Think Out Loud

Northwest Tibetan Community Association celebrates 30 year anniversary

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Sept. 27, 2023 10:05 p.m. Updated: Oct. 4, 2023 7:05 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Sept. 28

The first Tibetans came to the Pacific Northwest to work in the lumber industry. Then, in the early ‘90s, more refugees were resettled here. Earlier this month, The Northwest Tibetan Community Association celebrated 30 years of Tibetan language and cultural programming. Jampa Nyendak Lathsang and Dechen Bartso, both volunteers in the community, join us to talk about the Northwest’s Tibetan community.


Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The first Tibetans came to the Pacific Northwest to work in the lumber industry in the 1960s. Decades later, in the early 1990s, a number of refugees settled here. Earlier this month, the Northwest Tibetan Community Association celebrated 30 years of Tibetan language and cultural programming. Jampa Lathsang and Dechen Bartso are both members of the Association. Lathsang is a former education director of its Sunday School. Bartso is the former president. They both join us now to talk about the Tibetan community in the Northwest. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Jampa Nyendak Lathsang: Thank you.

Dechen Bartso: Thank you, Dave. Thanks for having us.

Miller: Jampa, first. When did you come to the US?

Lathsang: I came to the U.S. back in 1992 and I was part of the Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project where the U.S. Congress, government had passed a resolution, part of a bigger tax bill, which allowed 1,000 Tibetans to come to the U.S.

Miller: Where had you been living before?

Lathsang: In India.

Miller: Not uncommon for Tibetans.

Lathsang: The vast majority of them and some in Nepal and Bhutan also.

Miller: And also how did you end up in the Portland area?

Lathsang: I guess destiny. It was through the Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project. [It] basically had different cluster sites selected all around the country, based on volunteers and ground level support groups. And the local community here of Tibetans, with the help of western supporters here, decided to host 50 Tibetans. And then the office in New York, basically on paper, sent 50 Tibetans here. And so the host had to find sponsors and all the help needed for new immigrants.

Miller: What do you remember about your arrival here?

Lathsang: I think the most drastic thing for me was the time zone change. Other than that, I think I was quite familiar with a lot of other things. Hollywood kind of teaches you quite a bit.

Miller: So you knew from American culture some of what to expect?

Lathsang: Yes.

Miller: Dechen, what about you? When did you come to the U.S.?

Bartso: I came to the US in 1996 and I, as Jampa mentioned, my brother was part of the 1000 Tibetans and he was resettled in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And I kind of followed him. And so I went to, then Albuquerque, lived there and then had a friend who was living in the Bay Area. And so my brother and I moved to the Bay Area, lived there for a year and a half and then came to Portland. I have some cousins who live here and who were also part of the people who came to resettle. And so that’s how I ended up in Portland, Oregon.

Miller: How big at that time was the Tibetan community in the Northwest?

Bartso:  Jampa, you wanna take that?

Lathsang: Sure. I think prior to ‘92, probably about seven [or] eight families, is what my understanding is. The older Tibetans that were here from the sixties and seventies.

Miller: So everybody would have known everybody. Just six or seven families.

Lathsang: I mean, literally, they knew each other just from family connections. I think even the numbers, prior to 1992, the whole of North America basically had about 500 Tibetans.

Miller: So few.

Lathsang: That has changed quite a bit over the last three decades.

Miller: What about now? I mean, do you have a sense for, in the Northwest, the Tibetan American community?


Lathsang: In the Pacific Northwest, that would be inclusive of Seattle or even going up to Vancouver BC, I’d probably say, guesstimation-wise, about 2,500 to about 3,000.

Miller: But as I mentioned very briefly in my intro, the first Tibetan arrivals here, they came decades earlier, to work in logging. Dechen, what can you tell us about that history?

Bartso: Sure. So, interestingly, there’s a company called Great Northern Paper Company in Maine. Apparently now it’s Georgia Pacific. So, at that time, in the early sixties, there was a huge demand for lumberjacks. And one of their board of directors was a professor and had been to travel to India and Nepal and was familiar with the Tibetan refugee community in India and Nepal. With the demand of the industry, they contacted the Tibetans in India and wanted to bring lumberjacks. I believe this was in the early sixties, so that now the Tibetan government in exile was just like a small administration still trying to shelter people, settle them, get the children and the monks and the nuns and everything, everybody settled. And in that process, they contacted the Great Northern Paper Company [and] contacted the Tibetans and then they were able to bring in six Tibetans. So these were the first six Tibetans who came to Maine.

