Between December 2020 to January 2021, I had the privilege of learning the Tibetan language for 25 hours. Organized by my supervisor in the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), my teacher Ms. Lhamo Trithang, however, taught me a lot more than just the language. I was incredibly grateful for this opportunity as I have always been fascinated by different languages and cultures and I strongly believe that one can learn a lot about a culture by learning its language and observing the non-verbal communication that accompanies a conversation (1). As learning the language opened new avenues for me to understand Tibetan culture, I was drawn to how kind my teacher was with her time and how incredibly patient she remained as I faltered with even the most basic pronunciations at first. I decided to take this opportunity to get to know her better.
Ms. Lhamo Trithang, like most first-generation Tibetans moving to India, risked everything to make the life-altering move (2). She grew up in a small town not too far from Lhasa, amidst picturesque mountain views of China-occupied Tibet. She describes her life there as being primordially nomadic and agriculture-based. For anyone leaving Tibet for India, it is important to be completely secretive about the plan because if revealed, it may lead to one’s death at the hands of Chinese authorities. Crossing the border means risking your life. It takes anywhere between a fortnight to a month to cross the Chinese border to enter India and the journey encompasses braving snow storms, wild animals, lethal diseases, severe exhaustion, risking exposure to snow, living hand-to-mouth, sleeping on empty stomachs, witnessing painful deaths of your co-travelers, and crossing the most dangerous mountainous terrain in Mount Everest. My teacher recalled being enclosed in a barrel and rolled down the hill at one point in her journey to escape the patrolling Chinese armed forces. Listening to her tale moved me to tears but her voice did not betray any signs of an emotional breakdown. She was stoic. She told me the Tibetan community has developed great resilience and emotional balance over the years owing to the distress they have suffered. Intrigued, I decided to learn more.
As I ventured into the Tibetan marketplace and my workplace in search of more stories of first-generation migrants to India, I heard many tales, each more gut-wrenching than the other. My supervisor told me about a woman who was escaping to India along with her husband and a three-month-old baby boy. At one point in their journey, a small patrol of Chinese soldiers got so close to them that the baby almost cried out. In anticipation of the loud wailing and to cover any noise, the mother put her hand over the infant’s mouth very tightly. When the troop of soldiers left after half an hour, the mother finally released her grip only to realize that the infant had died of suffocation. Unable to forgive herself for what happened, the mother suffered severe mental trauma over the incomparable grief and had to be institutionalized after finally reaching India.
Those who are lucky enough to reach India safely, struggle with the language. Even the Tibetan dialect is starkly different in India as compared to China-occupied Tibet. Education is another major issue facing first-generation Tibetans in India. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile or my host organization, Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), takes care of all Tibetans reaching India (3). The Department of Education or Sherig, which is the equivalent of the Ministry of Education, caters to the educational needs of the Tibetan community living in India (4). My teacher, Ms. Lhamo Trithang, sings praises of India and Sherig for educating her. She earned an education and a living at the age of 19 after coming to India. The Tibetan schools in India work hard to provide scholarship opportunities to their students to earn higher education in India as well as abroad (5). My teacher is now fluent in Hindi and English and is always curious to learn more.
Perhaps the biggest emotional tax that the first-generation Tibetans in India pay is the possibility of never meeting their family members back home. Telephone communication is very restricted and the traveling back is unfathomable. I can’t imagine the level of emotional strength it takes for parents to send their children to a foreign country to ensure a brighter future, with a strong possibility of never seeing them again. As most travelers know, escaping to India equals being all alone in this world, with very little family. The silver lining is that the community itself is very welcoming and accepting towards first-generation migrants, often taking them in as family members. However, the possibility of exploitation in a foreign country is omnipresent.
The emotional toll matures people, belying their age. I was always amazed by my teacher’s wisdom. During one of our classes, she told me, “People love to criticize their governments and countries but they forget one important blessing in their lives which we Tibetans don’t have – they have a country to criticize.” The acuity of these words sent a jolt through my body – it served as a scathing reminder of my privilege. In January 2021 my mother underwent major surgery. It was her eighth major surgery in a span of few years and I was terrified. I had a class with Ms Trithang on the day my mother was being taken to the hospital. Understanding my tough situation and my tumultuous emotions accurately, she suspended the class and instead spent that time just talking to me. She had recently lost her mother and told me, “You still have a mother. I don’t. Look after her. Don’t lose the time you have with her by just being emotional. Be present with her at every moment. We don’t realize this but we have very limited time with our parents. Be there for her, make her your first priority now.” In every class following this one, she enquired about my mother and asked me how I was taking care of her. Her action-oriented wisdom left a deep impact on me. She also constantly checked on me and my mother through texts.
As someone who had lost so much while moving to India and started her life anew at 19 in a foreign place, my teacher taught me courage, resilience, emotional intelligence, mental strength, and love. She taught me how to live life fully in each moment – by being more action-oriented when one has a tendency to get stuck in one’s mess of a mind. Her jubilance and joy in simply being alive and having one’s basic needs met serve as a constant reminder for me during lockdown as India faces its worst COVID-19 wave yet. Ms. Lhamo Trithang faced excruciating circumstances in life, braved the greatest of odds, stared death in the face and emerged triumphant. It is an extraordinary life. I am truly in awe of my teacher’s spirit and grateful beyond words for her presence in my life through one of the most difficult phases – my mother’s surgery. I am honored to call Ms Lhamo Trithang my teacher. Just like her, each Tibetan has a moving story to tell. The first-generation Tibetans outside of China-occupied Tibet have sacrificed everything and started fresh with nothing. The lesson of inspiration that I have received by listening to their stories is a takeaway from my fellowship which I will cherish for the rest of my life and pass on to the next generations.
- Singh, Shivangi. “Understanding Tibetan Culture Through the Tibetan Language.” AIF, American India Foundation, 11 Jan. 2021, aif.org/understanding-tibetan-culture-through-the-tibetan-language.
- de Voe D.M. (2005) Tibetans in India. In: Ember M., Ember C.R., Skoggard I. (eds) Encyclopedia of Diasporas. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-29904-4_114
- Bhatia, Shushum, et al. “A Social and Demographic Study of Tibetan Refugees in India.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 54, no. 3, 2002, pp. 411–22. Crossref, doi:10.1016/s0277-9536(01)00040-5.
- Central Tibetan Administration. “Education Department | Tibetan Childrens Educational Welfare Fund.” Department of Education, sherig.org/en. Accessed 25 May 2021.
- Department of Education, Central Tibetan Administration. “Scholarship Section | Education Department.” Department of Education, Central Tibetan Administration, sherig.org/en/education-department/scholarship-section. Accessed 25 May 2021.
Note: All pictures and personal narratives are shared in this blog with the due permission of the individuals featuring in them.