When Tenzin first arrived in San Jose with her husband, she didn’t have any Tibetan friends. She posted an ad on Craigslist to find someone.
“I wrote a couple sentences, ‘Are there any Tibetans living in San Jose? I’d like to talk. I’m so lonely,’” she said.
Rabgee also felt alone when he first came to the United States. As soon as he arrived in Hawai’i, he started looking for other Tibetans.
“If there are no Tibetans, it’s hard,” Rabgee said. “It’s difficult to be transferred, to be as an individual. At the monastery, everybody lives together. Class, friends, it’s nice. When I was in Hawai’i, people lived in the jungle, in the middle of the forest. I was shocked, you know. People don’t know any of their neighbors.”
Rabgee, a former Buddhist monk, left Tibet in the late 1990s. He lived in India, Hawai’i and New York City before settling in Santa Cruz, where he currently has two jobs.
A few weeks after I meet Rabgee, I interviewed him and his friend, Choezom, at Choezom’s place. The Dalai Lama smiled down at us from his framed picture, which sat on the table next to a coffee pot. Like Rabgee, Choezom is a Tibetan who made her home in Santa Cruz. Seated cross-legged on the floor, the two explained how their lives in Tibet depended on community ties.
“Inside the heart, we are naturally connected,” Choezom said. “If something happened to Rabgee, we would run to the hospital to help him, bring him food and clean his house. I would make time in the morning to visit him, or in the afternoon I would close the shop and go visit him. I would make sure everything’s okay during the day, and bring food. So you never worry. If there are Tibetan people, they always bring some food for you. You never starve. Nobody throws you out.”
Although they met in Santa Cruz, both were born in Amdo, a region in eastern Tibet known as China’s Qinghai province. After living in India for several years, Choezom and her husband moved to Santa Cruz in 2003.
The day after Choezom arrived, she and her husband ran into a Buddhist nun walking down Pacific Avenue. She and Choezom immediately recognized one another as Tibetan. The two became friends and the nun introduced Choezom to the rest of the small Tibetan community.
About 20 Tibetans live in Santa Cruz today, Choezom said, and the group gets together for a party or a dinner a few times a month.
“We always make time for us,” she said.
“Tibetan culture’s just social, you know,” Rabgee added. “Dinner, lunch, everything together. Six or seven people together, grandfather, father, daughter, grandchild, everybody’s together. We have our life in one house.”
Tenzin, a Tibetan woman born in exile, said having such a small Tibetan population in Santa Cruz creates an environment that feels more like home. She was born in a Tibetan settlement in India, where she lived most of her life before marrying her first husband, an American. In 2004, she moved to the Bay Area, where thousands of Tibetans live, but moved to Santa Cruz a few years later.
“When there are many Tibetans, they pass each other every day and they don’t get the chance to meet and get together,” Tenzin said. “We are a very small community here, so it’s very helpful, emotionally, psychologically, so we just feel okay, with our family.”
Santa Cruz Tibetans meet regularly at Land of Medicine Buddha, a Buddhist meditation and retreat center in Aptos. Five geshe, or high order monks, visited Land of Medicine Buddha in April to lead a puja, or a Buddhist prayer, for those who self-immolated in Tibet. Self-immolation, or burning oneself alive, is a widespread form of protest in Tibet. There have been 120 since 2009.
Santa Cruz was one stop in the geshes’ journey through the United States. About 20 people, mostly Tibetan, were there to pray.
Rabgee said Land of Medicine Buddha is one of the places that makes Santa Cruz feel more like home.
“We go to Land of Medicine Buddha, we offer, we pray, we have celebration for any big Tibetan event,” Rabgee said. “It’s nice, it’s cool. We have a good life.”
Drimay, a Buddhist nun, said Land of Medicine Buddha serves as a dharma center — a non-monastic institution that preserves and spreads Buddhist teachings.
“Most Tibetans would be at least nominally Buddhist,” Drimay said. “When it comes to important things going on in their life, if they need help, if something’s going on, they’re going to turn to a dharma center.”
Drimay said the Dalai Lama teaches the importance of preserving dharma, or Buddhist teachings. According to the Dalai Lama, the non-violent nature of Tibetan Buddhism can contribute to a more peaceful world.