Then somehow, a connection here in the Pacific Northwest - a family, the person who was studying anthropology - knew about Asian culture and he was affiliated with a lumber company here in Oregon. And they went to visit these six people and spend their summer. And so they wanted to bring them across the coast here to Warrenton. That’s how, of the six, four Tibetans came here initially. And then, briefing this whole episode, at this time, they then got connected to another lumber company in Camas Exterior Wood, and that’s how these six people came. And then because of their work, they exceeded the expectations of the company. And so they brought another 21 people here. That’s how the original Tibetans came through Maine to the Pacific Northwest.

Then there was just a handful of people and these people brought in families. There was this huge gap up until ‘9 when, like Jampa mentioned, the U.S. passed this legislation and 49 Tibetans came to resettle in the Portland metro area.

Miller: Of 1,000 that came all across the country - and Jampa, as you know, you were one of them - how much of a sense of nationwide community is there among those 1,000 people?

Lathsang: I think the sense of the Tibetan-ness, in every Tibetan that immigrated to the U.S., is pretty strong. I mean, we are all very grateful for the blessings of His Holiness that has made a lot of this possible for Tibetans living in India, Nepal and elsewhere. The diaspora is quite spread out, but I think we are one of the larger numbers in the U.S. I’d say about the third or fourth largest groups, maybe in the top five, number-wise.

Miller: You mentioned His Holiness. I remember very well when the Dalai Lama came to Portland in May of 2013 [and] spoke at Memorial Coliseum, among other places. So a little more than 10 years ago. What did that mean to the Tibetan community here?

Lathsang: I think for any Tibetan, the presence of being in the same sacred space of the city of Portland with His Holiness is an immense blessing. And for us, as Tibetans living here, we had the great fortune of inviting His Holiness back in 2001. And then 2013, when my trip at college invited His Holiness, we were doubly blessed because of his presence here. And for every Tibetan, I think, it’s a blessing in one aspect, but it’s also an opportunity to work on the guidelines and principles that His Holiness teaches others. And it’s a high code of ethics that one has to try to follow. But I think most Tibetans try their best in working towards it.

Miller: Dechen, is there an image that stays with you most from that visit?

Bartso: Oh, yes. The visit, the public talk that he gave at the Pioneer Courthouse Square and the whole courtyard was filled and people even up on the pillars at the Square. And not just that, I think, the Dalai Lama has brought the Tibetan issue to a global stage. In the early sixties, there was a time where the Tibetan issue was dying. I mean, he came as a refugee to India and the Tibetan issue would have easily, kind of quietly, just died down. And here we are, getting global support for the Tibetan issue, specifically human rights and all that. Basically, he gave Tibetans a global stage and a platform where now we’re able to kind of have or push for genuine dialogue with the Communist Chinese Party.

Miller: Let’s turn to this anniversary. Jampa, what was it like, the celebration earlier this month?

Lathsang: It was a great gathering, reminiscent of 30 years of the making of NWTCA, the community, its inception back in 1993, a group of 75 to 90 people. But at the moment, we’re close to 1,000-plus. The stats are a little harder because there’s always that income and outgoing, but we are believed to be close to over 1,000. And the celebration brought about people who initially were part of the resettlement project, people who had served as previous board of directors, presidents, all of them were honored. It helped bring a lot of revived community spirit, of energizing the community also. But I think it was a joyous event, recognizing that we have, as a group, survived 30 years. Sometimes it’s hard. But with our similar goals and aspirations, we thrive on and do our best as individuals to draw awareness to what’s going on in Tibet, but also sustain our culture and our way of life.

Miller: I’d love to hear from both of you on this. But Dechen first. How do you preserve culture, as Jampa just said, in exile?

Bartso: Dave, that’s a great question. Our generation, most of us were born in India and then [came] to a different country. So generally, the most important one I’d say is the language. Language preservation is key, because Tibetan culture is really based on Buddhist principles of peace and compassion. And so all the principles of the culture of Tibetan Buddhism are preserved in the ancient teachings and the teachings are all in Tibetan. For instance, not just the literary text, but also just in terms of having a grandma communicate to their grandchildren. If the language is not preserved, then there’s a huge sense of loss. The stories back in Tibet are lost, the sense of being a compassionate human being and understanding the bigger world, all of that is lost. And so that is a great challenge.

