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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Massachusetts' First Tibetan Retains Cautious Hope For Homeland's Sovereignty

February 19, 2010

WBUR (Mass)
February 18, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- At 27, Kuncho Palsang was the
first Tibetan to set foot in Massachusetts. That
was in 1965. Officially, he was a tourist,
staying in West Roxbury with an American family he had met in India.

As Kuncho recalls in broken English, he fled
Tibet for India in 1959 after the Chinese assumed
control of his country. There, he became close
with an American family working in India and
lived with them periodically. In 1965, when the
family was getting ready to move back to the
United States, Kuncho begged to come along.

The process was fairly simple -- the family
sought permission from the Dalai Lama, who
agreed, then some paperwork, and before he knew it, Kuncho was on U.S. soil.

"There were no Tibetans here at all, so people
asked me, ‘Who are you?’  I say, ‘I’m Tibetan,’
-- Kuncho said. "Nobody knows Tibet, so I asked
them, ‘Do you know Mt. Everest?’ They knew Mt.
Everest, but they don’t know Tibet."

One year later, Kuncho’s tourist visa expired,
and he would have to return to India -- a
prospect that did not sit well with him. "I said,
‘I don’t want to go back to India. I like to stay
here. I cannot go back to Tibet. This is my country."

Kuncho was desperate. He decided to go right to
the top. "I write to President Johnson," he said.
Kuncho recounts part of the letter, "I don’t want
to go back to India. Please, President Johnson,
will you help me? I want to stay in the United States."

After three weeks, to much surprise, Mr. Johnson
responded. Apparently taken with Kuncho’s story,
and after confirming the American family he was
living with would be responsible for the young
man, Mr. Johnson agreed to let Kuncho stay.

Kuncho’s gratitude was endless. "As soon as I got
green card, I wrote Christmas card to President
Johnson," Kuncho said. "I sent two of those
(Tibetan) yak dolls.  He sent me a New Year card.
I got four New Year’s cards from him. Then after
that he passed away. I am very sorry about it."

Kuncho got a job doing maintenance at Roxbury
Latin School, and it was there, in the school’s
on-site apartment, that he lived along with his
growing family -- a wife and two daughters.

For nearly 30 years, Kuncho and his family were
virtually alone as Tibetans in Massachusetts,
with just one other Tibetan family settled in
Salem. Only about 500 Tibetans managed to make
their way to the United States over that time,
largely because of China’s claim of sovereignty
over Tibet, and the United States’ reluctance to
offend China by offering any kind of aid to Tibetan refugees.

But in 1989, a national non-profit group, the
Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project, convinced the
U.S. government to grant 1,000 visas to
"qualified displaced Tibetans," thereby giving
them permanent U.S. residency and the right to
work. At that time, approximately 120,000
Tibetans had fled Tibet since 1959, with most
living in India and Nepal. Kuncho and his native
brethren in Salem managed to bring 50 of them to the Boston area.

Today, that Massachusetts number has grown to
nearly 600, and every Wednesday Kuncho and a
handful of fellow Tibetans hold vigil in the pit
at Harvard Square in Cambridge. They are
surrounded by signs and banners, one large one
reading, "China, Get Out of Tibet." A man in
traditional Tibetan garb chants over a
microphone, and those gathered pray silently for the freedom of their homeland.

Kuncho became a U.S. citizen in 1976, and after
42 years as an employee in the maintenance
department of Roxbury Latin School, he finally
retired last year. Today, as a gentle 72-year-old
retiree, Kuncho is still confounded at how the
Chinese claim Tibet as part of their country.

"I was born (and lived) in Tibet for 22 years. I
didn’t see any Chinese in Tibet when I was
there," Kuncho said.  "Language is completely
different, and Tibetan money is completely
different than Chinese. Writing: Chinese write up
and down, Tibetans write right and left. It’s
completely different. Chinese says Tibet is under the China. I don’t think so."

Many in the local Tibetan community were angry
when President Obama in October canceled a
meeting with the Dalai Lama over concerns it
would negatively impact delicate negotiations
with China the following month. But Kuncho
understands. "He may be very busy at the time,
you know?," he says, happy that Mr. Obama sent
his senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, to
Dharmsala, India to meet with His Holiness instead.

About Thursday’s meeting between Mr. Obama and
the Dalai Lama, Kuncho smiles. "I think it’s
good," he said. "I think President Obama knows
it’s different -- religion, people, everything."

The fervent hope among Tibetans is that one day
Chinese leaders will meet with the Dalai Lama,
and that perhaps an American president can help
make that happen. But Kuncho has little
confidence that meeting will ever take place. For
now, he says he has two nieces in India who he
wants to bring to the United States but is unable to get visas for them.

Maybe he should write a letter to Mr. Obama.
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