Jamyang Dorgee was only 8 years old when he hiked through snow-covered Himalayan mountain passes with his older brother in 1972, arriving in the harsh hills of Ladakh exhausted, dazed and overwhelmed by loneliness.
His parents had been arrested by the Chinese People's Liberation Army, ostensibly for failure to pay taxes. They have not been heard from since. Dorgee said he is "pretty sure" both are dead.
Now 19 and a student at the Tibetan Children's Village near here, Dorgee dreams of going to college in India, of becoming a physicist and of returning to Tibet someday. But he admits that his memory of home is becoming dim.
"I'd like to go back if I get a chance. Yes, I think I would if that is possible," Dorgee said somewhat unconvincingly.
For Dorgee and more than 100,000 Tibetan refugees who have fled to India, the passage of time is distancing them from their homeland, which, on a clear day, is visible from many of Ladakh's majestic mountain peaks.
It has been 26 years since thousands of Tibetan refugees followed their leader and god-king, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tensin Gyatsho, on his final flight from Tibet to exile in India in 1959 after an unsuccessful anti-Chinese uprising. Now more than ever before, the refugees are confronted with the dilemma of not knowing whether to assimilate into the society that has welcomed and sustained them, or to cling to their traditional culture and values in the hope that someday they may return to a Tibet that has undergone a vast transformation under Chinese rule.
For the most part, Tibetan refugees have attempted to do both, seemingly at the risk of psychological and cultural trauma. In their schools here and in refugee settlements in southern India, the Tibetans learn Hindi or the prevailing regional language, as well as English, and they have become addicted to popular Hindi films.
Their food habits have changed, with a growing preference for the Indian staples of lentils and rice; in Tibet rice is cooked only for ceremonial purposes. The traditional Tibetan pigtail virtually has vanished among refugee men, and clothing styles are gradually changing to Indian norms, particularly in the hotter climates of southern India.
But at the same time, noted Namgyal Dorje Teykhang, the Dalai Lama's chief representative in Ladakh, Tibetan refugees have abandoned neither their ancient Buddhist cultural values nor their collective dream of the liberation of Tibet.
"Since 1959, we have hoped for independence for Tibet. If we get it, everyone will want to go back. If we don't, nobody will want to live under Communist rule," said Teykhang.
To a large extent, refugee leaders acknowledged, that cohesive will is attributable to the organizational mastery of the Tibetan government-in-exile, located in Dharmsala in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, about 120 miles southwest of here.
The Dalai Lama, as spiritual and temporal leader of all Tibetans, heads a sprawling government bureaucracy there that, with considerable assistance from the Indian government, manages the welfare of the approximately 110,000 refugees scattered in more than 40 agricultural and agroindustrial settlements throughout India. About 8,000 refugees have not yet been resettled. Although the Dalai Lama's spokesmen assiduously sidestep the subject -- out of reluctance to jeopardize the Indian government's relations with China -- refugees still are trickling across the Chinese border and seeking sanctuary in India.
The Dharmsala exile government, Teykhang said, recruits virtually all refugee college graduates to oversee an extensive welfare system that -- with some exceptions -- provides Tibetan refugees with material comforts superior to those in most refugee camps elsewhere in the world.
The 510 boarding students in the Children's Village near here, for example, live in attractive, solar-heated bungalows, and another 1,200 day students will soon move into a sprawling new school. While still poor even by Indian standards, the industrious Tibetans have built a thriving handicrafts industry that markets goods throughout India and for export. Even in the alien climate of Karnataka and Orissa, in southern India, Tibetan farmers have done well with land provided by the Indian government.
"Tibetans have been fortunate to settle in India. The Indians have been very generous, and with their support we have been able to establish our base in exile," said Tashi Wangdi, the Dalai Lama's chief representative in New Delhi.
"Right now, we don't feel any pressure to go back to Tibet, because of the good relationship with the local people. We are living good, not so much because of financial assistance, but because of the general atmosphere," he said. "People can do business. There is no political hostility. We feel right at home."
When asked whether the refugees' relative comfort could lead to further assimilation and a diluting of the will to return to their homeland, Wangdi replied, "I don't think so. Maybe after a few generations, but not in the foreseeable future. I have relatives still in Tibet. I cannot forget my brother."
The most politically active refugees are those in their early twenties, most of whom were born in India, Wangdi said, and the Tibetan Youth Congress has adopted the most uncompromising stand on the issue of Tibetans returning under Communist rule.
The consensus among Tibetan refugees in India -- and according to refugee leaders here, among Tibetans in Tibet, also -- appears to be against a visit by the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The visit was originally scheduled for August but was postponed because of a dispute over conditions of travel.
Three delegations of the Dalai Lama's representatives have visited Tibet since 1979, and another is scheduled to go next month. On April 8 Chinese officials repeated a longstanding offer for the Tibetan leader to return either for a visit or permanently.
However, Wangdi said the refugees had set three conditions for a visit: the Dalai Lama must have freedom to express his political views openly; he must be allowed to visit anywhere in Tibet he chooses, and the Chinese authorities must not take reprisals against Tibetans who demonstrate their support for him.
"People inside and outside Tibet are totally against the visit. For one thing, they are afraid that it could have legal implications for legitimizing Chinese rule in Tibet," Wangdi said. A subject that is in dispute among Tibetans in India is the recent agreement by Nepal and China to open the land border to tourists entering Tibet. The first visitors are expected to go to Tibet through Nepal next month. Wangdi said that it will provide an opportunity to expose conditions in Tibet to westerners.
"If people inside Tibet are genuinely satisfied to live under the Chinese, then we don't have any cause to continue our struggle. But the westerners will be able to see for themselves what is really going on there," Wangdi said.
However, Teykhang argued that the Chinese are likely to open up only "showcase" areas such as the capital, Lhasa, and Xigaze, also in eastern Tibet, and that westerners will leave with an artificial impression of life under Chinese rule.
"It may jeopardize our cause. The so-called liberalized policy in Tibet is a whitewash. There is the same persecution of Tibetans as before, and if tourists are allowed to travel throughout Tibet, they will see it," said Teykhang.