I met Dechen when I was 13 years old. She’s one of my sister’s best friends, and I’ve always seen her as another older sister. Despite seeing her as family, I never knew where Dechen came from or about her childhood. It wasn’t until years later when Dechen told me she was Tibetan. I never knew Tibet existed until Dechen taught me the history of Tibet and what “Free Tibet” meant. With this interview, Dechen and I hope to give people a better understanding of the occupation of Tibet and the meaning behind the slogan “Free Tibet.” Along with personal anecdotes on what it’s like being Tibetan American.
Important Resources: https://studentsforafreetibet.org/ , https://freetibet.org/ https://savetibet.org/
Eleonor: Okay so the first thing I wanna ask you is what do you identify yourself as?
Dechen: I identify myself as a Tibetan American.
Eleonor: Okay and where in Tibet is your family from?
Dechen: Well Tibet has three main regions: U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo and both my grandparents were born in the U-Tsang region of Tibet.
Eleonor: Did you grow up in Tibet?
Eleonor: Where did you grow up then?
Dechen: So I was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Eleonor: Ohhh okay and what was it like there? Like living and growing up in Nepal?
Dechen: It was fun. I just remember playing a lot of games with my school friends. We had these jump rope type things made out of tiny rubber bands and would play with those a lot during breaks. I also remember going grocery shopping, visiting Tibetan monasteries and family members with my grandma. So, overall I would say I had a pretty good childhood in Nepal.
Eleonor: What did it look like out there?
Dechen: The town I grew up in had street food vendors selling snacks uh, small shops selling Tibetan and Nepalese food, candies, toys, and other stuff. Sometimes, you’ll see cows just chilling on the road hahaha!
Eleonor: I would kill to see some cows vibin’ in the street oh my god! So when did you actually move to the United States?
Dechen: I came to the States when I was ten years old.
Eleonor: Wow you were hella young, oh my god a little Dechen coming to Americaaaaaaa. Where in the U.S. did yall move to ?
Dechen: My mom and my sisters were living here in Albany at the time so my grandmother & I joined them there.
Eleonor: Was there any specific reason why you and your family moved?
Dechen: For the education system and to have a better future.
Eleonor: Yeah that makes major sense, I think that’s the reason why many people and like families immigrate to America for the “American Dream.”
Dechen: Exactly, yep
Eleonor: So when you moved what were the major differences you noticed between Nepal and here in the U.S.?
Dechen: The air was clearer so there was less pollution. The streets were cleaner too. I saw lots of people walking their dogs in the neighborhoods. And everyone looked different from us. I grew up with Tibetan and Nepalese people so I only saw white people as “tourists” wandering in my small town, Jawalakhel. So I wasn’t used to it. Um I also noticed there were also clean busses, and like tall beautifully designed buildings and like pretty shops. Everything was pretty compared to what I was used to.
Eleonor: I love how you mentioned how clean it was and like now everywhere we go there’s litter.
Dechen: Oh my god you’re so right hahahahaha.
Eleonor: Okay so moving on, my next question is what was it like navigating being a Tibetan immigrant here in the U.S.?
Dechen: So when I moved here, I started 5th grade and it was hard making friends because I was shy, lost and scared. I was really lonely in the classrooms because everybody already had their own friend groups and I missed my friends back in Kathmandu. And the food was also very different. I always brought home food in my thermos and all the kids around me were eating like pizza, burgers, hotdogs, all different from the food that I was used to eating. My family cooks fresh meals every day and doesn’t eat junk food so it was very different from what I was used to. Also since I didn’t write well in English, I was placed in ESL which is English as a Second Language class and that embarrassed me a lot. But eventually, in middle school and high school, I was able to improve my writing skills. I also became friends with awesome people who shaped my personality into who I am today.
Eleonor: Were kids mean to you about the food you ate or how you were in ESL classes? Because you mentioned the food you brought was really different compared to the other kids. Or like how you were embarrassed about being in ESL?
Dechen: No, I don’t remember anyone being mean to me but there were a couple of times where some students made fun of my name because it looked & sounded just like another kid’s name. Also, I felt a little out of place because I wasn’t placed in regular English. I thought other kids looked at me differently because of that. And it wasn’t until high school sophomore year that I got put into regular English.
Eleonor: Ohhhhh okay okay I got you. Well I’m glad no one was outwardly mean to you because little kids can be evil.
Dechen: Yeah I was lucky.
Eleonor: Next I wanna ask if being Tibetan influenced you in any way? Like how you lead life or like how you present yourself?
