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Keeping a Culture Alive

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

“I was looking down, down, down into a deep canyon filled with ice,” remembers Tsering Choephel. “But I knew I was safe because I was snuggled into a warm blanket on my father’s back.”

That is Choephel’s memory, at age six or seven, of the night her family left their village in Tibet and walked across the mountain passes into Nepal to escape the Chinese Army, which had been gradually moving into Tibet. 

Village Life

Tsering Dolma Choephel was born in 1952 in Rachu, a small Tibetan village near Thengri. She was one of nine children in a farm family and their house was the largest in the village, with two stories: the top story for people; the bottom, for the sheep, horses and yaks. 

The other villagers, who worked for her father, lived in smaller houses nearby, raising barley, radishes and peas and tending the animals. Her mother stayed home with the children and her father handled trade with other villages and often traveled by foot or horseback to nearby towns.

It was a happy, carefree life. “We kids would play outside all day,” she remembers. “We could stop in at any house for tea or snacks whenever we wanted.”

The children would hear the voices of the adults singing or praying as they worked in the fields or gathered yak dung to use as fuel. As there was no school in the village, their parents gave them a basic education at home. 

Although no one had much material wealth, families would accumulate grain and use that as currency. She remembers looking down into a deep bin in their house where the family stored their grain. “I somehow knew it was important to us to have that place and that it represented our wealth. It was something our neighbors did not have,” she says. 

A Tibetan woman in the courtyard of her village home weaving cloth out of yak hair, following traditional designs. The finished cloth will be used to make clothing. Photo: Fritz Liedtke

A Long History of Conflict

Tibet, sometimes known as “the roof of the world” because it mostly lies above 14,000 feet, began its recorded history in 127 B.C. It has long had a contentious relationship with neighboring China, filled with recurring disputes about questions of sovereignty. In 1951, after the Chinese Army entered Tibet and defeated the small Tibetan Army, Tibet signed the 17 Point Agreement, an attempt to define their relationship. Since then, tensions have continued to rise. 

Tibet has remained an important asset to China, both for its rich natural resources, such as timber and minerals, and for its strategically important border with India. 

When Choephel was young, just one road passed their house, and she would often see Chinese driving by in trucks. Then one day several Chinese men came to live in a room in their house. “We called them ‘uncle’,” she recalls. “They always wore blue clothes and they would give us candy and sweet buns, treats we never got otherwise. We children loved them.” 

The adults, she realizes now, knew there was no use protesting the uninvited house guests. Her father was a member of an activist group planning to resist the Chinese advance. She remembers her parents and others talking late into the night and later understood that they were discussing when and how to flee the full-scale Chinese invasion they expected. “I used to love to sit and listen, even though I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she says. 

Gradually even the children became aware that things were growing more tense. One day the Chinese visitors locked the house and told her mother to take the children and stay somewhere else for a while. Her father stopped living at home and would spend the day hiding in the mountains, only returning briefly at night when her parents would secretly stockpile blankets and food. 

Although Choephel did not know it at the time, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, fled the country on March 17, 1959, and established a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, where he remains today. 

Leaving for Nepal

Sometime around that same time, her parents decided they also needed to leave. Her older siblings and some of the men from their village helped them carry their household goods as they walked by night and hid by day among the rocks and bushes. After three or four days, they crossed a mountain pass into Nepal.

The family settled in Thangthod, a Sherpa village in the district of Solukhumbu in eastern Nepal, where they were welcomed by Choephel’s aunt, who had already emigrated there with her family. 

“The Sherpas spoke Tibetan and were Buddhists like us,” explains Choephel. “My parents and other Tibetans who arrived there worked for them, doing any jobs they could find. My mother wove clothes and worked in the potato fields. My father did carpentry, blacksmithing and even pulled teeth.”

Her older siblings worked too: her sister, in a carpet factory and her brother, in a construction company. Her oldest brother eventually made a career in the Indian Army. 

While the others in the family were working, Choephel, at age 8 or 9, was in charge of her two younger siblings. “We would play with the village kids outdoors all day. But when it started getting dark and our parents still weren’t home, it was scary. We would look out the window and all of us would call for them.”

Choephel remembers taking part in a piece of history when she walked to a nearby town in Nepal, Namche Bazaar, and was part of the dance troupe welcoming Edmund Hillary who, with Tenzing Norgay, had been the first to summit Mt. Everest on May 29, 1953. Hillary sponsored many schools throughout Nepal, and Choephel later attended one of them. 

“We children got used to this life in Nepal,” she says,.“But our parents always thought they would soon return to Tibet.” 

When her mother and older sister did go back to Tibet for a visit in the late 1960s, they found that the shrine in their home and many monasteries around the country had been destroyed.  

Reports of ongoing ethnic cleansing have continued to reinforce the family’s belief that leaving their country was the only possible decision for them. Although Chinese sources note Tibet’s economic development, Tibetans describe great loss of their cultural heritage, including language and freedom to practice their religion.

A Father’s Decision

Choephel attended several schools in nearby towns and then entered Shree Jana Jagriti High School in Solukhumbu. “My life was going fine,” she remembers. “I was about to graduate from 10th grade and I really wanted to finish my education. I always thought studying was the best thing. But then one day my father changed my life forever without even asking me.”

