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Tibetans in region embracing freedom, praying for homeland

By Anna Isaacs

Publication: The Day

Published February 17. 2013 4:00AM
Tim Martin/The Day
Members of the Tibetan American Community of Connecticut are led in prayer last month by Tenpa Tenpa, third from right, of Uncasville, at American Legion Post No. 4 in Norwich.

They came to the shores of the Thames and the Sound from the roof of the world, a slow trickle of immigrants across two decades.

Now, they say about 200 Tibetans - former refugees, their sons and daughters, most of whom have never laid eyes on their ancestral land - call southeastern Connecticut home.

As their ranks grew, as they found each other, they began to form networks and neighborhoods. Together, they mourned what they'd lost - lucrative jobs, their country, family members - and rejoiced in what they'd gained - a living wage, a new country, freedom.

One month ago, the Tibetan American Community of Connecticut, 20 times the size of its first humble operation, filed for official nonprofit status with the state.

'Start from zero'

Jampa Tsondue was 33 years old when he first flew on a plane - a 15-hour trip backward across 11 time zones, New Delhi to New York. He recalls the window seat, his face pressed up against the pane, the fear and then the boredom.

July gave way to August somewhere over the Atlantic.

When Tsondue stepped off the Alitalia airliner, it was 1 a.m. in Queens. The year was 1992, and the Tibetan United States Resettlement Project was under way: 1,000 new immigrants from refugee settlements in India, future Americans, visas won in a lottery. Tsondue, along with 26 others, was among the first to arrive.

Tsondue grew up in Darjeeling, India, born the year his parents settled there after fleeing Tibet in 1959. His mother sold sweaters on the tourist-packed foothill paths; his father was a cook.

He dropped out of school to be an artist, moved to South India in 1984, married Kunga Choekyi and had three children.

Then, the lottery, two months to pack and prepare and say goodbye, and the flight.

When he arrived in New York, his sponsor, a minister from Milford, picked him up at the airport, a connection arranged beforehand by the Connecticut branch of the resettlement project. Tsondue stayed with him for a month and a week, working as a dishwasher at a seafood restaurant, transitioning from the gentle handiwork of his trade to the roughness of scouring and scrubbing for $6 an hour.

"You have to start from zero," he says. "From the bottom."

Now he works as a security guard for a retirement community in Essex. His wife, who arrived with their children in 1996, owns her own nail salon.

Tsondue's paintings hang in his house - cotton-canvas portraits of Buddhist deities in bright handmade hues, delicately overlaid in places with gold leaf. As a full-time artist, a painting would take him three weeks. Now, one takes him the better part of a year.

In his living room in Old Saybrook on a Thursday morning, he wears a down vest and jeans. His glasses have slipped halfway down his nose; he holds another pair in his hands. He inclines his head forward when he speaks, quietly; his eyes brighten and crinkle when he smiles, often.

He remembers his first time eating hamburgers and hot dogs, that they didn't seem like real food.

In one of a string of starter jobs, Tsondue and his employer were contracted to restore the frescos on the ceiling of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. One day, while he worked from high-up scaffolding, Hillary Clinton walked by down below. He waved; she waved back. She told him he was doing a good job, he says.

"When you flee from Tibet - I mean flee," he says. "I don't mean you go to the Chinese government and ask permission to leave."

If they catch you, he says, it's jail, or worse.

"And then you just disappear," he says.

Coming together

At first, the community consisted of a handful of recent immigrants in the early '90s renting a house in Old Saybrook, a few more in New Haven. They had been gathering for the major holidays and helping other Tibetans find homes and jobs.

In 1994 they decided to make their gatherings more official by electing committee members. As they inched toward American citizenship, they would preserve their culture as best they knew how.

Beginning about 10 years later, every year, three or four or five more came in search of a stable job, away from 12-hour shifts in the big city, where most had arrived by way of India. Here, largely in Old Saybrook and Norwich, they could drive cars and send their children to good schools. By 2006, their community was up to a couple dozen more.

Tsondue and Choekyi remember watching the news that winter: A house in Norwich had burned down, and the owners, who made it out safely, were Tibetans.

They and others shuttled back and forth to help out kin they had no idea lived so close.

"And then we decided, instead of getting together at two places," Choekyi said, "why don't we all come together?"

'I want to see Tibetans'

On a Wednesday in January, just after 6 p.m., Dakpa Gyaltsen, 46, has finished raiding the racks at his convenience store in New London, filling cardboard boxes with plastic-wrapped muffins and 50-cent coffee cakes.

It's his turn to provide snacks and pay the $75 one-night rent for the room on Laurel Hill Avenue in Norwich, where in a half-hour or so, he'll join a few dozen others for Lakhar, or White Wednesday. For one day a week in communities across the globe, Tibetans don their traditional clothes, eat their traditional food and speak their native language.

At Zambala Grocery Store, named for the wealth deity of Tibetan Buddhism, the store carries small vestiges of his heritage among the cigarettes and cereal, the Kit Kats and lottery tickets: hand-knit wool hats, sticks of incense, cloth banners bearing the sayings of the Dalai Lama.

Gone from the stock now are three gallons of milk, two packages of butter, a yellow cardboard box of Lipton teabags, a container of Morton salt. Those will go into the Tibetan butter tea, a hot, salty, calorie-dense drink that makes more sense amid snow-capped mountains and cold, thin air.

Gyaltsen was a baby when his parents took him on the harrowing, months-long journey across the Himalayas in 1959. He arrived in the States on the Fourth of July, 1996.

He'd been teaching Tibetan at an international school in Nepal when an American exchange student bonded with him and suggested he come to the United States.

"I thought, maybe I go there," he says. "Maybe it's a better life."

