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Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, India, settle in with disillusionment

September 24, 2010

Some who fled Chinese rule for tales of paradise
find life isn't what they expected. Others say the tradeoffs are worth it.
By Mark Magnier,
The Los Angeles Times
September 22, 2010

Reporting from Dharamsala, India

Dharamsala, the Indian hill town of monks,
chocolate pancakes and backpacker kitsch, has
long been a mecca for Tibetans fleeing Chinese
communist rule. Thousands have made the tortuous
journey over the Himalayas from Lhasa, drawn by
the promise of a new life, freedom of expression
and the presence of their spiritual leader, the
Dalai Lama, who arrived in 1959 after he fled Tibet.

But it's also become a town of tarnished
illusions, homesickness, intrigue and a more
nuanced view of China than one might expect from
the anti-China posters, anti-Beijing testimonials
and shops claiming to shun all Chinese products.

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"When I was in China, friends told me Dharamsala
was a paradise, you didn't even need money," said
Golma, 39, who uses one name. She arrived here
several years ago with her husband and young daughter.

"But life isn't easy, and this place is quite
dirty," she said, pointing to an open sewer
strewn with plastic bags, animal waste and
rotting vegetables. "I couldn't believe the Dalai
Lama would live in such a messy place."

In their headlong rush for greener pastures, some
Tibetans here say, they underestimated the
hardship of starting anew, and even the benefits of living under Chinese rule.

Tibet has lived in the shadow of -- or been
outright controlled by -- its powerful neighbor
for centuries. Chinese troops invaded in 1950,
and some exile groups continue to call for Tibetan independence.

In 2003, Tsering Dolma, like many, sneaked over
the mountains from the Tibet Autonomous Region
with the help of a paid guide after friends in
Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, told her Dharamsala
was heaven on Earth, every tree weighed down by
juicy peaches, her favorite fruit.

"After I got here, I kept thinking, 'There must
be another India I'm missing,' " the waitress
said. "Now I want to go back, but can't. I'm stuck."

An estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Tibetans arrive
annually, and their numbers in India totaled
110,000 at the last census, in 2001. Tibetans in
the country can't vote or get a passport but are free to work and own property.

The most common problems faced by the newly
arrived exiles, said Nawang Thogmed, a Tibetan
government-in-exile official, include language
barriers, their dislike of Indian food, and the
warm weather, which makes their traditional
woolen garments and yak-hide apparel uncomfortable.

Many initially live at the Tibetan Reception
Center on Dharamsala's Jogibara Road, a
three-story building with chipped concrete
floors, clotheslines strung like spider webs and
stained yellow shelves littered with expired
medicines. "Reach High, Sky Is Not the Limit"
reads a poster with a picture of a red Ferrari.

Though several exiles said they welcomed India's
freedom of speech, some worried that Chinese
spies in Dharamsala might report back if they
spoke out, potentially endangering relatives in Tibet.

The Hindustan Times reported this month that
security around the Dalai Lama had been boosted
amid suspicion that Chinese spies disguised as
monks were operating in Dharamsala.

Sonam Dawa, 25, a cook who has crossed the border
three times, has all the proof of espionage he
needs. Almost immediately after he applied for an
identity card for exiles a few years ago, his
parents in Tibet — who weren't even aware he'd
left — were visited by Chinese police, who
accused their son of being a traitor. "It's clear
to me they have spies here," he said.

Though Tibetans worry that China is trying to
weaken Tibetan culture -- a claim Beijing denies
— some believe their culture is also under subtle attack in Dharamsala.

"Here we watch Indian television in Hindi or
English, diluting our Tibetan," said Lobsang
Rabsel, 38, a restaurant manager and former monk
who said he fled Tibet after being beaten by
Chinese police. "Preserving our culture here
isn't easy, either. Not that everything about our
culture is good, but as a minority we should fight to keep it."

Nor is Dharamsala immune to cultural prejudices.
Dawa, the cook, sang Tibetan opera in Lhasa, but
now he finds himself excluded from local singing
groups. "I know I have a good voice and dance
well," he said. "But here they say my style is
too Chinese, too much like Peking opera. China
has some good things, but sometimes people here think everything's bad."

For restaurant manager Rabsel, the ability to
speak his mind far outweighs any resettlement
problems. As a young monk, he saw fellow clerics
beaten and tortured. He was subject to
re-education sessions by Chinese security
officials, who insisted that he denounce the
Dalai Lama as a "cannibal" and a "wolf in monk's clothing."

"I couldn't imagine staying," he said. "If you
only care about money, you can have a good life in China."

Others, however, said most people who remain in
Tibet just want to feed their families.

"China has jobs; you can start a business without
a lot of bureaucracy. You don't get Delhi belly
[dysentery] all the time," said Golma, who makes
$60 a month as a Dharamsala shopkeeper, compared
with $300 to $400 a month in Lhasa.

If you make a political ruckus in China you're
likely to get in trouble, added Golma, who was
dressed in a traditional Tibetan chupa robe,
knockoff Crocs and worn green socks. "But there's
also freedom in enjoying your life."

Several exiles paraphrased the Dalai Lama, noting
that it's important to distinguish between the
Chinese people and their government's policies.
"Both societies have good and bad," Rabsel said.

Though China is better organized and has lifted
far more people out of poverty, he said, the
communist government is often extremely
repressive toward the Tibetan minority. India may
be bureaucratic and slow-moving, other exiles
said, but its people are more tolerant.

"Superficially, everything's better in China,"
said Dawa. "But mentally, there's also lots of
pressure there. You have to think before you talk."

He paused for a minute. "But I really miss my
family. I'd like to go back if I ever get the chance."

* Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.
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