Settling Into America: Part Two

The following article is from the Spring, 1999 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

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Interviews with the Four Tibetan Employees at Snow Lion

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by Julie Tollen

In the last issue of this newsletter, we printed interviews with Palden Choedak Oshoe and Dhondup Dorjee Zurkhang, two of the four Tibetan employees at Snow Lion Publications. Presented here are interviews with the other two: Karma Dorjee and Kunga Nyima.

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KARMA DORJEE

Karma Dorjee has a degree in economics from the University of Mysore. In Dharamsala, India he worked as a loan officer for the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. He worked for three years as treasurer for the Tibetan Association of Ithaca. Karma is in charge of purchase ordering at Snow Lion.

Karma Dorjee: I was born in Bhutan in 1966 and directly afterwards moved to India. My mother passed away while giving birth to me and when I was maybe three or four, I don't remember which, my father sent me to the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV).

Julie: What do you know about your parents?

K: It's very sad actuallyI don't really know anything about my mother and I don't know much about my father either. I don't even know what my parents looked like. I only knew my father when I was very little. My sister told me that he worked as a dopsothat's a stone carver, a builder. Looking back now, I can see that I would never want my own daughter to miss out on the love that I missed from my parents growing up. So to answer your question, I don't know much a root them at all.

J: How long odinau stay at the TCV School?

K: I stayed at TCV for only two years, then in 19721 went down to the south part of India to live with my sister and two uncles, both of whom are businessmen.

J: What did you do while you stayed there?

K: Oh, I went to school, in a place called the Central School for Tibetans [of Bylakuppe], There, I learned to speak and write English, Hindi, and Tibetan. I don't really know exactly what age I was at that time, but my sister thought I must have been around 8, because my baby teeth had fallen out and my two front teeth were just beginning to come in. I'm very glad that my sister was there with me at that time. She would always help me with my school work, and she would always make sure I did all my chores and studying. I'm very grateful to her. And so, I lived with my sister and my uncles for ten years in the south part of India.

J: Did your sister go to school?

K: Yes, she went to a Christian school in Mysore to get a teaching degree. When I finished grade twelve, I also moved to Mysore to study there. I started doing my college degree course in economics at the University of Mysore at St. Philomeno's College, a Christian college. I stayed there for three years, learning about many different things like politics, Indian sociology, Indian history. Meanwhile, I studied English and Hindi. After I graduated from the University of Mysore, I went on to Madras University to do an M.A. in economics. I lived there in Madras and took classes for three months. It was expensive in Madras, though, and I really needed some kind of scholarship or aid to continue my studies there. The Tibetan Education department wasn't granting money to M.A. students at that time, so I was out of luck and money (laughter). I decided to continue through a correspondence course only. I didn't need to stay in Madras to do that, so my cousin suggested that I go to Dharamsala to try to find a job there. I took Ms advice and went to stay in Dharamsala. There, I got a job working for the Tibetan government-in-exile. It was in the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). I worked in a department called the Planning Council.

J: What did you do?

K: I worked in a section of the Planning Council called the Revolving Loan Fund. It's a government program that was designed with the help of a man in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He loaned an amount of money to CTA to start a foundation for a Tibetan loan office in India. As a loan officer, it was my job to evaluate loan applications for Tibetan enterprises and societies. The purpose was to create jobs in the Tibetan community. It was meant to help people to learn skills besides street vending. Many people who had come from Tibet had very few skills, and we were trying to help them to learn some real world banking skills. I worked there for about two and a half years. That was in 1990, when I was about 23 or 24.

J: What caused you to leave that job?

K: Oh, that's a tough question! I left mainly because I came to America. Actually, that's the only reason I left!

J: Why did you come to America?

K: I came because the U.S. Senate passed a resolution allowing for one thousand Tibetans to immigrate into America (the Tibetan Resettlement Program). I am a part of that resolution. I left India because I was selected by the resettlement commitee as a well-qualified applicant (laughter).

J: What were you thinking when that happened, when they told you that you were going to America?

K: It was okay with me. I was not really that excited though, because when my name was chosen, I was working in Dharamsala and I didn't really want to leave my job. I just thought,Oh, it's Skay. I'd seen a lot of Americans coming into the CTA office and a lot of American volunteers were working in the loan office with me, so I already knew some Americans.

J: What did you think America would be like?

K: I didn't have any imagination about that, really! I didn't have any kind of image of America, but I knew it was probably going to be like any country, where you have to work, make a living, things like that. Other people really get excited about America, they think it's the land of opportunity, you know. They think that in America you can pull money from treesthat dollars are growing on trees Me, I didn't have too much imagination like that!

