Enter the Tibetan Americans

One of the challenges to the small Tibetan-American community in the United States is having to adapt to our new hyphenated identity. The feeling of Tibetanness is so strong amongst the Tibetan Americans that in many cases even though several decades may have passed since they have immigrated to this country many continue to regard themselves only as being “Tibetan.”

In the following writeup, a version of which appeared in the newsletter of the London-based Tibet Foundation in February 2001, I talk about the relevance of the hyphenated identity.

Tibetan Americans establish a presence in the United States.

Bhuchung K. Tsering

Tibet Foundation Newsletter

February 2001

Everyone agrees that the Tibetan issue enjoys a high profile in the United States.  However, I was given a reality check when I recently did a random survey on the status of Tibetans as a community here in the multicultural United States.

Today, there are over 7,000 Tibetans residing in the United States. My main reason was to see if I could understand the sort of situation Tibetan Americans would face and how such issues could be dealt with.

My survey of the status of Tibetan Americans was rudimentary. I went to a bookstore close to my office in downtown Washington,D.C.  There was a full section on ethnic studies out of which half a shelf were books on Asian Americans.  Books ranged from such titles as The Accidental Asian (it is an interesting book by a Chinese American who worked in the White House at one time) to Asian Americans, which is a compilation of anecdotes of Asian immigrants from Vietnam, Hong Kong, Korea, Philippines, China, Taiwan and even Hawaii.  Then there were investigative studies of how organized mafias smuggle illegal Chinese into the United States.  But nowhere in any of the books was a reference to Tibetan Americans.  Also, Asian American issues regularly come up in the public forum, be it the Asian American domination in Silicon Valley or the motel industry.  But there, too, no reference to Tibetan Americans.  Why is it that a high-profile community like the Tibetans does not find a place in the discussions on Asian Americans although no one, including the Chinese, disputes that Tibetans are Asians? We need to look at history for answer.

Tibet arrived in the United States a long-time back, but Tibetan Americans have just begun to make their mark here.  That, in short, is the answer to this contradictory situation.  The other factor has to do with the history of Asian Americans itself.  Let me touch on these two issues and see how the newest immigration group in the United States is faring.

The earliest technical Tibetan immigration to the United States took place only in the late 1950s. From then until the 1990s, it was just a trickle of Tibetans, even by our own small population standards, that resettled here.  It was only after the Congressionally-mandated 1,000 Tibetans immigrated here in the first half of the 1990s that Tibetans began to make a formal presence. These 1,000 Tibetans and their families resettled in over 17 states across the United States and planted the seed for a pan-American presence of Tibetans.

Over the years, these and the other Tibetans who immigrated to the U.S. prior to 1990 gradually began to acquire American citizenship yet there has not been a concrete realization of or the desire to understand the implications of this.  Except for the fact that the Blue American passport gave them protection and made it much easier to get visas to visit India or Nepal or even Tibet, Tibetans did not seem to comprehend the deeper implication of being Tibetan Americans.  In very few of the states did Tibetans participate in Asian American activities or join organizations dedicated to such a community.

Tibetan Americans have hardly tried to play a role in the American political process even though such a development would have a positive effect to the Tibetan freedom struggle. By asserting their Tibetan identity, for example, they could change from being an active supplicant for the support of American Members of Congress to the issue of Tibet, to demanding support from them, as constituents.

Equally important it is essential for the social survival of the Tibetans that Tibetan Americans need to find their place in the multicultural United States.  Right now, the Tibetan community is compact and has the infrastructure in place for transferring knowledge about Tibetanness from parent to children.  But as the young Tibetans grow up they will face the same dilemma that all other immigrants have faced: Is it essential to grow up as Tibetan Americans or as Americans?  Many people in other communities have chosen the latter path, completely immersing themselves into the American melting pot.  Thus you have third or fourth generation Asian Americans who do not know anything about their culture, least of all being conversant in the language of their ethnic identity.  That, however, is a choice these people have made and it has no implications beyond the personal internal struggle their children will have to undergo as they grow up. With Tibetan Americans they have an additional responsible in the sense of continuation of the Tibetan identity.  No Tibetan immigrant can afford to choose becoming merely an American.  Everyone have to be Tibetan Americans, at the least, for the survival of our community.

As with other immigrant communities, Tibetan Americans will face the biggest challenge during the period of their first generation.  That is because most Tibetans will be so involved in trying to realize the American Dream as to sacrifice other matters like the proper upbringing of their children. Parents will be working two or even three shifts, seven days a week to earn enough money to buy that car or the house or to send money to parents and relatives in the Indian subcontinent. In the process, their children will be left to fend for themselves, becoming monolingual (opting to speak in English only) and distancing themselves from anything Tibetan.   This is a challenge that Tibetan Americans need to overcome and to get their priority right.

If we think of the challenges the Asian Americans had to face, Tibetan Americans have had the going very smooth in terms of their resettlement here. A study of the history of Asian Americans reveals the very many physical and mental sufferings they had to undergo.  Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, Indians, etc. had to suffer greatly to be accepted by the American community, the extreme case being the internment of most of the Japanese Americans during the second World War because their loyalty was a suspect.  Racism was something all these communities had to suffer from. For example, despite fulfilling all conditions Chinese weren’t allowed to be American citizens until 1943, Filipinos and Indians until 1946 and Japanese and Koreans until 1952.

However, these communities slowly found a place for themselves in the United States, both physically and mentally.  Today, the United States has become comparatively tolerant of other communities. Mentally, too, Asian Americans have found a balance between their ancestral cultural heritage and the acquired American identity. A Korean American put it succinctly, “I think I am fortunate to be Asian American.   Not only do we have a whole realm of Western culture, but we also have this whole world of Asian culture that is part of us,” she said.  Is there a lesson from this for the Tibetan Americans?

The coming years will tell us how successful the Tibetan Americans are.