From Tibet to Boston, a culture that would never be forgotten

Tibetan Sunday school students singing traditional songs at the ceremony on Dec. 7, 2019. Photo by Mia Ping-Chieh Chen /BU News Service

By Mia Ping-Chieh Chen
BU News Service

CHELSEA – Langze Phunkhang, a mother of two girls, was waiting for her daughters to sing on stage with other the Tibetan Association of Boston Sunday School students. Her 14-year-old daughter Tenzin wore a black and red robe, and 12-year-old Ngawang had a white scarf on her head. She dressed in a black and white robe, the traditional clothes of a farm girl in Eastern Tibet, Phunkhang said.

The girls stood at the center of the stage, with boys lined up on both sides. With Tibetan traditional music, they sang along and started to dance. The performances were presented by the Tibetan Association of Boston Sunday School, where Tibetan children came together to practice Tibetan language and to understand their culture and traditions. 

“Our language and culture are already dying,” Phunkhang said, “I think it’s important for us to make sure that our kids don’t forget.”

More than 20 children prepared to sing on the stage as two adults arranged them in order by height. The children, ranging in age from five-year-olds to teenagers, wore different traditional clothing, many with long-sleeved robes with a belt and some girls with scarves on their heads. 

Along with the flute’s accompaniment, children and participants started singing. The melody is not widely known– in fact, it is seldom played on a formal occasion.

It’s the national anthem of Tibet.

Tibetan Sunday school students singing traditional songs at the ceremony on Dec. 7, 2019. Photo by Mia Ping-Chieh Chen /BU News Service

Next to Stars and Stripes outside of the community center in a quiet neighborhood of Chelsea, the Tibetan flag, with two snow lions, red and blue alternating rays on and gold borders on three sides, fluttered in the breeze and glittered in the sunset.

More than 150 Tibetans in Greater Boston were celebrating one of the significant days in their culture – the 14th Dalai Lama’s 30th anniversary of the conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize. The day was in recognition of the 14th Dalai Lama’s work towards a peaceful resolution to the issue of Tibet. 

At the beginning of the ceremony, all participants — men, women, children, even some Caucasians— lined up with white khatas in hands and put it in front of the shrine throne with the Dalai Lama’s framed picture. Khata, a long Tibetan ceremonial scarf, is used to indicate honorable intentions, blessing and wishes of happiness.

Over 700 Tibetans live in the Greater Boston area, and most of them are in Medford, Malden, Arlington, Cambridge and Somerville. They celebrate Tibetan festivals in Boston, including Tibetan New Year and the Dalai Lama’s birthday, despite most of them growing up in India before coming to the U.S. with their parents, the general secretary of the Tibetan Association of Boston Samphel Bayul said. Almost none of them have been to their homeland Bayul said.

Every Sunday afternoon, children from the ages of five to 17 go to Medford High School, where the Sunday School is hosted. Faculty members and teachers are all volunteers who are willing to devote extra time to the Tibetan community.

The program started with the Tibetan Buddhist prayer session before breaking into different classes divided by ages. In the first two hours, these Tibetan Americans would learn the Tibetan language and then take the performing arts programs, which include music, dance, costumes, rituals, religions and customs from various regions and traditions of Tibet. In ceremonies, students perform the dance, songs and music they’ve learned.

Tonight, several dance performances were taught by Tenzin Ngodup, one of the dance teachers at Sunday School. There are around 35 young children in his elementary dance class. 

“They will do a group dance, but not in a synchronized way,” Ngodup said, laughing. Instead of standardizing the dance and going after uniformity, he decided to let the children dance in the style they want and express themselves.

“Although I lose my Sunday, I always feel that it’s really important to pass on the Tibetan culture to the future generations,” Ngodup said. He also works full-time as a program coordinator at Harvard University. He said he believes Tibetan culture is at risk with the current restrictions in Tibet. Thus, the action of passing on the culture to the next generation is more important. 

The Sunday School also provides an environment for children to immerse themselves in Tibetan culture, which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience in their daily lives.

“The majority of them don’t speak in Tibetan at home or outside,” said Tenzin Bayul, Samphel Bayul’s wife, who was a Sunday School teacher from 2014 to 2017. She taught kindergarten children the Tibetan alphabet, numbers and simple words like colors and seasons.

“I feel like Sunday School kind of connects the community together.” Bayul said.

Besides educating the younger generation on their history, religion and culture at Sunday School, the Tibetan Association of Boston aims to not only raise awareness about the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the plight of the Tibetan people, but also revive and preserve Tibet’s religious and cultural heritage.

The association works with other Tibetan groups from different cities in North America, focusing on political advocacy and public awareness. Joining other organizations in lobbying for the “Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2019”, they went to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office this fall. They also take part in “Tibet Lobby Day,” organized by Students for a Free Tibet in March for two days every year. Tibetans from all over the country go to Washington D.C. and share their concerns with elected representatives on Capitol Hill.

“We have this opportunity [in Boston] where we can build our own community and fight for Tibet freedom,” Samphel Bayul said. His parents’ escape to Himalaya when they were children, and he was born in South India and came to the U.S. in 1996 when he was seven years old.

“I wouldn’t have this type of feelings about the Tibetan Association of Boston or Tibet in general if I didn’t grow up in a community where I saw firsthand some of the struggles,” Samphel Bayul said.

His family experience is one is one reason he feels passionately and responsible for the community. The association recently selected new executive board members for the following year, and he has decided to run for the president.

Samphel Bayul said his personal goal is to make sure his parents can go back to the country where they were born, and to make sure that the Tibetans currently in Tibet are treated with respect and dignity.

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