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The Tibetan Diaspora: Adapting to Life outside Tibet (Part II)

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The Tibetan Diaspora: Adapting to Life outside Tibet (Part II)

Tibetan children at a school in Dharamsala, India, in August 2004.

Tibet's leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959. Since then, Tibetans in exile have successfully reconstituted their institutions and set up nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to keep their culture and language alive in the varied places they and their children live, from Canada to Switzerland to India.

Part I explored Tibet's history, its relationship with China, the creation of the government in exile, the movement to India and Indian policy toward Tibetan refugees, the settlements in South Asia, and the dispersion of Tibetans to the West.

Here in Part II we examine how Tibetans have integrated into Asian and Western societies, the diaspora's political success (including how it handled the 2008 protests), the divide between those in Tibet and Tibetans abroad, and what lies ahead for the Tibetan diaspora.

The First NGOs

In the early years of Tibetan exile, a number of NGOs formed to support the development of Tibetan civil society and self-help initiatives. The two main NGOs are the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and the Tibetan Women's Association (TWA), both based in Dharamsala, India, with branches worldwide.

The activities of TYC and TWA include political activities; health, welfare, and social service projects; environmental activism and community development; educational activities; cultural activities; and religious activities.

Some of the NGOs active in the Tibetan diaspora are run exclusively by and for Tibetans, such as TYC and TWA. Others are collaborations between Tibetans and non-Tibetans, including the Tibetan Nuns Project, a charitable organization that has a North American office in Seattle, and public advocacy organizations like the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), and the Canada and U.S. Tibet Committees.

The number of Tibetan NGOs has increased rapidly since the 1990s with the entry of large numbers of Tibetans into the Americas and the popularization of the Tibetan cultural and political cause among certain high-profile celebrities.

For example, Adam Yauch of the hip hop group the Beastie Boys initiated a series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts in the late 1990s and formed the Milarepa Fund as a Tibetan philanthropic NGO to disburse the royalties from Tibetan monks' participation in Beastie Boys productions. These concerts and his endorsements contributed to the burgeoning membership in Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) on North American campuses during this same period.

Also in the 1990s, Tibetan society in exile democratized with the passing and implementation of a new constitution, the 1991 Charter of the Tibetans-in-Exile, which includes provisions to directly elect representatives.

This process of liberalizations was not only top-down but included grassroots movements from intellectuals, youth, and writers who refused to self-censor dissenting views that diverged from the majority or those of the Dalai Lama and ruling elites.

Since then, new grassroots Tibetan publications (e.g., Tibetoday), websites (e.g., www.phayul.com), and chat rooms have emerged.

Resisting Diasporization and Obtaining Citizenship

There are some indications that due to strong ideological pressures, Tibetans have resisted diasporization and permanent residency outside of Tibet. This is particularly true of some South Asian Tibetan refugees who have not secured formal immigration status in their host countries even after four generations.

In Bhutan, Tibetans who renounced the right to return to Tibet were granted Bhutanese citizenship. However, many chose not to do so as they indicated they would like to return to Tibet one day; they remain refugees. In Nepal, it is not possible to get citizenship.

Although Tibetans in India can obtain Indian citizenship, very few have done so. It is unclear if ideological pressure or obstacles on the side of the Indian government can explain why so few eligible Tibetan refugees naturalize.

A liaison officer from the Office of Tibet in New York said Tibetans have trouble obtaining Indian citizenship because of the Indian government. Without Indian citizenship, they are denied certain rights, including a passport and the right to vote.

The recent and seemingly eager exodus of Tibetans to North America since the 1990s seems to be motivated in part by the promise of Canadian or U.S. citizenship with the concomitant privileges such citizenship affords. There is certainly no evidence that Tibetans are resisting procuring citizenship in these countries.

Encouraging Return

The exile government seeks to strengthen the indigenous Tibetan society and population by encouraging Tibetans abroad and development organizations to work in Tibet.

