Tibetan Refugees & the Negotiation of Relatedness: Semi-Orphans of the 1960s & 1990s

How do refugees negotiate the terms of relatedness in the space of exile? Recent anthropological works on kinship have taken serious the modern construction of the state and how it has come to transform ways of conceiving relatedness (family) (McKinnon and Cannell 2013). Scholars like Povinielli have made criticisms that problematize European and modern notions of the genealogical grid (kinship) that privilege biological kinship (blood ties) and have become standardized and normalized under the construction of governmentality (2002). But what about refugees? In most cases, refugees are undocumented stateless persons who live in the precarious space of exile. In the eyes of their host nations, refugees do and do not exist. While they are deemed legally invisible, they have to operate under modern ideologies of the countries that host them. Under such conditions, refugee approaches to relatedness, operate both outside and alongside the genealogical grid that Povinelli critiques. In the following, I consider Tibetan refugees and their generational approaches to relatedness to negotiate exile. During exile’s initial construction, orphaned and semi-orphaned Tibetan refugees from the 1960s promoted and practiced terms of relatedness at refugee schools that were fairly open. However, the desire to construct biological family outside refugee schools to safeguard vulnerable conditions of exile caused the terms of relatedness to narrow by the time semi-orphan children from Tibet arrived in the 1990s. What caused such a shift? What happens when a group desires forms of relatedness not contingent on the construction of a traditional and biological family?

Although I am interested specifically in how semi-orphans of the 1960s and 1990s engaged in similar and overlapping approaches to forming friendships and other forms of relations to negotiate exile, this is also a brief discussion that works against the assumption that the exile refugee experience is a homogenous one. While the Tibetan refugee experiences began with the 1959 Chinese invasion, experiences across time and space has been diverse depending on many factors. This essay was not meant to address all the complexities of intergenerational and crossgenerational histories and differences in exile. Instead, its intention is to shed light on a small section of the Tibetan refugee collective to understand complex subject formation as a marginal group within the marginal category of refugee. It is set up as a rough framework for looking at differences over time, which can be filled in later with other important stories and analysis as my research progresses. Semi orphans have had a range of experiences and must not be stereotyped. But their generational narratives can also be understood as part of bigger shifts in exile history. I am excited to hear more from readers about the range of their own experiences to let others Tibetans know how rich and diverse these experiences are and how those experiences have shaped who we have become in the present.



Tibetan refugees first settled in India following Tibet’s invasion in 1959. Although Tibet had experienced foreign invasion in its past, the kind of invasion the Chinese brought was something Tibet had never experienced before. The military invasion established rule over all three provinces of Tibet (Utsang, Kham, and Amdo) and caused the largest exodus Tibet had ever seen. Large numbers of Tibetans from different provinces escaped on foot and on yaks to South Asian countries to seek refuge. Among them were the 14th Dalai Lama and his administration. Many followed him to India, where he began talks with the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to meet the twin crisis of Tibet’s invasion and the rising number of refugees. While Tibetan diplomats were dispatched by the Dalai Lama to handle the problem of invasion in international arenas such as the United Nations, the death toll for Tibetan refugees began to rise. If refugees hadn’t died on the escape route to India, they were dying from unaccustomed heat and exhaustion in the refugee camps. The number grew when they were given employment by the Indian government doing road construction. Among the dead included children, those that survived had become orphaned, prompting the Dalai Lama to act.

In 1960, following talks with Prime Minister Nehru, the Indian government agreed to give the Dalai Lama plots of uninhabited land on which Tibetans were to build settlements for their temporary stay in exile. Additionally, they agreed to help the Dalai Lama establish separate schools to rehabilitate refugee children. Both projects were meant to pull Tibetan refugees out of the precarious conditions of the refugee camps and roadside construction projects, but constructing settlements out of jungles meant other dangers loomed large. Few schools were initially constructed as spaces to harbor children to remove them from such dangers. Although the escape from Tibet to India had uprooted Tibetan refugee families from their homes, most families had remained intact regardless of the number of dying members in camps and road construction sites. However, the growing number of dying children provoked many to send their children off to these schools in order to ensure their lives and future possibilities.

