For a small community of just a few hundreds, organizing a cultural event has some serious implications

by Sumyat Thu
August 17, 2018

It’s no small feat for the Pacific Northwest Tibetan American community to put together a weekend-long event like Tibet Fest. Compared to other immigrant communities in the region, the Tibetan community is quite small at about 250-300 members in Greater Seattle. Yet, on August 25-26, Tibet Fest will be held for the 23rd time at the Seattle center to continue the community’s mission of preserving and sharing their unique culture.

At the festival with free admission, visitors will experience a variety of traditional Tibetan arts and crafts like singing and dancing, a photo exhibit and documentary film screening, and demonstrations of Thangka painting and Tibetan calligraphy. There will also be a food stall where you can taste Tibetan salted butter tea and momo dumplings.

Jamyang Dorjee, a past President and current board member of the Tibetan Association of Washington (TAW), explains that Tibet Fest is a collaborative effort among the Seattle Center, city government, and the local Tibetan community. Part of a series of cultural events called Festal that the Seattle Center hosts every year, the festival is a way for Tibetan immigrants to come together and honor the cultural traditions they traveled with as exiles and refugees.

A momo dumpling cooking demonstration. Photo courtesy of TAW.

Tibetan immigration to the U.S. started with a special legislation for 1,000 “qualified displaced Tibetans” under the 1990 Immigration Act during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. The legislation avoided the term “refugee” in order to make the Tibetan resettlement palatable to the Chinese government then.

“For the longest time while we’ve been occupied by the Chinese communist government, we’ve been saying over and over that Tibetans are different people,” said Jamyang. “This event is an opportunity to showcase our culture. It’s both educating the public and showing our pride for how rich our Tibetan culture is.”

Upon reflecting on what being a Tibetan American immigrant means, Sonam Nyatsatsang, TAW’s treasurer, adds that, as refugees, Tibetans never “had proper documents that say you belong to a place.” They couldn’t travel freely in India as refugees before coming to the U.S.

“Being an American gives you an identity recognized by the rest of the world,” Sonam says. “That’s a huge change I don’t take for granted.”

A gathering of the Tibetan Association of Washington (TAW). Photo courtesy of TAW.

As hard as the journey of immigration is, recreating one’s life in the diaspora allows for transforming relationships with groups of people pitted against each other by the home countries’ governments.

“I think it is vital to have a relationship with the Chinese immigrant community here,” explains Jamyang. “I have a lot of Chinese friends and I’ve found that there are diverse political opinions among them. I just try to learn how they see us. It’s an educational process for me to be curious about how Chinese people here think of us and how they came to those opinions,” said Jamyang.

For many immigrants, having a tight-knit community of one’s own and forming relationships with other immigrant groups and the larger public are equally important. Tibet Fest forms an important social space for Tibetan community members to let others into their community and build bridges of understanding with anyone who come visit.

Details are sparse at this time of event organizing but you can trust that community members are working hard to offer activities where the public can get introduced to and experience the Tibetan cultural spaces, stories, traditions, and customs.

Tashi Sholpa dance during opening ceremony of the 2017 Annual Tibet Fest. Photo courtesy of TAW.

Last year, for example, there was a replica of a traditional Tibetan house in which people can walk around and see different parts of the home. A Tibetan Buddhist teacher also offered meditation classes during the festival. The photo exhibit last year consisted of two parts:the first showed the story of the Tibetan diaspora and the second was a collection of photographs of the local Tibetan community taken by a former National Geographic photographer who volunteered with the TAW.

Live performances, a recurring feature of Tibet Fest every year, manifest the ways older generations of the community teach artistic and cultural traditions to the next generations of Tibetan American youth. From kindergarten to high school, Tibetan youth attend Sunday school to learn the Tibetan language and culture. They have the opportunity to showcase their performance art at Tibet Fest.

Professional Tibetan artists are often invited to do more intricate performances. This year’s special performance will include a short segment of Tibetan opera by professional artists who are coming from San Francisco and Boston.

Having been forced to leave his homeland and with its future uncertain, Sonam wants people to know that “Tibetan culture is endangered.”

“It’s really important for us to make an investment in sharing our culture with the public because it enriches our humanity. I hope people appreciate and understand its importance.”