Queens sanctuary for Tibetans in exile

A couch in Queens provides safe harbor to disconnected souls

Justin Mitchell By Justin Mitchell

Editor’s Note: Self-immolation — it’s one of the most gruesome forms of public protest. But some Tibetans believe China’s occupation of their homeland compels them to make this ultimate sacrifice. Earlier this month a Tibetan Buddhist monk (who was also a British national) committed suicide by setting himself on fire at his monastery in France. There’s an interesting dynamic to this tragic story, as our reporter Justin Mitchell discovered: while Tibetans in exile have traditionally been more likely to support self-immolation, more and more native Tibetans are burning themselves alive to protest Chinese rule – four alone on Sunday and Monday of this week.

As the 7 train roars along its elevated tracks over Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, riders pass billboards, storefronts and other signs in Greek, Spanish and Korean — reminders of the vibrant, robust cultures from which so many borough residents originate.

For many immigrants, the signs often evoke memories of home, a source of solace when life in New York City becomes too hectic or isolating. But Lobsang Tseten and Tenzin Topgyal, both Tibetans, aren’t so lucky. When their otherness in America creeps up on them, they do not have the same well of memories of their birthplace from which to drink.

“I was born in Tibet, in Lhasa,” Tseten says, leaning across a battered coffee table in his back yard near the corner of Roosevelt and 70th Street in Jackson Heights. “I don’t remember much.”

Tseten’s parents fled Tibet after China occupied the mountainous Central Asian country in the 1950s. He grew up as a refugee in India. As a teenager, he moved to New York City. Now 26, he is a cab driver, awash in the cultural surf of the city, remote from his culture and people.

At least Tseten can recall Tibet. Topgyal’s parents left the country before he was born. The 24-year-old has never set foot in his native country. His story is common among young Tibetans in exile — they are products of a place they have never seen, smelled or touched.

Topgyal and Tseten on the couch in their informal Tibetan exile club in Queens, New York City. (Justin Mitchell)

Nevertheless, the young men do their best to maintain a semblance of Tibetan culture in their lives in exile. Tseten and Topgyal face me from a tattered couch in their backyard. The coffee table is covered with beer cans, ashtrays and a glass vase with a single flower. They share this basement apartment with about five other young Tibetans as well as a constant stream of Tibetan guests, family and friends.

The apartment has become an informal community center, a place where young Tibetans come to escape the rigors of the outside world.

They have many reasons to need a stress-free zone.

In the month of November alone, 27 Tibetans have self-immolated.  As the top leaders of the Communist Party met this month in Beijing, the authorities stationed firemen outside the Great Hall of the People.

According to the International Campaign for Tibet, 89 Tibetans have immolated themselves in protest of Chinese rule since 2009. 64 have died. The deaths intensified in March 2011, just weeks after a self-immolation by a street vendor in Tunisia set off the protests that became the Arab Spring.

The vast majority of Tibetans committing suicide are in their early twenties or younger. The sacrifices speak to the turmoil, frustration and confusion of a new generation weary of oppression but unsure of how to resist, say Tseten and Topgyal and their friends.

In Lhasa, they say, Tibetans are becoming outnumbered by the Chinese, and young Tibetans are discouraged from practicing their religion and speaking their language. Meanwhile, the diaspora watches as the Dalai Lama’s attempt to find a peaceful solution appears increasingly moribund with each passing year.

What do you do when your relatives are forbidden to be themselves, to express their ethnic identities and none of your community’s leaders seem able to lead them to freedom? Tseten, Topgyal and other young Tibetans ponder the question often.

Other Tibetans who stop by the apartment include Tenzin Phuntok, 22, (left) who has lived in New York City since he was a child and speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent; Khenrab Palden, 30, (second from right) who was educated in Massachusetts and volunteers as the General Secretary for the Tibetan Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey; and Thupten Dhondup, 25, (right) who also grew up in India but only recently moved to the U.S. Occasionally, women stop by. This is primarily a male hangout.

“We give strength to each other,” says Palden. “There is a familiarity to this gathering.”

While they are all Tibetans, they have different views on their culture and its Buddhist traditions that sometimes lead to disagreements. For example, self-immolation is a useful way of drawing attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. Suicide, however, is also against Buddhist doctrine.

“I’m not in favor of self-immolation, because it’s wasting your precious life,” says Dhondup. “His Holiness the Dalai Lama never taught us, never taught us, to waste our precious body.”

Phuntok disagrees.

“When people sacrifice their lives, they’re saving hundreds of lives,” he says. “When somebody sacrifices themselves, the media are going to, you know, pay attention to China.”

The conversation becomes a fiery debate.

It’s a common division within Tibetan communities, especially between Tibetans that live in Tibet and those among the diaspora throughout India and the U.S. The more distance from Tibet and its Buddhist tradition, it seems, the more likely an ethnic Tibetan in the group will be dedicated to political liberation over faithfulness to Buddhist doctrine.

“We see these very different tones,” says Robert Barnett, the director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University.

The differences are largely the result of how the diaspora is cut off from the homeland, where the complexities of life under Chinese occupation aren’t so cut and dry as from afar, Barnett adds. “Ninety-seven percent of Tibetan people are in Tibet,” he says. “We don’t really know anything about that debate.”

But in America, one becomes focused on political freedom above all else, Barnett says.

Whatever differences may exist between friends, the evening ends amicably. By the time I leave, the friends are singing Indian folk songs, drinking together and conversing in Tibetan beneath the roar of the BQE.

This story is an updated version of one that originally ran on June 15.