When exile schools were first created, the desired outcomes of such schools were to 1) keep children alive, and 2) rehabilitate them into capable individuals who would contribute to the sustenance of the exile collective in the future. In other words, children were seen as “standins” for the future (Rutherford 2013). Tibetan refugees sought to exercise control over the lives of their children as a way to face the unchangeable condition of exile in India. Thus, schools operated as spaces in which the lives of children, and therefore, exile futures, could be imaged and secured.

Schools as Spaces of Mutuality, Friendships and Continuity:

In terms of design, educational facilities and residential homes were constructed in close geographic proximity. While children age fifteen and over were placed in gender specific hostels, children under that age were placed in a residential home that was managed by adult care-takers who performed the officiated role of the parent. From dusk till dawn, children spent the majority of their time socializing and learning within the compound of their residential schools. Children’s schedules revolved around classes, afterschool activities, scheduled chores, and/or attending social gatherings and functions happening on school grounds or in auditoriums. Because children spent most of their childhoods being raised and educated at these residential schools, many refer to the schools as their childhood homes in their adulthood. It was in boarding school, which doubled as their home, where children from the 1960s made memories together and initiated forms of relatedness with one another that lasted into their adult lives.

From its beginnings, the Tibetan exile administration promoted an open policy towards kinship (family) that relied on a shared experience of loss rather than biogenetics (blood). Administrators engaged in the narrative of loss to talk about the losses the exile collective had experienced together to motivate a unifying identity that was termed Tibetan refugees. This new identity was political and relied on the commonality of the loss that all Tibetans in exile had experienced. The exile administrators promoted a sense of mutuality that Sahlins terms mutuality of being (2011). Mutuality of being involved “the transpersonal practices of coexistence from sharing to mourning” (14), and encouraged the idea that “kinsmen are persons who belong to one another, who are members of one another, who are co-present in each other, whose lives are joined and interdependent” (11). Mutuality of being, according to Sahlins, contributed to enduring solidarity. The administrative promotion of mutuality of being seems to have paid off: “We saw each others as equal,” recalls my father of this period, “we were all refugees.” This new sense of mutuality was narrated to motivate children who had collectively experienced loss to strive on behalf of the collective, to become a capable adult so that they may contribute to the collective good, an exile collective they were to view as their community. At the first few residential schools, Tibetan custom of using kin-terms was mobilized to promote mutuality of being. Although the custom of using kin-terms to show deference had always existed in pre-invasion Tibet, administrators made specific kin-terms official. At the first residential home in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s mother, Diki Tsering, and older sister, Tsering Dolma, were referred to as Ama la (mother), and children recall how they nurtured them like they were their real mothers. While social kinning customs had always existed in old Tibet—that Carsten terms “relatedness” (2004:17)—the kind of intensification it experienced during the initial stages of exile is new. Such cultural methods were being mobilized in new ways by the administration to encourage a collective that could meet the new vulnerable conditions of exile together. However, using kin-terms alone did not result in relations, instead, children themselves negotiated and initiated terms of social engagement that led to forming relatedness that revolved around friendships at its base.

During his childhood at his residential school in the 1960s, my father recalled a well-liked kinning practice that became popular among his peers. While he did not go deep into such practices, opting to emphasize friendships instead, I found the practice to be an interesting example of one of the many ways in which children at that time engaged in forming friendships. To initiate social relations of kinship, children often wrote letters seeking permission from the person from whom they desired such relations with. They were usually not biologically related to the other. If the person wrote back in confirmation, social relations of kinship had been established, and from then on, they would begin to refer to and treat one another as real brothers or sisters. While such relations were formed between people who had established friendships, the practice was also popular among people who did not necessarily know one another but knew of each other. It was considered entirely normal for children who spent so much time together in the same spaces to have crushes on one another, among such practices, friend crushes and sibling crushes were popular. For example, it was considered normal for a young girl to send letters to an older female student asking permission to officially acknowledge her as her older sister, if the older female replied yes, the two would carry on a relation of sisterhood. In other instances, girls engaged in popular Indian practices of Rakhi, which celebrates siblinghood, with boys to initiate sibling/friendship relations. Whether such relations lasted into adulthood depends largely on the individuals, however, they did succeed for many in forming lasting relations of friendships.