“The very extensive and accurate way that the Tibetans have preserved the teachings of the Buddha needs to be preserved,” she said. “When his Holiness talks about the importance of preserving Tibetan culture, he is emphasizing this. This is the special sort of asset that the Tibetan people can provide to the world.”
Tibetans have to preserve their cultural practices outside of their home because once they leave, it is extremely difficult to return. Since the People’s Republic of China began to gradually tighten its grip on the Tibetan Autonomous region in the 1980s and 1990s, Tibetan language is no longer taught in schools, there is little tolerance for Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s illegal to own a picture of the Dalai Lama. Choezom’s framed photo of the Dalai Lama would be illegal if she were in her own country.
With roughly 95,000 Tibetans, India currently has the largest Tibetan population outside of Tibet, and the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile operates out of Dharamsala in Northern India. Tibetan refugees can apply for a residence certificate (RC), which allows them to live in India without citizenship.
Nepal has taken more of an aggressive stance against Tibetan refugees. While no official sanctions against Tibetans in Nepal have been announced, Human Rights Watch (HRW) gave a report earlier this year of heightened surveillance, discrimination and persecution against the roughly 20,000 Tibetans living in Nepal. While he denies HRW’s claims, Shankar Prasad Koirala, a spokesperson for Nepal’s home ministry, announced in April that Nepal “will not tolerate any group acting in a hostile way toward a neighboring country.”
Today, Tibetan cultural practices endure primarily outside of Tibet, but given the situation in Nepal, Tibetans’ options are growing thin.
“I have to work hard to keep this Tibetan culture and religion alive because it’s almost disappeared,” Choezom said. “It’s scary.”
Despite the near impossibility of doing so, a few hundred Tibetans still leave Tibet each year. They risk imprisonment and torture to cross the Himalayas and find refuge in India and Nepal, where they are free to learn their language and practice Tibetan Buddhism.
When he was nine, Rabgee’s parents sent him to a monastery to become a monk. There, he received schooling primarily in Tibetan language and Buddhist teachings. A few years into his education, he said, Chinese officials arrived. First, they asked the monastery to display a Chinese flag in the courtyard. Then they changed the school’s Tibetan name to a Chinese name and demanded that the monks wear lay person clothing rather than monk clothing when they taught. Finally they brought in a Chinese teacher to teach the monastic students Chinese.
Rabgee said at this time during the 1990s, monasteries across Tibet experienced similar reorganization tactics by Chinese officials. It got to the point, he said, where the only way to learn Tibetan, practice Buddhism and listen to the Dalai Lama was to leave Tibet.
“Every Tibetan knows we have a good culture, peaceful,” he said. “But we don’t have the right to keep going. That’s why I decided to leave my country.”
The first time Rabgee tried to escape Tibet, he was 19. The year was 1998.
“It’s not easy to come out of the country,” Rabgee said. “It’s really, really dangerous. I couldn’t tell my friends, my family. If I told, they wouldn’t let me go because it’s really, really dangerous.”
He traveled from his monastery to Lhasa to find a guide. He joined a group of about 45 Tibetans, mostly monks and children being sent out the country for an education, who planned to walk over the Himalayas into India.
After spending a day and half crammed inside a truck, the group set out on a 15-day walk. They walked by night to avoid detection from Chinese border patrol and hid during the day.
Just before the last leg of the journey, while camping at the foot of the Himalayas, Rabgee woke to the sound of gunshots. Chinese border patrol officials had found them.
“They don’t shoot you, they just shoot around you to scare you,” he said. “One police guy just kicks you, asks you raise your hands. Other guys shoot around and scare you. That’s how they caught us.”
The group was forced to turn back, hands tied, and they were brought to a police station.
After being held at the first station, Rabgee’s group was brought to a different station where they were put in a cell. Rabgee said they weren’t allowed out more than once a day, and weren’t given blankets although it was freezing. They were fed twice a day, and regularly questioned and beaten.
“I looked really young, I didn’t have any problem, any reason,” he said. “But still they beat you, hate you, kick you, sometimes, if you say something. If they don’t like you, they’re going to beat you.”
