Dual-Identities: Assimilation Challenges for Tibetan-Americans

This article was originally published & is hosted here: http://projects.nyujournalism.org/thenewamericans/dual-identities/

Tibetan-Americans: Retaining a Refugee Identity

December 2015

Tibetan refugees make up a small portion of the American population, but a significant space in the political and social fabric. Tibetans first moved to America in the 1950s, shortly after China annexed Tibet. But it was the Immigration Act of 1990 that was a shot in the arm to Tibetan resettlement in the country as 1000 immigrant visas were issued to Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. Since then, the community has grown, establishing footholds in the northeast, primarily New York and New Jersey, in the Midwest near Chicago, as well as in Colorado, Texas and Virginia. The U.S. government continues to open its doors to Tibetan refugees by offering them political asylum, one of the few publicly acknowledged ways the government negotiates the crisis between China and Tibet.

As the community has moved into their second-generation in the US, they are grappling with ways to engage their children in their heritage while balancing their assimilation efforts. In New York City, weekend cultural schools and free after school programs in particular, help to ease the identity conflict.


In 2014 alone, 4,084 refugees were resettled in New York. The U.S. government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement provides statistics about the country of origin of those granted asylum. Tibet is not on this list. Despite the U.S. allowing Tibetans political asylum, the official government position is that Tibet is a part of China, and that it does not support efforts for Tibet’s independence.

This doesn’t just create difficulties in tracking the movement of Tibetans in the U.S.—it reflects the larger problems involving a lack of awareness in American society about Tibetan-Americans, and the complexity in the current American social fabric.

It is difficult to get population estimates of their community for this reason, but based on the Central Tibetan Authority and news reports from Congress, there are somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 Tibetans in the U.S.

This 2000 U.S. Census report on Asian-Americans in the U.S. does not mention Tibetans.

Census 2000

This 2010 Census chart for New York City makes an exception for Taiwanese but does not mention Tibetans.

US Census NY 2010

Assimilation Conflicts

Despite being born and brought up in the United States, there can be many struggles for second-generation refugees and immigrants.

For the Tibetan community in New York, there are similar issues of adjustment. However, the community is unique in that their homeland is not recognized as a country and has been annexed by China, and their faith is Buddhism, a religion not widely understood in the American mainstream beyond images of the Dalai Lama and meditative monks.

Tibetan youth in New York find themselves in a constant process of explanation—about their ethnicity and about the conflict that their parents have fled from. Their fellow American classmates and teachers often confuse the identities of Tibet and China. Many of these students attend weekly classes at their local Tibetan school, which keep them connected to their culture.

“Our classmates don’t really know the Tibetan culture and where it is on the globe, because on the globe it just says Tibetan plateau, “ says Jamyang Wangmo, an 8th grader from Queens.

Her friend, fellow 8th grader, Tenzin Dechen, added, “Also we have to explain the whole thing about how China took over Tibet and how Tibet is now part of China, and we have to explain everything about it so that they understand that we are from Tibet but not from China.”

It’s not merely about making others understand where and what it means to be Tibetan, but also about ensuring that their identity remains distinct from a Chinese-American one.

“Even after you explain, some people don’t understand, they think Tibet and China, it’s the same thing,” said Dechen Wangmo, an 11th grade student.

The Tibetan school offers Mandarin Chinese language classes in addition to Tibetan language classes. But if given a choice, these students say they will stick to learning Tibetan. “It’s better to learn Tibetan than Mandarin because it’s my culture, and my language,” said Tenzin.

It’s also important to these teenagers to retain the refugee identity of their parents, and not lose their identity to the melting pot of American society.

“I think I would consider myself just Tibetan, not Tibetan-American even though I was born here,” says Tenzin Dechen. “I don’t know why but I feel like I’m leaning more into Tibetan culture than American. At home we speak Tibetan all the time and everything that we do is part of Tibetan culture, and coming here too, we have more Tibetan friends and we are closer to Tibetan people.”


Tibetan School

Tibetan-American children attend a Tibetan language class in Elmhurst, Queens.

New York City Initiatives

The NYC Mayor’s office provides funding for several organizations working with youth in immigrant and refugee communities through their SONYC (School’s Out New York City) and COMPASS initiatives, managed by the New York Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD).

Click here for more information about COMPASS & SONYC

The DYCD has stated on its website that the COMPASS programs “are offered at no cost to young people and are strategically located in public and private schools, community centers, religious institutions, public housing, and recreational facilities throughout the City.”  The “strategic locations” are important—by partnering with organizations that are tapped into the local community networks, these programs are able to reach more youth and target their needs more effectively.

“It is imperative and critical that our partners know these communities. Many have the knowledge and understanding of the needs of their community, the immigrant needs, and the changing dynamics that are happening, they are rooted there, they can respond to and adapt to their particular needs,” said Michael Dogan, Assistant Commissioner of COMPASS. He added, “we have several hundred different organizations that are participating just in COMPASS, and it is not possible I think for us to do the work that we want to without the work that these community based organizations, they manifest.”