Such kinning exercises, recalls a friend, were still practiced during his childhood at his schools in the 1990s. Although the practice had declined by his time, the continuation of the practice from its 60s beginnings itself indicates its popularity in initiating relations. These kinning exercises demonstrate how children engaged in practices that Weston terms, chosen kin (1995). “Chosen families,” writes Weston, “generally took the form of a network of kin radiating out from the particular [individual] who had done the choosing” (98). Chosen families were often friends who came to be viewed “as more enduring than blood or romantic relations” (95). The emergence of such practices, argues Weston, “formed in the context of a life crisis” (93). Like Weston’s gay subjects, refugee children practices of relatedness emerged during a time of crisis (exile), their mutual experiences of loss gave way to enduring solidarity, and ultimately, these practices succeeded since the majority of children from that cohort continue to enjoy intimate friendships formed during that time. Many went on to marry each other, transforming friendships into marriages, and became the professionals (nurses, doctors, civil servants, seamstresses, cooks, etc.) the exile apparatus desired to produce a functioning exile community.

A Home away from Home:

How refugees remember the 1970s attests to the success of the schools. During the initial exodus, adults and children had been separated. While children were harbored in schools to be cared and educated, adults were sent off to build settlements out of nothing in different parts of India. Many worked on settlements in South India while their children stayed behind in schools located in North India—making visits difficult and scarce. By the time the mid 70s approached, those children had now become adults. They began populating the settlements that were mostly inhabited by adults who had constructed the settlements and had grown old. Their arrival triggered new energy and new roles. The settlements slowly became populated with young graduates whose friendships with each other transformed into marriages. By the end of the 70s, many built homes with one another in which babies born in exile became a regular fixture in the settlements. “Marriages,” writes Carsten, “are the occasion for house-building, renovation, or extension” (2004:43). Children who had left behind the homes of their childhood (school) had now set off to start their own with one another. Houses, argues Carsten, is where kinship is made (35).

Although the invasion and exodus of the 60s had seen the break up of the biological family, by the late 70s, biogenetic kin ties (blood) had been regenerated from social ones (friendships). Family, once again, became a central fixture in the Tibetan life since China’s invasion. This was an important new development that the exile administration had desired since it lacked the legal status and funds to continue supporting children once they became adults. “Houses,” writes Carsten, “are inevitably part of wider historical processes, linking domestic kinship with other political and economic structures” (50). Although the 60s generation had gone to school for free, children born to the 60s cohort paid school fees so that the exile administration could provide for children arriving from Tibet. Joint household incomes not only circulated within the family, they also circulated outside of the home and in the community. Tibetan families bought from small businesses owned and operated by other Tibetan families, as a result, the circulation of their incomes within the family and the community collectively contributed to the economic success of the exile collective—another outcome that the exile apparatus had desired. However, by the time semi-orphans from the 1990s arrived, the open policy of mutuality of being that the exile apparatus had promoted began to slowly narrow.

Semi-Orphans of The 1990s:

The Culture Revolution in Tibet had begun soon after China had succeeded in its 1959 invasion. Refugee numbers had trickled down by the early 1970s. Many did not know the whereabouts of relatives who decided to stay behind, but all that changed in the late 80s. While the Culture Revolution had ended in Mainland China following Mao’s death in 1976, its policies did not begin to diminish in Tibet until the 1980s. Renewed discussions between the Dalai Lama and the new leadership in Beijing brought a period of relaxed border control. During this time, the Tibetan exile community began experiencing a second exodus. Many from Tibet arrived in exile to rekindle relations with families who had left in the 60s. While some chose to stay in exile, others chose to return; many decided to leave behind their children under the care of the exile administration. By the early 90s, parents who had heard about the exile schools chose to send their young children to India so they may receive a modern Tibetan education. During its peak years between 4,000 to 6,000 children were sent on a yearly basis, triggering another period of construction. The exile administration began expanding schools to meet the growing number of children arriving from Tibet.

