Richmond group keeps Tibetan language, culture alive for growing Bay Area population
on October 8, 2023
On Sunday mornings, preschool children gather in a small classroom in Richmond and listen to a teacher sing songs akin to nursery rhymes with Tibetan characters. A toy yak, paper mache nomads and pictures of snow-capped mountains in the room help the students imagine the Tibetan homeland.
The Tibetan Association of Northern California runs the school on Dalai Lama Avenue, inviting students to come away for a couple of hours to learn writing and speaking in their native language. It stands strong with 235 students, mostly from Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany and Oakland. The center is not just a place to learn language and culture, but also a crucial meeting ground for Tibetans to celebrate Tibetan New Year and other festivities as well as religious gatherings.
As a child, Tenzin Samten Ukyab wasn’t always keen to attend the Sunday school her parents signed her up for in New York City. Now a doctoral candidate in computer science at UC Berkeley and a volunteer teacher at the TANC school, Samten Ukyab realizes the importance of bringing the experience to other children.
“I’m very thankful to my mother for forcing me to go,” she said. “I just found so much value in it myself, and I want other kids to also feel that.”
The school has become home base for a population of Tibetan exiles that has steadily grown since a small group loosely came together in Berkeley about 20 years ago. Soon TANC will have to expand the school to accommodate the growing need.
The association says it has over 900 registered members, close to a third of the number of Tibetans estimated to live in the region. According to a 2020 diaspora demographic analysis published by the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala, India, over 3,000 Tibetan Americans live in Northern California. That number is surpassed only in the New York-New Jersey region and Minnesota.
In 1991, Congress passed the Tibetan Immigration Act, allowing 1,000 “qualified displaced Tibetans” from India and Nepal to be admitted to the U.S. with immigrant visas. Since then, others have slowly come to join them. For Northern California Tibetans, TANC has been a cultural refuge.
Both old and young members of the community participate in its activities, including a weekly dance called “Gorshey” every Wednesday, and a bi-weekly community cafe on Sundays to raise funds for the school. TANC President Jinpa Tharchin said the handful of classrooms in Richmond soon won’t be enough and that the organization is looking for more space.
The school started at a Berkeley park, where a few eager parents gathered to teach their children the basics of Tibetan language. It was formalized with regular classes at the Berkeley Adult School in 2006, according to Head Administrator Kalsang Dorji Lungkhawa.
The religious head Dalai Lama visited Richmond in 2014 to inaugurate the association and named the school “Namchod Kyetsel,” which means “Garden of Intellects” in Tibetan. It was a day of celebration for the Tibetan community in the East Bay and drew international media attention.
Immigrant Tibetan parents fear that generations born and brought up in the U.S. will forget their Tibetan heritage and become “westernized.” Tenzin Chokey, a licensed nurse, sends her 4-year-old to the TANC school so she can connect with her roots.
“My daughter sometimes used to refuse to go to school on Sundays, but it has gotten better now,” Chokey said. “She is able to talk to her grandparents back home. Otherwise, she just speaks English all the time.”
Another parent said that losing the language is like losing your identity, which is what makes the organization’s work so essential.
(Top photo: Pre-schoolers sing the Tibetan national anthem at the morning assembly on a Sunday at the Tibetan Association of Northern California School in Richmond. By Choekyi Lhamo)
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