After receiving some education in lay or monastic institutions, some new arrivals can and do return to Tibet — estimates vary but may be 5 to 10 percent. However, very few (less than 2 percent according to author estimates) of the settled Tibetans in exile ever return to Tibet, even on a short-term basis.

Few settled Tibetans in India risk travelling to Tibet as they are without citizenship protections. Although Tibetans with passports from North American or European countries theoretically should be able to get visas and be protected by their citizenship, they rarely go to Tibet, perhaps out of fear for their safety and those of their families.

Likewise, the Central Tibetan Administration's (CTA) resettlement policies have shifted in recent years. CTA encourages Tibetans who have recently arrived in India to return to Tibet when and if it is safe and possible. This change reflects concerns that the Tibetan population in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan regions will be further eroded by resettled Han and other Chinese ethnic minorities.

CTA tries to offer high-quality Tibetan education and training to newly arrived Tibetans under age 30 during their time in India. In CTA reception centers, the official policy states that they do so in order to support most refugees' return and contribution within communities in Tibet.

Integration in the West

With respect to individual opportunities and community sustainability, it would appear that Tibetan diasporization in the West has proven successful. They have succeeded in many small business enterprises and are resourceful in adapting foods, goods, and services to cater to local needs.

In Europe and the Americas, most Tibetans live in communities that offer weekend language and cultural schools, supports, and/or activities. Furthermore, many Tibetans are members of a Tibetan NGO — local, national, and/or transnational.

Even smaller communities like those in Boston, Portland, Calgary, and Vancouver have well-established local Tibetan cultural associations that support and sustain the culture, language, and social and religious lives of the community. They participate in online discussion groups and news services, sponsor speakers on a regular basis, and participate actively in the CTA branch in the Americas, including voting in the diaspora elections.

Tibetan youth in the West continue to support the Tibetan Youth Congress and Students for a Free Tibet. However, intergenerational differences can be stronger in Europe and North America because these communities have little autonomy over education or social services.

Researchers have observed that Tibetan children and youth raised in the West, compared to those in South Asia, tend to lose the Tibetan language and participate less in religious activities and events as they are more exposed to popular culture. In addition, they are more likely to marry non-Tibetans.

CTA and many Tibetan communities and community organizations in North America are recognizing the challenges of long-term linguistic and cultural sustainability in the West and are engaged in research, policy, and program initiatives to foster better cultural and linguistic sustainability strategies.

Most observers believe Tibetans have adapted their institutions and personal lives remarkably well for a people who previously had little contact with modernity. Many Tibetan refugees were, and some continue to be, catapulted from a largely premodern, seminomadic or agrarian context into a largely postmodern, transnational context and lifestyle.

Some premodern practices continue to be a resource as they negotiate life outside Tibet. In particular, strong historical traditions of migration have impacted their international migration patterns and experiences. For example, many Tibetan refugees in the Americas are multilingual and have lived in three countries in their lifetimes. They continue to travel across the diaspora to visit family, to trade, or to participate in religious, cultural, or educational activities in other regions.

Likewise it is common for Canadian and American Tibetans to send their children to India for short periods to be educated in the Tibetan language or culture at the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) or the College for Higher Tibetan Studies (CHTS) in Sarah near Dharamsala.

For example, at the 2004 Kalachakra in Toronto, an elaborate 10-day Tibetan Buddhist initiation overseen in this instance by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, thousands of Tibetans attended from all over the Americas and Europe, with some coming from as far away as South Asia.

And at any given time, the New York and Toronto Tibetan communities have significant numbers of visitors from India and Nepal, some working temporarily in community language and cultural education programs.

Integration in Asia

In India, Nepal, and Bhutan, most Tibetan children attend Tibetan-administered schools. At the primary-school level, Tibetan is the language of instruction, and many Tibetan cultural contents are integrated in the curriculum. CTA developed a new education policy that offers a distinctive vision of education for Tibetans across the diaspora, and they have a model (pilot) school in Dharamsala implementing that policy.

