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Tibetan musician finds a home in Toronto

October 29, 2010

Amchok Gompo was a yak and sheep herder in his
youth in Tibet but became proficient as a player
of the stringed instrument called the dramyen. He
now lives in Toronto with his wife and their two
sons, and played for the Dalai Lama here.
Leslie Scrivener
The Toronto Star
October 26, 2010

First, there was a simple question: how old was
he? Amchok Gompo Dhondup wasn’t sure. But
Canadian refugee officials wanted a date.

His mother, still living in Tibet, didn’t know
either. She asked a friend who had had a child
around the same time she gave birth to Amchok,
the youngest of nine. They agreed that 1978 seemed right.

Amchok was asked about his address in Tibet. "I
don’t know," he told a refugee hearing in 2005.
How could he explain life in eastern Tibet, where
he was the child of nomadic herders who lived in
a yak-hide tent? That he didn’t go to school.
That he looked at the sky in wonder when a plane
passed by. That a plastic water bottle tossed by
tourists was intensely valued and parents said
"good job" when children found them.

"We have no house number," he told the hearing.
"We are on the mountain. There are no streets.

"He didn’t believe me and kept saying to the
translator, ‘Maybe he doesn’t understand the question.’ But I did understand.

"I was really scared. I told the truth and he didn’t understand."

He needn’t have been so frightened: Amchok was granted refugee status.

Amchok has been on the move -- on the road to
Canada -- since he was 12. Two years here, three
years there. Part of the Tibetan diaspora that
has led some 4,000 to make a home in Toronto.

His is in a Parkdale high-rise, where he lives
with his wife, Thanglo, and two sons in a tidy,
one-bedroom with few possessions -- a small
kitchen table, a cabinet with Tibetan lamps and
photos of lamas, a wool carpet on a day bed.

He and Thanglo go to English classes every day.
The boys are at Parkdale Junior and Senior Public
School. For lunch Thanglo makes momos -- fried
beef dumplings -- and fragrant rice.

"I was very, very sad when I left Tibet," recalls
Amchok. "I missed my mom. Then slowly you change.
The reason is if you miss too much, you want to
go back. But you have no choice. You have to go on.

"My feeling was I had no country. No place where
I lived. Like a tourist. Temporary."

Amchok plays the dramyen, the Tibetan lute, and
now has fans around the world. He performed for
the Dalai Lama last weekend at the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre.

When he was little, his uncle gave him a guitar
with missing strings. He loved it, but his father
disapproved of music. "You had to listen to your
father, not like here in Canada, where parents
support you," he says, moving his hand as if moving children along.

Still, when he was on the mountain tending
animals, he sang Tibetan folk songs -- "the yak
is so nice! the grass is so beautiful!" -- his voice soaring.

At 12, he sold some yak cheese and butter, and
bought a bus ticket to a nearby city, hoping to
find someone to teach him Tibetan music.
"Everybody spoke Chinese. People held their
noses. I wore yak clothing. I was very dirty, but
I didn’t know what was clean or what was dirty. I felt very comfortable."

He was taken in by a lama who wrote a letter of
introduction to a master of traditional music. "I
was so happy. It was the first time I showered my
body. They bought me clean clothes and a guitar."

A year later he returned to his village and
played a song for his friends. "They said, ‘It’s
just like on the radio. Play some more!’ But I knew only one song."

By his late teens he was a professional musician,
travelling Tibet and singing traditional songs,
some of which praised the Dalai Lama.

"He was a famous person," says Khydup Gyatso, a
Toronto youth worker, who stops by for a visit
with Amchok. "His songs made me cry."

But Amchok ran up against Chinese authorities when he was in his early 20s.

They sent a warning letter to his employer,
saying he was a troublemaker, someone who was, he
says, "very, very bad for the Chinese government
-- you shouldn’t give him a job."

He protested: "I didn’t know about politics, but
they said I couldn’t sing anymore."

Within a few months Amchok was on the move again,
this time trekking across the snowy peaks by
night to Dharamsala, India, where he’d heard the
Dalai Lama lived. "I’d sung many songs about the
beautiful Himalayas; now each step I was deep in
the snow," he recalls. "I was really, really
disappointed. Now, mountains, I said, you are
really trouble for Tibetan people. I said many
bad words about the snowy mountains.”

In Dharamsala, a destination for thousands of
Tibetan refugees, he waited in line to meet the
Dalai Lama, who asked him: "Who are you?"

"I told him I was a singer. ‘Good, good, good,’ -
the Dalai Lama replied, " ‘there is the Tibetan
Institute of Performing Arts. You go there and teach them what you know." ’

He stayed five years and experimented with
traditional and contemporary music. "The first
time I sang for the Dalai Lama’s birthday, I
composed a song with a modern band with bass
guitar and drums. Old people said that the Dalai
Lama doesn’t like modern music. But I said we don’t know what he might like.

"I looked at his face; he was keeping time with his hand (on his lap)."

Amchok was often lonely in those first years,
without any family. "But the Dalai Lama cared
about all Tibetans, including me. For me, he is
like my mom and dad. When I worried about where I
would sleep or eat, everything came from the Dalai Lama."

In 2005 Amchok was invited to the Banff Centre’s
Cultures at Risk Summit. He decided to stay in
Canada, and came to Toronto. His family arrived
in 2007. Amchok, who speaks with a heavy accent,
does volunteer work and hopes to find paid work promoting Tibetan culture.

At his 2006 hearing for permanent residence, he
wore traditional dress and brought his dramyen
and some CDs. He was asked to perform. "I closed
my eyes and tried to sing some meditative music,"
he recalls. "The (immigration judge) said, ‘Wow.
Really nice. Look. The hair on my hand is standing up.’"

A month ago, Amchok sat for his citizenship exam,
a multiple-choice test. He’s still fretting about
his answers and doesn’t have the results yet.

"Now, after 30 years, I get a real country in my
life. I am Amchok Gompo. I have a paper with my
birthdate, 1978. Now I live in Canada, I am a
permanent resident. I can forever live in this country."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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