Feeling Isolated, older Tibetans seek space of their own

New York City: For 82-year-old Sonam Choedon, life every day is almost the same routine at her daughter’s home in Woodside, Queens. She gets up around eight in the morning and does her regular prayers. With rosary in one hand and a prayer wheel in the other, she begins her day by reciting a Buddhist mantra of compassion. She says it keeps her peaceful and calm.

For Choedon spending hours in Buddhist prayers has become a daily routine.

For Choedon spending hours in Buddhist prayers has become a daily routine. For Video: CLICK HERE

“In our Tibetan Buddhist culture, reciting Mani (mantra of compassion) can benefit all sentient beings and not just oneself,” Choedon explains in Tibetan. “It is a belief that merit of reciting Mani is the only thing we can take along with us after we leave this world.”

But behind this tranquil-sounding poise, Choedon has been struggling to find joy out of her regular prayers.

Like many older immigrants, Choedon dreamed of reuniting with her daughters who were living in the United States. Since arriving in the U.S. legally 10 years ago from Nepal, she began to realize that a small and scattered Tibetan population in an economically driven, busy country would mean depriving her of the much-needed social and cultural life.

Besides her regular prayers, the only other thing Choedon has managed to do on her own without relying on family members in all these years is take a short walk to a public park two blocks away from her home on 45th Street and 48th Avenue in Woodside. Since coming to New York, Choedon says, she has never traveled alone beyond the park.

“At this age and living in a foreign land where I cannot speak the language, doing prayers and going to the park are the only things I am good at doing by myself,” she says in Tibetan. “After being in this country for over 10 years now, I still don’t know anything about American life.”

Kunga Thinley, president of The Tibetan Community of New Jersey and New York, agrees that many older Tibetans in the city who moved to the U.S. in later part of their life find it difficult to learn and adjust to the new living environment. This leaves them with little choice to participate in social activities outside of their family.

“Right now many of them end up staying home alone when their family members are busy with their work, so this issue facing our older members in our community has been raised regularly,” Thinley says, adding that the community is in the process of finding a meaningful solution to the isolation facing older Tibetans.

The issues are not unique to the Tibetan community.

Older immigrants, especially those with limited or no English language proficiency, are less likely to interact with others, but rely more on family and organizations within their ethnic communities, according to a study conducted in 2008 by Dr Sadhna Diwan, director of the Center for Healthy Aging in Multicultural Populations at San Jose State University.

Besides the loss of their independence when they arrive in the U.S., they face harder time than younger immigrants assimilating to a new culture, customs and language. And they often don’t have friends or a platform to create a social network. Diwan says these issues are common among “late-life immigrants,” who are “generally older people who come to the U.S. to join their adult children.”

Diwan says the language barrier, which she terms Limited English Proficiency (LEP), results in “social isolation not only from mainstream but also from others in their own community as LEP seniors are not comfortable taking public transportation, going out on their own, and hence become quite dependent on their children and grandchildren.”

“Almost everyone who immigrates later in life will have a greater challenge in terms of adapting to new environments, but these issues are compounded by LEP which impacts all aspects of their lives,” says Diwan.

Born in Tibet, in its capital city of Lhasa, in 1930, Choedon escaped to Nepal in 1980 to avoid “political, cultural and religious oppression” under the Chinese rule. In Nepal, she struggled to live in a closely-knit community of Tibetans.

Choedon first came to the U.S. in 2001 at the age of 72 to live in Seattle with her eldest daughter. Feeling isolated, with few Tibetans to be seen around and only her daughter to live with, Choedon moved to New York to live with her second daughter, who shared her house with her husband and two of their adult children. Choedon thought more Tibetans in New York would mean less isolation and more social and cultural life outside of her home. But little changed.

Once in New York, the subways were too complicated for her to travel around. Although there are more Tibetans in the city, the lack of a traditional senior center meant almost the same old thing.

Choedon’s daughter Dawa Bhuti and her granddaughter Dolma Choezom said they looked for a senior center in their neighborhood to see if she could join.

“But the centers have only language assistance for Chinese or Spanish. And since my grandmother cannot speak English or any of these languages, she doesn’t want to go,” says Choezom, who is a nursing student and gained experience volunteering at senior centers as part of her program.

Caryn B. Resnick, deputy commissioner at the New York City Department for the Aging, says her department has “very little if any data on the older Tibetans population and the services for them.”

Choedon agrees that the idea of joining one of the many senior citizens in the city to counter loneliness did not interest her because of her language barrier.

“These issues are not so acute among people who can communicate in English — but even there, older people often become homebound and dependent because of lack of transportation as well as self-confidence in navigating suburbia,” Diwan said.