Like most immigrant groups, Tibetans have taken on aspects of their host cultures after a few generations. In the case of South Asia, these cultural adaptations, which range from an appreciation for Hindi pop music and films to the adoption of Gandhian principles of nonviolent protest, have been gradual and small enough to minimize intergenerational conflicts.

Diaspora's Political Successes

Policy on the Future of Tibet
The goals of the 14th Dalai Lama have varied over time, ranging from claims for total independence to more moderate demands for substantial Tibetan autonomy within a federated China.
Nevertheless, his Strasbourg Proposal, named after a speech he made to the European Parliament in 1988, is decisive. In this proposal, he officially relinquished Tibet’s claim for independence. Many Tibetans in exile were unprepared for such a radical position.

The Strasbourg Proposal outlined the main features of what was later to be known as the Middle Way Approach, a pragmatic political course that is the official line of the Dalai Lama, and thus of the Tibetan exile government.

Through its various NGOs, the Tibetan diaspora has dramatically increased international support for Tibetan human rights and, to a lesser extent, Tibetan autonomy.

Since 1987, CTA has identified over 108 international resolutions in support of Tibet. Some of these resolutions include official awards and honors given to the Dalai Lama, including the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the 2007 U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, and Honorary Canadian citizenship. Others were human rights resolutions made against China on behalf of Tibetans.

The diaspora demonstrated its resourcefulness in March 2008 as protests in Tibet mounted on the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa Uprising, when thousands of Tibetans formed a "human sea" to protect the Dalai Lama as he was secreted out of the country by his closest advisors.

The 2008 protests in Lhasa are largely believed to be a reaction to China's policy of resettling non-Tibetans to the region. The protests spread rapidly and went well beyond the borders of TAR into the populous Tibetan regions of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai. In outlying regions, the protests centered on cultural autonomy and religious freedoms.

After news services began covering the story, the Chinese government called in the Red Army. From that point, only a few covert videos of the protests or Red Army crackdown made it to the international press. Although some ethnic Han were reported killed in Lhasa, most of the casualties were Tibetan protesters.

Although the Tibetan diaspora and Tibetan diaspora organizations did not instigate or coordinate these protests, there is no question that Tibetans in South Asia, North America, and Europe, along with their supporters, quickly organized demonstrations and publicity events calling for an end to the Chinese crackdown and for prominent leaders to not attend the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

They circulated petitions and engaged in hunger strikes, marches, and protests in New Delhi, London, Paris, and San Francisco. Despite significant communications and geographical barriers, Tibetans in the diaspora and those in Tibet were able to coordinate their activities in a limited way.

Across the Diaspora/Indigenous Tibetan Divide

Most Tibetan monks and nuns are recruited from rural regions in Tibet. After ordination, many choose to join Tibetan monastic communities in South Asia permanently or temporarily because of the opportunities they offer. The South Asian Tibetan community has created strong religious and secular institutions that parallel and even exceed those in pre-1959 Tibet.

Yet few urban and/or secular Tibetans in China are leaving, which means new emigrants are overwhelmingly religious. Also, few Tibetans in China or abroad are opting for the monastic lifestyle. In addition, Tibetans living in South Asia do not have the same experiences as those living in the West.

These differences account for various fault lines that intersect one another: religious versus secular, Tibetans in the homeland versus the Tibetan diaspora, and South Asian Tibetan communities versus Western Tibetan communities.

Chinese policies have accentuated these patterns. In 1996, China passed a series of laws and sanctions intended to restrict interactions and relations between indigenous Tibetans and the diaspora. These included outlawing possession of Dalai Lama photos, sanctioning parents who send children abroad for education, restricting monastic recruitment, and launching a "patriotic reeducation" campaign in monasteries.

Chinese authorities successfully curtailed some of the interactions and exchanges between lay Tibetans, but these policies indirectly encouraged monks and nuns to emigrate as they would otherwise be denied a religious vocation in Tibet. With the disappearance and apparent house imprisonment of the young Panchen Lama the same year (1996), many high lamas and abbots chose to come to India for safety while retaining their relations with their home monastic and lay communities.

