June 24, 2018

Tibetan Americans in Salt Lake City strive to maintain their culture

Lobsang Gendun leads Tibetan youths in prayer at the Tibetan Community Center in June.|Tenzin Yegha Gorgotsang teaches the beginning level Tibetan Language class one Sunday morning in June at the Tibetan Community Center.||||||||||||| Lobsang Gendun leads Tibetan youths in prayer at the Tibetan Community Center in June.|Tenzin Yegha Gorgotsang teaches the beginning level Tibetan Language class one Sunday morning in June at the Tibetan Community Center.||||||||||||| ||||||||||||||

By Charlotte Fife-Jepperson
Photos by David Ricketts

The first Tibetan couple came to Utah in the ‘80s. Their long journey led them from Tibet to India to Texas and eventually to Salt Lake City, Utah. They, in turn, helped bring more Tibetans to Utah during the 1992 Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project. Today, according to the Utah Tibetan Association, there are approximately 270 Tibetans living in Utah, all in the Salt Lake Valley.

Although they are of Tibetan (and some Bhutanese) heritage, Poplar Grove residents Lobsang Gendun and Tsering Teshar have never lived in Tibet. Their parents fled violent Chinese persecution in Tibet in the early ‘60s. Lobsang’s parents escaped to India and Tsering’s mother fled to Nepal.

After the Chinese government slaughtered 1.2 million Tibetans and destroyed thousands of monasteries, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, precipitating a mass exodus of approximately 80,000 Tibetans to India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Fewer than 2,000 Tibetans in these early years were resettled in the West – in Switzerland and Canada. To avoid provoking anger from China, the U.S. was not accepting Tibetan refugees at that time.

Finally, under Pres. George Bush Sr., 1,000 visas were approved by congress and Lobsang applied. His name was drawn, and he left India on August 28, 1992.“We were skeptical coming to the U.S., because we were told that it is the ‘land of no return,’” said Lobsang.

At age 21, Tsering did not want to leave Nepal, but her uncle insisted that she apply for a visa. When he told her that her name was drawn, she didn’t believe him until she saw it with her own eyes. With her uncle’s urging, Tsering left Nepal on Dec. 6, 1992.

At that time there were 22 cluster resettlement sites all over the U.S. Because they did not have official refugee status (and did not receive Federal funding), Tibetans relied on sponsors. They lived with host families – usually only one or two Tibetans per household.

In Utah, the Tibetans were lucky to be able to live together with other members of their community in free housing that was provided for them for two years by sponsors, such as IHC and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All the females lived in housing on 12th Ave and E Street. All the males lived nearby in the old Primary Children’s Hospital, in dormitories in the Annex. This was how Lobsang and Tsering met.

Soon, the new arrivals were connected to mentors who helped them apply for jobs. Lobsang was hired at O.C. Tanner and has worked there for almost 25 years. Tsering started working at Little America Hotel in housekeeping, and a few months later found a job with Abbott Laboratories. After she and Lobsang began dating, she transferred to a job at O.C. Tanner, and has been working there for over 23 years.

They were married on July 16, 1994 at an Episcopal Church downtown. Because they were the first Tibetan couple to marry in Utah, their wedding got a lot of attention.

The Deseret News covered the story and to their surprise, over two hundred people attended – most of whom they didn’t even know. They had a Tibetan ceremonial wedding, but for legal reasons, Judge Raymond Uno was brought in to officiate.

After three or four years, resettled Tibetans began applying to have their spouses and kids join them. After about five years they began gaining citizenship, and started bringing over extended family members. Tsering was finally able to bring her parents from Nepal to Utah in 2001.

Tsering and Lobsang agree that one of the biggest moments in their lives was when they became U.S. citizens in 1998. “When you have a U.S. passport, it has so much value, and respect from the outside,” said Lobsang.

Another point of pride in citizenship was being allowed to vote in U.S. elections. “During our 24 years here, we have seen five different presidents, and have voted in five elections,” said Tsering.

Adjusting to life in Utah was difficult at first, especially for Tsering. There were several feet of snow when she arrived and she remembers it as cold and foreign to her. Even though she had already experienced many years away from home in boarding schools in India, she felt very homesick. This time she knew she was very far away from home. Lobsang, however, did not feel homesick. He was accustomed to living away from his family; he had also attended boarding schools in India from a young age.

At first, Tsering had a hard time shopping and spending dollars, because of the comparative value. (Currently, 1 dollar = 66 Indian rupees.) “We would shop every day for only what we needed, because we didn’t want to waste anything.” Now she shops at Costco and brings home things in bulk. “I guess we have become more ‘American’ in that way,” she laughs.

They still manage to eat their traditional food, but there is one staple Tibetan food they cannot buy here  – “tsampa,” a nutritious and filling food made of barley. Tsering’s mother makes it in their garage – a process that involves roasting and then grinding the barley.

“We have retained our language, food, and religion. But, it is harder for our children,” said Lobsang.

Their first son, Tenzin Tseten, was born on June 6, 1995. He was the first Tibetan baby to be born in Utah. His parents did their best to teach him Tibetan customs and language, speaking Tibetan to him in the home and even sending him to Dharamshala, India during the summers after 7th grade and 11th grade. Dharamshala is where the Tibetan government is in exile and where the current Dalai Lama resides.

Today at the age of 23, although Tenzin is more comfortable speaking to his parents in English, he spent the better part of last year speaking to his grandmother in Tibetan. He has developed a deeper appreciation for his Tibetan heritage and hopes to go to Tibet someday. This summer he is looking forward to traveling with his family to Bhutan and India.

Their younger 16-year-old son, Monlam, who attended a boarding school in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, has lost much of his ability to speak Tibetan, since he didn’t have the opportunity to speak it on a regular basis.

The influence of American culture on each subsequent generation of Tibetans becomes stronger and stronger. This is one of the main reasons the Utah Tibetan community worked so hard to establish a community center in South Salt Lake. With the help of other community sponsors, renovation of the Utah Tibetan Community Center on 165 W. 2950 S. was completed in October of 2015.

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to Utah in 2016, he dedicated the community center and gave it a Tibetan name: Ganjhong Rigne Gahtsel, which means Land of Snow, Culture, and Growth.

“The objective of the community center is to keep our language, food, religion, and traditions alive; to teach our younger generations,” said Lobsang. The center is a multipurpose center with an auditorium, office, kitchen and prayer room. Lobsang and other volunteers show up every Sunday to teach Tibetan language and culture classes to youth at the center. They teach up to 22 youth, most of whom are 3rd generation immigrants.

Members of the Utah Tibetan community had been talking about having their own community center for 20 years. They collected seed money from each adult member of the Utah Tibetan Association, but the money sat until 2014.

Then, says Lobsang, the last group of executive committee members said, “Let’s do it!” Many different sponsors made it possible to buy a warehouse, and renovate it, after U of U Architectural students had a project competition to design the interior. The renovation cost almost $1 million. Today, each Utah Tibetan Association adult member contributes a monthly sum to help pay the mortgage on the center.

“We used to rent other places; now we have a place of our own,” said Lobsang. Each Sunday, two different families provide lunch for the kids and teachers, and the community pitches in to keep the center running.

To learn more about the Tibetan community, or to donate money for their community center, visit www.tibetanassociationofutah.org.