The New York Tibetan Service Center is one such organization that offers free after school programs for middle school and elementary school students.

“I realized there were so many non-profit groups like us, different ethnic groups, pursuing so many services from the city, and I thought we also should try to get one of those services, it will help with the Tibetan community,” said Tsering Diki, founder and Executive Director of the New York Tibetan Center.

In addition to on-site tutoring, supplemental cultural and arts programs are available. The after school programs last until 7pm to help alleviate the stresses of working parents. These options give children of refugees and immigrants the freedom to connect with their heritage while moving forward in their American academic identities.

For the Tibetan community, these programs help to negotiate the assimilation conflicts for the second-generation. “The American born Tibetans are sharing the feelings, not only learning something that goes back to their background,” said Dikki, “but to realize that they are not alone here.”

The Last Mile

My daily commute in New Delhi: five phases. I walk, I take an auto, I go on the metro, switch trains and finish up with a cycle rickshaw.

Phase 1: Walking

The first phase of my trip to work takes me from my doorstep to the auto rickshaw stand. It’s 2137 steps and it takes 12 minutes. On most days I think of this 12-minute journey as one mad dash to the relative safety of an auto rickshaw.

This is a placeholder for a Sainak Farms photograph

Like most roads in New Delhi, the road that leads from the gate of my house to the autorickshaw stand has no sidewalks. It’s narrow and questionably paved, and vehicles constantly pile-up at bottleneck areas creating traffic jams that can take upto 20 minutes to an hour and a half to clear up. It usually gets flooded during the monsoon due to ineffective or inadequate gutters, leading to more traffic jams and also, slushing. I’ve found that what works is a zigzag strategy to make it to the other side un-hit. I am careful not to step on trash or feces, or get caught in the barbed wire aligning one part of the side of the road. Sometimes, cars and bikes driven by young men stop or slow down in an attempt to harass, or in the slim hope that at some point, me or another girl, will hitch a ride, after which they will continue their harassment further. There are the rare moments of kindness and humanity–a month or two after the December 2012 gangrape, a woman driving a car stopped to ask if I’d like a ride. A week later, the same woman stopped with the same offer. Every now and then an auto rickshaw which is already jam packed to capacity and beyond–with 4 or 5 people hanging out of it–stops next to me, and I’m left looking at them puzzled, because yes, it would be helpful if I could take an auto-ride, but where would they want me to sit?

Despite my 5 years in this city, I still feel like quite an amateur when it comes to crossing the street. Sometimes it happens smoothly, confidently, but more often I’m anxious, standing on the side of the road, or on top of a divider, hoping for a miracle where the road will be completely devoid of cars and then I can pass, stress-free. That almost never happens. I have a three-pronged strategy.

  1. Do not hesitate. If you think you have the opportunity to cross, go for it. Go with your instinct. If you wait for a few more seconds to assess, you could very well lose the opportunity itself.
  2. Be confident. If you’ve taken the decision to cross, go with it. Don’t start, and then get scared, stop in the middle of the road, shut your eyes, scream and hope you don’t get run over. (A strategy I employed with great regularity up until then)
  3. Seek comfort in the security of numbers. In an Indian city, at any given time, there are almost always a ton of other people near you, that need to cross the street at the very same time. If they’re crossing, cross with them in the crowd. A car might hit you if you cross alone, but it’s less likely to run over an entire group of people.

I’ve now made it to the main gate of my residential colony, and I am certain that I will now be able to catch an auto rickshaw in order to traverse the next 3 kilometres to the nearest metro station, which is Saket.

Phase 2: Autorickshaw

Did I use the term ‘relative safety’ in reference to an auto rickshaw? Not so.

The ride from the auto to the metro station should cost 30 rupees. Hailing an autorickshaw from here to go to the metro is relatively easy as long as it’s not between the hours of 8am to 10am, or 1 to 2pm. 1pm to 2pm is usually lunchtime, and there are very few autos, if at all, to be found. Also, during the summer, it is painfully hot at this time of day, so in order to survive the drivers disappear to shaded areas and/or take naps in seclusion. Between 8am and 10am is office/school rush hour and there are many others struggling like me, to get to the metro station and work on time. Due to the sheer volume of commuters, autorickshaw drivers try to ply their autos (which have the maximum legal capacity of 3) as if they are buses. They try to pack in as many commuters as possible, charging each 10 rupees. The problem with this is 2 fold for me–a) It’s uncomfortable being packed into a confined space with a bunch of other men and I fear being groped and b) sometimes there aren’t “enough” (as deemed by the auto-rickshaw driver) commuters waiting to take an auto, and so they will wait until enough people come by, and hire the auto.

Today, I’m fairly lucky. I find an auto almost immediately, and the 5-8 minute ride brings me to the Saket metro station. I have finished the first two legs of my five-leg journey.

Phases 3 & 4: The Delhi metro. Efficiency incorporated. 