J: You were married when you came here?

K: No, I met my wife living here in Ithaca. I came here in July 1993 and we met shortly after. It's already been five and a half years! You see, my wife was also chosen to come and resettle in America also. We were both chosen and we both came here to Ithaca Then we met, we fell in love, got married, and now we have a daughter

J: You had the first Tibetan child in Ithaca, right?

K: Uh-huh. Actually, she is the first Tibetan child born in this whole region! My wife and I named her Tenzin Kunsang, Tenzin meaning the one who protects the Dharma and Kunsang meaning always very kind. She just turned three years old this New Year's Eve.

J: Okay, now that I know a little about your family life, how did you come to work at Snow Lion Publications?

K: Oh, Snow Lion! I remember seeing Snow Lion newsletters at the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives when I first started working at the Planning Council. That's how I knew of Snow Lion originally. How I actually got my job? Let's see I knew Scott (Palmer, former Snow Lion employee), and Scott helped me find the job. Scott stayed with me and my wife for a while and he was working at Snow Lion. I asked him if they needed any help over there. One day, someone from Snow Lion called for me and said, We have a position open now. Are you still interested? and I said, I'll take it!

J: What do you do here at Snow Lion?

K: I first started as a shipper. Now I do purchase ordering. I order new titles and work to keep backorders as up to date as possible. I guess my official title is procurement agent, like it says in the newsletter. I also have another job here in Ithaca. I work part time as a waiter for the [world famous] Moosewood Restaurant. Working at Moosewood is totally different than working at Snow Lion. Over there when you're waiting tables, it's like putting your patience to the test. There are so many crazy customers to deal with! (laughter) I also worked for the Tibetan Association of Ithaca for three years as treasurer, maintaining the association's accounts, collecting funds. We've been working really hard in the past few years to increase America's awareness of the situation in Tibet. As treasurer I tried to help the association as much as I could. We organized a number of events such as the annual Week of Tibet, selling movie tickets to the general public for Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, and other related events. Things like these help to open people's eyes to the real situation between Tibet and China. We try to do things like that which will bring more awareness to people. I think education is important. My sister and I seem to feel very similar on this point. She became a school teacher at the same place where I went to school (Central School for Tibetans at Bylakuppe). She also has two children and we've been trying to have them sent here to America so they can get a superior education.

J: You keep in contact with your sister?

K: Yes, we talk to each other pretty often. Actually, I'm thinking of bringing her over here to America to visit. I got a letter from her the other day and she was saying, I want to see America very soon. That country is so popular over here. Everybody in the Tibetan community in India talks about America. Everybody is trying to come over to America. So when I get citizenship (naturalization), in about two or three months, I'd like to bring her over here to visit.

J: Karma, you seem to have adjusted pretty well to living here in America, but what do you see in the future for the younger generation of Tibetans here?

K: Oh, I think it's going to be a challenge for them. For my generation, it's been a hard time for us, a challenge for us. We have to keep up with the older generation, with our own culture, and also we have to pick up things from this new world. Our time is going to be mostly work. Our children, their time should be focused on becoming well-educated. I know this.

J: How do you know?

K: I think the only thing they will have to do in the future is study very hard. My generation was the first to come to this country. We are laying the foundation for the next generation. Once this is accomplished, our children will have the time it takes to study and become well-educated. You see, now that we are in America, there is much more emphasis on education. I want my own daughter to be able to take advantage of this fact.

J: Karma, what are your views on Buddhist practice regarding the upcoming generation of Tibetan-Americans?

K: I really cannot say what will happen, but it seems the Buddhist thought, the Buddhist practice among Tibetans in this country now, it's fading! There are a lot of reasons for this, though. The first is that everybody is extremely busy working, trying to make moneyeverybodyeven in Ithaca, this very small county. Tibetans are trying to work long hoursa full time job plus a part time job. The little time they have left over they need to spend with their family, and, of course they have other things that they have to do too. There we go! We don't have any time for Buddhist practice! For example, myself, I live very close to the monastery, but I don't really see the monastery unless there's a gathering there! It's sad, I think but you know, trying to live your own life well and giving help to others is also a part of Buddhism, and that's how I try perform my daily practice. Buddhist practice doesn't necessarily require wearing robes, reciting huge sutras and living in a monastery. Even if you aren't doing those things you can still practice.

J: Do you think American society is a danger to Buddhist thought?