Like the children from the 60s, this second group also experienced being raised at the residential schools in exile without family. However, unlike the previous group, they attended exile schools with exile-born children who were not separated from their families. Although the exile administration continued to promote mutuality of being, exile-born Tibetans and semi-orphans from Tibet began forming friendships with those who had mutual backgrounds. Although close-knit friendships between exile-born kids and semi-orphans did exist, there were also friendship circles that consisted mostly of children of exile-born or semi-orphan backgrounds. While popular kinning practices from the 60s waned, friendship still continued to play a central theme for children in forming relatedness.

For semi-orphans of the 1990s, friendship operated much like it did for the old cohort. Many continued practices that mirror Weston’s “chosen kin,” with expectations to “‘be there,’ for one another through ongoing, reciprocal exchanges of material and emotional support” (1995:93). While friendships continued to play an important role for exile-born kids, biological family was expected to occupy the higher position. Parents made sure that children knew about the kinds of sacrifices they endured on behalf of the family. “Houses,” writes Carsten, “are involved in the encoding and internalization of hierarchical principles that shape relations between those of different generation, age, or gender” (37). Exile-borns prioritized close friendships, but blood relations, according to their parents, guaranteed enduring solidarity. While semi-orphans continued to engage in practices of relatedness that operated on the basis of “the need to care and to be cared for” (Borneman 1997:580), filial obligations that exile-borns engaged in narrowed the terms of what was previously an open policy on relatedness. Such changes in approach reflected the kinds of friendship circles children chose to connect with.

Children could often tell which child came from a prosperous family versus who did not, based on stuff. Although the economic prosperity associated with the emergence of the family in exile was seen in positive light, it also began instituting visible differences, and so, inequalities. Semi-orphans and exile-borns both recall children who were especially well off due to the child’s access to the latest fashion and gadgets. They could also tell who was poor judging based solely on the quality of children’s clothes—often times the children they described happened to be semi-orphans. While the kinds of relatedness that the 60s cohort desired were based mostly on care and not so much stuff (since most children then were poor), the 90s cohort desired friendships based on care and stuff. Compared to exile-borns, semi-orphans had less access to stuff. These new changes narrowed the terms of friendship and thus relatedness, especially for semi-orphans, many of whom, depending on their access to stuff, began operating in friendship circles that were sometimes exclusively semi-orphans. While semi-orphans were more marginalized than exile-born children, within the category of semi-orphans, some were more marginalized than others. Although all semi-orphans grew up without their parents, other relatives and/or close family friends that lived in exile provided care for some, while others lacked such ties outside of school all together. Marginalization, for those that identified as semi-orphans, depended largely on such ties, or lack there of.

Friendship circles of children who engaged in theft and other activities that broke school rules, were often coded by the school and students alike as bad, these circles often included members who were often from the least well-off semi-orphan backgrounds. The school administration often emphasized choosing the right friend. The right friend was someone who behaved in a way that encouraged you to do better in school, to follow rules, to strive for educational and professional success. Semi-orphans too engaged in the practice of choosing the right friend. Many semi-orphans who were viewed by their peers and administrators alike as successful due to their educational achievements sometimes formed circles with one another, to push each other, to show care. “When children learn how to behave properly in the house,” writes Carsten, “they are internalizing distinctions” (2004:49). For children at exile schools, it was important to make distinction, to choose who would make the right or wrong kind of friend. Oftentimes, children who were considered bad for fighting, stealing, or breaking rules included both semi-orphans and exile-borns, but semi-orphan children from the more marginalized background made up the majority. While the construction of the home signaled a sign of success, of family, of communal economy, of the collective for the 60s cohort; it also caused a rise in marked differences between children who had families versus who didn’t. Thus causing the terms of relatedness to become narrowed.

