Tibetan Exiles: A Generation in Peril

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Altaf Qadri / AP

A Tibetan Buddhist nun walks with a Tibetan flag in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile

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Part of this alienation is due to the Tibetan government's decision early on to have separate schools for Tibetan students to ensure the preservation of Tibetan language and culture. The result has been a pronounced linguistic and societal segregation. At the march on Tuesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Beijing, there was a smattering of white faces among the 2,000-odd Tibetans — but not a single Indian face except for the cabdrivers transporting protesters. "They stay aloof," says Vinay Sharma, a Dharamsala resident who says he has "friendly relations" with many Tibetans. "But I don't go to their home. There is hardly ever any intermarrying." (See pictures of protests against Chinese rule in Tibet.)

Though a majority of Tibetans are eligible for Indian citizenship, only a handful have actually sought it. As a result, they have difficulty buying land and property, a further impediment to making a living in India. "We all get a residence certificate from the Indian government, which we have to renew every year," says Yeshi. "For me, each time I get it renewed, it is a reminder that I must work to return to Tibet." There is no longing to be part of India. Yet many are not averse to seeking greener pastures in the U.S. or Europe. Explains Tenzin Palden, 27, a sometime sales clerk: "Many Tibetans have settled [in America]. They've been sending home money. They're obviously in good jobs there."

For the unemployed and idle young who remain in India, frustration and disaffection can have dangerous consequences. Many have taken to hashish. Indeed, substance abuse has become widespread enough to prompt the government-in-exile to sponsor rehabilitation programs. Officials have banned the sale of alcohol, including chhang, a Tibetan liquor. They have also set up financial-assistance programs for the families of addicts.

The drug problem is just the most worrisome part of what the leaders of the Tibetan-exile community see as a wider crisis: the loss of Tibetan identity. In the past few years, when India's economy was growing rapidly, increasing numbers of young Tibetans left the 35 exile communities across India to work in call centers and corporations in bigger cities. Tibetan elders are concerned that these youths might lose touch with their culture and values, preserved so painstakingly and so successfully with separate schools and separate communities. The irony is that after 50 years, that strength of the Tibetan community has led to a generation that does not feel it belongs anywhere but Tibet, remaining alienated strangers in strange lands.

Assimilation, however, is unacceptable as a solution. "My generation, the 40-somethings, have a huge responsibility," says Yeshi. "We need to make sure that our children, the third and fourth generations born in exile, feel for Tibet, respect the Dalai Lama, preserve their culture. The biggest problem is finding a political solution to the Tibet problem." But Yeshi is aware of the practical problem in the way of that dream. "To live to see that day, we need livelihood."

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