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The painful dilemna of Tibetans without passports


I arrive at Dharmasala in India because I have a mission.

It is not an impossible mission. It only requires me to deliver someone in Dharmasala a dictionary which I have been carrying in my bag pack for three months.

My delivery item is an electronic dictionary from Chinese to English, and it takes me several buses and trains to bring it to Dharmasala from Lhasa, Tibet, where I was first handed the dictionary.

The dictionary is my Tibetan friend Tashi’s gift to his brother Lopsang, but I am to give it to Lama Ngawang, in Dharmasala, who in turn will deliver it to Lopsang who lives outside Dharmasala.

If it is so dear a gift, why would Tashi not give it to his brother personally?

It is simply because he does not have a passport – like many other Tibetans who have been living in Tibet under Chinese occupation since 1959. He cannot travel from Tibet to India or anywhere else in the world like you and me through normal means such as a bus, plane or train. He has to first ‘sneak’ into Nepal and then India, after going for days over and above some of the highest and most dangerous mountain ranges in the world that separate these countries from Tibet – the Himalayas themselves.

Could my friend Tashi not have mailed the dictionary in a package to India from Tibet? He could have tried that, but it is really not a good idea. The mail and the packages are usually screened by the Chinese authorities in Lhasa, and this might give Tashi unnecessary headaches if the Chinese officials realize he has a connection with another Tibetan living in another country – in this case India where several Tibetans have escaped to live in exile with the Dalai Lama himself after the Chinese government occupied Tibet in 1959.

As I walk to my appointment with Lama Ngawang at Lang Tu – the only Japanese restaurant in McLeod Ganj area of Dharmasala – I think about Tashi and his one room shelter in Lhasa which contains only a bed, some kitchen appliances and a Singer sewing machine.

Tashi is excited to have me as a guest with a passport. With the usual warm and open Tibetan hospitality, he puts some yak butter, salt, water and black tea into an electronic mixer to make yak butter tea called bö cha.

Through the door, I look outside into the snow covered courtyard that Tashi shares with several other Tibetan families living in similarly cramped spaces. Everyone has to go through the same courtyard to reach their rooms after entering through a main door attached to the communal toilet – a hole in the ground.

‘I only pay 60 Yuans,’ Tashi says happily, indicating that this sum of about 8 US dollars is not very bad. He is still left with a couple of dollars for food when this amount is extracted out of the meager earnings he makes each month as a tailor.

‘The material I use is the best – cotton from India,’ Tashi proudly exhibits the maroon colored material usually used to make robes for monks and nuns in Tibet.

As I sip my yak butter tea, I feel that I need to sympathize with Tashi’s unfair situation of not having a passport. I tell him about the times when I, as a Turkish Cypriot from the island of Cyprus, had to travel with a passport that belongs to another country, Turkey. Almost every other country in the world requires a visa from Turkish passport holders just like those from India, Nepal, and many other countries. Filling out a visa application form with a small fee is not enough for these nationalities to obtain a tourist visa but also several other financial documents are required of them to prove that they are not going to migrate to the country of destination.

‘I was almost kicked out of a train in Slovakia because I did not have a transit visa,’ I tell Tashi, who very curiously listens to me with a smile on his face and refills my glass with yak butter tea every time I take a sip.

‘I did not even know that my train from Poland to Hungary via the Czech Republic was also going through Slovakia. I had everything required: a tourist visa for Hungary, a transit visa for Czech Republic and an outbound flight ticket to Istanbul from Hungary,’ I continue, hoping that Tashi feels I am trying to ‘wear his shoes’ by sharing one of my horror stories about my own passport.

‘Having the “wrong” passport is really a nightmare when traveling,’ I hear myself saying, suddenly realizing that the story I share with Tashi does not really hit the bull’s eye. I, at least, had a passport to travel with, even if it were a ‘difficult’ one. Tashi is not even given a privilege to carry one.

Still under Tashi’s ‘curious’ ears, I try to ‘rise to the surface’ of my irrelevant story by throwing another one at him, which probably is a more relevant one to his situation.

‘In Havana, Cuba, in 1999 while sitting at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown with my Chinese Cuban friend Alex,’ I start my new story, ‘I was happily smoking one of the several thick Cuban cigars he presented me when I told him how I loved traveling in Cuba.’

‘ “I want to be able to travel abroad too,” 20-year-old Alex sadly told me,’ I continue my story with Tashi.

‘But his government does not easily give passports to its own citizens either,’ I conclude, explaining Tashi how sad I felt to find out that not everyone in the world is free to have a passport and leave their country to travel abroad.

At the same time that I met Tashi in Lhasa, I also got the opportunity to volunteer as an English teacher at a private language school while helping a Tibetan friend called Dolma prepare for an English test called TOEFL. Dolma wants to take the test to meet the requirements of a univeristy in America he has been accepted into. Like Tashi, the slight problem for Dolma is that he does not have a passport either. He needs a passport to be able to go to the university in America if he scores well on TOEFL. He applied for a passport about two years ago, but his wait continues.

Dolma speaks impeccable English having lived in Darjeeling, India during his childhood with his family. Unlike 85% of the 6 million Tibetans who are illiterate, he has a high-school diploma. It is, however, from India and he cannot present it to the Chinese government in Lhasa to get a good job. He wants to avoid the burden of being questioned by the Chinese authorities like many other Týbetans for having lived outside the borders of China and the occuppied land of Tibet. Dolma instead works for a foreign NGO in Lhasa to make the ends meet. However, he is not able to escape the Chinese imposed burden of investigation into possible pro-free Tibet activism within Tibet. Dolma says he is from time to time visited by the Chinese authorities in his office and always asked the same questions: why were you in India and what were you doing there?

