“Tibetans came to the Seattle area in the ‘60s through the University of Washington. In fact it was the Sakya family (who began the local Buddhist monastery of the same name) who were the first family to come,” said Kunzang Yuthok. “Until a coupe of years ago there were only 70 to 80 Tibetans here (in Seattle), but in 1990 we got an immigration bill passed that set aside, 1,000 visas for Tibetan immigrants from india and Nepal.”
Yuthok, director and co-founder of the Tibetan Rights Campaign, is one of the approximately 100 Tibetans now living in the Pugent Sound area. Of the 36 distinct ethnic groups that make up the Asian Pacific Islander population in Seattle, few people—both in and out the API community—are aware of this small-but-vibrant population of Asians that have made Seattle their home.
Those Tibetans who have come from Tibet, India and Nepal to build a new life for themselves here face not only the challenges peculiar to recent immigrants, but also the task of keeping alive a unique culture that is in danger of annihilation in the country of its birth.
In 1949, China invaded Tibet and since then over 80,000 Tibetans have fled their homeland. But those who remain still live under China’s thumb. According to the Tibetan Rights Campaign, the Chinese government continues to imprison Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns and other dissidents and execute them for their religious beliefs and cultural practices.
Tibetans in Seattle remember the horrors they faced in their homeland, but try to build a community for themselves in their new home.
“The Tibetan community is very small and kind of scattered,” said Tenzing Santho, a 29 year-old Tibetan. “Before, there were few community gatherings, and because of differing political and sometimes religious beliefs, we had a few solid connections. There’s more cohesiveness in the community now—we are much, much more united than before.”
Santho came to the United States in 1987 and attended school—first in New York, then in Washington. He founded the Tibetan Association of Washington in 1991 to meet Tibetan cultural and social needs and to inform the larger community about Tibetan issues. Among the association’s projects are a Tibetan language discussion group and a dance troupe specializing in Tibetan folk dance.
“Most people are ignorant of Tibet and Tibetan issues,” he said. “That has changed in the last three or four years because of the Dalai Lama’s visits. (The Dalai Lama is Tibet’s exiled head of state and the people’s spiritual leaders.) Most students I meet from China or even Taiwan have been taught to believe that Tibet is part of China. Korean, Japanese, Filipino or Indonesians don’t know much about Tibet, what’s unique about it among China and Asia in general.
At the forefront of the struggle to dispel that ignorance are groups like Santho’s association and Yuthok’s Tibetan Rights Campaign. Born and raised in India, Yuthok and her sister Chimie came to Seattle in 1973 to join their parents. Yuthok was active in the community throughout the 1980s, but devoted herself to it full-time in 1990 with the formation of the Tibetan Rights Campaign. The mission of the campaign is to bring attention on the effect of Chinese rule upon the Tibetan people.
“If anything is to happen for Tibet as a country, it has to happen in the next five—or at the very most, eight—years,” she said. “There isn’t much time for Tibet… If we don’t have our culture or language, then Tibet just becomes assimilated, which is exactly what China is trying to do with the population transfer,” she said.
China currently has a policy of relocating Chinese citizens to Tibet so that they outnumber the Tibetans. The Chinese there number 7.5 million while the Tibetan population is 6 million.
“Tibetans here in the States have to do more,” said Yuthok. “We shouldn’t let them (in Tibet) feel so abandoned, so frustrated that they resort to violence, which is completely against our beliefs. Now it’s our generation’s turn to take up he struggle.”
It took a major event to galvanize the fragmented community. In 1987, the Chinese government cracked down on a demonstration by the religious community in Lhasa, Tibet, imprisoning and torturing many of the demonstrators.
This was the crisis that pulled Seattle’s Tibetans together.
In a demonstration against the Chinese government held a year before when a Chinese trade delegation came to Seattle, the Tibetans were joined by representatives from Amnesty International and the Chinese pro-democracy movement, among others. In 1991, the Tibetan Rights Campaign conducted demonstrations and other events each month to keep the spotlight on the issue.
“A lot of the Asian community is sympathetic to our cause, even the Chinese, but there is only so much they can do,” said Santho. “I think it’s human nature for people to do their best to help when people need it across racial and ethnic lines.”
But because of the community’s small size and relative infancy in the area, many Tibetans feel lost and unconnected to the larger API community. As a result, they may have difficulty articulating their needs and concerns politically and may be overlooked.
“It’s a young community,” said Santho. “Our political contribution may be small, but it will be a significant part of this growing (API) community in the future. Many of the young Tibetans are getting educated here in the States and I think they will be a force.”
As for the situation back in Tibet, many regard the future with a hope tempered by realism.
“I have to expect something has to come out, for the Tibetans who still live there,” says Chimie Yuthok. “I always ask myself, ‘How can you change the suffering there? How will you help them?’ You can get very comfortable in America, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are still Tibetans out there suffering.
“Sometimes it feels hopeless, but every time I pass out a pamphlet, someone is getting the word. I guess there’s a little blind faith involved, that something will happen to change things for the better.”