He applied for a visa, flew to New York, then went to Nebraska to visit the student and his family. A Tibetan connection in Ann Arbor, Mich., kept him there for five years.

Gyaltsen came to this area in 2001 to cook at Mohegan Sun, opening Northern Indian Restaurant in New London with his brother the same year. In October 2008, he opened Zambala.

In the car on the way, a 20-minute drive up Interstate 395, a Bollywood pop song plays on repeat.

"I want to see Tibetans," he says. "We came from so far away."

Gyaltsen was among the first Tibetans to work at Mohegan Sun. Now, they say about 80 work there, mostly in housekeeping.

Nothing to do but pray

The first meeting of the Norwich and Old Saybrook communities was in Norwich, July 2009, in a ballroom at the Holiday Inn.

About 100 people chipped in the $500 rent for the night, spreading the word through co-workers. The only decoration for this celebration of the birthday of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was his photo, watching over them as they sang songs about freedom and shared a potluck meal.

Now they meet every other week at the old American Legion post in Norwich.

In the mostly empty, high-ceilinged room, 35 supplicants are seated in rows on the floor when Gyaltsen arrives, cross-legged on pillows or yoga mats, an American flag draped over one wall and a shrine to the Dalai Lama set up against another.

Before electric tea lights flickering orange, they sway side to side or rock lightly back and forth, some with children in their arms, North Face fleeces zipped up over traditional robes. At the front, tucked into the middle and leading them in low, resonant prayer, sits Tenpa Tenpa, 49 - a one-time Tibetan monk and nomad whose knees and back still ache from three abusive weeks spent in a Chinese prison 12 years ago.

Watching serenely over them are headshots of the dead, the self-immolators of the past three years; and one larger, laminated photo of a man in the middle of the act, head tossed back, his contorted face as easily mid-laugh as mid-scream.

From the bar next door, a stray whiff of cigarette smoke or a peal of full-belly laughter occasionally wafts in, mingling with the sounds of prayer and the smell of butter tea brewing. In the kitchen, Ake Ake, 44, serves as head chef. He unwraps whole sticks of butter and lumps them in a plastic bowl, keeping a close watch on the boiling milk and water.

Usually, says Yangzom Dolma, 28, of Norwich, the crowd is bigger, maybe 80 to 120. It's into the teens outside tonight; the freeze's coincidence with the flu outbreak means they're down several dozen bodies.

Halfway through the evening someone comes out with a kettle, filling brown paper coffee cups with hot liquid the color of chai, more salt and butter than Lipton.

Chatter and chewing break up the chanting.

Tenzin Pema, 25, a college student, speaks of the recent rash of suicides by fire.

"It's the last way of trying to get the world community's attention," he says.

It's been nearly 62 years since the Chinese marched in, 54 since so many rose up, rebelled and fled, following the Dalai Lama into Indian exile across the Himalayas.

Last year, they saw dozens more set fire to their bodies in the name of a free Tibet. They watched the toll skirt 100. They prayed for their souls.

This year they - the Americans, the lucky ones - will watch again, and wait.

"We can't do anything," said Tenzin. "Except for praying."

'Truth and gun'

It took Simon Kunga, the organization's president, two months to compose three pages of paperwork before filing with the state. That includes the mission statement of the Tibetan American Community of Connecticut: preserving and promoting their religion and culture, running a Tibetan language school, looking out for each other.

"The Dalai Lama always say, 'The Tibetan struggle is truth and gun,'" says Kunga, seated on his living-room couch on an overcast morning, pitting one fist against the other. "We have only truth. But China, gun."

Above him hang two photos. One shows the Dalai Lama, speaking in Danbury last October; the other, a grinning Kunga with his arm around former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman at the Dunkin' Donuts down the street the same month.

Kunga, 44, found a job at a souvenir shop in New York's Chinatown after he emigrated from Tibet on a business visa in 2001 and was later approved for political asylum. His wife would follow a year after - then, his three children.

"That was the happiest day," he says.

He worked 13-hour days for a year before Chinatown Manpower Inc., a New York nonprofit that provides job training and education to recent immigrants, found him a job at Mohegan Sun. He was laid off from the casino a few months ago and is still looking for work.

In Tibet, he left behind his traditional first name, a lucrative career as a businessman selling Chinese exports, his mother, seven sisters, 30 nieces and nephews and his father, who has since died.

Kunga became a citizen in 2010, and voted for the first time in last year's presidential election. He and his wife voted for Mitt Romney, their two older children for President Obama. He wore his "I Voted" sticker with pride.

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the Tibetans feel like they don't have a country," he says. "They have one here."

When asked why he came to the States, he doesn't miss a beat.

"Because the freedom. Of course, freedom, is number one," he says. "Making money over there is quicker, but the freedom is number one."

Speaking for others

Late on a Sunday morning, Choekyi and Tsondue are worlds away from their journey, seated at their kitchen table around a bowl of pale dough. Choekyi cranks great gobs of it through a pasta roller, deftly slicing and then twisting it into tiny flowers, fish and angels. He fries them in pots of peanut oil on the back patio.

They will stack them, string them and adorn the Buddhist shrine they keep in a small, sunlight-filled den. Then they'll bring the leftovers to Norwich for a somber celebration of the new year.

Some displaced Tibetans don't mark the day at all, Choekyi says. In Norwich, they didn't last year.

This year there wasn't to be any singing or dancing, as they remembered the dead and their families, whom they call hostages to China and who by and large cannot contact them for fear of reprisal.

"We always said we are Tibetan. Because our parents are from Tibet and we are pure Tibetan. We are here and speak for Tibetan people," Choekyi says. "Because they don't have a right to speak. That's why we are here and speak for them. To the United States, to the United Nations, to the world."


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