Since she had been studying English, her father asked her to come with him to help another family by doing some translating for them. When they arrived at the other house, though, Choephel was only asked to help serve the tea. So she poured for everyone, following the traditional polite way of serving the oldest man first, then other men in order of age, then the women, until everyone had been served. During the visit, she was introduced to one of the men in the family who had been working in the United States and she remembers thinking that he must be very fortunate to have had such an opportunity. 

The next day she and her father returned to the same house and this time were served a special yogurt dish, one generally reserved for festival occasions. 

“And then they told me,” says Choephel, “that this was my engagement to that man who’d been working in the U.S. In the traditional Tibetan way, our fathers had arranged the marriage without even telling the bride anything about it. My husband knew of the negotiations but I knew nothing till it was already settled.”

 Choephel was furious. “At that moment,” she remembers, “I was so angry at my father that I hit him in front of all those people and shouted at him, ‘I’ve always been a good daughter! Why are you giving me away?’”

“It is for your future,” he replied.

In hindsight Choephel came to realize that, even though this marriage seemed like a betrayal, her father knew that the opportunity to emigrate to the U.S. was the best chance for her to have a good life, especially since she was the one in the family with the most education. 

Just one month after their wedding in January 1975, Choephel’s husband returned to the U.S., where he had been working as a lumberjack in Maine for several years, while she remained with her in-laws in Kathmandu.

“We didn’t see each other for a year and a half,” she explains. “I was getting to know my in-laws and arranging the documentation for emigrating. I arrived in Portland, Oregon, by myself on May 1, 1976.” 

Her husband, whose name is also Tsering Choephel, was 28 and she was 22 at the time of their marriage. Choephel notes that the name Tsering, which means “long life,” is a common one for both boys and girls and it is not unusual among Tibetans for both husband and wife to have the same name. 

Coming to the United States

The young couple settled in Camas, Washington, where a friend helped her husband get a job at the Crown Zellerbach plant. Choephel worked occasionally at housecleaning and bussing tables in local restaurants but mostly stayed home with the three small children, who came along quickly. 

After the children were older, she worked at SEH America in Vancouver making silicon wafers until she was laid off in 2009. “I decided that was my opportunity to go back to school, something I had wanted to do since I had to stop my education to get married,” she says. 

Tibetans living in exile in Oregon and Southwest Washington celebrate the New Year (Losar) with food and prayers in the Northwest Tibetan Community Center in Portland that Choephel helped build. Photo: Fritz Liedtke

She got her GED at Clark Community College in Vancouver, WA., and then went on to earn  an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education there. “Teaching has always interested me and I have enjoyed teaching children’s classes at the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association (NWTCA) in Portland, “ she explains. 

Her next adventure was running a food truck, Tibetan Family Momo, near Dallas, Texas, where her son had moved to work in a friend’s small business. Her husband stayed in Camas, where he was still employed, and she commuted back and forth to Dallas. 

“I’d always wanted to see how people would like my hot sauce,” she says, describing her special recipe. “And I thought if eating Tibetan food would make people aware of Tibet, that would be enough for me. I did not care about making a profit.”

With her son’s help, she bought a large used van and perfected her recipes and techniques for preparing and serving fresh-cooked momos, Tibetan dumplings, out of the truck. “My hot sauce was popular,” she says. “But I missed my community so, after two and a half years, we sold the truck and I came back to Camas.”

Tsering Dolma Choephel in the shrine room of the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association in Portland, where she continues to play an active role in nurturing the local Tibetan community. Photo: Fritz Liedtke

Nurturing the Tibetan Community

Throughout all these changes, preserving her Tibetan roots has continued to be central to Choephel. 

When she first came to Camas, there were only a few other Tibetans in the area. The  families would gather to celebrate important holidays, such as the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Since then, the community has gradually grown. 

The Tibetan Resettlement Project, a provision included in the 1990 Immigration Act, admitted 1000 Tibetans to the U.S. as immigrants. The Tibetans were settled in “cluster sites,” in groups of about 50, with the goal of creating small communities where the newcomers would feel welcome. The Portland-Vancouver area was among those cluster sites. 

Choephel has helped with the arrangements for each of the three times, in 1984, 2001 and 2013, the Dalai Lama has visited the Pacific Northwest, each visit bringing together the larger Tibetan community from across the US and Canada. 

In early 2017 she was able to realize a longstanding dream when she and her three remaining siblings made a pilgrimage to all the Buddhist sites of worship in India.

The Center has become a cultural learning center where the younger generations learn about Tibetan language and culture from their family and community elders. Photo: Fritz Liedtke

The Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association (NWTCA) in Portland was established early in Cheophel’s time in the US and she was on the board of directors there for many years. In 2012, the NWTCA purchased a permanent building, where the community gathers for religious and cultural celebrations, and offers classes in language and history. 

“We never thought we would be in exile for so long. It has been 61 years,” says Choephel.  “But we have survived as Tibetans and our language and culture are very precious to keep alive.”

Indeed, she continues: “This is my duty. If I keep our culture alive, then my grandchildren will know what they need to know. If we keep our beliefs and customs, we will prevail in the end and be able to return to live in our traditional way again.”

 

Special thanks to  Fritz Liedtke © 2020, for providing photographs used in this story.