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Burlington-Area Tibetans Reflect on Life in Exile 

It’s minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit as Kalsang Gangjong Gesar Tsang hurries across the snow-covered parking lot of the G.G.T. Tibet Inn, the 21-room motel on Shelburne Road he’s owned for 14 years. On this bright and bitterly cold morning, three flags — American, Canadian and Tibetan — crackle in the stiff wind.

Once inside, the South Burlington innkeeper blows into cupped hands, unlocks his office door and flashes a warm smile to a reporter. G.G.T. — who prefers to use the acronym rather than his long last name — was born in a tiny Himalayan village in eastern Tibet. “Gangjong” means “land of the snows” in Tibetan, but G.G.T. confesses he’s no fan of Vermont’s recent Arctic-like weather. “It was minus 14 when I woke up today,” he exclaims. “Never this cold in Tibet.”

G.G.T. has had time to acclimate in other ways to his adopted “land of the snows.” He was one of the first three Tibetans to arrive in Vermont in February 1993. Under the 1990 Immigration Act, 1,000 Tibetans living in exile in India, Nepal and Bhutan were chosen, via a Tibetan lottery, to receive U.S. visas. In 1993, Vermont became one of 25 resettlement sites in the United States. However, unlike other immigrants who came to Vermont as refugees, the Tibetans were deemed “displaced persons” and hence received no financial support from the U.S. government. Instead, Vermonters had to create a private nonprofit, Burlington’s Tibetan Resettlement Project, to help them get established.

Twenty-one years later, Vermont’s Tibetan community is thriving. The community includes 37 families and about 155 people, most of whom still live in the Burlington area. Some work in entry-level jobs typical of new immigrants — housekeeping, custodial work, food services, assembly-line manufacturing — but many others have moved on to professional careers, including nursing, computers and, like G.G.T, entrepreneurship.

“They’re homeowners; they’re holding down one or more jobs and they’re sending their kids to school,” says Gerry Haase, who cofounded the Tibetan Resettlement Project two decades ago. “A family may have two cars, a house and money in the bank. So it’s a very successful community.”

But some local Tibetans lament one missing aspect of their former lives: a communal gathering place where they can chant, pray, circumambulate, or just drink tea and talk. They lack a community center of their own in which to hold weddings, celebrate birthdays or offer classes in Tibetan language and culture. Some further express an ambivalence about being welcomed in Vermont yet feeling like strangers in a foreign land, far removed from their ancestral homeland and the 14th Dalai Lama, their political and spiritual leader.

Other Tibetans, like G.G.T., are as firmly rooted in Vermont as any assimilated immigrant. His motel lobby is a shrine of sorts to the 46-year-old’s adopted country. On the walls hang framed letters from Sen. Patrick Leahy and former government officials, including president Bill Clinton, governor Howard Dean and Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle. Also displayed are letters of congratulations from the Tibetan Central Administration (Tibet’s official government in exile) and G.G.T.’s naturalization certificate.

Behind the front desk are his family quarters, where G.G.T. lives with his wife and 8-year-old stepson. Along one wall, beside a large-screen TV, sits a traditional, ornately carved Tibetan breakfront displaying Buddhist objects, photos of Tibetan spiritual leaders and an electric “eternal flame.” On another wall hangs a large, autographed photo of the Dalai Lama, whom G.G.T. has met several times, including during His Holiness’ 2013 visit to Middlebury College.

G.G.T.’s story is typical of many Tibetans in exile. Born in Kham, Tibet, he spent most of his youth raising yaks, goats, sheep and cows but never ventured far from home. At 18, upon the death of his grandmother, G.G.T. convinced his parents to let him travel to Lhasa to pray at a Buddhist monastery. He journeyed four days across the mountains in an open-bed truck until he reached the ancient city. “Exciting but also scary,” he recalls.

G.G.T. planned on a one-month stay but remained much longer, against his parents’ wishes. In 1989, shortly after China’s Tiananmen Square uprising, he attended a demonstration to protest China’s occupation of Tibet. There, he was photographed by the Chinese army.

“After two or three hours, Chinese soldiers come and start shooting people,” he recalls. “Everybody run, run, run.” G.G.T. hid in a corner and saw a woman get shot in the back. She pleaded for his help, but G.G.T. was too frightened to go back for her. “The army was coming behind me. I was so sad,” he says.

After G.G.T. escaped, he and another Tibetan fled on foot across the mountains into India, where he lived for the next three years. Later, he was offered an opportunity to move to Switzerland but declined, remembering how his grandfather often spoke of his desire to see America.

Upon his arrival in Vermont, G.G.T. spent five years working two jobs, seven days a week: at Vermont Teddy Bear Company and as a dishwasher at the Ramada Inn in South Burlington. By 1998, he’d saved enough money to buy a small house on Rose Street, and he brought his first wife and sons to Vermont. He’s since sold and bought several other properties, including the motel, which he acquired in 2000.

Unlike most Tibetans in exile, G.G.T. was able to return to Tibet to see his elderly parents. It was 2008, shortly before the Olympic Games in Beijing, when China briefly eased travel restrictions to Tibet. G.G.T. hasn’t returned since and doubts he’ll get another chance.

