Young Tibetans Nurture the Notion of Returning Home

Samdup Nyima, who lives in Dharmsala, India, has not been able to reach his sister in Tibet recently.
Samdup Nyima, who lives in Dharmsala, India, has not been able to reach his sister in Tibet recently. (By Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Post)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

DHARMSALA, India -- Twenty-three-year-old Samdup Nyima works in a Tibetan bakery in this busy Himalayan settlement in northern India, which is host to thousands of exiled Tibetans, including their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Nyima was only 7 when he made the perilous journey here with his uncle, crossing the border to Nepal and then to India. He left behind his mother and sister in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. His uncle returned to Tibet after putting him in the care of a school run by the government-in-exile, headed by the Dalai Lama.

"I don't remember much about the journey, I was too little," Nyima said. "But I do remember walking for a long time on a bridge over a very large river. After my father died, my mother sent me to India. She said, 'I want you to study in a free country and have the blessing of the Dalai Lama.' It has been 16 years, and I have not seen my family since."

Nyima, known as Sam to his friends, grew up like many other Tibetans in a boarding school here called the Tibetan Children's Village. In addition to the regular subjects of math, science and English, the school anchored Nyima with classes in Tibetan history, language and religion.

"I know everything about Tibet -- its mountains, its provinces, its folklore and history. I have thorough knowledge from the books, but I have no memory of Tibet," Nyima said as he skimmed news bulletins about the Tibetan uprisings that had been pasted on the walls of the main square. "I do not remember my house, my friends or what I used to play. My mother calls me every now and then and tells me that one of my childhood friends got married. She tells me the name, but I don't have any image to go with that."

With such tenuous links to his past, Nyima is like thousands of young Tibetans in India who painstakingly nurture the idea of returning to an idyllic land whose pristine images, in posters and calendars, adorn the walls of their homes. He said he will return one day, even as he dreams of opening his own restaurant in southern India.

"I will go back when Tibet is free. And I believe that is around the corner," he said. "Even if I set up a successful restaurant in India, I am still a Tibetan in exile. This is not home, even though I do not remember my home."

Nyima shares his room with three others from his bakery. On one of the walls are posters of Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez and Blink-182, along with photographs of the Dalai Lama. He prays and turns the prayer wheels at the Buddhist temple every morning, takes part in demonstrations for Tibetan independence and occasionally volunteers at the Tibetan Youth Congress.

But since the latest uprising this month, he is a nervous wreck. Telephone calls to his 28-year-old sister, who teaches in Tibet, are not getting through.

"I heard that a lot of young people are being picked up by the police everywhere, and I worry that she may be in trouble," he said.

When he called his mother in February for the Tibetan New Year, she said she was getting old. "She said she wants to see me. If I don't go soon, I may never see her again. I have some duties as a son."

But applying for a visa from the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi might not be easy. After he came to India in 1992, his mother was fearful of disclosing the fact that her son had escaped. She has told the Chinese authorities that her daughter is her only child.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company