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.”

Despite Awareness and Insurance, Access to Mental Health Care Still Limited

Awareness about the need for mental health care has risen in the United States, especially as those seeking it are less stigmatized. Health insurance coverage for counseling has also improved. But that’s not enough to actually get you access to help.

Read more on NewsDoc Voices here: http://newsdocvoices.com/2015/10/21/despite-awareness-and-insurance-access-to-mental-health-care-still-limited/

Sterilization: The Unasked Questions by The Indian Media


The wave of sterilization deaths in November sparked off widespread outrage in the media, but there was a clear difference in the way debates were framed by the Indian and the international press. As an Indian American  working in the Indian news space in New Delhi, I am alarmed at the type of questions that were asked and weren’t asked.

But first the facts.

On 8 November 2014, 13 women were killed and 50 seriously debilitated at a mass sterilization camp in Bilaspur, central India, one of the poorest regions of the country. Both the Chhattisgarh state government & central government promised swift action and ordered inquiries. The doctors allegedly responsible were suspended and arrested. Preliminary inquiries suggest that infected medical utensils, tainted antibiotics and the pressure for doctors to meet their sterilization quotas led to these shocking incidents.


In the Bilaspur camps, the women who underwent the sterilization procedure were young, mostly under 30, and they were offered 1400 rupees (which is less than $25) as an incentive.

If such a sum of money is part of the incentive for a woman to agree to such a life-altering medical procedure, is it then right that she gets it done at all? Has she been made aware of the risks, of the repercussions? More troubling to ask, has she been forced into sterilization? Women in extreme poverty don’t always have full control of their choices and coercion is sometimes done by suggestion. To be sure, many women who go to the camp voluntarily, have often already given birth multiple times, and turn to sterilization because they do not want to become pregnant again. What isn’t clear however is if they have been encouraged to use other means of contraception. Also not clear is how much of the government’s family planning initiative includes counseling for alternative contraceptive methods.


The way in which sterilization camps are run, and female sterilization as a policy with its targets and quotas are being implemented, is in essence a coercive population control policy. Informed individual choice or informed consent is missing. In these camps, counseling isn’t given nor is the procedure done safely, with the necessary post-operative care.

There are more troubling questions. Why is it an acceptable policy to encourage women in impoverished conditions to get sterilized? Do the poor or less upwardly mobile not have a right to conceive and produce children? Do the poor not have the ability to make choices or decisions about what’s good for their family? Most of these women are under 30–and in the middle of their childbearing years. Shouldn’t lower middle class women in developing nations be allowed the same considerations and counseling as women in better socioeconomic circumstances?


International news organizations –  from The New York Times, to CNN and Al Jazeera English – have covered India’s sterilization program from a human rights perspective, and have brought up the need for the Indian government to question its female sterilization policy.

In a sharp editorial, The New York Times wrote, “India persists in a cruel strategy of bringing down birthrates through mass female sterilization…Mr. Modi should call for an immediate end to mass sterilization of poor women.” (NYT, 20 November 2014.) CNN, in an article published under the header, “India sterilization program under fire after women’s deaths, “ quoted Kerry McBroom, an advocate with the Human Rights Network extensively on the issue. McBloom said that the deaths in Chhattisgarh should serve as a wake-up call to rethink the sterilization program more generally. (12 November 2014).


The Indian news media did not question the government as strongly, nor did it take its critique as far as pushing for an end to mass sterilization camps. The Indian media’s focus instead was on culpability for the gross medical negligence and how fixing basic health infrastructure systems is critical. (To be sure, these questions are important as well.)

Both the television and print media questioned top political leaders and reported their reactions – the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh called the incident “unfortunate” and promised swift action, the Health Minister JP Nadda denied the central government’s sterilization targets, and Minister for Women & Child Development Maneka Gandhi said “lesson we have learned from this is that all invasive procedures must be done institutionally.” Meanwhile, the opposition parties slammed the Chhattisgarh state government and held it responsible. The state government in turn, blamed the doctors.

The Times of India and The Hindu stuck mostly to the angles of negligence and lack of safe infrastructure. Television news channels structured their line of questioning similarly, but their discussions did tangentially question why female sterilization is the cornerstone of the government’s family planning policy. On 14 November, CNN-IBN aired a debate featuring experts and a former government official, where its talking point was, “Bilaspur Tragedy: Is the government health infrastructure in need of a revamp?” A former Health secretary did say that camps should be closed but this suggestion was lost in the debate. NDTV’s Barkha Dutt took the dialogue the furthest on her show “We The People,” posing the question, “Medicine or Murder: Time to Scrap the Mass Sterilisation Policy?” A slew of politicians and experts from across the spectrum made up the guest panel and audience, and a heated conversation ensued. Unfortunately the conversation remained stuck over whether alternative contraceptive methods for poor women are feasible or not, and didn’t really put emphasis on the fact that mass sterilization camps should be stopped.

These are just a few examples but the bottomline is that the Indian media failed to condemn the policy of mass sterilizations. I have yet to come across even one article or opinion piece from the Indian media that condemns the mass sterilization camps as scathingly as the NYT editorial. The Indian media should have focused on the big picture. What has happened in Chhattisgarh is a human rights violation on so many levels, it is hard to control one’s outrage, but the right questions must be asked and their answers sought.