“I’m happy here with my life. I can’t leave that,” he says. “But when I think of Tibet, I’m very sad.”

Palden Sangmo’s experiences as a Tibetan immigrant are quite different. The 33-year-old Burlington resident has lived in the States since 1998, when her family moved here from southern India. Her father was one of the lucky 1,000 Tibetans chosen for a U.S. visa in the early 1990s. Once he became a U.S. citizen, he sent for his wife and kids. In all, it took more than five years to reunite the family.

Sangmo, who attended Burlington High School, now waits tables at Sherpa Kitchen, a Himalayan restaurant on College Street. Born in southern India, she’s never visited her parents’ homeland. In fact, before arriving in Vermont, she’d never even seen snow.

Sangmo briefly relocated to Seattle for six months, but soon realized big-city life wasn’t for her. Now engaged to be married, she says she’ll likely stay in Vermont.

“Now that my whole family is here, I don’t feel like moving anymore,” she says. “I love it here now.”

A few blocks up the street, fellow Tibetan Migmar Tsering quietly sweeps salt off the stairwell of Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium. Dressed in a wool cap, black trousers, weathered boots and a Burlington Parks and Recreation hoodie but no gloves, Tsering greets a reporter with a big smile and leads the way upstairs to the building’s warmest spot: the loft.

The 37-year-old Tibetan has lived in Vermont only since 2011 but speaks impeccable English. Last year, he was elected president of the Tibetan Association of Vermont, a post that brings no salary but plenty of responsibilities, he says. Those include finding places for Tibetan gatherings, such as prayer vigils, which are held whenever someone dies in Tibet from self-immolation. Since 2009, at least 125 Tibetans have taken their own lives this way to protest the Chinese occupation. Says Tsering, “This time in Tibetan history is a very saddening era.”

He has only vague recollections of his childhood in Tibet. The third of eight children, Tsering lived there until he was 8, when his parents smuggled him into India. What he remembers best from that arduous journey is being forced to stay hidden beneath the seat of a truck for hours.

“That was very uncomfortable. I couldn’t move. I just had to stay there,” he remembers. “I can still see the face of my father — the grief, the sadness, that he has to do that for me. That moment is one that I never forget.”

It was years before Tsering saw or heard from his relatives again. Like thousands of other Tibetan kids, he was raised in the Tibetan Children’s Village…, a boarding school in Dharamsala, India, which is also home to the Tibetan Central Administration and the 14th Dalai Lama. There, Tsering became fluent in English and first learned his native country’s history.

“I didn’t know that Tibet was a part of China,” Tsering says, then quickly corrects himself. “No, no, no! I didn’t even know Tibet was invaded by China.”

Every year, he recalls, each child at the school received a personal blessing from the Dalai Lama himself. The children lined up, prayer scarves in hand, and waited for the Dalai Lama to lay a hand on their heads.

“It felt so good, I couldn’t wait for another year to come,” Tsering remembers with a smile. “It went on and on like that for five years,” until the Dalai Lama’s visits became less frequent.

“He’d become busy,” Tsering explains with a sigh. After the Tibetan leader won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, he spent more time overseas.

“As a child I cherished those moments of getting his blessings. But now I miss that,” Tsering says. “Now, the Dalai Lama doesn’t belong to Tibetans only. He belongs to the whole world. So we have to compromise.”

After Tsering earned a bachelor’s degree in science and education, he returned to the Tibetan Children’s School to teach and “give something back.” He moved to Vermont in 2011 after his wife’s family settled here.

Tsering’s first job was as a cashier at Walgreens. The pay wasn’t good, he admits, but it enabled him to interact with people. Tsering says he quickly realized that being fluent in English didn’t bridge all the cultural gaps.

“I’m a very social person. I like making friends, talking to people, sharing stuff,” he says. “But over here, I realized, people don’t have time. It’s ‘hi’ and then ‘bye.’ That’s very strange.”

For the time being, Tsering is satisfied to work for the city and live in South Burlington with his two young children and his wife, a licensed nursing assistant at Wake Robin retirement community. But he doesn’t intend to remain a custodian forever and wants to return to teaching.

“There’s a special kind of energy, which naturally comes when you’re with kids,” Tsering says. “You become active and you start acting like a kid. I enjoy it a lot, and the kids love me.”

What’s it like raising two kids in America? “The pace is unbelievable,” Tsering says, his face suddenly brightening with laughter. His kids didn’t even speak English when they arrived. Three years later, “their English is better than their Tibetan.” But after another three, he fears they may not remember Tibetan at all.

For this reason, Tsering takes his role with the Tibetan Association of Vermont seriously. After seeing his first Tibetan festival in Burlington, he began teaching the younger generation traditional Tibetan dances. He also plays the dramyin, a seven-stringed Himalayan lute, which he wants other young Tibetans to learn to keep their culture alive in exile, as the Dalai Lama has instructed them.

“To be frank, being homeless, living a life outside of your country, and being guests to a host for the rest of your life, it’s really a pain,” Tsering says. “It’s something I wish no one would have to do in their life. Even if you are happy, you are always not yourself,” he adds. “You have a lot of compromises to make.”

The original print version of this article was headlined "From the Himalayas to the Greens"

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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