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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Young Tibetans in a New World

March 19, 2009

By Maura Moynihan
Voice of America
March 17, 2009

A writer in Dharamsala provides a personal
glimpse of a youth movement now redefining Tibetan culture.

Dharamsala is a young place, the creation of
refugees from Tibet who transformed an old
British hill station of minor repute into a
pilgrimage site for the New World. The lanes of
McLeod Ganj, or "Upper" Dharamsala, weave a
melody of Tibetan, Hindi, English, Japanese, Dutch, and Hebrew.

Vedic chants and Buddhist prayers mingle with
Bollywood, Dr. Dre, and rock anthems from the
60’s, the decade in which the first young
Tibetans in exile pioneered a modern Tibetan style.

The Tibetan disapora has rock stars, like Phurbu
T. Namgyal, an American-based Tibetan Justin
Timberlake, and Loten, a Swiss Tibetan with a new
hard rock YouTube hit called “United Tibet.”

There are new painters, filmmakers, actors, and
writers, as well as young monks, nuns, and
classical artisans growing up in multiple worlds,
merging thangka painting with Photoshop and
transmitting Buddhism through the Internet.

A small-town impresario

Lobsang Wangyal describes himself as "a
photojournalist and a small town impresario.”
Born in a remote refugee camp in Orissa, Lobsang
studied in Mussoorie, where the Dalai Lama lived
during his first year in exile, and then attended college in Simla.

"I moved here in 1994. I chose not to emigrate. I
have a purpose in my life, the future of Tibet. I
am more useful here. And I love India. The people
are so witty, hilarious, gracious. India is the
world’s supermarket of religion and culture. We
must learn from India. It’s our guru anyway.”

Lobsang produces an annual Free Spirit Film
Festival and Spirit Award show, and in May 2007
organized the Tibetan Olympics with a new
Website, But he is best known
for the Miss Tibet Contest, launched in 2002.

"The Miss Tibet Contest was my personal quest to
break the shackles of Tibetan conservatism. It’s
a way to say 'Free Tibet' and define Tibet as a
nation. And the girls love it; the pageant has
given them careers that a refugee girl couldn’t dream of."

Boosting morale

The 2008 Miss Tibet is Sonam Choden, an
18-year-old new arrival from Lithang in eastern Tibet.

"The media coverage boosts the morale of the
Tibetans inside Tibet, who need it most” says
Lobsang, displaying photos of a stunning young
beauty in a chuba and crown, smiling for a paparazzi horde.

A vocal faction of Tibetan elders were
scandalized at the notion of young Tibetan ladies
engaging in such compulsory beauty pageant rituals as the swimsuit contest.

But Miss Tibet became a tool for the Tibet
movement when winners were denied permission to
compete in international pageants, under pressure from Chinese judges.

"The best was Zimbabwe, 2005, the Miss Tourism
World contest," recalls Lobsang. "When Miss Tibet
was barred from the pageant, other participants
tried to boycott. African journalists started
reporting about Tibet and the Chinese occupation.
Before that, most people in Africa knew nothing of our story."

"That’s when I said 'mission accomplished.'"

Redefining Tibetan identity

Exiled Tibetans have long used music, art, and
dance to redefine the Tibetan identity. Thubten
Samdup, known to all as Sam, arrived in
Dharamsala in 1960 at age nine and was sent to
the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, TIPA,
one of the Dalai Lama’s first initiatives in exile.

One afternoon, as Sam played songs of Old Tibet
with friends, a visiting ethnomusicologist
listened in rapture and contacted the Rockefeller
Foundation, which took Sam to Brown University in
1973. He was the first Tibetan refugee to attend an Ivy League school.

In 1988 Sam wrote a love song called Rigzin
Wangmo, which became a huge hit inside Tibet.

"Woeser did a blog about reactionary songs, and
noted that mine is the only song allowed to be
sung in official government functions, inside
Tibet. If only they only knew the composer is what they’d call a reactionary.”

New music from inside Tibet flows into Dharamsala
on the Internet and with new refugees. The lyrics
deploy metaphors for the Dalai Lama and the wish
for a Free Tibet. Using art for strategic
activism is one of the few outlets available to
Tibetans living under Chinese dominion.

Tibetan communities in the West have access to
media and politics to advance the Tibetan cause,
but many in India are disengaged from the Tibetan exile government.

A Tibetan youth hero

A young lama, the Karmapa, has emerged as a
Tibetan youth hero. Posters across Dharamsala
hail him as “Tibet’s Rising Sun.” The Karmapa is
beginning to fill the role of Buddhist teacher
and authority for the Tibetans, but he cannot run
for the office of Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, in a vote coming up in 2011.

Sam has returned to Dharamsala from his home in
Canada to train young people to get organized.

"We need to act like the Obama campaign. We need
to search for someone who will take charge, so
the Dalai Lama can rest. For too many years,
young Tibetans didn’t get involved in politics. I
told them, now they have to walk the talk.”

Leaning out a window of the Hotel Kailash
restaurant, a McLeod Ganj tavern of old, Sam
reports that young Tibetans are responding to his mission.

"Everybody understands we are going through a
crucial period. We are playing with time. The
Dalai Lama is not getting any younger. If we want
him to live long, prayer alone is not going to help.”
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