K: No, I don't think so. It's not American society. The practice is an individual thing, society isn't the main factorthe practice depends upon the individual. It's their own choice. People can do what they like depending on their own needs.

J: What do you think about the situation in Tibet right now?

K: In Tibet? Oh, I believe things are very tense right now. I was in New York City a few days back and I met a Tibetan who recently came from Tibet and he said lots of the Tibetans, the Tibetan youth especially, are just hanging around, playing pool, you know not knowing what to do with themselves! The culture is well, I don't know why the Chinese don't like Tibetan Buddhism, why they want to destroy Buddhism. So for me, Tibet being an autonomous region of China is fine, it might be an okay solution, but it seems like they could leave our religion as it is!

J: Do you feel hopeful about Tibet's future?

K: I don't know how I feel about it. I don't know what is going to happen, but I always pray for the best for all Tibetans in Tibet, India, Nepal and everywhere.

J: Karma, is there anything you would like to say in closing?

K: Yes, I would like to thank Snow Lion for this opportunity, and also for the opportunity to spend my days working for the dharma Good wishes to all. Save Tibet.

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KUNGA NYIMA

Kunga Nyima, who works in the shipping department at Snow Lion spent most of his youth in Lhasa, Tibet. He is trained in carpentry and learned tailoring from his father, Gyeten Namgyal, the former tailor of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas and creator of the first Tibet National Flag. Kunga is married to an American women and they have twin daughters.

Kunga Nyima: I was bom in Lhasa in the year of the metal pig. The American year was 1971, I think. Yeah, that's right, my papers say I was born on the 15th of August, 1971. I lived in Lhasa until I was twelve years old in American years, thirteen in Tibetan years.

J: Kunga, you are the only Tibetan at Snow Lion who actually grew up in Tibet. What was it like growing up in Lhasa? What do you remember?

K: Oh, I remember lots of thingsLhasa was really different from Dharamsala. In Lhasa, everyone lived in what we call a shoong gorah. That's a group of houses formed in a circle, where the houses face the middle. You would turn off the main road and walk down the alleyway and then you'd arrive in the center of the shoong gorah. My family stayed in the house straight across from the alleyway, the middle house. All the houses had flat roofs and I remember that around Losar (Tibetan New Year, mid-February by the American calendar) everyone who lived in the shoong gorah would go up on the roofs to celebrate with potluck dinners and dancing that was on the third day of Losar.

J: And on the first and second days? What do you remember about those?

K: Traditionally on the first day we would all go out and circumambulate Jokhang Temple in the early morning. Then everyone went back home to play games, eat food, have fun with their family it was really exciting to be a kid then because you would get presents, and people would stuff money in your pockets it was lots of fun. Anyway, that first day is the day when people would go around to different homes, wishing everyone Tashi Delek [Good Luck (in the New Year)]. On the second day we would visit friends, and of course they all made lots of really good food.

J: And on the third day the celebration moved outside?

K: Yeah, on the third day everyone would hang prayer flags all over. There were hundreds of prayer flags everywhere you looked. The third day was a huge celebration. People danced, ate lots of food, drank lots of chang (barley wine), celebrated On that day everyone would go outside and do what we call Lingkhor, circumambulations of the entire city of Lhasa. Then, we would gather with our family and friends on top of a special, sacred mountain where we would do an incense puja (offering). Everyone would bring baskets of fresh incense and handfuls of tsampa (roasted barley flour) to throw up in the air afterwards as an offering.

J: What else do you remember about that time?

K: I remember one time in Lhasa the Panchen Lama came, and we all went to get blessings from him. That was the 10th Panchen Lama, you know, the one before the present incarnation. Well, when we got to the temple, it was extremely crowded and we waited in line for a long time to see him. When we finally got to the front of the line, he gave us blessings and a red protection cord to wear around our necks. I was only a little kid, so I don't remember the details so well.

J: Did you also go to school in Tibet?

K: Yeah, I went to a school called Mang-tso Lop-dra. That was its Tibetan name, in Chinese it was Hwee Tung Sho Shway. It was a Tibetan school, and we were taught to read and write Tibetan and Chinese. Something kind of weird about that was that we were only taught Chinese history there, nothing about Tibet's history at all. I had no idea that the histories of Tibet and China were different from each other when I was in school. I remember rooting for Chinese sports teams, thinking that we were all from the same country. Only later, when I was in the TCV (Tibetan Children's Village) school in Dharamsala did I realize that the histories of Tibet and China were different.

