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Exodus II (Migyul Magazine, Vol.2, May 2004)
Robbie Barnett

"The Tibetans I visited in Flushing eight to a room five years ago are now training as nurses, working legally in legit companies, living in apartments better than mine, and no longer doing crass mindless jobs in dodgy factories."

There are two main views about the latest Great Tibetan Exodus. One says that it is a disaster that is going to wreck the Tibetan community — all those Dharamsala officials and settlement officials deserting their posts, eight people sleeping to a room in Flushing, girls with university degrees working for years as babysitters in Manhattan and drunken Tibetan youths fighting every Saturday night in New York discotheques. Not to mention the spectre of all those future Tibetan and half-Tibetan children who will be brought up chewing gum and wearing baseball hats, without being able to speak a word of their parent’s mother tongue.

The other view says the Exodus is going to be a source of rejuvenation and modern skills that will reinvigorate the entire Tibetan community. Times will be tough at first, proponents of this view say, but soon there will be five-storey mansions in the Hamptons owned by Tibetans who made it big on the Stock Exchange, children at Ivy League universities, Wall Street companies run by Tibetans, and endless remittances flowing back to India.

The truth is, the second is already happening. I don’t move in the right circles, and I still think a jacuzzi is a cocktail and a colada is a place to store food in, so I haven’t been invited to any Long Island Mansions yet, let alone one in the Hamptons. But I have heard stories of some here already, and I have been to even bigger ones in Nepal owned by Tibetans who will no doubt be here shortly. Already some highly competent young Tibetans have turned up as students at my (obscenely expensive) university, not least the esteemed Editor of this publication. And at least two — Tsering Ngodup and Tsewang Namgyal — are well established figures in professional banking and investment.

The Tibetans I visited in Flushing eight to a room five years ago are now training as nurses, working legally in legit companies, living in apartments better than mine, and no longer doing crass mindless jobs in dodgy factories. It hasn’t taken them the generation that previous communities had to struggle through before they could make it here - it has taken less than half a decade. You have to hand it to them: amongst immigrant communities, in terms of survival, adaptation and skill, Tibetans have to be among the very best at this kind of rapid adaptation.

The plus side to this rapid turn in events is immense. The Dharamsala project of holding a vast exile community together under a recognised, dynamic leadership benefits from the sudden turn-up in remittances. Already, say the TCV administrators, most children in their schools today are funded by Tibetans. It’s an amazing development. It means that Tibetans can begin to dream of a time when the old, sad, sick byin-dak culture will have been forgotten and replaced by one of self-reliance and indigenous resources. There will be no more need for pleading to westerners and rich south-east Asians for hand-outs and sympathy, or not at least for laypeople (the monasteries are another story). No need any more to have Richard Gere as the backroom Minister of Finance, or to offer precious titles to certain Movie Action Men in exchange for donations, or to have His Holiness shake hands with rich capitalists whom you and I wouldn’t share a momo with. That’s the dream. It could happen.

"Cultures flourish only if they change — that’s true. But cultures need a core of felt commitment and vivid recollection to stay alive, and it isn’t going to be easier to hang on to these in the West, when the only Tibetan language left might be in Sunday schools, and then only for the really keen."

But there is a cost as well. For one thing, the humans have gone: nearly 5% of the Indian community may have left for New York alone in as many years. Some will be doperidden drifters in India who will eventually flourish here as Tarzans in the urban jungle (as for the Janes, they are already flourishing; it’s only the men who are slow). But others were part of the India community’s intellectual capital, and the damage of their flight could be immense, and not only to morale. Plus there’s a bigger cost. Not every immigrant community that shifts or is forced abroad needs to retain a distinctive culture. But many Tibetans want to retain just that, and some even say that they want to get their country back, as they have every right to do. Retaining that culture is going to be hard — like, really hard. Invigorating it will be ten times tougher.

Let’s be honest, folks: retaining that culture worked for a while after the first Great Tibetan Exodus 45 years ago, but it’s since failed even in India, outside the monasteries. I would guess that most of the kids who are not monks there don’t read Tibetan well, are not much expert in religion, know nothing about Tibet, and haven’t the faintest idea that there are dozens — 3,000 I think is the actual figure — of modern stories, poems and novels written in Tibetan in the last twenty years. They’re Tibindians. Nothing wrong with that. No-one wants a Chassidic-Amish-Wahabi-type community of unreconstructed, medievalist religious Tibetan fundamentalists, however rich they are. Cultures flourish only if they change — that’s true.

But cultures need a core of felt commitment and vivid recollection to stay alive, and it isn’t going to be easier to hang on to these in the West, when the only Tibetan language left might be in Sunday schools, and then only for the really keen.

So the going could be difficult in the next few years. It’s starting to look possible that a number of Tibetans might get rich. There’s a good chance that even the weakest ones might stay away from drugs and crime, and that the families back in India will prosper from the dollars flying in their direction. But will it turn out to have been worthwhile? I would guess that there’s going to have to be a whole lot of serious discussion about collective ideals, ethics, culture, language and identity before these issues get answered. It’s going to take debate, leadership, listening and initiative to work those answers out. Otherwise this latest Exodus might turn out not to be leading to a promised land worth getting to.

Robbie Barnett is a lecturer of Modern Tibet at Columbia University in the City of New York.

The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive. Steve Lehman, Robbie Barnett and Robert Coles. Red Wheelbarrow Books,1998. This photographic book includes an essay by Robbie Barnett. (Available at Amazon.)