“It's a privilege for people to not have to think about having a space like this, right? But for us, if this place doesn't exist, then we don't exist.” Khenrab Palden, the President of Tibet Community Center, looked around the community Center with gratitude and expressed how much this place means to him. To prepare a topic that interests me, l requested an interview to learn more about Tibet Religion, and that is how l met Khenrab.
As a Chinese, l was hidden from the truth because the government restricted citizens’ access to information and only allowed people to see the utopian, idealist society they have manufactured. Growing up in China most of my life, l went through public and private Chinese education systems. I have learned in Geography class that Tibet is an inalienable part of China, but no more than that. Teachers at school never mentioned how the Chinese military invaded Tibet and illegally occupied the area. After 15 years of Chinese education, I still did not know how China took control of Tibet and led to ethnic conflicts.
Khenrab was not the first Tibetan l have met. I also bumped into someone who abhors the Chinese government in Jackson Heights, Queens. When I talked to the person in the Jackson Heights neighborhood, the person spoke about the gun violence from the Chinese military and how much Tibetans suffered. He also talked about the starvation and devastation of Tibetans caused by the policies of former Chairman Mao Zedong of the People's Republic of China. He made it clear that he has strong opinions towards Chinese people. Facing the harsh reality with his description, I had an abrupt awakening from the ideal of China. l genuinely wanted to know more about what happened between China and Tibet throughout history.
Different from the rest of the dialogue based on Chinese characters used in other cities, Tibet has their own characters called umê script. The Chinese government believed that language unification helps them to control the area, so it forced minority groups, like Tibetans, to study Chinese instead of their language. Tibetans had no choice under repression by the Chinese government, so they decided to leave the country. ,When fleeing exile, many Tibetans came to the Northeast United States and specifically Queens to seek hospitality and preserve their culture.
As of now, the community center is a place of refuge; not only for Tibetan immigrants but also for neighboring members of Asian countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Mongolia. They are committed to have a space for them to maintain their Tibetan Identity by bringing in people from different religions into their community and working closely with the youth population. The Tibetan community center tries not to bring politics from home into the center by letting it act as a driving force to build refuge rather than a political issue to combat.
During the interview, Khenrab Palden took me and the other student on a tour of the facility and readily shared the principles and purposes that drove him to start the organization. The belief at the community center is that Tibetans are not seeking independence from China, rather that they want to preserve their language and religion by opening places for people to worship and gather as a community. According to Khenrab, “The community has trauma, baggage in politics and identity.” What was most stark about the entire interaction was that he had never even been to Tibet, yet he held such a deep connection and desire to preserve his culture for himself and his community.
Through speaking with the president of the Tibetan Community of New York & New Jersey, I filled in the gaps about Chinese presence in Tibet and the immigration of Tibetan people to Queens, New York City. Tibetans are facing many difficulties, but l was so sorry to hear that they are going to lose the right to use their traditional language. “I don’t want to say this, but at this point, Tibetan is an endangered language.”
I hesitated to tell Khenrab that l was from China when he asked about my background, because l was concerned about offending him with my nationality. However, l was wrong about Khenrab Palden. Due to Khenrab’s faith in being hospitable towards others and having many Chinese people as friends, Khenrab was tolerant to me. While he talked about the importance for him to cling on to the language that defines the identity, l gained a deeper understanding of Tibet and had a picture of what the Chinese government had been hiding from the public. The moment when Khenrab shook hands with me before we left, his eyes flowing with kindness and acceptance. I admire his efforts to preserve the culture, so that the best generation can have a foothold in the society.
The Tibetan with hatred on the street and Khenrab from the community center with love have opened my eyes to a different world by putting me in their shoes. My Mom always warned me to be mindful about what I wrote on Wechat because it is under the control of the government. Therefore, l could not talk about sensitive topics such as the relationship between China and Tibet with my parents who live in China. Words cannot express how grateful I am to have the opportunity to talk to Tibetans and explore history. The current environment gives people freedom to speak, and reveal the truth. This surreal experience impressed me because I learned what was never provided in the Chinese Education system. The meaningful encounter with Khenrab filled a large gap in my knowledge of the Chinese government’s invasion of Tibet and retold the misconceptions l was originally told about Tibet.
Milly Chen, an international student from China, is a peer reader at school Writing Hub. Her pieces have been published in Young Scholars Journal and Teen Inks. Since 8th grade, she started her creative writing journey and attended various writing contests. To treasure delightful memories and appreciate meaningful things in life, she loves writing diaries. Even though it was difficult to not go back home for two years, she used writing to relieve stress. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, dancing, reading and watching movies. She is excited to share her unique story and read people’s wonderful work.