Adapting to Survive in a New Exile

[Guest post by Ngawang Lodoe, a student from Hampshire College, did his final photography project on the preservation and challenges of the Tibetan culture and language in the US.]

The story of Tibet and Tibetans has been told to the outside world largely by outsiders. The Tibet of the past was a mysterious land for many and the people who lived there did not care much about any contacts with the outside world. It is only in recent times, after Tibet’s invasion by China and many Tibetans were forced into exile, that Tibetans are beginning to tell their story. My project is a part of this ongoing process of exiled Tibetans speaking out as they deal with life in a foreign land and while their homelands are under a brutal occupation.

There remains little doubt that Buddhism has been the driving force behind Tibet’s cultural heritage for most of its history. Buddhism was first introduced in Tibet during the reign of the emperor, Songtsen Gampo, in the 7th CE. Throughout the history of Tibet, promoting and practicing of Buddhism was highly emphasized. This tradition was reflected in the construction of a large number of monasteries all over Tibet. A significant portion of the population joined these establishments to become monks and nuns. However, in the 9th century, Buddhism suffered a great setback under the reign of the 42nd king, Lang Darma, who actively sought to suppress the religion. Although popular Tibetan history gives many explanations for this, the most rational ones point to socio-political reasons. Lang Darma was frustrated to see a nation that had once been a great empire now chiefly preoccupied with lofty spiritual concerns and vulnerable to any external threat. But his rule was cut short as he was assassinated. Lang Darma was the last emperor of Tibet as Tibet plunged into dark ages.

With the death of Lang Darma around 842, what many Tibetan historians call, “the first diffusion of the doctrine” came to an end. Despite this period of stagnation and disintegration, Tibetans were able to revive Buddhism, “the second diffusion of the doctrine,” at the end of the tenth century followed by the development of four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism again became a national preoccupation and dominated every sphere of life, for both the rulers and the ruled.

A key turning point came when Tibetans lost their country after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China completed their invasion of Tibet in 1959. Mao Zedong and his Communist party destroyed Tibetan monasteries, scriptures, and statues, and forced monks and nuns to disrobe and get married. Due to the PLA’s brutal crackdown over Tibet from the beginning of 1950 to 1959, many Tibetans eventually fled to India after the great uprising on March 10, 1959 in Tibet. Along with the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, thousands of displaced Tibetans reached India. Technically, but not legally, refugees, these displaced Tibetans started a new life in India. Yet most Tibetans remained in Tibet.

Starting a new life proved a difficult challenge for the newly arrived Tibetans as they suffered from the unaccustomed climate, lack of nutrition, and their lack of exposure to the modern world. With the help from the Indian government and international aid, Tibetans began a rebuilding process with their own separate settlements, schools and monasteries in India. In addition to that, the sole and legitimate governing body of the Tibetans, the Central Tibetan Administration, led by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was established in Dharamsala, India. The Indian culture has also played its part in shaping the cultural sensibilities of the exiled Tibetans. And this gradual change in the collective consciousness of a once isolated people has only accelerated with the migration of many Tibetans to the USA where the contrast and challenges of culture and language are much more severe and stark than in India.

A new trend started in the exile communities with the immigration of many Tibetans to the USA and Europe starting from early 90s. This time it was not a hapless transition, but an individual choice to leave their community in India and find better opportunities in these foreign countries. The first group of 1000 Tibetans immigrated to the US in 1991 as “qualified displaced Tibetans” living in exile in India. Since then many Tibetans have started to immigrate to the USA. However, who are these Tibetans? What are some of the main reasons, and what are the expectations and realities of their coming to the States? What challenges in terms of culture and language do they face? How do they preserve their culture and identity? These are the questions that I explored during my final year project at Hampshire College.

I began this project by doing research on the history of Tibet. Some questions that I had: when did Tibetans lose their country? How did the Tibetans immediately deal with the loss of their country? Where did Tibetans go afterwards? What are the reasons and when did Tibetans start immigrating to the States? Referring to some key books on Tibet and Tibetans, I accompany these questions with the story of my parents’ escape to India and my own story of growing up in India. Then, I interviewed and photographed Tibetans in the U.S. in two different categories. First, I interviewed and photographed Tibetans who work for their official organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) in New York for the preservation of language, culture and identity; and second, I listened to the stories and experiences of individual Tibetans in Massachusetts, New York and Minnesota. These investigations helped me to understand the similarities, differences, tensions, and challenges that Tibetans living in the U.S. are facing collectively.

Members of Amherst Regional Tibetan Association (ARTA) participate in a religious event. Although the Tibetan community in Amherst is small and scattered, they gather for community prayer once a month.

Members of Amherst Regional Tibetan Association (ARTA) participate in a religious event. Although the Tibetan community in Amherst is small and scattered, they gather for community prayer once a month.


A Tibetan man in his traditional dress during Losar in Minnesota, 2014.

A Tibetan man in his traditional dress during Losar in Minnesota, 2014.


A Tibetan man distributes “blessed water” during a religious gathering at a Tibetan home in Amherst, MA. 2014.


A scene from a weekend Tibetan language class in Amherst, MA. According to Mr. Tsewang Phuntsok from Office of Tibet, almost every regional Tibetan association in North America successfully runs the weekend Tibetan language class for young Tibetan-Americans in the US.

Tibetans partake in sangsol during the 3rd day of Losar in MN, 2014.

Tibetans partake in sangsol during the 3rd day of Losar in MN, 2014.


To see more of his work, please visit his website: