The Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama after he fled to India in 1959 chose to live in makeshift houses, in the hope that the arrangement was temporary and they would go back home soon.
Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have since followed the Dalai Lama in exile. While the majority still lives in India, Nepal and Bhutan, many have moved to a third country and quite a few have made the journey home. The returnees, as they are called, are a less-talked-about dimension of the Sino-Tibetan conundrum.
As Tibetans across the world mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising, the stories of those who returned – collected over years of travel to China – offer an insight into the journey that is home.
For many who left Tibet at a young age to study in Tibetan schools in India and also get the blessings of the Dalai Lama, the return journey is to the longed-for homeland and also to take care of ageing parents who were left behind.
At least these were the reasons that brought Akam, who I befriended in Chengdu, back to Tibet. It is not difficult to spot a returnee in a crowd of local Tibetans, or insiders as they are called. Like most, Akam, too, is fluent in English and Hindi and doesn’t have the demeanour of a local.
Akam is the youngest of six siblings and all of them but one left for India when they were young. Akam was 16 and returned home after some seven years. All the siblings, but one, are back, he says.
Most returnees have set up small businesses-–restaurants, hotels and travel agencies. One of the people I met was taking online classes in English. Like India, people in China, too, are keen to learn the language and returnees have an edge.
Another person dabbles in web development, coming from India that seemed the logical thing to do. They are enterprising but face several challenges. The biggest of all-- adapting to a new environment, for the second time in their life.
Some lack Chinese language skills, which add to the problem. Certificates from exile schools are nothing but pieces of paper, which are of little help in continuing education.
When I brought this up, Akam’s answer was a Tibetan proverb: if one wants to learn swimming, there is no need to read a book about it; one can just be thrown or jump into the water and learning would happen naturally.
Akam has partnered with three friends to set up a restaurant and is doing well for himself. He doesn’t regret leaving India, where, according to him, opportunities for Tibetans are limited.
The reverse is also true. Many young people head to India in hope of a better life, but are bitterly disappointed like a 20- something man -- we will call him Gyantse – I met in Dharamsala in 2015.
Gyantse was a receptionist at a hotel and also an assistant to a travel agent. Money was poor but there was little he could do. He had dropped out of the Tibetan Transit School (TTS) in Dharamsala, set up to help the young make the transition and pick up livelihood skills. Returning home to parents was not an option; he faced uncertainty on both social and economic fronts.
Two more young men, both waiters in Dharamsala restaurants, found themselves in a similar situation, helpless and dejected.
Akam, too, went to TTS, now called Sherab Gatsel Lobling School, where he was taught Tibetan, English, computer and vocational skills such as tailoring and painting. After finishing school and after trying his hand at dishwashing and some computer skills, Akam decided to go back to Tibet.
If he hadn’t, he would have ended up as another language teacher or something like that, he says. Though money is limited, he and around 30 “returnee” friends have pooled in funds to help educate children in his native area.
He complains that the local Tibetans, often referred to as insiders, tend to boast and seek acclaim for the smallest act of charity, which is unacceptable.
Perhaps this is where the complexity of being both an insider and an outsider play out. People like Akam, who were born in Tibet and grew up there, have a stronger sense of belonging unlike those born in exile.
Yet, Akam and likes of him can’t identify with those who never went to India. It is understandable why they -- or at least the ones I met – are a tightly knit group who look out for each other. They are partners in business and each others’ support system as well.
These days, fewer people are leaving Tibet. There, however, still be a sizeable number of potential escapees and potential returnees, the ones who will continue to traverse this universe of uncertainty and precarity.
And, then there are people from nomadic and pastoral families who cannot afford to return and will continue to live away from parents and siblings for the greater part of their lives. There are still others who are India-born, have never been to Tibet but dream of going there one day. Many of them have chosen to live as stateless citizens, so can’t take up government jobs for lack of documentation. They are waiting in hope -- of acquiring scholarships to universities in the West or migrate. But, there is no telling how long the wait will be.
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