Is Dharamsala really the answer to Tibetans troubles?

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August 2nd 2010
Published: August 2nd 2010
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I really am living her life now. For those who don’t know who I’m talking about, her name is Lhamo Tso. She is 37 and has been through more than we can imagine. Her husband is Dhondup Wangchen, somewhat of a hero in Tibet due to the legendary documentary he made documenting the feelings of Tibetans about various things in 2008. As a consequence of this he was imprisoned for 6 years. He is now in a labour camp, despite having contracted Hepatitis B and is receiving no medical care. Lhamo Tso, her four children, niece, Dhondups parents and brothers family had to flee to India in order to be immune from being harassed by the Chinese government themselves. She is supporting so many mouths on the salary of a bread maker selling her bread at the side of the road. She can’t even afford a big enough room to have her children live with her, they have to live in the school. So not only has she lost her husband, potentially forever, but she rarely even has the comfort of her children around her.

To have gone through all this (and more, check my other blogs) and still remain strong, takes one hell of a woman, so I feel so privileged that she has invited me to live with her. I regard her as my mother and my best friend here. I seem to be spending more and more time with her, hitting a record of 3 hours selling bread and 7 hours in her home today so I really have an inside view of her life. More and more I’m learning about just how difficult it is for her as well as the other Tibetan refugees living in this bizarre world of Mcleod Ganj. Seemingly a world of its own.

As I said, she invited me to live with her, but obviously in the pigeon hole she lives in, there’s no room so we began room hunting as she intended to move regardless of meeting me. She needs to as when her children return in school holidays two have to sleep on the coffee table, two in one single bed, and Lhamo Tso and her niece in the other single bed. Talk about cramped. Also, more of her family is planning to flee to India, so she needs a space to put them. You might be thinking, how on earth can she possibly support more people? Just as I said, she’s one incredible woman. Finding a room to fulfil these needs should be easy right? The answer is a big fat no. Especially if you’re Tibetan. I’ve been astonished and somewhat mortified by the outright racism here from Indians to Tibetans. I knew there was a little resentment from some Indians here towards the Tibetans for the amount of help they’re getting, but I didn’t think it would stretch as far as refusing to give a woman a room purely because she is Tibetan.

If I’m honest I cried over this experience. Any kind of discrimination really gets to me because I really feel in my heart that we are all equal, especially after having strong bonds with people all over the world. To cut the story short. Lhamo Tso has rented two tiny dirty rooms in a building here for 4 years, one for her and another for her husband‘s parents. A bigger better room became vacant in the building. The section with the best rooms that houses only Indians. Coincidence? I am certain it isn’t after the owners despicable words. He clearly likes to hide the Tibetans in the dirty dark corners. He wanted 4000 rupees for the room. 500 more than the other Indian tenants were paying for the exact same rooms. We reluctantly agreed the unfair rent and took the key. It was final, or so I thought. The next day he changes the lock on the door and tells us “you cannot have this room, you are Tibetan, only Kashmiri can live in this room”. A woman that’s been through more than you can imagine, is told she cannot have a room in a building she has been a good tenant in for 4 years, purely because of her nationality. What makes me even more sick to my stomach, is that we couldn’t budge him down from 4000, yet he gives it to an Indian family for 3200. Unbelievable. He’d rather take a 800 rupee loss than let her have the room. This guys own father said he was a madman and that he should give her the room, yet the resentment he feels for Tibetans is obviously so strong he couldn’t bring himself to let her have it. I felt a real pain in my heart for her. Can people stomp on her anymore than they already have? I imagine she thought I was stupid for crying as she brushed it off. I guess when you’ve been through what she has, you have to just brush things like this off.