Track My Metro Journey

Women wait for the train to arrive.
Women wait for the train to arrive

The Delhi metro has been around for only 10 years, and in its current form, only 4 years. It’s new, shiny, efficient, and mostly on time. In contrast to the relative unpredictability of the first 2 legs of my commute, which can sometimes take 15 minutes, other times 30 minutes, the duration of the metro ride is more or less guaranteed. It will take me 60-70 minutes with one train-change in between.

Techniques of surviving the metro experience.

The metro is the best mode of public transport available in Delhi. That being said, with a population of over 9 million, and almost 2.5 million people using it every day, it is very crowded. I go through the security scans relatively quickly because the number of women travelling on the metro is much smaller. The men’s line during rush hour can be 10x longer. However, this skewed ratio can create an uneasy and unsafe environment on the trains and platforms. To resolve this, the authorities have reserved the first compartment of every train only for women. It’s a great idea, and it’s maintained quite firmly. I only travel in the women’s compartment of the train.

The 'Only Women' compartment: much needed in New Delhi
The ‘Only Women’ compartment: much needed in New Delhi

If I’m not at the correct spot on the platform when the train is arriving, I would rather miss that train, walk to the women’s spot and then wait for the next train. Personally, I find that making it 3-5 minutes earlier to work is not worth it to spend half an hour on a train being stared at or leched at. When people ask me about the difference between the general and the women’s compartment, beyond the obvious reduced risk of sexual harassment, I note that there’s a sense of more security (I’m not as scared of being pickpocketed or robbed), and also, it just smells better. Women are excellent that way.

Despite traveling in the women’s compartment, it’s still difficult to get a seat, especially during the peak rush hours (8 to 10am and 6 to 8pm). In order to snag a coveted seat, you usually have to be aggressive and run towards a vacant one as soon as the train doors open. Alternately, people ask seated people to “adjust” and make room for them to sit where there isn’t any. When I recently visited my hometown of Boston, I was struck by the vast different in the T there;  a vacant seat between two people was often not filled because people feel uncomfortable sitting so close to strangers in public. Personal space is defined more narrowly in Delhi, quite literally!

Today I don’t bother with jostling to get a seat. I stand against a pole on one end of the compartment and try not to get stamped on.

At the Rajiv Chowk stop, which is otherwise known in Delhi as Connaught Place, I get out of the yellow line train. I walk up the stairs or escalator and walk towards the blue line. After waiting a few minutes for the next train, I hop (or get pushed) on, and it’s another 25-30 minute ride to Noida.

Only very specific parts of Delhi were built with urban planning and design in mind. It has grown sporadically, in different time blocks, into the sprawling beast of a city that it is now. Delhi has had a very expansive bus network, but it is just now that the metro system is coming into being–it is being built in phases, and it will take several more years to be completed and the city more widely and efficiently inter-linked. A big problem with designing the metro and its route to meet the demands of commuters is that people live/work everywhere (and I mean everywhere!) and it’s impossible to make sure the train will go exactly where each and everyone needs to go.

The last-mile problem plagues Delhi commuters. Even once all the phases of the metro construction are over, this will be a problem. So other modes of transport will continually be needed to fill in the gaps—auto & cycle rickshaws, carpool vans, personal cars, buses. And it’s that last mile that causes the most amount of stress, risk, and expense.

Phase 5: Cycle rickshaw

I’m finally now in Noida and I get out at the Sector 16 stop. I exit the metro station and walk down the steps to the main road. My office is still a sector away, another 1 km distance.

The only public transport available is a cycle rickshaw. Cycle rickshaws usually ply very short distances, that may not be worth it for auto-rickshaws. Taking a cycle rickshaw is potentially hazardous–as they’re not very stable and I’ve known people who’ve fallen off or been hit by another vehicle.I’ve hit my head on the top of the rickshaw a few times, during particularly bumpy rides.

The cycle rickshaw: cheap, ethically ambiguous, and dangerous
The cycle rickshaw: cheap, ethically ambiguous, and dangerous

It’s also an ethical conundrum. It’s an uncomfortable reality to pay someone to have them physically exert all the effort in their body to transport you from one place to another. But at the same time, you’re also supporting someone’s livelihood–where they may not have another skill they can optimize into supporting themselves and their families. I know the standard fare–which is 30 rupees, and I never bargain on the price. I don’t know how to bargain the value of someone physically carrying you. I also draw the line at not using cycle rickshaws where the drivers look underage.

At this particular metro stop, cycle rickshaws line both sides of the exit gates. The drivers call out to you to employ them, most of the commuters who do use them, are like me, trying to get to Film City.

It’s a 10 minute ride–with a few bumps along the way at the speed breakers. I get out across the street from my office building, and count out exact change or “chutta”. I try to make sure I have loose leaf notes to pay the auto and cycle rickshaw drivers when I start my commute, it can be quite a tussle trying to break a 500 or 1000 rupee note just to make 30 rupee payment.

I walk across the street, and walk into my office complex. I have reached. It’s been 90 minutes. I’ve spent 82 rupees. I’ve travelled 19 kilometers.

My work day has now begun.