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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dr. Tenzin Yeshi: Tibetan Refugee and American Hiker



(The following is an excerpt of my interview with Farah Ashraf Tamizuddin, a senior at Columbia University.  She was working on a final research paper.  This excerpt is shared with her consent)


Dr. Tenzin Yeshi is a Tibetan who has yet to set foot in Tibet. His parents fled in 1959, the same year as the Dalai Lama, and settled in a small Tibetan colony in southern India. “It’s not like an Indian reservation here,” Dr. Yeshi said. “We had our own offices and land leased by the Indian government.” He grew up as a farmer, as many people do in Tibet, but his family had cows because the traditional Tibetan yak would not be able to stand India’s warmer climate.

Dr. Yeshi didn’t really have a first language - he learned Tibetan, Hindi, and English all at once in kindergarten. He can speak, read, and write Hindi very well but feels most comfortable speaking Tibetan and writing English. Dr. Yeshi won many scholarships in school for being one of the top students - in fact, his name is still on his school’s honor board.

Dr. Yeshi earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree in accounting in India and then found a program for Tibetan refugees in America. He chose Laramie, Wyoming as the place to earn his PhD. He attended workshops about culture shock but “to be frank, I didn’t feel that.” Listening to the news, reading newspapers and magazines, and watching movies made it easy to accept that Americans just do things differently. He found his accent was the biggest problem, and “speaking was the hardest part.

Despite understanding that Americans would be different, “I did not expect America to be Wyoming,” Dr. Yeshi says. “We see these fancy cities in documentaries, movies, big cities, and we think America is like that”. But Wyoming’s natural beauty, small town community, and safety appealed to him. “I love it,” he says. “I learned the concept of appreciating nature in Wyoming.” Dr. Yeshi began to cross-country ski, hike, and spend a lot of time outside. Dr. Yeshi still hikes in New Jersey and upstate New York (including the Bear Mountain trails) and has been camping in Maine. He would like to go back to Wyoming, but “the problem is a job. With few people, there are less jobs.”

But Dr. Yeshi didn’t know how much he would like Wyoming before he arrived, so why did he choose Laramie? For one, Laramie is the only town in Wyoming with a university. Another reason was that “I knew the dean, he was an American who had worked in India.” Dr. Yeshi and his sister moved to Wyoming and started to learn about American life. “The first month, I felt I made the wrong decision - I had no car, no driver’s license, anything, and it was very hard,” says Dr. Yeshi. But after a month he found he didn’t have much time to worry. He was busy learning how to study in a country where “the whole education system is different.” Dr. Yeshi didn’t write a single paper for his bachelor’s degree. “We usually just took one annual test.” Dr. Yeshi felt very depressed for one or two semesters, when he didn’t think he was doing well in his classes and was not sure he could graduate.

Now I don’t believe in depression, I don’t believe in stress,” he says. “I believe more in the mind, I believe in the self, and that yes, this is a hardship, but this is not the end of it. I believe in here,” he says, tapping his head. “Every human has the capacity to heal himself, and you have to think, I have the capacity, the mental stamina, and this is a phase, it will pass.” Dr. Yeshi believes his insecurity was created from his mind and now he knows that no matter how hard something is, “I will smile again. That’s Buddhism - find the root of your suffering, and start to work on yourself.”

Despite the initial worries, Dr. Yeshi got his PhD in adult education in 2012, just three and a half years after he started. “I’m proud of myself,” he says, laughing and adding that this is the American side of him coming out. Now he works at a nonprofit outreach center in Queens, where he helps immigrants (mostly African, some Tibetan and Nepalese) get jobs, learn how to manage their credit scores, and start new businesses. His sister, her husband, and their child live with him.

Dr. Yeshi says many of his friends are from school in Wyoming, so they’re spread across the country (he once visited Denver and is considering moving to Colorado). He also meets people through community events like prayers, cultural shows, ceremonies, and parties. Some celebrations are for the Tibetan New Year or the Dalai Lama’s birthday and some of the prayers are large gatherings to see a high lama speak or if the Tibetan government in exile asked for a prayer. Other prayers are smaller such as those for a self-immolation in Tibet. The prayers are at a community center two subway stops from 74th street; Dr. Yeshi knows of only one temple in Queens and he actually goes to one in upstate New York once or twice a year. Nevertheless, Dr. Yeshi says places like Phayul Restaurant, where spicy beef tongue is a specialty, make Jackson Heights “a summer hot spot” to debate Tibetan politics and to have tea and listen to Tibetans from both Tibet and India speak.

Dr. Yeshi says his own views on Tibet have led to him being criticized as anti-Tibetan, especially on his blog, tenzinyeshi.com. He believes that politics is overtaking everything in Tibet - education, human rights, social justice, child safety are all considered less important. Also, when Dr. Yeshi writes, he says it’s for himself, it’s about self reflection, and he doesn’t like to be cautious about what other people might think. “When I write something, it comes right from my heart.” Dr. Yeshi says that he writes in bursts of activity, when “my mind clicks, then my mind shuts down.” He first felt compelled to write in 2009 when he bought an iTouch online and ordered the engraving to say “Tibet will be free” on the back. Before it arrived, he found the engraving was done in China, and he says “that was an interesting moment for me.” The engraving was done, as business took precedence, but the experience started the now five-year old blog.