Rabgee said their lies saved their lives. No one revealed the identity of their guide, nor their mission. They insisted they were on a pilgrimage. Guards shoved pictures of the Dalai Lama in their faces, and asked them if they were trying to sneak out to see him. They denied it.
Two months later, they were released. It didn’t take long for Rabgee to try again. This time, he drove with a guide across the Chinese-Nepali border. When they hit a border patrol checkpoint, Rabgee got out and walked to meet the car on the other side of the checkpoint. They could only go so far, though, and eventually had to start walking with six others. Like the last time, they walked by night and hid by day.
“We walked hour to hour,” he said. “We were so scared. We couldn’t have flashlights because if you have a flashlight, people see you.”
After hours of walking, the group heard something alarming. It was the Nepali Border Patrol, steps behind them.
“We heard sounds on the bridge, we could tell they were following us,” he said. “It’s dark, cloudy. I was the first person. The one that hit the road. Six people just following you, shouting at you. I was running like crazy.”
Rabgee threw himself under a bush on the side of the road, which skirted the border of a farm. He waited there, ignoring the voices calling him — he didn’t know whether they belonged to his group or the Nepali Border Patrol.
Eventually, the voices left. Rabgee made his way to a paved road. He walked along the road, passing through villages, for a while. Finally a motorcycle passed him. It was his guide, looking for him to collect payment. Rabgee paid him, and the two of them rode the motorcycle to Kathmandu.
I first met Choezom at a Tibetan Culture Night organized by UCSC’s Global Action Class in March. The event was meant to spread awareness about human rights issues in Tibet, and gave students the chance to meet with Tibetans. Choezom, dressed in heels and a white blouse, stood next to a slideshow of pictures she took while she was in Tibet. She returned for a brief visit in 2007.
There were dozens of pictures of her family and village. She gave me detailed accounts of each person in the pictures — her grandmother, mother, nephew, sister and a neighbor. She told me about the potatoes grown on her family’s farm, and showed me a picture of a traditional Tibetan home.
“I want to go home so badly, you know,” she said. “I miss my family, I miss the smell, just everything where you’re born.
Choezom has lived in the United States for 10 years, owns a business and is married to an American, yet she said she still feels lost sometimes.
“Everything’s on computers. This is very challenging,” she says. “We live in villages, mountains. Our knowledge is taking care of farms, animals, nurturing stuff. But suddenly you live here.”
Since this visit, Choezom and her husband have tried to return, but they’ve been denied visas since 2008. Choezom’s husband, Chris, tried to apply for a visa at the Chinese consulate in northern Thailand. His and Choezom’s names were on a list of people to be denied.
“They just screwed with us, terribly,” Chris said. “They gave our three-year old-son a visa, but they wouldn’t give me one, and they wouldn’t give her one. They won’t give you a reason why, they never give you a reason.”
While difficult, it’s still possible to get in. Tenzin flew into Chengdu, China in 2012 and snuck into Tibet from there. This visit was her first time in Tibet, and she was closer than ever before to her extended family — but she didn’t reach out to them.
“I couldn’t dare to connect with them because that’s not safe for them,” she said. “In case [Chinese officials] come to know in the future I was traveling and I met my relatives, they would be in trouble. Many Tibetans were traveling in Tibet, they tried their best not to show themselves as their relatives to these people because we are just visiting there. We can get out, no problem, but they can’t.”
While Tenzin has never lived in Tibet, she said it still feels like home to her.
“It’s funny. As a Tibetan born in India, I’ve been more connected than anything to Tibet,” she said. “I love to be there. I wish, someday, to go to Free Tibet. More than America, more than India.”
Tenzin’s son sits in her lap while we speak at Land of Medicine Buddha. The voices of the geshe praying surround us as if we were sitting beside them, even though we are outside. Her son’s hair is growing quickly, but Tenzin says she doesn’t plan to cut it any time soon.
“I will leave his hair as long as it grows,” she says. “We offer our hair to teachers, Buddhist teachers, like the Dalai Lama, so I’m going to offer his hair in Tibet.”
It’s impossible to say how long Tenzin, Choezom and Rabgee will have to wait.
“I lived here 10 years but I’m still very confused,” Choezom said. “Lost. We’re all just waiting for the one day Tibet opens to come back home.”