everest-Why-innocent-Tibetan-nun-gunned-Chinese-soldiers-Himalayas.html

2 In one case, two newly arrived members of a Tibetan family were put on a train going from France to Switzerland, and were instructed to request political asylum upon arriving in Geneva. In another case in 2011, an illegal Tibetan immigrant paid €20,000 to reach Paris where he requested political exile status. A young Tibetan woman who reached Nepal safely after a 21-day trek from the Amdo region of Tibet, then travelled to Dharamsala, India (for education), then back to Nepal (for financial and family reasons), before living in New Delhi and immigrating to the United States, is known by the author to have changed names at least three times during the course of her exile.

3 The first wave of immigration to the US dates back to the first settlers during the 17th century, the second wave lasted from 1820 to 1870, the third wave took place from 1880 to the 1920s, and the fourth wave started in 1965.

4 In 2010, a bill (H.R. 1340 The Tibetan Refugee Assistance Act) was introduced in the 11th Congress of the United States by George Miller, Democrate Representative of California. It provided for the granting of 3000 visas to Tibetan refugees living in India and Nepal, or recently arrived from Tibet.

5 Enter the Tibetan Americans, http://tibetreport.wordpress.com/2009/01/03/enter-the-tibetan-americans/ (22 May 2010)

6 Han refers to the identity of the largest ethnic group in China (and in the world, with 1.3 billion individuals). They constitute 92% of the population of China.

7 Although the contrary seems true in view of the lyrics of most of the songs posted by young Tibetan-Americans on the internet.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Molly Gilbert-Chatalic, « Tradition and Identity among Tibetan Americans », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 31-42.

Electronic reference

Molly Gilbert-Chatalic, « Tradition and Identity among Tibetan Americans », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 14 April 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/367 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.367

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About the author

Molly Gilbert-Chatalic

EA 4249 (HCTI), UBO de Brest

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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