This is the fifth in a series of interviews I conducted while working last summer in Dharamsala, India. I talked with leading members of the Tibetan exile community about the freedom movement and the future of Tibet.
"Two cabbage pillows and one vegetable stir fry!" Lobsang Rabsel, a smiling man about five feet tall is shouting customers' orders to the kitchen of Common Ground Café, a Tibetan and Taiwanese fusion restaurant in Dharamsala. Born in Tibet to a family of nomads, Lobsang is a cultural entrepreneur managing Common Ground and running Contact, an English-language magazine that focuses on Tibet issues and the Dharamsala community. We sat down one rainy afternoon at Common Ground, his toddler daughter clinging to his legs, to talk about his harrowing experiences in Tibet, his life in exile in Dharamsala, and what he feels is the duty of every Tibetan.
Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I was born north of Lhasa to a nomad family. When I was 11 years-old, I went to the Chinese school in my village for three years and after that I went to a monastery for six or seven years. My parents thought that if I stayed in the Chinese school I would lose my culture and my identity.
What do you remember about your school years?
Parents were scared to tell their children anything because their children might speak to their teachers about it and face violence. But before I finished school, I learned a few things from older Tibetans, like how scriptures and stupas had been destroyed by the Chinese. They also used to tell us how so many people had died of starvation, of suicide, and that under Chinese rule many people had been executed. But for me it was just kind of a story.
When did it become more real?
When I was going to Chinese school, I always thought, "The government of China is our government." But after going to the monastery and seeing how so many stupas were destroyed, Buddhist paintings were scratched, I started to realize the situation. I got to know about His Holiness the Dalai Lama and how he had to escape to India, and I started to understand why. In 1987 or 1988, we had a great prayer festival in Lhasa and there were a few monks who demonstrated. I saw how the Chinese put them on the ground and then threw them in a truck. I lost my faith in the government of China.
When did you realize you had to escape to India?
When I was 17, my friend and I were going to Lhasa. The reeducation officials had come into the monastery that morning and my friend had said, "You Chinese ducks. Eat shit." On our way to Lhasa, a police car pulled us over, and it was those same officials. They took us to the police station and kept asking us, "Who said 'eat shit'? The Chinese government is the sky. If you try to kick the sky, your eyes will break into many thousands of pieces, and the sky will flood will blood. You can't ask America to help you. You can't ask the Dalai Lama to save you. If you confess your guilt, the government will give you lighter charges. If you don't confess to your crime, then we will take you to the detention center or test our guns on you." They started beating, kicking, punching us. The ground was full of blood from my nose and mouth. I couldn't stand up. Then all my fear was gone. I had nothing to confess. We told them, "Whatever you want to do, do it." Then I just kept thinking, "I should leave." Even though I cared about my relatives and friends, I didn't feel safe. I didn't think there was a life there. I looked for a guide to take me to Nepal or India, paid 600 yuan, and crossed the Himalayas, walking for 27 days.
What difficulties did you face in India?
I got two years to study at school and that was where I started to learn English. Then I had to find a job, find a place to stay. Start a new life. Not knowing anyone in Dharamsala, and not having any money, it was really challenging. People wouldn't trust you. I worked from five-thirty in the morning until 12 or 1 am. Slowly slowly, I improved my English language skills by talking to foreigners and that allowed me to work in the cafes, and so my life improved.
You are often described as the "busiest man in Dharamsala." How did this happen?
One of the restaurants that I worked at, they started Contact magazine, so I had the chance to work with them. At the beginning I did computer layout. Not super good stuff, but I could do some graphics. I worked with the magazine to do layout and distribution, and at the cafe also. Now I manage Common Ground and the magazine and also do volunteer coordinating for NGOs. Busy, busy, busy.
What do you see as Contact magazine's purpose?
It's a place where the Dharamsala community can write about their opinions and ideas. We are not economic refugees, we are political refugees. So we can write about political issues related to the Tibetan struggle and more people can learn about it. Also, the magazine covers things like music events, talks, yoga, massages, Tibetan classes.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
So far, I haven't had one. I still haven't done enough. Really. When I hear the news from Tibet, or when I see young Tibetans killing themselves for the cause of Tibet, my sacrifice compared to theirs is nothing. Of course, I have the responsibility for my family, my children, making sure they are happy. But having said that, I shouldn't forget: every Tibetan should be doing something for the community. It is limited what I can do right now, but the struggle is always there.
Photo courtesy of Sophia Slater