News Feature
Sandip Roy
Posted: Jun 22, 2007

‘Dreaming Lhasa’ Reflects Complexities of Life in Exile for Tibetan Diaspora
Editor’s Note: One of the first feature films about Tibet made by a Tibetan explores the inner lives of a generation in transition. Tibetans living in America welcome this look at a diaspora whose journey is more complex than a “Free Tibet” bumper might reflect. Sandip Roy is an editor at New America Radio and the host of Up Front on KALW.
By Sandip Roy
When Tenzing Sonam decided to make a feature film about Tibet, he knew it would not be about the Dalai Lama. Dreaming Lhasa, his first feature film, is more about druggie raves in the shadow of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India.
The Dalai Lama might be a spiritual rock star all over the world, but his flock at his home base in Dharamsala and beyond is trying to figure what it means to live in limbo, dreaming of lost horizons. In one of the first feature films about Tibetans, made by a Tibetan, Sonam and his partner Ritu Sarin really wanted to tell the stories of a new generation of Tibetans who were born and brought up in exile in India.
For some of them, Shangri-La is no longer Lhasa, but America.
“It becomes an obsession,” says Ritu Sarin. “A lot of Tibetans are just waiting for a visa and don’t do much else for years.” One character in their film even pretends to be a monk in the hope of getting an American visa—something Sarin says actually happens.
“Now the consular officials have become much more savvy,” Sarin adds. “If someone comes saying he is a monk, they often ask him to tie his robes in front of the consular officer.”
There are other ways out of Dharamsala. In Dreaming Lhasa, a foreign tourist comes on to an ex-monk when she hears he has been in a Chinese prison. “It’s the refugee groupie mentality,” chuckles Sonam. “Monks have married Western women and come to America and Europe.”
“Of course,” he adds, “they then become ex-monks.”
In the early 90s the United States started giving 1,000 visas at a time to Tibetans looking to emigrate. Many Tibetans in India watched this exodus with alarm.
“People thought we would just disappear; we’d get absorbed in the United States and lose our identity,” says Tenzin Tsephel, president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California (TANC). In fact, he says, Tibetans in America have actually been remarkably successful in keeping their culture alive. There are about 40 sizable Tibetan communities in North America.
It doesn’t surprise Sarin and Sonam that Tibetans have been able to hold on to their culture even in tidy suburbs a world away from the fluttering prayer flags and snowcapped mountains of Dharamsala. In India, Tibetans have their own schools and religious institutions. As a community in exile for decades, they have had a lot of practice in holding onto their sense of uniqueness.
But their success in remaining Tibetan has been a double-edged sword. “We cannot sustain our parallel existence outside the mainstream much longer,” says Sonam. “As more and more younger people come out of schools and colleges, there are not enough jobs for them in the Tibetan community.”
Coming to America has been a mixed experience for many Tibetans. While many never felt quite at home in India, in America ,“they find themselves really drawn to the Indian community, food and movies,” says Sarin. “They find when they leave India that they have a lot in common with Indians.”
For many of them, America is also the first place they have really encountered a large Chinese population. “Sometimes we do have Chinese saying ‘shut up’ when we protest outside the Chinese consulate,” says Dawa Dorjee, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress in San Francisco. But TANC’s Tsephel says many Chinese in America are actually quite sympathetic to their plight.
For many Tibetans, the most surreal aspect of living in America is the realization that they have been turned into someone else’s “Free Tibet” bumper sticker.
The problem, says Robbie Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, is that the conversation about Tibet “is never with Tibetans. It’s always about whether you approve or disapprove of China.” As China comes out of its international isolation, Tibetans find themselves increasingly left behind. Bill Clinton quickly backed down on his pre-election bluster about withholding “most favored nation” status for China. Meanwhile in India, there is little more than tea and sympathy. Monks routinely get rounded up when Chinese dignitaries visit New Delhi.
While the vision of Tibet remains frozen in the popular imagination, Tibet itself is changing rapidly. There is a lot of blue glass and concrete in Lhasa, says Robbie Barnett. Even more oddly, 30-foot-tall plastic palm trees flash lights while plastic mushrooms sing pop songs as you walk past. “It’s modernization as a bulldozer,” says Barnett.
But Ling-chi Wang, professor emeritus of Asian American Studies at University of California, Berkeley sees the real problem of Tibet as being more akin to that of the American Indians in the United States. “Han Chinese are very chauvinistic when it comes to China’s indigenous native minorities, whether Tibetan or Uighur,” says Wang. “How do you find a real solution when you fundamentally don’t respect racial minority?”
Robbie Barnett says there are some 2,000 peoples, mostly racial minorities, around the world who claim they would like their own homelands. “Tibet is the quintessential test case and it still remains unresolved. I think it provokes a deep anxiety within all of us about what it means to be a nation.”
Tenzin Tsephel understands that feeling viscerally. He has always had to travel with an Indian government-issued travel I.D. card. “At any airport, people look at it in ten different ways,” says Tsephel. “Since you don’t have a country, people look down on you. I wonder sometimes what it would feel like to proudly present the passport of your own country.”
For many Tibetans in exile -- whether in Berkeley or Dharamsala -- Lhasa looms in the imagination like a fog-enshrouded mountain. But Tenzing Sonam says he doesn’t know whether the Jigmes and Karmas whose stories he tells in Dreaming Lhasa could actually live in “Lhasa Reality.”
If Tibet did become autonomous, could he?
“I’d definitely go back and try to see if I could survive there,” he says. “But then again, I have the option of leaving.”
Another version of this story appears in the upcoming issue of California Magazine. Dreaming Lhasa opens at the Roxie in San Francisco, Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and Elmwood Theater in Berkeley on June 22.