This experience really brought home how Dharamsala isn’t the perfect getaway that I thought it was. Many come here in hope of greater things, to meet the Dalai Lama or purely because they were forced to due to harassment by the Chinese government. Do they get the life they dreamed of though? They can earn very little money, have to live in small grotty rooms, are parted from their families, the area is nowhere near as beautiful, clean or peaceful, they are facing discrimination from local Indians on a daily basis and their culture is clearly being diluted here. Many turn to alcohol and start chasing westerners in the hope of a visa, as they see that the rut they’re stuck in is inescapable. Whilst others pray to be picked in the visa lotteries or pay thousands of rupees in applying for western visas to be rejected and lose their money. How can you save for a brighter future when you’re earning 2500 per month (£35) and your rent is 2000 (for the crummiest room ever might I add) and a meal out is 70 rupees per head. It’s baffling to me how they can even feed themselves. Maybe the grass isn’t so green on the other side. This became all the more apparent when I returned from battling it out with the building owner to Lhamo’s home and looked through her photos with tears silently rolling down my cheeks. Seeing pictures of her in beautiful fields in her motherland or in her big, beautiful home and pictures of her, Dhondup and their beautiful children was a smack in the face of what she’s really lost. She puts on a brave face everyday. I have more admiration for this woman than anyone that I have ever met.

It’s not all bad though. She’s clearly got a lot of friends and support from both locals and foreigners. Many want to spread her message and help her out, even if it’s just by favouring her for their morning bread. One way in which she’s really being helped is by the Students for a Free Tibet organisation. They have been working their asses off to get her visas for many countries in Europe and as far as I can see, everything is going smoothly, so in October she’ll be joining us in Europe to speak about her husband. International pressure is a really effective way to get people released, so I’m praying this will work. I’d give up so much to see this wish granted. If only I had that kind of influence in this world.

One thing is for the sure. Lhamo Tso will always have a special place in my heart and this will not be the last time I will see her. I will visit her again, both here in India and in Tibet once Tibet is free!


2nd August 2010

such thankless people,if in a situtation like india,any western country wudnt have dared to take these people in,especially pissing china off.and they just keep coming year after year ,dhrmshla aint a metropolis ,which can accomodat such large hoardes.
2nd August 2010

though i agree on the racism thing.i really hope people shud accept them now as there is no chance that ruthless china will ever let tibet be free.
2nd August 2010

Tibetans really aren't thankless. Do you live in Dharamsala by any chance? If not, don't judge.
3rd August 2010

How brave of you Jess.... India is a tough place and you have faced some intense realities. What are your plans from now? Be safe - JAMES xx
3rd August 2010

One arm @ a time
Hey Jessica , Its so blessed about you , for helping Lhamo Tso out . Although There are hundreds of thousands who are in her state . But as the Hebrew saying goes "He who saves one life saves the world entire" . The only thing I can do about it is to morally support you and pray for Lhamo Tso . Allah Bless .
4th August 2010

Hi Jessica . Its very sad and touching story . I want to ask if the Tibetans are allowed to move around India and settle any where or they are bound by law to be in that region ? Although I agree Indians have racist tendencies, Being Indian I can say that Tibetans arouse an instinct of being Good Human Beings - for eg their vegetarianism , Not harming animals and traditions and customs like that . . I hope locals can make friends with Tibetans because from a distance and from what I hear they are good people.. But no matter what , Its wrong treatment meted out to Tibetans. Hope they will be given vocational training and have fair jobs opportunities acros India . 2} Are you a socially conscious and active traveler ? Last time you were in Sadhana now in Dharamshala ?
4th August 2010

Reply to Suragh
Yeah I'd like to think I'm a socially conscious traveller. I don't like to just travel around, I like to settle in a place where I feel I can help and at the same time get a real insight into the local culture. Doing this I've had the most amazing year. Of course the Tibetans can move around the country. There are many many colonies around India, including many monastries. A lot are in South India, but there are colonies all over, including the major cities such as Delhi. This is by far the biggest though due to the huge drawer of the presence of the Dalai Lama. I'm not too sure about the job opportunities but they are given the opportunity of free schooling here run by volunteer organisations, such as the one I am working for. The main focus though is on learning Tibetan grammar and English, not schooling to a high level which we would study, i.e. a normal curriculum. Still, it's better than they get in Tibet, where they're not taught Tibetan at all and many remain illiterate due to the lacking opportunity of education. Also, I was quite shocked to find that the majority aren't vegeterian despite buddhist views. This is because in Tibet they say they pretty much need meat due to the harsh climate and lack of options, but when they come here they're so used to eating meat that despite no longer needing it for convenience or health reasons, they still eat it. However, they do only eat big animals, thinking that taking the life of an animal so small as a shrimp, is unacceptable, selfish and bad karma.
4th August 2010