Now, Dr. Yeshi doesn’t write about China, which he calls a ‘safe point.’ He prefers to expose the faults in the Tibetan community itself, in hopes of betterment. “The international community thinks we’re just a nice, smiling, compassionate people. But there are hidden things, social issues,” he says. Dr. Yeshi says most people talk about freedom and individual rights, which are important, but “we need to treat everyone equally in our community before we say the Chinese should treat us equally.” Dr. Yeshi says there are gender discrepancies, a caste system, child abuse, domestic violence, and other issues that “stay within families, to preserve the good image to outsiders.” Not everyone is kind or practices Buddhism, and Dr. Yeshi says people in Tibet have even stolen from his parents. Dr. Yeshi says his passion for the underlying issues has led to a lot of personal pain, and he doesn’t follow Tibetan news as closely as he once did simply because he wants to do something but can’t and feels stuck.

Dr. Yeshi hopes to become an American citizen in two years, but he also wants to go to Tibet one day. He has been to India a number of times to visit his parents and his brother, who works in Delhi. He says the sustainability of the Tibetan colony is waning because, unlike his parents, his and his brother’s generation do not want to be farmers. “This is the problem of education,” he says. “My generation was lucky enough to get an education, and once you get an education, a degree, you don’t want to farm. You want to work in an office.

Dr. Yeshi went to India this summer for the Kalachakra, a celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday where he gives teachings. “Everyone prostrates when the Dalai Lama comes onstage,” he says. “I don’t always do that anymore.” He says his mother urged him to prostrate, so he did, but he feels that practicing compassion to others in daily life is far more important than rituals or prayers. “Buddhism is very different for me,” he says. He doesn’t recite prayers, make offerings, do rituals, or read the books. “Buddhism is not about reading mantra or prayer, it is more about the practice - do good work,” he says. “Before I came to the U.S., I didn’t have to think about it, you just do it, it comes naturally to you.” For his mother, who grew up with Tibetan rituals, this is hard to understand. “When my my mother calls she tells me to do more prayers, but she will not say ‘be kind to others,’” he says. “I don’t blame her for this, but there is a difference in thinking.” Dr. Yeshi says he tells his parents that Buddhism does not have to be parallel to life, as rites exist outside daily actions, but that Buddhism can be one entity. “Do I believe in rituals? I do, I don’t,” he says. Dr. Yeshi thinks Buddhism is something one feels, and not through reciting mantras. He also thinks it is simple, and wealthy, lavish celebrations undermine the pure teachings that should be available to everyone, no matter his or her wealth and status. “Religion should be free, and equal for everyone,” he says, although in Tibetan history many students have had to pay large sums and usually offer lavish goods for teachings.

For Dr. Yeshi, Buddhism is about self-reflection (“watch your actions”), and continuous learning (“sometimes you think something is good but it’s not”). Moving to America helped him work on himself in some ways, but hindered him in others. “Here, it is a collectivist culture, not individualistic, and we focus more on self.” Before he came to America, “I always said ‘we,’ we do this, we think that. It’s a safe point, not saying I’m doing it, and not putting myself into the picture but putting everyone into the picture.” Now, Dr. Yeshi says ‘I,’ and is “more careful about choosing the right word.” The downside is that “in a collectivist culture, I appreciate the people around me. Now sometimes I think, this is too much, get away from me, especially if I’ve had a stressful day. I just want to be by myself.” Dr. Yeshi values privacy a lot more now, and gets annoyed if people show up without texting or calling first, when before he would have just offered them in for a cup of tea.

There are some things that Dr. Yeshi is still getting used to about American culture. “The first thing is being modest,” he says. “In this culture, even if you know just a little bit you say ‘I know.’” Dr. Yeshi is hesitant to say ‘I know’ because he feels there are many things he doesn’t know. “I wrote a book for my dissertation, but I still feel I know only a little bit, not everything. But that doesn’t work in office culture, you need to say ‘I know.’ You need to speak out, to magnify it.” Another thing to get used to is how to reply to the question, “How are you?” “Sometimes I’m not fine,” says Dr. Yeshi. “But now, I know, I say I’m fine.”

Cultural phrasings aside, there are some things that genuinely anger Dr. Yeshi. “I get so mad when immigrants mistreat each other,” he says. “They know the hardships, but they still try to deceive other immigrants,” in things like immigration fraud and human trafficking. Dr. Yeshi has been trying to find people involved in human trafficking but he says not one person has come forward because everyone is just too scared. He also doesn’t like it when Americans make assumptions about him just because he’s an immigrant. “They think I don’t speak English - crazy, right?” He says the last time he was at the DMV he was shouted at for using a self kiosk. “Why is there a self kiosk if you don’t want me to use it?” and the person to whom he handed in his form was equally rude. “I was so mad,” says Dr. Yeshi. “I can shout too, and I thought about it. Because if I don’t shout, they might treat everyone else like that too.” But Dr. Yeshi said he constrained himself, as he usually does. He says Buddhists believe that enemies are the best way to practice patience, and he agrees. However, it is a conflicted decision because he feels that if he does show his anger, he may be making it better for future customers.

Dr. Yeshi’s uncertainty about whether it is always right to constrain oneself mirrors his ambivalence about prostrating before the Dalai Lama and characterizes his approach to Buddhism. He believes in the values of patience and compassion but also values thinking for himself. “I don’t follow religion blindly,” says Dr. Yeshi. “And I don’t do things that don’t make sense."

Also read: Researcher Perspective: Who I Am? and Yeshi's future: Serving Tibetan refugees