Miller: Is it a given that Tibetan American kids today, that a 10-year old, a 6-year old, a 15-year old, will have already learned, or that they will be learning, Tibetan. Is that a given?

Bartso: That is the question, Dave. For those children who are born here, the Tibetan Americans, it’s very difficult for them to learn Tibetan. That’s why the whole focus of the [NWTCA] coming together, forming an organization, having a cultural center, is to provide this cultural and spiritual home for everybody, including these children. These children, who are able to now, at the Cultural Center, have Sunday Schools. They’re able to learn the language, they’re able to learn traditional instruments, sing, dance. So basically understand and have a sense of who they are, where their roots are from. And irrespective whether they want to go along with that or not, just the sense of having that cultural identity is what the association really strives for and for them to have those. And we always kind of refer to them as toolkits for our life, the tools that you have, being open and compassionate. So this understanding of self. And these are all great methods, especially for young people who are having challenges in these times.

Miller: Jampa, what did it mean to you to be the education director of the Sunday School?

Lathsang: I think for me, as a board of director of the community, for many past years - that interim that I was earlier with my kids, I have three children and a wonderful wife who all have helped in nurturing part of the Sunday school program as well as being students in there. And for me initially, it’s always like you want your kids to do well in the program and make the program well. So I think that drive to do it, but also from my own personal ends, I studied in a school in India earlier on in my life where Tibetan language was not available as a medium. It was an English medium program. So I was quite deprived of the Tibetan language aspect of it. I didn’t want my children to go through that same thing. So I put an extra ounce of effort in making the education program as much my priorities. So it has been a blissful experience.

The programs that we have now are accumulative of many board of directors who have worked way back from - I think we started more on this effort probably around ‘96. We did some summer programs in PSU. And then gradually it was trying to move to make it better. And then we had His Holiness visit in 2001, which was as Dechen mentioned, a memorial event, especially the one at Pioneer Square. I think in 2013, they wanted to try to do that and replicate that. But I think the State Department wouldn’t allow it because of the openness of space and all the other restrictions that we’ve had over the years.

As an education director, I think it gives me great joy to see the program thriving and getting better day by day and helping the children that need that extra ounce of support, that community gathering spot. But being able to study their language, a little bit of their culture and music, dance, and having teachers who are dedicated and being able to pass on to the new generation. Sometimes as new immigrants in any country, I think, especially here in the U.S., it is hard. We have many other things that we have to do, apart from just doing that, which we put as a priority. But then you have your day to day living, your mortgage, your housing bills and you have to work towards those also. So it’s kind of juggling the two. And for me as a parent, I think that’s a better example rather than just the community. I wanted my kids to be bilingual, quite fluent, and it’s very hard. I think the Sunday school program is a two to three hour program. I mean, you can’t do that much in a week.

Miller: It has to be embedded in daily life.

Lathsang: Yeah, it falls a lot on the parents to make a sincere effort in communicating with their children in Tibetan. And so I think we educate that also with the parents. We have to make an effort more than just the teachers at the program. So, it’s a teamwork of parental, community leadership, of people spending their time and dedication to educate them because not all parents are literate in Tibetan. And so we need ones that can educate them and that’s always been an ongoing effort we’re getting better at, with time.

Miller: Dechen Bartso and Jampa, please, last word.

Bartso: Dave, I just wanted to just add to what Jampa mentioned is also that the children, yes, we’ve been very fortunate to be in America and have the education but also to stress that the academics are not the only thing that the kids learn, but they do understand more wholly as a human being. So there is also a considered effort towards what his children kind of started, called the C learning, which is social and emotional learning. Besides the academics, young children, say Montessori, are kind of introduced to more of social responsibility, emotional context, even more of that in addition to what they need to get for their future, for their jobs and whatnot.

Miller: Dechen Bartso and Jampa Lathsang, thanks very much.

Bartso: Thank you.

Lathsang: Thank you for having us.

Miller: Jampa Lathsang is the former education director for the Sunday School that is a part of the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association. Dechen Bartso is a former president of the Association.

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