Tibetans in Chicago Try to Preserve Their Culture

April 22, 2008

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Tibetans protest at Water Tower Park, before heading to the Chinese Consulate.

In the early 90s, Tibetans began settling in Chicago under a special lottery that allowed a thousand to come to this country. Sixteen years have passed, and they've had children here, even grandchildren, born as American citizens. Yet they're working harder than ever to hold on to their Tibetan culture.

NOTE: The Tibetan Alliance of Chicago and the TIBETcenter in Evanston are both rich sources of information about Tibetans and cultural programs in Chicago.

DRONGPA: Look at the letter, kah, kah, kah, nice.

Tibetan teacher Kyipa Drongpa leans over a small boy, and helps him sound out a word. Several other children trace characters at a makeshift desk that's actually a banquet table. They're learning the language of their home country in a small storefront rented by the Tibetan Alliance of Chicago.

Sound of Language class

Their parents and grandparents say it's essential to pass along their culture and Buddhist religion. The Alliance offers music and dance classes, too.

Tsultim Ngabtak has four sons in language class, and he says they – like many families – speak Tibetan at home.

NGABTAK: We are exiled in American, and I am an American Tibetan. If I lose my Tibetan language and my culture, then I am not Tibetan.

Nearly 300 Tibetans live here. Many have never even seen Tibet. Yet they share a fierce sense of identity.

Norbu Lhamo has five children.

LHAMO:  I'm teaching them what is Tibet, how we lost our country, how to bring it up. So I came here to give them a good education, and also, in future, they can help my country.
GYATSO: We have been out of Tibet for a long time.

Sherab Gyatso left Tibet in 1962 when he was 5. He fled on foot with his mother and baby sister to India, where he grew up. Four of his aunts died in labor camps in Tibet.

He came to Chicago a decade ago and has only vague memories of his native land.

GYATSO: I grew up in exile, and there are thousands of children growing up in exile. So if we are to return back to Tibet one day, to our country, we need to preserve whatever we have.

The Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950. Then, in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled with thousands of Tibetans. The Chinese destroyed monasteries, and many Tibetans died.

Gyatso says the stakes are high.

GYATSO: There is a demographic kind of genocide going on. Every part of Tibet is being occupied by the Chinese. New settlers, new schools are being opened up, new factories, all meant for Chinese. So Tibetans are marginalized.

He's fearful that Tibetans there will essentially become Chinese. That's why he says it's so important to preserve Tibetan culture and religion outside of Tibet.

GYATSO: We do not want to have a lost generation who calls themselves Tibetans, but have no idea of Tibetans. So we have to present our culture in a very attractive way, so children really attach themselves from their hearts and minds to our own culture.

WANGDAGN: So I feel like there's a conflict of ideas between Tibetan culture and American culture. I feel like I have to participate in American culture to actually fit in, but then again, I have to follow my old ways.

Language class

Sixteen-year-old Tenzin Wangdagn says classes like this are all that's holding him to his culture. But he says it's important to preserve it because he wants to serve as an example for his younger brothers.

WANGDAGN: I feel like our country has been taken from us. This is the only thing I can actually help do, besides go and protest.

Sound of protest

Tibetans are holding regular protests downtown and at the Chinese consulate. They say the best way to preserve the culture is to free Tibet. That mantra once was ubiquitous at rock concerts, on bumper sticks and even compilation CDs. But over the years, it's been less visible. The summer Olympics in China represents an opportunity for Tibetans to refocus attention on their cause.

The crowd chants a prayer for freedom.

The Chinese counter that Tibet is part of China, and blame the Tibetans for recent violent outbreaks.

Meanwhile, the Tibetans believe that someday, independence will come to their country. They say they're willing to wait, and to pray, and to protest, however long it takes.

Sherab Gyatso:

GYATSO: I'm hoping in my lifetime, I will be able to go back to Tibet. I'm dying to go back to Tibet. Yes, I want to go and settle there and teach. That is what I can contribute best for Tibet.

He says then, Tibetans living in exile can return and help revive what was lost.