Canada’s Little Tibet Holds On To Its Identity

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By V. Radhika, Womens Feature Service

It is a cold winter morning and Lakhpa Tsering is a few minutes late for work. Greeting waiting visitors with folded hands and a disarming smile, he offers them an apology and Indian style ‘chai’ (tea). The steaming ‘chai’ dissipates any residual displeasure people may feel from having had to wait outside the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario’s (CTAO) office in Toronto. CTAO, a community-based non-profit organisation, helps Tibetan immigrants adjust to the culture, heritage and lifestyle of Canada but it also promotes and nurtures Tibetan culture and arts within the community.

The bright Tibetan flags fluttering atop the CTAO building represent a community that may be small in number but which has nonetheless displayed a tenacity of spirit – unrelenting in its quest for a free Tibet. It steadfastly holds on to its culture and traditions. So much so that monastic robes and long skirts with a striped ‘pandgey’ (an apron indicating a woman’s marital status) are a common sight even in Parkdale, a modest neighbourhood in Toronto, Canada, which is home to an estimated 5,000 Tibetans – perhaps, the largest cluster of Tibetans outside Asia. Flags, adorned with snow lions beneath red and blue rays, are seen hanging from the balconies of many an apartment here and the picture of the Dalai Lama is prominently displayed in most homes.

The majority of Tibetans now settled in Toronto are here to provide a better future for their children. But that does not mean they do not long for their homeland or are willing to give up on their ways of life. Lakhpa Tsering, who came to meet his namesake at CTAO, shares, “Our geographical home is Canada, our spiritual home is India (where the Dalai Lama lives) and our heart is in Tibet.” Tsering was raised in Karnataka – on the outskirts of Bangalore – and is fluent in Hindi and Kannada.

CTAO helps Tibetans here to keep the links to their homeland alive. Take the case of Lakhpa’s mother Jangchup Sangmo, 67. Although Sangmo has settled in her new life in Canada with her son, her heart and mind are still in India, where she had settled after fleeing Tibet. It is her search for anchorage to her community that brought her to CTAO, where she volunteers to cook, clean and participate in various community activities.

This small Toronto community has managed to hold on to its distinct identity, largely because of such spirited grandmothers and mothers, who impart traditional values to children at home. Many women religiously chauffeur their children on weekends to CTAO for classes in language and traditional art and music – and this despite many youngsters vociferously resisting such shepherding!

The main challenge that Tibetan parents face is to get their children to take pride in their culture. Most children want to adopt western ways, whether it is in terms of clothing and music or language and food.

Elaborates Sangmo, “Tibetans place a lot of emphasis on family and social values, such as respect for elders. This clashes with local norms that focus on individualism. Children who are growing up here want to imbibe western ways but their parents want them to retain their old values.”

For Lhamo Dolma, 35, the attempt to integrate traditional Tibetan values with the Canadian way of life is “her greatest challenge.” She has two teenaged sons and she hopes that CTAO, where the boys go for special language classes, will help them understand their roots better. Lhamo believes that at CTAO her sons “get to meet other Tibetan youngsters, who are probably facing similar dilemmas – like integrating in a new society and getting to know what’s in with Canadian kids”. But most importantly, she says, it provides them with a place to socialise without feeling out of place.

Mother of two, Kunchok Dolma, 28, who joined her husband in Toronto from India a few years ago, has only just settled into her new life. Earlier, all she wanted was to “go back home (to India)” to “live within the Tibetan community” and speak “my language.” Now she admits that the move has proved beneficial for her children, but is quick to add that she ensures they know where they come from. “It is important they know their language and culture because these are the only windows to their homeland,” she says.

Tsering Wangyal, Vice President, CTAO, has another approach with children. He likes to motivate them to feel pride in their roots. “I hope my children cultivate the same sense of responsibility towards preserving our culture as us. They attend regular classes at the CTAO but that is not enough. I keep telling them that once they are older they should have something to identify them as Tibetans and if they do not speak their language and know their culture, they will have lost their roots,” he says.

While most parents are doing their best to ensure that Tibetan customs and lifestyle don’t become alien to their children, what do the kids themselves feel about this approach?

Five years ago, when her family moved to Toronto from India, Tsedon Jamatsang, 17, felt that “being part of Tibetan culture was a waste; and that it was all about speaking English.” But over time she changed. “When I came here, I saw that in such a multicultural country it was necessary for us to speak Tibetan and experience our culture,” says this young woman, who is an active member of the Tibetan Club at the Parkdale Collegiate, which holds an annual pageant in late winter for Losar, the Tibetan New Year.

High school students, Jamyana Palmo, 13, and her cousin, Sonam Lama, 15, reveal that initially most youngsters participate in CTAO activities – that include language classes and lessons in the performing arts such as Dramnyen (Tibetan Guitar), Yangjin (Tibetan dulcimer) and dance – only at the absolute insistence of their parents. But once they get involved, they find things really enjoyable and enriching. “The best part about being in Canada is that you can lead a hyphenated existence – be a Tibetan-Canadian so that you can assimilate the best of both cultures,” says Palmo.

But while the children may be very comfortable with their hyphenated existence, the older generations tries to recreate their past life in the best way they can. Those who have come from India stick to eating ‘dal’ and ‘chawal’ (lentil and rice) for their meals. “Dal-chawal and ‘roti’ (Indian bread) are part of our staple food and many of us cannot resist butter chicken,” chuckles Lakhpa.

Others, like Kunchok, closely follow all the twists and turns of Indian daily soaps. “We have a special digital box to enable us to watch Hindi TV serials,” she says, while shopping for Indian spices and vegetables from the only Indian grocery store in her neighbourhood.

But it is Sangmo who has the last word. Says she, “People are more focused on food and shelter than in preserving their culture. That’s what makes things very sensitive. If I give children a cookie, they’ll eat and forget all about it. If I give them culture, it stays with them forever.”

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.