Growing Up Tibetan in 1980’s England

This article was written for the booklet celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Community in Britain. It was wonderful to see it in print, thank you to Pema Yoko and the whole TCB Council for all your work surrounding the anniversary.

(Photo Caption: My brother Jigme and I at Woking Fairground in 1982)

There are not many people who could write about growing up in a Tibetan family in Woking, Surrey, in the 1980’s. There were so few Tibetans in the UK at that time in general and in Woking we were two or three Tibetan households at the most! My older brother Jigme and I were both born in St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey, Surrey and many years later, my cousin Riga was born there too. Although it has been a long time since we moved from Woking, I look back on my childhood with very happy memories, it was both very ordinary and at the same time, unique.

In some ways, it was a typical English upbringing that many will recognise, our green school uniforms, our Friday afternoon trips to the sweet shop with 10p at the ready and holidays involving camping in the rain and stopping at Happy Eater. Entwined with those memories however are the many times we boarded the train to Waterloo to attend 10th March demonstrations, Losar parties, Tibetan language Sunday school lessons and also those exciting days we were taken out of school when His Holiness might be in the UK giving an audience to the tiny Tibetan community.

Being Tibetan wasn’t something we actively discussed or talked about, but it was embedded within our everyday lives. It was just natural that we would speak Tibetan at home, eat Tibetan food at home, and be involved in Tibet related activities that were happening, usually in London. During the summer holidays we could catch up with our relatives in Germany and extended family in Switzerland that had much larger Tibetan communities. During those days it wasn’t so easy to travel to India and Nepal but we were able to go on family trips there in the 90s and be exposed to the exile communities there.

My parents told me that when I started going to school, I didn’t speak any English at all but I soon caught up. My brother and I were the only Tibetans in the school and I would regularly be asked if I knew how to meditate to which my answer would be, no. I think the first time that people seemed to have heard of Tibet was when it began to make some early appearances in pop culture. When “The Golden Child” starring Eddie Murphy came out in 1987 we went on a family outing to the cinema to watch it just because we had heard that it had a Tibetan theme. Prior to that the only cinematic claim to fame we had was that we could understand what the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi” were saying!

Ever since I was little, I loved books and I loved reading. Woking Library kept me stocked with all the Enid Blytons and Roald Dahls that filled my free time. I can’t say that I remember reading much in the way of Tibetan stories apart from perhaps a Milarepa comic book that had somehow made its way from India. I’m fortunate that my family supported my interests in literature and language from an early age. I went on to read English and German at University College London and am now the founder and editor of a translations website called High Peaks Pure Earth which translates essays, poetry and music videos from Tibet into English. The website was started at the end of 2008 primarily to give an English language forum for Tibetan writer and poet Tsering Woeser, one of our most important contemporary Tibetan voices. 

Included below is one of my favourite poems by Tsering Woeser that she wrote in 2018, inspired by a surveillance camera she saw in Lhasa that was disguised as a Tibetan prayer wheel.


Image by Tsering Woeser

“Eye of the Empire”
By Tsering Woeser
Translation by Palden Gyal

What kind of eye is that?
Yet, it must be an eye of utmost desires:
An eye of greed, anger, ignorance, jealousy, and pride –filled with wisps of blood.
Among the Six Paths, this eye of all beings neither save itself nor saved by,
And such is then accordant with the image of a powerful empire!
That day, he arrived without any invitation, the pale-faced scholar.
Keeping an overtly chastened smile
Yet his movements are not at all that modest,
As he quickly occupied the seat in the center
Exposed his fangs like the glittering of frost and snow,
Revealed his claws like that of an eagle’s sharp claws.
I dare not look into his eyes anymore,
His eyes are blazing with the five poisons
And it can easily control and capture souls.

January 19, 2018, Beijing

Translation published on High Peaks Pure Earth

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