By Gina Puzzuoli
With a gentle tinkling of chimes, the door to the Tibet Shoppe on Queen Street West swings open. The smell of sweet incense fills the air as soft tendrils of smoke snake and arc their way to the ceiling. Vibrant reds, blues, greens and yellows of raw silk shirts are hung amongst tables piled high with Tibetan imports. And there, behind a counter glittering with silver and precious jewels, stands Lobsang Chuntha (Littlest One) Andrugsurba.
Her softly-slanted, gentle brown eyes greet each customer warmly. Most of them she knows, or soon will. Her laugh is a joyful spring that bubbles from her and is quickly caught, making it hard to imagine the sadness behind it.
But inside of Lobsang are the seeds of suffering sown from a life spent holding her family together. Inside of her are the stories and traditions passed down from fierce and dignified parents. Inside of her is a calling for her native country, Tibet, that may never be answered. It is the legacy of a refugee in exile, struggling to pass the torch of remembrance to a new generation of Tibetan-Canadians.
Tidying the shop with a careful and deliberate eye, Lobsang recounts the story of her flight from Tibet.
Her father, Tseewang Phuntsok Andrugsurba, had gone ahead to India with her brother and two sisters. Her mother, Lhakpa Dawa was left with one-year-old Lobsang and their household servants to wait while Tseewang readied for their coming.
“My mother, she had dreams at night and the door to the house would shake and shake,” Lobsang remembers. “We lived beside a Chinese telegraph station, so when my mother decided to leave Tibet for India, her and some friends packed at night in secret.”
They baked as much tsampa as possible – a traditional Tibetan bread that could sustain them for the long journey – and then departed under cover of night. Over the mountains they fled, toward the safety of India and the family waiting there.
Their servants remained behind of their own will, acting and moving around the home as if nothing was out of place. Later, Lhakpa and Tseewang would learn of their deaths from a friend. They were shot in the home of the family they had shielded from harm.
While climbing those mountains, however, a journey that would take months, they knew none of this. Lhakpa’s thoughts were for her children and their future. They would attend a British school. They would carry the hope of returning to Tibet to wash the memories of blood with tears and joy. They would live.
Lobsang smiles sadly at the thought of her parents.
“They sacrificed so much. IT was so hard. And between them, there was such a love story. He was a nomad trader from Kham, the eastern part of Tibet, and she worked in her family store in Shigatse. He met her there, and worked so hard to please her mother.
These stories echo in Lobsang’s heart, and she has passed them on to her 12-year old son Tashi, so that he may always remember his lineage, even though he has never seen Tibet.
“He likes Canada, there is so much here in the West, but we still speak Tibetan at home,” she says.
Despite liking Canada, the difference in cultures and generations is an ever-growing cause of worry for the Tibetans who have chosen to settle here.
“It is good for him [Tashi] to learn new things, but we also must tell our children what our parents and grandparents went through, or who will remember our cause? I know people who do not remember. They have parties and many friends, and no one talks of such things, ever. But what about their parents who give their blood so they could live and have better?
“My mother died when I was 13. My father passed away three years ago. He never remarried.”
As she wipes away tears, you can almost see the memories of her parents playing behind her eyes.
She could continue her story, telling of her childhood in India, her wedding to a Nepalese businessman, her move to New York alone and the fight to bring her son and husband across the border while working in a factory. She could tell of the same struggle to bring them to Canada after 9/11 had convinced her to leave the United States; but instead she looks to the future and the work that remains in the struggle to see a Tibet for Tibetans.
A few days later, on March 10th, the Tibetan national anthem rises above the still-wet grounds of Queen’s Park. It is mid-morning, and a group of approximately 125 Tibetans and Tibetan-Canadians have gathered to commemorate the National Tibetan Women’s Uprising of March 12, 1959.
On that day 45 years ago, thousands of women marched in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in protest against communist China’s illegal occupation. This non-violent protest was the first of it’s kind in the country’s history, and saw many of the participants killed, imprisoned, and allegedly tortured. As the anthem fades away and the sun begins to warm the crowd. Norbu Tsering, president of the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario takes to a podium stationed a few meters away from the steps of old parliament.
“The situation has not improved in Tibet… there are still over 150 political prisoners that we know of. Tibetans are being repatriated to Nepal… and if there is culture still in Tibet, it is cosmetic,” he says.
Switching to his native tongue Mr. Tsering’s eyes scan the crowd. The passion in his voice crosses all language barriers, relaying his hopes, his anger, and his urgency.
Near the front of the assembly, Lobsang gathers with her sister and the friends she has made in the Tibetan community. Sadly, there are very few non-Tibetans attending the commemoration and rally. Those that are present are huddled with their Tibetan friends, most wearing signs that are being handed out from a Discount rental van.
One of the non-Tibetans is Michael Craig who is in attendance to show support on behalf of Amnesty International. His shock-white hair and beard set him apart from the group like a patch of snow in the desert. After a brief introduction from Mr. Tsering, he stepped forward to address the crowd.
“[Amnesty] is concerned with human rights and human rights issues… we do not take sides and that gives us credibility.”
After the short preface, he continued to stress that while the Chinese leaders may change, “the grave human rights violations in Tibet continue.”
On the topic of a nun who was recently released from prison where she had been jailed as a political prisoner, Mr. Craig alleged the Chinese government was “making phony prisoner releases to create the impression that things are improving.”
Last to speak is Phurbu Tsering, president of the Toronto Tibetan Youth Congress. He makes a different appeal to the crowd.
“I have seen less and less participation at these events. This is not something to criticize or to ignore. It is our duty to do something for our country,” he said. “As the Dalai Lama said, if you think you are too small to make change, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
With the address completed, the crowd forms two lines behind the van. Signs are adjusted, children put in place, and possessions gathered before the march begins. The crowd makes its way down University Ave. and across Dundas St.
At last, the procession arrives at the Chinese consulate. For two hours they stand there, chanting and singing. Not even a blind is cracked open at the consulate. Only a few guards in dark suits walk the length of the sidewalk.
At the end of the day, Lobsang and her friends disperse and head home.
Looking back at the consulate, thinking about her past, she has only one message to pass on – “Wherever we go, we are happy. But we are never home. We must think of our grandparents and parents. We must never, never forget.”