Desiring a Home:

Between 2014 and 2015, I hung out with a group of men in Dharamsala who had been children when they arrived from Tibet to attend the exile schools in India in the 1990s. The group had few members that were exile-born but most were semi-orphans. Many had flunked out of either high school or college. Most of them had trouble holding down a regular job. A few of them suffered from substance abuse, while others had kicked the habit for some years. One of them had opened a store that did well with tourists in the beginning, but the business began to perform poorly when the owner began neglecting sales. His store operated as a space where they gathered, which ironically led to the poor performance of the store. Most of them had been friends since childhood, while others were more recent. All nostalgically longed for the times they spent together in their childhood home of TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village school), free from the mundane stress of adult life.

In their nostalgia, TCV operated as a home in which semi-orphans “shared understandings, bodily practices, and memories of those who have lived together” (Carsten 2004:37). This nostalgia wasn’t that different from the 60s cohort, however, the intensity of their nostalgia were different. While the 60s cohort were nostalgic for their childhood homes at school, they had also moved on to construct their own homes in which they recreated biological kin. Semi-orphans of the group I hung out with, often engaged in nostalgia to talk about life that was lived better in their childhood homes at schools than the one they were living in the present. Unlike the centralized home of school that they romanticized, many lived scattered from one another at homes that were rarely stable or permanent. Many struggled with unemployment; most had no savings, they often complained about the inability to pay rent and other cost of living. Memories of their childhood home of TCV often revolved around a romanticized time in which they enjoyed their childhood together in their centralized home of school free from the economic burden they now had to bear alone. Like the 60s cohort, the shared home of school had also given way to relatedness that had lasted for this group of friends outside of school and into their adulthood; however, economic challenges of the present and narrowing terms of relatedness practiced in contemporary exile was limiting this new group from constructing their own homes outside school. In many ways, the nostalgia for a shared home that they experienced together in their childhood reflected frustrations in the inability to recreate the feel of that centralized home in their present lives.

Marriage prospects between an exile-born and semi-orphan, an avenue that Carsten argues can lead to house-building, have decreased in recent times. While the 60s group had less barriers when it came to marriage due to similarities in background, the current cohort faces challenges that were not previously considered. For instance, a friend told me about a long-term relationship between a female exile-born and a semi-orphan man. Both had plans to get married but when she brought up the subject with her parents, her parents rejected the proposal and demanded that she cut ties. After some efforts, the relationship eventually came to an end. Many reasons were cited for why this relationship would not work according to her parents, but one that resonated most was his ability to earn. For Tibetan refugees, economic viability, the ability to earn, has been central in being able to secure the life they desire while fighting off vulnerabilities that come with being an undocumented refugee. This is not to suggest that marriages between exile-born and semi-orphan are communally discouraged, it isn’t, in fact, I know plenty of other such couples that have successfully married. However, economic viability makes marriage, family, and thus home, possibilities for refugees. In contemporary exile, marriage prospects for both exile-born and semi-orphan depended highly on their ability to earn—a factor that was true for the 60s cohort too. However, the increased competition for employment and the rising cost of living in places like Dharamsala and Delhi (MT) had made it harder for more marginalized groups of semi-orphans to be seen as economically viable. In other words, those without a successful profession, educational degree, or family network are seen as less desirable when it comes to relations of romance or marriage because their earning capabilities are questioned—throwing doubt on their ability to provide for their family, or worse, becoming an economic liability on their partner’s family, which could put additional stressors for families of low-income background.

In contrast to the group I hung out with, I also knew of other more professional circles of semi-orphan friends who were considered ‘successful’ by others. They had all completed high school and had finished college; some had even managed scholarships to finish their graduate degrees. Many held professional jobs and networked among each other when a semi-orphan friend was in search of employment and needed a place to stay. They often relied on one another for economic and emotional support, and even lived together to refashion a home for themselves—operating much like a family. In many ways, they had been successful at translating relations with each other as chosen kin into adulthood. However, such relationships seem contingent on their individual earning abilities. Friendships could be terminated if one felt the other was taking advantage of their hospitality and limited resources by being unsuccessful at finding employment, overstaying their welcome, and failing to contribute to household work or cost. For semi-orphan friendships to last from childhood into adulthood, economic viability then becomes important since it allowed for friendships to last into adulthood. But for semi-orphans who did not achieve educational or professional success, who continue to have trouble in constructing homes outside of the school, their relations with one another operate much in the way Nozawa describes phaticity (2015). “It signals a feeling of relatedness-as-such,” writes Nozawa, “while the nature, cause, history, or future of this relationality is apprehended in surprise or in ignorance” (392). The guys that gathered at the store never planned their gatherings, they just showed up, socialized, and dispersed, however long or short. Such gatherings were not meant to be productive of any specific long-term goal or future, instead they just touched base with one another and fantasized about their past at school together—to recall happier pasts and lament less happier presents. Yet they were not unproductive gatherings, these engagements were productive in the way Nozawa argues were “productive of a fantasy of sociality.” They were productive enough to have kept most of them coming back to each other at different times over the course of their adulthood—even if no one knew exactly when they’d see each other next since no futures were ever really planned together.