Although Tibetans in North America and Europe face stronger intergenerational language and culture loss than those in South Asia, they have greater access to international power brokers perceived to be allies in the struggle for Tibetan self-determination. North American and European Tibetans also have more financial resources by virtue of the higher standards of living in these regions.

At the same time, it is important not to exaggerate differences and divisions within the diaspora. There are frequent and multiple exchanges and movements of people, ideas, and customs between the various settlements and national contexts.

Globalization has contributed to making Tibetans in South Asia at least as, if not more, modern as those in the West. Many North American or European Tibetans are often surprised to see Tibetans in South Asia who are more fashionable, more informed, or more aware of popular cultural movements than they are.

Divisions between the Tibetan diasporas of South Asia and the West become more apparent when considering monastic rather than secular cultures. Monastic education and institutions, which are very strong and active in South Asia, serve as a temporary or permanent refuge for many new recruits from Tibet. This cannot be said of North America, where Buddhist centers and monasteries are small and scattered and where the attrition levels of ordained monks and nuns remain high.

Conflicting views of "authenticity" are more pronounced when comparing diaspora and indigenous Tibetans. As with many diasporas, the Tibetans in exile see themselves as the legitimate custodians and emissaries of the Tibetan culture, religion, language, and political aspirations. But the gap between secular Tibetans abroad and in Tibet widens as they become steadily immersed in the popular cultures, media, values, languages, thought, and education systems of the places where they live.

In contrast, monastic Tibetans continue to display a far more fluid exchange between their members in Tibet and in exile. The leading lamas of all lineages have built or rebuilt monasteries in India and the Himalayan regions, and, as noted earlier, new recruits continue to arrive in significant numbers from Tibet.

The lamas are reported to have daily telephone contact with their monasteries in Tibet in many cases, and they move frequently between Tibet, the Indian monastery, and their various associated organizations, students, and sponsors around the world. Furthermore, some monks and nuns return to Tibet after studying in South Asian Tibetan monasteries.

Yet there are growing social gaps between the Tibetans in exile and those in Tibet.

For example, the education levels of indigenous Tibetans are some of the lowest in the world. They display strong monolingual tendencies in which they either remain unilingual Tibetan speakers or face rapid first-language attrition and intergenerational language loss when they are exposed to Chinese through education or economic and social assimilation. Indigenous Tibetans are poorer and have less access to both traditional and modern health-care services as compared to most Tibetans in exile.

In contrast, most Tibetans in exile enjoy much higher levels of education up to the secondary level if not higher. They tend to be multilingual with easy access to English as an alternative or global language.

Most Tibetans in China are excluded from the curricular reforms and increased access to English-language education. Although some of this neglect stems from a lack of teachers and funding, much of it can be attributed to the highly unequal distribution of the benefits of China's development between Han and non-Han peoples, and between the centers/urban areas and periphery/rural areas.

Looking Ahead

Migration poses a significant challenge for small indigenous and refugee populations like the Tibetans, who continue to struggle to conserve their language and culture within a globalizing world.

Although initial Tibetan-exile efforts to establish settlements and institutions in South Asia proved remarkably effective in the short term, maintaining distinctive institutions and communities becomes more difficult as the children of Tibetan exiles grow up distant from their roots and as Tibetans themselves move from one place to another.

That said, governmental and nongovernmental organizations have increased in number, complexity, and sophistication, offering new opportunities for cultural and linguistic survival.

In particular, the dramatic rise in migration between South Asia and North America provides important resources for Tibetans seeking to bridge the very underdeveloped conditions of their homeland and their South Asian communities with the considerable political, economic, and educational resources of the developed world.

The lasting impacts of the March 2008 protests remain to be seen. The violence of the Tibetans in Lhasa toward some of the Han settlers and business people is an indication of mounting Tibetan frustrations and helplessness over the social and economic inequities they face with respect to both the Chinese colonial and diaspora communities.

Yet the very scope and strength of the protests demonstrates that time, distance, and political autonomy have not eroded the underlying sense of unity among Tibetans or their purpose.

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