Reply to my dear brother... James
I'll stay here probably until mid September, possiibly briefly popping down to Sadhana, but my heart is stuck here in many ways right now. I could stay here for a year, I'm sure of it, I just don't have the opportunity to. I feel like I have a family, friends and a life here. It's like Sadhana all over again, constantly pulling on my heart strings, but in a more intense way. When do you arrive in India?xx
13th August 2010

I sent a mail to you but you never responded so I wont touch the topic of trying to know you better, but I have been religiously following your posts and I do have certain queries: 1.)Rebelling against the system and standing up for one's belief especially when it pertains to human rights are something few people consciously go for because most of us are too busy living the materialistic life and doing the chores in order to live a fake existence so I applaud anyone who goes for it but in your case its as much a case of curiosity as it is a sense of wonder-------Why Tibet of all places-Were you always(back home) aware of the political scenario Tibet and her people faced or is it a case of the travel being an eye opener and life changer ? 2.)What, seriously can be done for Tibet to gain independence or for more people to realize the plight of these people(Heck 90 percent of India couldn't care less I bet).....Can I as an individual do anything >We have to think rationally
18th August 2010

I'm sorry, I didn't receive your mail, but I will reply to this one. At home I wasn't aware of the political situation in Tibet at all, I became aware here in Dharamsala and it's touched my heart more than you can believe. I don't really know what you can do apart from be aware, sign petitions, tell friends, publicize movies, help in places like Dharamsala, etc. International pressure is the answer. But who knows if anyone will ever stand up to China, and if they do, will it be effective? All we can do is try.
4th September 2010

we indians live in our own little worlds , we have different identities first as indians then as people who speak a particular language , as hindus / muslims / ... and finally based on our cast . some people dont like to come out of this cocoon . i can guarantee you that if she was a muslim and asked for the room she would have been forced out of the two she already had . so what she faced was not racism ( as hindus and muslims are of same race ) its actually the petty chauvanistic pride in him (due to any of these multiple identities) , which stemmed from the ignorance of what this country stands for . as an indian i was a bit hurt on reading the article , majority of people in india are tolerant , actually we are the only country with so many internal divisions and still we live in peace with one another .
18th September 2010

Miss Barker, talk is cheap, may i suggest that your country accept these poor Tibetans? No? Thought so, one thing to give lecture, quite another to help. India can only provide them so much because India is a poor country. But still it is better than your Britain who has only the words to show for it. Also since your country is in Europe, lets see how Europe is doing. Last i read in the news, France was expelling Gypsies based on ethnicity. Sure some things runs in a family.
19th September 2010

Reply to Praveen
I appreciate your comment Praveen, but I can assure you, Britain takes in many immigrants. Mainly those from your own country. I know we take in few Tibetans, but we definately do our bit to help refugees in need. I wasn't making a comment on the Indian government, I think it's great that India have housed the Tibetans. Rather I was referring to the local Indian community who are openly racist towards the Tibetans.
25th February 2011

Racism in McLeod Ganj
Hi Jessica: I'm writing a book on my 2nd trip to India (Oct 2009-Jan 2010) where we volunteered in MG for 5 weeks. One chapter is about the Indians reactions to having the Tibetans in MG, & racism against Tibetans in general in India. I don't have much info. yet, but may I use the part of your blog about Indians not wanting to rent to Llamo? I'd be open to receiving any other info that's specific to this chapter. I already know about the 1994 rioting that began in Lower Dhar & went up to the DL temple, & also plan to speak with friends who are Tibetan doctors in town. Thanks & best wishes Ellen Besso
30th March 2011

Hi Ellen, yes of course you can use this story about Lhamo Tso. What other questions do you have? I'm happy to answer them. All the best, x

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