In the Tibetan experience, refugees initially engaged in practices of relatedness that existed outside of the modern genealogical grid (family) that Povinelli problematizes as heavily reliant on biological factors (2002). Tibetan practices of relatedness depended heavily on what Sahlin’s called “mutuality of being” (2011). The initial group of refugees practiced an open approach to relatedness that downplayed blood ties due to their shared experiences (or mutuality) of loss. Shared background as Tibetan refugees made practices that Weston termed “chosen kin” (1995) possible for Tibetan children growing up as refugees without family at exile boarding schools in the 1960s. These connections, as I’ve argued, were crucial for the overall development of the Tibetan refugee community in the 1970s—when children from such institutions grew up to take on much needed communal roles, including the role of parents to begin families and homes of their own that contributed to the overall sustenance of the exile refugee collective. However, the social, political and economic vulnerabilities implied in the category of refugee, reinforced biological standards of relatedness among Tibetan refugees who believed such biological factors (blood ties) would insure enduring solidarity—a prerequisite for surviving in exile. Such narrowing terms of relatedness, as I’ve shown, disproportionately affects other more vulnerable refugees, such as the group of semi-orphans that arrived from Tibet in the 90s (and more recent groups of low-income newcomers in Dharamsala). Unlike the group from the 60s, who described their experience at school as having been shaped by the similarities all children shared, the 90s cohort felt differentiated from exile-borns due to their lack in (biological) family. While successful semi-orphans continue to engage in enduring relations of relatedness with each other based on mutuality of being (similar backgrounds), the rising cost of living in the present have made the longevity of friendships dependent on economic self-sufficiency. Despite such narrowing approaches, marginalized groups of semi-orphans like the one I came to know continue to challenge and engage in practices of relatedness not productive (of family) in normative ways that connect to economic security and/or prosperity. Instead, they choose brief bouts of contacts that are not reliant on calculated goals or futures that conditions in exile demand, rather, they choose nostalgia to create productive spaces that reinforce friendships (and thus care) not contingent on expectations.



Works Cited:

Borneman, John. 1997. “Caring and Being Cared For: Displacing Marriage, Kinship, Gender and Sexuality.” International Social Science Journal 49(154): 573-584.

Carsten, Janet. 2004. After Kinship. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

McKinnon, Susan, and Fenella Cannell, 2013. “The Difference Kinship Makes.” In Vital Relations: Modernity and the Persistent Life of Kinship, S. McKinnon and F. Cannell, eds. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press. 3-38.

Nozawa, Shunsuke. 2015. “Phatic Traces: Sociality in Contemporary Japan.” Anthropological Quarterly 88(2): 373-400.

Rutherford, Danilyn. 2013. “Kinship and Catastrophe: Global Warming and the Rhetoric of Descent.” In Vital Relations: Modernity and the Persistent Life of Kinship, S. McKinnon and F. Cannell, eds. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press. 261-282.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2011. “What Kinship Is (part one).” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, n.s., 17: 2-19.

Stasch, Rupert. 2009. Society of Others: Kinship and Mourning in a West Papuan Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weston, Kath. 1995. “Forever is a Long Time: Romancing the Real in Gay Kinship Ideologies.” In Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis, S. Yanagisako and C. Delaney, eds. New York City: Routledge. 87-110.