J: What else can you tell me about your childhood?

K: Well, some times were good and some times weren't so good! When I was little, sometimes the kids at the shoong gorah would pick on me because they knew about my father sha-mo yod-ba. That means wearing the hat'. The hat was assigned to people who had been labeled reactionary towards the Chinese government. My father wore the hat because he worked as a tailor for the Dalai Lama before the 59 uprising in Lhasa. The Chinese government suspected that he was involved in some kind of illegal actions. My father was a monk and a simple tailorhe wasn't really concerned with politics. It didn't really matter to them. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and after he was released in 1962, was made to wear the hat. It meant that he couldn't go anywhere or do anything without permission from his three overseers. My father wore the hat for about sixteen years, until 1978, when it was removed. I was around seven at that time.

J: Did you live with your father while he wore the hat?

K: Oh, no. I lived with my mother up until I was twelve or thirteen. When she died, I went to live with my father in India. By that time, he had been without .the hat for six years or so. No, my parents didn't stay together. My father lived in Lhasa nearby, and I would go to visit him pretty often until he went to India in 1980. After he left I stayed with my mother until she passed away.

J: How did that happen?

K: My brother told me that she died from cancer.

J: Oh, I see. So you went to stay with your father?

K: Yes, after that my uncle and I got on a bus and took it through Tibetfrom Lhasa to Gyantse, from Gyantse to Shigatse, and from Shigatse through the Tibetan-Nepali border and into Dharamsala. I stayed in Dharamsala for about a year with my brother and father. I wasn't old enough then to learn my father's trade, so he sent me to the TCV school.

J: Your father tailored as a profession at that time?

K: At that time? Sure. He's did tailoring for his entire life. He tailored from when he was small until his dying day. He was the tailor for the 13th and the 14th Dalai Lamas. My father's father did tailoring too. Both my father and grandfather were Namsa Chenmo, or Great Master of Robes, for the Dalai Lama. My grandfather taught my father to sew when my father was just eight years old. My father was really bright and picked it up very quickly. His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama even asked my father to stitch the first Tibetan National Flag. My father was only fourteen years old at that time, and the flag that he stitched was made entirely of brocade. My father made fancy brocaded robes for HH, and any other thing that HH wantedthe 13th Dalai Lama really liked extravagant clothing. My father sewed the layman's clothes for the 14th Dalai Lama when he had to leave Tibet in 1959. My father said that, in general, the 14th Dalai Lama didn't really ask for much fancy clothing. He mostly asked for simple robes, but whatever it was, my father made it for him. My father's life story, by the request of the 14th Dalai Lama, has been documented in a few different places. Those can be found in The Book of Tibetan Elders and also in Cho Yang (issue No. 6). I think there are a couple more documentations too. [The Book of the Tibetan Elders by Sandy Johnson is available through Snow Lion; Cho Yang, issue No. 6 is available from the Dept. of Religion and Culture, located in Dharamsala, India]

J: How did your mother and father meet?

K: When my father was let out of prison he moved into a house with some other tailors. He met my mother there. I guess they liked each other a lotmy mother became pregnant. She was having a hard time knowing what to do though because at that time my father wore the hat. It would've been very bad for her to raise a child by a father with that stigma. She decided to leave before she had the baby. A couple years later she and my father met again, after my brother was born, and they stayed together for a short time. That's when my mother had me. After that my mother decided she didn't want any more kids, so she left again and took me with her. My brother stayed with my father. That's how I was brought up by my mother and my brother was brought up by my father.

J: I'm a little confused. Your father was a monk, right? I thought monks weren't allowed to get married and have kids.

K: That's right, he was a monk, but not at the time when he knew my mother. See, my father had had a wife a long time before this, and when she was having her first baby both she and the baby died. My father's whole family, especially his mother, were really torn up by this, and they decided along with my father to give up all worldly things and become monks and nuns. So he became a monk when he was twenty-four. Then, after the 59 uprising, he was no longer considered a monk. I don't really know what happened, but he wasn't a monk after that time.

J: Okay, I understand. When you went to live with your father, did he teach you how to tailor?

K: Not at that time. I didn't have the focus just then and it was decided that the best thing for me would be to go to the TCV school. For a while, when I was around thirteen, I wanted to become a monk. I thought it seemed like a pretty cool life. One time, when my father took me along with him to Namgyal Monastery to see His Holiness (the 14th Dalai Lama), HH asked me what I wanted to be. I told him I'd like to be a monk. His Holiness knew that I was still very young and didn't really know what I really wanted yet. He said to me, Go to school. Decide about that when you get a little older. I'm happy he gave me that advice because if I had become a monk I wouldn't have gotten married and had kids.

