5 Lessons From A Decade Of Working With Tibetan Immigrants

Though it may not be common knowledge, Seattle is home to one of the largest of about 30 Tibetan communities in the United States. Since China annexed Tibet in 1950 and the Tibetan government went into exile in India in 1959 (involving the murders of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans between that time and now) around 150,000 Tibetans have fled the country into regions such as India, Nepal, and Bhutan, but some still have immigrated to the United States, Canada, and Europe.

It is estimated that there are some 11,000 Tibetan immigrants in the United States, though exact figures and dispersion statistics are not easy to come by. Seattle is home to a famous Tibetan cultural festival that happens in August and a Sakya (one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism) monastery in Greenwood that is non-sectarian and prominent among those in the United States, having been blessed and visited by many high-ranking lamas including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Like many immigrants, Tibetans get by on hard work and close-knit community structures. In my near-decade in the service industry I have had the honor to work alongside many Tibetan immigrants that call Seattle home. Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from my relationships with these wise, compassionate, and resilient people.

Tibetan naming conventions are such that common first names are shared among many, many children. People frequently name their children after the Dalai Lama for example, and as a result there have been tens of thousands of children in the last fifty years named Tenzin. For this reason I am not too worried about giving up the identities of the immigrants whose stories I will be sharing but for added privacy I have substituted their names with different, common Tibetan names.

1. Everything is Impermanent

The city where I work, like most of the Seattle area, has a homelessness problem. On the avenue where we all park there is a couple living out of their van that take advantage of the fact that this particular street offers free all-day parking. At night they move the van to a different spot where they again can park their car/home for the next day.

For warmth they had been using a camping heater powered by propane and kept several backup propane canisters with them in the van. One morning while everyone was at work one block away, these canisters exploded. The van caught fire and burned to a crisp, spreading to the car parked next to it that happened to be owned by my coworker Choedon, a Tibetan immigrant. By the time word made it into the store that something had happened, Choedon made it out to his car, and the fire department had put out the fire, there was nothing left.

Because the people who lived in the van were homeless and naturally uninsured, they simply fled. Choedon was without a car due to a freak circumstance beyond his control and left to his own devices to deal with the insurance company to get a new one.

When I saw Choedon the next morning I immediately expressed my deepest regrets and offered to help him purchase a new one. He didn’t seem terribly upset about the whole situation. In fact, he seemed very calm and happy. When I asked him if he was upset, he repeated something I had heard him say before many times:

“Everything is impermanent.”

Because nothing is permanent, he said, it’s no problem that something impermanent goes away sooner than you expect it to. As Americans, and capitalists, we get so attached to our materials that we forget everything is impermanent. Choedon’s Buddhist wisdom reminded me of the biblical truth that everything passes away and that we are to focus on the permanent and eternal.

2. First Marry, Love Later

I was working with Tsering one morning when we started to talk about love and marriage in Western and Tibetan cultures. Some of the immigrants like to tease me for being single and joke about arranging a marriage for me with a girl from back home. I discovered that Tsering’s marriage to her husband had been arranged by her parents when she was living in India, and after I asked more she shared with me her story.

She first met Lobsang when she was a child. She grew up in her aunt’s house and Lobsang was the son of a close friend of her aunt’s. As they grew up, they went separate ways. Tsering went to live in a different part of India, and Lobsang joined the Indian army where he was a soldier for ten years.

She was almost 30 years old and still single by the time her parents suggested that she get an arranged marriage. She agreed and to her surprise they revealed that her future husband was to be Lobsang, her childhood friend.

They spoke on the phone a few times between then and the wedding, but they did not meet until the day before the wedding. Like many who engage in arranged marriages she said it seemed a little strange at first. “Do you love each other now?” I asked. “Oh yes, very much,” she said. “That is arranged marriage: first marry, love later.”

Although what she calls “love marriage,” or non-arranged marriage, is becoming more common in traditional cultures (“freedom for women!” she jokes), the truth of love and marriage that Tsering and I agreed on was that love is a decision and that when two people commit to a marriage, even if the two people are separate at first, love will come later.

3. Tenzin’s Journey

Tenzin was the first Tibetan immigrant that I befriended. At the time I met her she had been living in the United States for ten years with her daughter. Her English was still developing but we bonded as she shared bits of Tibetan culture with me—language, food, traditional song—as well as the habits of everyday life. She liked to watch Korean soap operas and disliked a lot of American food because it was too sweet.

We had been working together for four years when one day, and I forget how it came up, the subject turned to her immigration from Tibet. Tenzin, shy and humble, shared with me this most incredible story.

