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Tibetan children and a few parents sing, including two boys around 3 years old staring into the camera with short black hair and dark. eyes, holding hands. with a woman in a blue sweater and sunglasses.

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. 

In a classroom, two children sit on mats with two adults reading to them, a third child in a long blue dress has her back to the camera as she listens to a teacher sitting up front. The room has patterned rugs, a large white calendar with a rainbow and lots of colored children's pictures hanging on a wall.
Teacher Pema Seldon introduces a Tibetan character to preschool students in a song. (Choekyi Lhamo)

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.” 

Three paper mache nomads on a wall -- the one on the left has black hair in a bun, brown skin and a pink and brown skirt; the one in the middle has a black and white tunic, tan skin and a red and white cap; the one on the left has a red and white tunic, long black braids and brown skin.
Paper mache Tibetan nomads (Choekyi Lhamo)

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. 

Mayor Gayle McLaughin welcomes His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Richmond in 2014. (File photo)

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. 

Four teenagers in white haired masks with white whiskered faces are moving with colorful sticks on a paved surface behind a yellow building.
Kids learn the traditional “Tashi Sholpa” dance at TANC (Choekyi Lhamo)

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)

Dalai Lama blesses Richmond’s Tibetan Center


  1. Lisa Tsering on October 8, 2023 at 7:53 am

    Excellent article! We “forced” our half-Tibetan son to go when he was little, and he’s now a bright 18-y-o Cal student with a strong Tibetan identity. Thanks TANC for all you do.

  2. Tsering yangzom on October 8, 2023 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you so much for the encouragement through the message. Me yangzom from Vacaville started going Sunday school from past three weeks my three kids are enjoying their school. We get see the culture the dance and the language it’s like we are connected to our roots. And we would like to continue our Sunday school coming from Vacaville. Katin che

  3. Tsering Bawa on October 8, 2023 at 4:41 pm

    Wonderful article about the Tibetan community here in Bay Area.
    Thanks a lot.
    Tsering Dorjee Bawa

  4. Ogen Namkha on October 15, 2023 at 8:17 pm

    Excellent article that shines a light on sense of urgency of Tibetan diasporas around the globe. I am a proud parent whose 2 kids attend our wonderful Namchod Kyetsel school every Sunday. The school gives us hope and strength that our culture and identity will survive despite the most cruel cultural genocidal acts by the CCP. Thank you.

  5. Jigme Lhamo on October 29, 2023 at 7:50 pm

    Gives us a big sense of community being a part of it, and more than that, it is keeping our culture and tradition alive. It is a replica a how we functioned in India under Tibetan Government In-Exile. To me, it is nostalgia and more; to my kids, it is center of their identity, and sense of belongingness! Thank you for this coverage.

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