Another Tibetan immigrant, Tsering Dolma, 72, who lives with her family in Woodside, shares almost the same experience. Like Choedon, Dolma doesn’t speak English. She barely manages to travel as far as Jackson Heights, four stops from her house on 45th Street in Woodside, Queens, to attend one of the regular prayer sessions organized by Tibetan community members.

Dolma enthusiastically explains how she takes the 7 train to Jackson Heights and takes the same train back home. Besides that, Dolma says she has never traveled elsewhere on her own.

Unable to move around and find benefits of their own, many older immigrants like Choedon and Dolma rely entirely on family members for help. When the family members are not around, they end up waiting helplessly for them.

Both Choedon and Dolma say they are looking for the company of other Tibetans where they can speak the same language and share the same cultural backgrounds.

For now the best bet for the older Tibetans is to pin their hope on a newly purchased Tibetan Community Center, says Choedon’s son-in-law Thupten Dhargay. He says his family contributed $500 to help realize the much-awaited community center. Through contribution from its members and well wishers, the community just recently managed to buy an old factory complex located in Woodside, Queens, to turn it into a community center.

The community is now in a legal process for the renovation of the center.

Once completed, Thinley says, the center will have multi-faceted sections for a number of educational, cultural and spiritual activities designed to help both young and old. “The center, once completed, will be a center of activities for Tibetans to come together and keep the community more culturally intact,” he adds.

“We hope the center will provide a venue for older people to come together and spend their time interacting and doing activities that interest them,” Thinley said, adding that the board members are still discussing the specific details of the bigger plans.

According to him, it will at least take more than a year before the center will be fully ready.

Until then life for many older Tibetans will follow the same pattern – either visit their favorite park or spend time home holding prayers with the motivation to help all sentient beings.


Tibetan Americans look to US elections through Tibet

By Phurbu Thinley
[Originally Published on NYU NewsDoc Site

New York: Health care, taxes, government spending, financial regulation and unemployment issues may have dominated the political debate in the US presidential elections that saw Obama win for a second term. But for many Tibetan Americans there is a bigger and more agonizing issue of their own that far surpassed the issues facing the US voters.

Members of Tibetan community take part in prayer service for victims of self-immolations on Thursday, November 8, 2012, in Jackson Height, Queens. Rights groups say as many as six Tibetans, including three teenage monks, in Tibet set themselves on fire this week to protest against Chinese rule over their homeland.

Struggle for freedom, intensified by wave of ongoing self-immolations by Tibetans inside Tibet, voicing dissatisfaction against decades old Chinese rule, have shaped the way Tibetans in the US took part in the US elections this week.

Phurbu Dorjee, a resident of Jackson Heights, voted for the second time. Unlike in 2008, when he voted for Obama hoping for a “more positive change,” Dorjee said he voted for Mitt Romney this time.

“I expected Obama to be more vocal about human rights violations around the world. Despite series of self-immolations by Tibetans in Tibet, I am disappointed that Obama has not taken a stand yet,” said Dorjee. “I think in terms of religious freedom, Romney is more likely to take a stronger position on Tibet with China.”

According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, six Tibetans have set themselves on fire, of them three teenage monks, in the last two days. According to the official website of Tibet’s government in exile based in north India, since August 2009 there have been 69 cases of self-immolations by dousing themselves on fire; with 54 confirmed dead, while others sustaining life threatening burns.

For Tibetans, the US is still a major player in the world and its President a potential leader on these issues.

Dorjee Tsering, an independent Tibetan filmmaker, insists economically stronger US is more likely to take a bolder stand with China.

“My view is that US is going through an economic mess. To take on a powerful country like China, it is logical that US needs to be economically more stable,” Tsering said. “Obama is trying to do that, and I voted for him.”

Tsering became a US citizen just few months ago – just in time to take part in Tuesday’s elections. Although excited about his newly acquired status in the US that allows him to freely cast his vote, Tsering said Tibet remains very much his real homeland.

“I still feel a temporary citizen or what they call the second class citizen. If only Tibetans are as strong as the Spanish speaking population in this country, we can make our voices heard more effectively through the elections,” Tsering said.

Like many Tibetans, 21-year-old Tsering Dolma, a student of elementary education at Queens College, is saddened by the series of self-immolations. Tsering was only 11 years old when she came to the US in 2002. She became a US citizen two years ago and could have voted for the first time in this year’s presidential election. But Dolma decided not to vote.

“I couldn’t decide who is a better candidate for Tibet and I didn’t vote,” she said.

Tsering has committed herself to spare her free time to Tibet-related activities. She has been working as a “Head Volunteer” for the New York-based regional chapter of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a group that advocates complete independence for Tibet, to help organize and coordinate protest demonstrations for Tibet.

