The persecuted Himalayan culture was the focus of Tibet  Week, but it was a panel of local Tibetans speaking on the theme of the      "Tibetan Immigration Experience" that gave students a chance to personally meet and speak with people whose lives were altered completely    in the wake of the military invasion of Tibet by China in 1949. Sherab C. Phunkyi, former president of the Wisconsin Tibetan Association and Madison resident, headed the discussion with contributions from student Sonam Tsering. The event took place on April 25 on the birthday of the Panchen Lama, the young Tibetan religious leader who was kidnapped by Chinese authorities in 1995 and has not been seen or heard from since.
      Phunkyi was six years old in 1953 when he fled Tibet with his father, a physician. The two were en route to a patient when news of an approaching "liberation" army reached them. "I remember escaping with my father across the Himalayas," said Phunkyi, who left behind his      mother and two brothers. Phunkyi and his father spent two months in Nepal hoping to return, until deciding to resettle in India instead. There      Phunkyi devoted himself to his studies and was eventually accepted to the University of Delhi.
      In 1990, Phunkyi had a wife and three children whom he supported as an executive secretary, interpreter and English teacher in the employ of a high lama at Mindroling Monastery. His salary was roughly  equivalent to $25 a month. He left all of that behind as a beneficiary of the Tibetan Immigration Act which provided American visas for 1,000 Tibetans in exile. He arrived with a coat, an attache case, and $10 in his      pocket.
      Tsering was born to Tibetan parents in India and came to America with his mother, a former schoolmate of Phunkyi who also received a visa through the Act. The two answered questions from the audience on a number of subjects, but the focus was on the preservation of Tibetan culture in the face of Chinese acts of cultural genocide.
      The two were best qualified to speak on adjusting to an American lifestyle. "Older people who have joined their children have a hard time,"  Tsering said, and Phunkyi related his most difficult challenge: revolving doors. "They open from the left! I could never get used to it after six      months!" But on a more serious note, Phunkyi spoke of the challenges of raising children in America. He strives to teach his granddaughter the      Tibetan language at home so she will be able to identify herself as Tibetan. "At school, she will pick up [English] automatically," but her Tibetan education is already muddled by English from television and radio. He is not so concerned with cultural influence: "I don't  care about dress, but language is the most important factor."
      Cultural identity can be a difficult question for immigrants, and both Phunkyi and Tsering might be able to identify themselves as Tibetan, Indian or American. Tsering does not anticipate returning to India, noting,"They have enough people there, enough mouths to feed." Phunkyi      identified himself as a Tibetan-American, with India as his second country: "I am Tibetan by birth. Nobody can change that. But I love the      freedom of this country and so I am American, too."
       While the two consider themselves fortunate to be members of a free society, the one they left is anything but. Phunkyi does not blame the Chinese people: "They have been taught that Tibet is a finger of China." Chinese authorities have imprisoned and tortured countless Tibetan citizens and clergy for crimes as minor as displaying a photo of the Dalai Lama, and immigrated large numbers of ethnic Chinese into Tibet in a deliberate attempt to alter the cultural makeup of the region. Crackdowns on protesters have been so severe that the Dalai Lama has urged Tibetans to avoid even peaceful protests, shifting the responsibility for agitation to those outside the country like the SFT.
      Under the control of the Chinese,  Tibet has been stripped of its natural resources and its indigenous people have been marginalized or forced to flee to other nations for sanctuary. "There isn't much in Tibet right now," said Tsering when asked if he would return should it become possible. But Phunkyi has devoted much of his life to campaigning for a free Tibet and said, "I would return. Tibet is going to need me."
The Tibetan immigrant experience
by Ben Freund
     The week of April 23rd passed swiftly and unexceptionally for many Madison students as finals and the Mifflin Street Block Party loomed as the largest events on the horizon. But for the few members of UW-Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), it was Madison's Tibet  Week that occupied their attention. Events included a storytelling session for children featuring traditional Tibetan folk tales and screenings of  "10 Questions for the Dalai Lama" and the Academy Award-winning film "Himalaya."
      Weronika Horembala, coordinator of UW-SFT, believes that the plight of the Tibetan people is important for students and citizens alike to recognize. Southern Wisconsin boasts a large Tibetan community with Oregon's Deer Park Monastery at its center. Tibetan Buddhist and folk culture has been flourishing in close proximity since the 1960s, yet rarely do Madisonians have the chance to  observe and participate in its splendor. We hope to provide our community with an opportunity to learn more about this often mystical culture.
Weronika Horembala, Sherab C. Phunkyi, and Sonam Tsering stand before the flag of Tibet.
July 2006 Issue Preview