After saving up money for ten years and selling everything she had, she had just enough for the trip with nothing leftover. She joined a group of other immigrants who paid a guide that would take care of everything—passports, leading them by a secret route across the border into China, where under assumed identities they would flee the Chinese authorities to come to the United States and begin new lives.

She strapped her daughter, who was just a small baby at this time, around the front of her body in a sash. They waded through a torrential river that was beyond their waists, and she was afraid it would sweep her baby away. They slept in the jungle. At one point they had to jump over a large barbed wire fence. She handed off her baby to someone who had made it to the other side and upon jumping over herself, slashed her hand wide open on one of the barbs. She told me that she was scared during every moment of the journey.

And here she was, smiling and happy, cooking along with the rest of us and, frankly, working harder than most of us. Real strength and determination, I learned from Tenzin, are not pompous or pretentious. Courage is not the lack of fear but the willingness to push through fear. And most of all, Tenzin told me that she did what she did for her daughter. “Family,” she said, “most important.”

4. “Accepting”

When I first discovered the work of Dr. Gabor Maté, as I wrote in a recent blog post on drug addiction in the U.S., I came across a unique quote by him that appears in many of his writings and lectures. He says that to understand drug addiction properly we must understand the pain that people are trying to use drug addiction to treat, and that therefore we must not ask, “Why the addiction?” but rather, “Why the pain?” He goes on to quote the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

“Whatever you do, don’t try and escape from your pain, but be with it. Because the attempt to escape from pain creates more pain.”

I asked Choedon about this, to see not only if this was a real teaching from the Tibetan Book but also what he thought about it. “Oh yes,” he said with a big smile. Then he summed it up in one word:


“In life,” Choedon said, “some things good, some things bad. We cannot change, we can only accept.” I told him that I had once heard a Buddhist describe life not as learning to pass through the things in life, but learning to let the things in life pass through you. “Exactly yes. Everything is impermanent,” he reminded me. “We, accepting.”

This wisdom is found in the Bible as well. Paul lived his whole life with a mysterious thorn in his side. Jesus exhorted us to take up our crosses and follow him. Take up our crosses? This isn’t the kind of language that accompanies the manic happiness that Americanism exhorts us to adopt. The fact is that pain makes us who we are. The only freedom from pain that there is to be found is coming to terms with the fact that it is a part of you.

5. Hope for Change

Many people don’t realize that the Dalai Lama is not the only lama in Tibetan Buddhism. Lama means something like teacher, and there are many lamas. Among those lamas are tulkus, who are protectors of unique lineages of specific teachings, and among those are the most prominent spiritual figures such as the Dalai Lama.

Even before John Oliver covered this topic in his interview with the Dalai Lama for a segment on Tibet in Last Week Tonight, Tsering had explained it to me. Besides the Dalai Lama there is another very important figure in Tibetan Buddhism called the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama are mutually involved the recognition of one another. The adult Dalai Lama recognizes the young boy who is to become Panchen Lama, and in turn the adult Panchen Lama is involved in the process which recognizes the young boy who is to become the Dalai Lama.

Following the annexation of Tibet by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama recognized the next incarnation of the Panchen Lama in a six year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Within days of his recognition he was kidnapped by Chinese authorities and has never been seen in public since—22 years. In his place the Chinese installed their own Panchen Lama, a different 6 year old boy named Gyaincain Norbu. Tibetan Buddhists regard him as a fake.

As the leadership of the Dalai Lama is politically significant to the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan Government in Exile, housed in India) the goal of kidnapping the Panchen Lama is clear: to eventually subvert the Tibetan government by installing a fake Chinese-sympathetic Dalai Lama.

What I’m getting at is that Tibetan refugees are under every kind of siege you can imagine. As John Oliver notes, in rankings of violations of civil liberties and human rights Freedom House places Tibet second, behind Syria and ahead of both Somalia and North Korea. Their homeland has been taken, the Tibetan people have been murdered, their resources stripped by the Chinese, and even their religion, their most intimately held cultural traditions, are being subverted.

“I want to visit home,” Choedon told me once, “but I cannot. Maybe someday.” I asked him how he felt about what was happening to his country. “Very bad,” he replied, “but the future, you never know.” Tsering, Tenzin, and others have all told me very similar things. They express great resilience and even greater hope.

You cannot change circumstances, they say, but you can change yourself. As the Dalai Lama says in John Oliver’s interview, he takes the negativity that others give him and turns it into love, patience, and positivity. As we live through trying times here in the United States it is important for us to remember the wisdom of leaders of the great resistance movements of our time: the Dalai Lama, Dr. King, and others. The wisdom is this: be kind, but be strong. Show love, but also humility. Accept pain, but learn from pain. Most of all, stick together. We have nothing if we do not have one another.


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