Dechen: It has definitely. Every time someone asks me about my background, I get excited to educate them about my people and culture. As I like transitioned from being a naive little girl to a mature person, I grew to appreciate my culture more. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is our spiritual leader for Tibetans and he constantly directs us to become better human beings and always treat others with kindness. So my family always push me to never forget my own language and culture. Especially my mom. I’m thankful to her because she’s the one who sent me to Tibetan school when I was a teenager. So there I started learning Tibetan music, cultural dances, and like the Tibetan language. So my identity means a lot to me and being a Tibetan American woman makes me proud and confident.
Eleonor: Ah why am I crying!
Dechen: Oh noooo don’t cry!
Eleonor: Okay I need to stop, it’s just really nice to hear you talk about your identity and like how you’ve remained super close and connected to Tibetan culture while being here in the States. Because like a lot of folks feel pressured to change to more Western ideals and I’m glad your mom pushed you to stay grounded in your traditions and culture. Shoutout to your mom and your grandma!!! It’s like they’re your little Tibet since you never got to go. They’re like your home.
Dechen: Aww I love the “little Tibet” thing. That’s so cute.
Eleonor: Ah thank you, it really is though actually. I’m gonna say that from now on. But okay back to it, so my next question is are there any misconceptions about Tibet that you’ve heard while in America?
Dechen: Yes. So when I started middle school, some students asked me where I’m from and after I told them my background is Tibet and that Tibet is currently occupied by the Chinese Communist Party, they immediately commented “Oh so you must hate Chinese people too.” That was one of the biggest misconceptions people have. Tibetans don’t hate Chinese people. It’s only the Chinese Communist government’s illegal occupation of Tibet that we are against.
Eleonor: See I didn’t know Tibet was a place until I met you, and I think it’s crazy how I never heard anything about it even though you and I kinda went to school with quite a few Tibetan kids. Why do you think people don’t really know Tibet exists?
Dechen: There are only about 6 million Tibetans in the world and that is a really small percentage so not a lot of people know about Tibetans or the country itself.
Eleonor: Do you think the lack of Tibetans in the world is connected with the occupation of the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet?
Dechen: Yes. Many were killed and imprisoned during the March 1959 uprising in Lhasa, Tibet. Like my grandmother left her family in Tibet and fled on foot to India during this time.
Eleonor: Oh wow your grandma is a powerful woman oh my god.
Dechen: She really is.
Eleonor: So we both know we had a Tibetan club in high school and you were a key member of that and y’all made Free Tibet and like Save Tibet sweatshirts and I wanted to hear from you about what Free Tibet means?
Dechen: Tibet was an independent country but it has been compromised by China since 1950. So, “Free Tibet” is a slogan for Tibetans and other people all around the world continuing to resist China’s illegal occupation of Tibet and human rights violations. Tibetans in Tibet have no human rights, no religious or cultural freedom, and no political freedom. “Free Tibet” is a symbol to show that we are continuing our activism and right to freedom in Tibet! There are many global organizations that support the Tibetan cause. There’s a few links I can tell you that help support the cause.
Eleonor: Oh yes please tell them to me so I can plug them in the blog piece. See I learn more from you everyday, muah thank you for telling me what the slogan means because I think slogans kinda get lost in the world. Like they get plastered everywhere without people actually knowing the truth behind it.
Dechen: Yeah that’s why there’s sites to help educate people so they don’t see “Free Tibet” as like only a catchy slogan.
Eleonor: Exactly girlie yuuup. But I wanna go back to something you said earlier about never being able to go to Tibet so like if you ever have the chance to go to Tibet would you go? Like I know you can’t really go because Tibetans are exiled right?
Dechen: Yeah, we are not allowed to travel there and it’s also kind of risky even if we do try to go there.
Eleonor: But on the off chance that you can magically go there would you?
Dechen: In a heartbeat. Yes.
Eleonor: I really hope you can go in the future, I’m really hoping.
Dechen: Me too.
Eleonor: So my last question for you is would younger Dechen, the Dechen back in Nepal be proud of you now?
Dechen: Yes! The younger Dechen would be very proud of the current Tibetan American Dechen. She is a wonderful mature woman who appreciates her own culture and the diversity of America. Like younger Dechen dreamed of creating her own laptop and even made one from a cardboard box when she was just six years old. So like fast forward 18 years, I’m now finishing up my undergraduate as a Computer Science major. So little Dechen would be very proud because I’m still trying to gain the knowledge and wisdom to make this world a better place and I like to think small Dechen would be proud of that.