“In fact Tibet kept me over occupied in the last few months that I didn’t get time to think and follow the elections,” Tsering said, adding, “I have no regret for not voting this time.”

The group on Thursday organized a prayer service in Jackson Heights to pray for the latest victims of self-immolations. On Friday the group again organized a protest demonstration in front of the UN to seek a meaningful intervention in Tibet.

The group’s president Cheden L. Adetsang said the two events are part of a series of events to highlight the “worsening situation” in Tibet.

“For us Tibet issue is a top priority, and we call on US and UN time and again to use their influence to help find a solution to Tibet in the long run. But as a organization, we have no specific preference between Democrats and Republicans,” Adetsang said.

Adetsang said it is now time for him and the organization to closely watch the outcome of the China’s Party Congress.

Close on the heels of the US elections, China’s Party Congress on Thursday began a rare session to oversee a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

At the end of the session, 59 year-old Xi Jinping, the man widely tipped to lead China for the next 10 years, is expected to replace the incumbent president Hu Jintao.

Patel Brothers: The Journey of an Indian Grocery Store

By Phurbu Thinley
This article was originally published on NYU NewsDoc

Grocery stores of all kinds and sizes are a common sight in Jackson Heights in Queens. But Patel Brothers grocery store on 74th Street stands out for its sheer size and popularity as one-stop shopping for people of South Asian descent.

Patel Brothers on 74 Street in Jackson Heights, Queens

When you step into this grocery store with 7,500 square feet of space and with a basement store equally as large, it seems to be offering every ingredient crucial for Indian cooking. There is an entire aisle of variety of rice, a section devoted to Dals (lentils) and beans, and enormous sections for Indian spices, pickles, snacks and sweets, and even utensils. And, of course, not to mention the two whole aisles devoted to vegetables and fruits. There is also a small section of Ayurvedic and Indian herbal products. More than 90 percent of the store’s goods are imported from India, mainly from Gujarat, with rest comprised of American goods that are useful in Indian cooking.

“In a country like U.S., especially in Jackson Heights or elsewhere in Queens, where Indians are the second largest Asian group after Chinese, there is a huge market for Indian grocery,” said Harshad Patel, owner of Patel Brothers.

Patel Brothers counts 95 percent of its customers are Indian and people of South Asian descent, including sizeable Tibetan and Bhutanese communities from the neighborhood.

This grocery store in Jackson Heights is a branch of the Patel Brothers chain, one of the fastest growing Indian food chains in the U.S. With over 54 stores across the U.S., primarily along the Eastern Seaboard, it is by far the largest Indian grocery chain in the country. The family-owned business also carries its own brands of products, including “SWAD” foods.

The business was started by two of Harshad Patel’s uncles – Mafat Patel and his younger brother Tulsi Patel – in 1974 when they bought a small Indian store on Devon Avenue in Chicago.

According to Harshad Patel, at the time there were no other Indian grocery store in Chicago. Within a few years, the Patel Brothers’ business began to grow rapidly as the Indian community began to grow in the U.S. By the early 1980s, they decided to expand their business outside of Chicago.

What started out as a single family-owned grocery store has now expanded into a national food chain with the company adding at least one or two stores each year. In the New York tri-state area alone, the Patels boast of 12 stores – four in New York City (three of which are in Queens), six in New Jersey, and two in Connecticut. The store in Jackson Heights is one of the chain’s top sellers.

“Our monthly sale is somewhere between $1.2 and $1.3 million,” said Patel. He, however, refused to divulge further financial details, saying the company had adopted a strict approach not to reveal them.

According to cashier Akash Patel the grocery store attracts between 1,500 to 2,000 customers on weekdays. “And on weekends we attract close to 4,000 customers on an average basis,” Akash Patel added.

Rasila Shah, a 60-year-old Indian American currently residing in New Rochelle has been coming to the Jackson Heights store regularly since moving from Queens two years ago. Before that she used to shop at the Hillside store.

“Patel brothers is my one-stop shopping place and I come here once in a week or two to get my kitchen supplies,” said Shah in Hindi. “I get this Indian atmosphere when I step into this grocery store. You see all the masala [powdered spices], vegetables like Karela [bitter guard] and different kinds of chawal [rice].”

Jay Khatri, a resident of Jackson Heights, frequents the grocery store. “I do come here [Patel Brothers] quite often because my store is right across the street,” said Khatri. He noted Apna Bazar and Sabzi Mandi, other big Indian stores in Jackson heights, were other options depending what he needed and the quality of the products and the prices each of them offers.

Despite its size, Patel Brothers is still very much a family business. “All the Patel Brothers units are owned by immediate family members, and there has been no opening for public franchise,” said Harshad Patel. The newest store will open next month in Orlando, Florida. “So it is still a family-owned business.”