J: Did you stay at TCV until you graduated?

K: No, I didn't. In grade eight I went to Nepal to train at a vocational center. It was called the Vocational Training Center in Pokra, Nepal. I studied carpentry there for about one year. While I was there, I got typhoid. I got really sick and had to go back to India. Back in India, as I was recuperating, my father taught me tailoring. He cut, I stitched. That's how we started. I learned to sew brocading for thangkas and how to make clothes. Actually, during that time, I wasn't doing much outside of that except hanging out. Those were my wild years (laughter). I liked to go to bars and get into trouble. Finally, my father told me he wanted me to do something with myself. I started listening to him. I got a job for one year as a tour guide in Manali [in India]. After that, I joined the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA). I went to TIPA to learn traditional Tibetan dance, learn to play the Tibetan guitar, and also to sing Tibetan music. I studied at TIPA for a while and soon we had to take our final exams. We had to learn about sixty different songs and for our exam choose at random five to sing, five to dance to, and five to play. At the same time as these exams were going on my father died suddenly. I had a lot of stress from that and other thingsI didn't pass the exam. The school told me this, but they also said that if I wanted to stay there at TIPA I could. They said I could stay and study carpentry. They were aware that I had some experience doing carpentry work, but I knew I was at a different point in my life than when I studied carpentry in eighth grade. I didn't want to do carpentry anymore. Also, around that time I had gotten in a motorcycle accident and I hurt my hand. I was afraid I might really damage it for good if I did carpentry. What I really wanted to do at the time was tailor. I wanted to study tailoring at TIPA.

J: Did they let you in to do tailoring there?

K: No, they didn't let me back in. I'm not sure what happened, but I couldn't get into the classes.

J: What did you do?

K: For this part of my life I just hung around. I was living with my sister (cousin in actuality), and she would give me meals, money for cigarettes, you know. I was also staying with Heather pretty frequently too.

J: Heather? Can you tell me about how you met her?

K: I met Heather when she came to India in, I think, 1992 for a college study abroad program. We met and became friends then, and stayed good friends. When she came back and was staying in Dharamsala I lived with her sometimes. I didn't have a job or anythingit wasn't like America where there are always places looking for workthere wasn't much going on there. Heather encouraged me to find something to do though, and so I started stitching brocading for thankgas as something to do. Anyway, Heather's father back in America got sick, and she was really freaking out, so I went with her from Dharamsala to Delhi. We became a lot closer during that time, and when she returned to Dharamsala from visiting her dad in America, we spent a lot of time together and eventually got married over there in India.

J: How did you end up living in America?

K: Well, when Heather became pregnant she had a dream that she was going to have twins. We wanted to know if this was true, so we went to the doctor and got an ultrasound done and found out that her dream was rightshe was going to have twins. Originally, we thought that we were going to have one child and that it could be born in India and there would be no problem, but when we found out there were two, we knew that the only way we could get the best care for them was if they were born in the United States. That's why we're living here now.

J: Why did you come to Ithaca?

K: When we first arrived in America we lived in Westchester, not too far from Ithaca, but eventually we decided to move to Ithaca because there's much more of a Tibetan community here and we wanted to raise the girls in a community of Americans and Tibetans. There's also a monastery here. We feel that having these things is important since our children are half Tibetan. They should know about their own culture and language, and I was the only one speaking Tibetan to them back in Westchester.

J: How did you arrive at your job at Snow Lion Publications?

K: I had worked a few different jobs before I came here, but they were all odd hours and I was left feeling very tired afterwards or didn't have any time to see my girls. Finally, I got this good job working here. Karma knew I was looking for a job and he told me to come in here. He told me that the working environment here is a good one, and that here you are constantly surrounded by Tibetan things bookswaysit was really a great place to come and work at.

J: Kunga, it's really nice to hear you repeatedly mention how devoted you feel to raising your children.

K: Sure, I do everything I can for them. They are my future and the future of all Tibetans and Tibetan-Americans. They are going to be grown-up someday and we have to make sure they get what they need to go out there and face the world. I feel very devoted to them in that way. Actually, I'm very happy here in general. I have a great wife, kids, and community; I have a good job and good friendsI have everything I need.

J: That's great to hear. What a happy ending! Thanks for your time, Kunga.

K: Thank you. ä_æ

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