In a Chinese dance club in Lhasa, where a physical fight breaks between the Chinese and the Tibetan youth every Friday, I watch Dolma dance to the rhythm of foreign music. An excellent hip hop dancer with snow-white teeth and a perfectly chiseled mongoloid face typical of several Tibetan men, Dolma uses every chance to tell me how much he loves Tibet.

‘If I can, I would blow it off with dynamites,’ Dolma jokes when he stops to take a break from dancing and we start discussing about the new Chinese fast food restaurant in a concrete box-like building stabbed right into Barkhor, one of the only Tibetan areas in Lhasa, prominently marked by one of the holiest shrines in Tibet called the Jokhang temple. Still standing intact against the Chinese architecture, the 1,300-year-old Tibetan temple is circumambulated clockwise for at least twenty minutes by the never ending stream of pilgrims from all over Tibet, who repeatedly recite a mantra: ‘May I purify body, speech and mind in order to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.’
‘But I won’t play with dynamites,’ giggles Dolma, looking very healthy in the choking smoke of the night club.  He, however, still suffers from the effects of tuberculosis he contracted during one of his field trips with the NGO into one of the Tibetan villages where tuberculosis is silently prevalent. The Chinese government, according to an NGO official in Lhasa,  recently claimed that there is no need for NGOs to help the locals with the disease as China with its occupied Tibet is not a ‘developing’ country anymore.

‘Our means is not through violence,’ says Dolma to explain why his idea of placing dynamites under a Chinese construction is only a joke. 
‘I must further my education elsewhere to come back to Tibet to continue helping my people,’ he says, holding up the four fingers of his right hand in the shape of a rectangular passport and reminding me that he won’t be able to do it without a passport.

Though I wish I had the power to help Dolma get a passport, all I can do as a foreigner is keep my promise to tell the ‘world’ about Tibetans in his position and send Dolma a new verison of the TOEFL book when I am back in my own country. This is the least I can do for Dolma.
And for Tashi, the least I can do is complete my mission of delivering his dictionary to Lama Ngawang in Dharmasala, India. When I hand the dictionary to the Lama, I feel a sigh of relief mixed with happiness, quietly seeping out of my heart.

‘I have been in India as an exile for 15 years after I escaped from Tibet with my parents when I was 5-years-old,’ sadly says Lama Ngawang, avoiding eye contact with me and instead looking at the calculator he tightly holds in his palms. 

‘Then, you now have a passport from India?’ I ask him rather naively. I find out from Lama that Tibetans in exile in India have residence permits but not citizenships. If they want to travel abroad, they use their IC from India, which stands for ‘Identity Certificate’. ‘At least we have that,’ Lama comforts himself and me.

Lama Ngawang, a big and gentle man who belongs to Ganden Monastery in South India, now lives in Dharmasala and works as a Tibetan-English translator. He translates the autobiographies of Tibetan ex-political prisoners of the post-Chinese occupation era of Tibet. Like every other Tibetan, he would like to be around the Dalai Lama, in Dharamasala. The total number of Tibetan exiles living outside Tibet is 111,200, and in India alone there are 85,000.

I share my observations and experiences in Tibet with the Lama. He carefully listens to me, but like so many other Tibetans, he shows no apparent resentment toward the Chinese government and the changes it has brought to the land of Tibet. He shakes his head about my accounts of big Chinese signs on each store or establishment in Lhasa overshadowing tiny signs written in Tibetan. He opens his eyes wide when I tell him that there is not much Tibetan architecture left in Lhasa, especially around the Potala Palace – the centre of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lama till 1959 but now only a museum. The Lama frowns after I tell him how the Chinese government is trying to turn Tibet with its several historical monasteries and rich culture and art into a spiritual ‘Walt Disney World’ to attract tourists and boost its own economy already in full flourish. He shakes his head to indicate that he is aware that Tibetans, who are slowly becoming a minority in their own land because of the massive influx of the Han Chinese from other provinces, are forbidden to hang their beloved Dalai Lama’s pictures in their homes, stores or monasteries. And he lowers his head to hide his eyes when I tell him about wild dogs with rabies roaming the Tibetan towns and villages which have been grossly neglected by the Chinese government which claims to have liberated Tibet from feudalism in 1959.

The Lama, under my troubling accounts, stands as strong as the Dalai Lama himself and many other Tibetans both in Tibet and in other parts of the world, still holding to their religion, culture, art, and language. At that moment, I cannot help but compare the Lama and the Tibetans to their basic staple called tsampa. The roasted barley flour usually mixed with dry yak cheese is very strong and rich, and even if it is eaten in small amounts, it can keep one full the whole day. The Tibetans living at high altitudes under extremely cold and harsh weather conditions mainly live on this hearty calcium-rich mix through each season and eat it any time of the day. Because of tsampa, Tibetans mostly possess strong bones and healthy looking bright teeth. It is even used for massaging the back, helping keep the body warm and relieving one of muscular pain.

Even though the pain inflected by the Chinese government on Tibetans won’t subside as easily as the back pain, the strength Tibetans exhibit might be overwhelming, especially to some of us with the unlimited ‘freedom’ of a passport which can easily open the ‘door’ to any country in the world.

However, nothing is permanent in life, I remember a Buddhist monk telling me as we observe a corpse being carried to a sky burial site behind a monastery in Tibet.

‘Many, however, question the temporariness of the Chinese occupation in a world where it is feared to stand against a mighty economic power,’ the same monk adds, with a peaceful smile on his face.

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