A Community in Exile

When I arrive at the Tibetan Association of Santa Fe, I’m met by a group of kids and parents crowded in the hallway, gathering belongings and saying their goodbyes after a Saturday morning class. Two short hallways create a reverse “L” shape and meet at the front entrance where I awkwardly stand. The short hall straight ahead of me leads to the Association’s kitchen. A hallway to the left leads to a couple small rooms and the Main Hall, a large open room that serves as the main gathering space.

I had let myself inside and, after surveying the surroundings, decide not to venture too far. I linger near the entrance and pretend to be overly-interested in the fliers on the bulletin board. A few of the adults pass by and eye me curiously, acknowledging an Asian face they don’t recognize. An older gentleman greets me with a friendly nod. I break my silence and tell him I am here to meet with Tashi. “Which Tashi?” he asks, “We have many Tashis here.” I tell him which one and he says, “Ah!” and goes to find her.

Tashi Gyalkhar is energetic, and instantly welcoming and friendly. After helping send off the kids, she invites me to join her in the Main Hall where she pulls two seat cushions from a generous wall of cushions for us to sit on. The students, teachers, and parents soon exit in a final wave. The building turns from chaos to quiet, as Tashi and I begin our conversation.

Tashi responded to an inquiry email I had sent to TAOSF, and agreed to meet with me to discuss the Association. Turns out, Tashi and I share some common friends and acquaintances through our similar career backgrounds. We both worked as government caseworkers, in the same field office, but at different times. Tashi worked herself up to a Bureau Chief position with the State of New Mexico. In addition to her career as a Bureau Chief, she also serves as the current President of TAOSF.

This physical space owned by the Association is a converted historic adobe home in a residential neighborhood, tucked discreetly behind Owl’s Liquors. The site would be easily missed if not for the faded line of prayer flags strung across four large metal poles. The home was purchased by TAOSF in 2001 through donations and member contributions. Each member at the time donated several hundred dollars toward the down payment. Members all contributed to the monthly mortgage thereafter until it was completely paid off.

Tashi tells me, at the time the building was a three-bedroom home consisting of multiple small rooms, which made it difficult to hold large gatherings in a common space. When they had enough funds, the members eventually reconstructed the space. The male members tore down the walls to create the large, open Main Hall; the female members painted the walls. The Main Hall, where we sit, is filled with gorgeous hand-painted Tibetan artwork and is lined with colorful scrolls. It holds a throne and an altar to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and an entire wall dedicated to holding scripture.

The building serves as a gathering space for ceremonies, celebrations, prayer, and Tibetan culture classes. It is open to Association members, but also welcomes members of the general public. Most of the work of TAOSF serves to support members of the local Tibetan community. However, a small portion of member contributions is used to sponsor the education of one Tibetan student in India each year. Additionally, every year in March the Association organizes a peace rally on the Plaza to commemorate Tibet’s 1959 uprising against the People’s Republic of China.

Tashi estimates there are currently 145 Tibetans living in Santa Fe, many of whom came here under the Federal Resettlement program. The Resettlement program was passed under the Bush administration and largely enacted during the Clinton administration. The program allowed 1,000 displaced Tibetans, living as refugees in India and Nepal, to relocate to the U.S. between the years 1992 and 1994. Fifteen resettlement sites in the U.S. were chosen. One of those sites was Santa Fe/Albuquerque. The reunification project allowed family members of the resettled Tibetans to join them after five years had passed.

Tashi came to the U.S. through the reunification project when she was 16 years old. I remember how distraught I was when my family moved me from New Mexico to Texas in the middle of my freshman year of high school. So I am a little awestruck when Tashi tells me about her experience of dislocation. Tashi was born in India, or “born in exile,” to parents who fled Tibet to India at an early age. When she arrived in the U.S., she spoke Hindi and Tibetan, had some formal knowledge and training in English but wasn’t very confident speaking English. She attended Santa Fe High School before transferring to Capital High.

Today Tashi speaks perfect English. It would be easy for someone who doesn’t know otherwise to assume she was brought up in the States. We talk about identity and culture and living in Santa Fe. She says she very much identifies with “American culture” or the “American way of life,” but in the same breath says it is easy to “get lost in American culture” and being around her community in Santa Fe helps her maintain her identity as a Tibetan. Santa Fe provides her with a sense of community that keeps her grounded. I ask her about perceptions of her outside of the Tibetan community. What ethnicity does she get; or where do other people, non-Asians and Asians, tend to think she is from. She tells me, oddly enough, “Hawaiian.” I hadn’t expected that response, and we both have a little laugh about it.

Then Tashi shares a funny story about her 10-year old daughter. When her daughter was much younger, in the first or second grade, she was very surprised to learn that she and the rest of her family were not Hispanic. While this is a cute story, it’s also kind of profound. Tashi tells me that after that moment of realization her daughter would experience moments of self-consciousness when around other people. It’s as if she first realized there are Hispanics and non-Hispanics in the world; and in a community made up of largely Hispanics, she was not one and, therefore, somehow different.

Before I know it, several hours have passed. We have been sitting on the floor, in various pretzel-like shapes, talking for two and half hours. I’m filled with a brightness from the warmth of the Main Hall and the feeling of having connected with another person.

I’m reminded that displacement happens on many levels and in many ways. For some, that displacement can be more psychic and spiritual. For others, like the Tibetans, it can be physical – the result of exile, a true loss of a homeland. And displacement will continue to manifest itself in the stories and experiences of succeeding generations. It will lead to moments of realization, throughout our lifetimes, that remind us how we are different.

How a person or community handles an experience of displacement is perhaps more telling. Because the experience not only reminds us of how we are different from those around us, but of how we are alike as well. I’m glad to live in a city that has embraced the Tibetan community. It’s a highly unique community that we have here: One that is committed to creating a sense of home, while fighting for a homeland. As Tashi says, “Santa Fe is home.” It’s home because of the community she has here. Of her community, she adds, “We are struggling to get our country back. And we’re not losing hope.”

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