Gedun Gyatso is a college student just like me, but he can’t go home during his school vacations. A 22-year-old Tibetan with spiky black hair, he has lived in Delhi, India for the past year, studying English at a local university. But his home is far away – across the Indian border in Tibet, where his family lives in a small nomadic village. “I have seven family members, and I’m the youngest one,” he told me. “I was alone on my way to refuge in India. I came here by myself.”
This Monday marked the 60th anniversary of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, an important day for Gedun and more than 100,000 Tibetans who have become refugees in India since then. After the Chinese government took control of their homeland 60 years ago, many of them left for cultural and religious freedom – fleeing as Chinese officials burned down Buddhist monasteries, captured Buddhist monks and began imprisoning people for even possessing a portrait of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader.
I met Gedun last summer when a friend and I went to India with a grant from our university. We were there as journalists, documenting how Tibetan students throughout the country are using education to preserve their culture in exile, and we spoke with more than 50 Tibetan refugees. Many said they had attended Chinese schools back in Tibet, with Chinese teachers who never talked about Tibetan history or culture. “If somebody asked me, ‘What is Tibet? Why are you saying, ‘Free Tibet’?’ I’m sure that I wouldn’t have had an answer or an explanation,” Gedun remembered.
Risking everything for a better education, some students left Tibet as young children and came to India without their families. Others said they were born in exile as second or third generation refugees, so they have never even had an opportunity to visit their homeland. Yet despite their different backgrounds, many of these students grew up together in small Tibetan villages scattered around India, receiving free housing and an education thanks to a nonprofit organization called Tibetan Children’s Villages. Living like brothers and sisters, they finally learned about the Tibetan language, Buddhism and their native culture.
Although I returned from India many months ago, the 60th anniversary has brought on a flood of memories, and I can’t stop thinking about these Tibetan students. Just weeks from my own college graduation, I can relate to them in some ways, but I can’t imagine how hard it would be to say goodbye to my family and my country forever, coming of age in a community in exile.
I tend to think about community as a fixed geographic location – perhaps a neighborhood or even an entire nation, a region we can pinpoint on a map. But the Tibetan situation forces me to consider a wider definition of community, not only as a geographic location but also as a social phenomenon – a collection of people with a shared language, religion and history. Is it possible for a community to survive without both elements, lacking either a land or culture of its own?
The geographical aspect of community clearly matters, and when Tibetans spoke about the Chinese occupation, I could sense a deep note of sadness and longing in their voices. Yet as I traveled throughout India, I saw that they have somehow managed to stick together and preserve a very unique culture thousands of miles from home. In fact, I believe their status as refugees in a foreign land has forced them to create even stronger communal ties.
In Delhi, for example, Gedun says the Tibetan students at his youth hostel have become like a makeshift family of brothers and sisters. Since he’s the only Tibetan at his university, he looks forward to returning to them every night after class. Still, he thinks often of his biological family and his Tibetan homeland. “I really want to go back to Tibet, but it’s dangerous,” he says. Instead, he plans to give back to his people by getting a law degree in India. “I want to fight for the justice,” he said.
Growing up in exile, it seems, has given him the means and the drive to help a community that transcends national borders. “There’s a big hope from my own society, that this generation will do something,” he told me. “We cannot let these hopes and these wishes wash away.”
This post includes excerpts from a forthcoming article that Samantha and her reporting partner, Ashley Lau, hope to publish about Tibetan youth and education in India.
Samantha Michaels is a senior at Northwestern University with a double major in journalism and international studies. A Chicago native, she hopes to become a foreign correspondent or travel writer someday, and during college has tried to see as many new places as possible.
You can read her posts on State of the Re:Union’s website every other Wednesday.