Love across the divide

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 August, 2003, 12:00am

ON THE ROOFTOP terrace of Dharamsala's Tsongkha Restaurant, Rinchen, a 21-year-old with a neat plait of jet black hair and a drop earring, is talking about his Canadian girlfriend, whom he met at a party four months ago. In three weeks they're getting married, and his girlfriend has started working on the papers to take him to Canada. 'I've never been on an aeroplane, I've never been to an airport,' he says. 'My whole life's been in the mountains with sheep and yaks.'

Unusual? Not really. At other tables sit clusters of similar-looking young men, some of them talking to western women. They are known locally as the Amdo boys, former nomads from northeastern Tibet - wiry, copper-skinned horsemen who've traded life on the grasslands for exile in the Dalai Lama's home. For many of them, though, Dharamsala is just a temporary halt in a longer journey.

The trend began in the 1990s, when a surge of western interest in Tibet coincided with a sharp increase in the number of Tibetan refugees arriving in India. Jobless and alone, young Tibetan men are increasingly finding partners among western women.

'When I came back after an absence of five years, I was shocked because it seemed to have become an industry,' says Belinda Burton, who married a Tibetan in 1996 and took him back to Australia. 'It just seems to be gathering steam, it's becoming more common.'

Relationships, which are predominantly between Tibetan men and western women, can take the form of anything from a holiday fling to marriage and a ticket out of India. One Tibetan man says he's slept with about 50 foreigners, whom he finds less inhibited than his countrywomen. Another says he wants to marry so he can migrate to the United States.

For some, it is just one stage in a decade-long loop that ultimately takes them back to Tibet, passport and dollars in hand, to be reunited with their families. The combination of an exotic culture, a good-looking people and a tragic story is a powerful one.

When she first came to Dharamsala in 1994 on a backpacking trip, Burton was intoxicated by the seeming romanticism of the place. Within days she'd met her future husband, and a couple of weeks later was in a relationship with him.

'I thought we were in karmic heaven, there were monasteries, mountains, all this stuff going on,' she says. 'All their stories, the things they've been through, the hardships - they're incredible. When I came here and found out about Tibet and the situation I was just appalled, it really opened something up in me.'

Lobsang Tsering, who runs Kunphen, an NGO promoting awareness of HIV and drug abuse in Dharamsala, has a different perspective.

'Over here, we have so many unemployed Tibetan youths and some have long hair and this Red Indian look and it attracts the woman,' he says 'They want to have fun, they're on holiday, they have an abundance of time on their hands. And these people have an abundance of time to provide to them.'

Lobsang Nyima, home minister in the exiled government, says there may have been 500 marriages between Tibetans and foreigners, almost all of them in Dharamsala, which has a Tibetan population of about 8,000. The other settlements, where the bulk of the 100,000 Tibetans living in India reside, receive few tourists and are largely unaffected.

It's part of a wider trend that has seen thousands of Tibetans emigrate to western countries during the past decade. The US gave out about 1,000 green cards to Tibetan exiles in the early 1990s, and now has a Tibetan population of about 8,000. There are about 3,000 Tibetans in Canada, 2,000 in Switzerland, and a further 2,000 scattered mainly across Britain, France, Australia, Japan and Taiwan.

Resigned to the probability that freedom for Tibet is unachievable, many exiles are now more interested in securing their own economic future. Many believe that establishing Tibetan communities in western countries allows more effective lobbying to take place, but the head of the exile government, Samdhong Rinpoche, says that the trend is making it more difficult to safeguard Tibetan culture.

'This is very bad for the Tibetan community and it will affect adversely the Tibet movement,' says the prime minister. 'Inside Tibet there is genocide, there is enforced birth control and enforced intermarriage. So to protect a pure Tibetan race is also one of the challenges which the nation is facing.'

There are other factors. HIV doesn't seem to have taken hold so far, but abortion rates are high - 15 a month at one of two local hospitals licensed to perform terminations - suggesting a high incidence of unprotected sex among unmarried youth. Ten to 15 per cent of the exile community is estimated to be infected with hepatitis B.

Jenny Tsang, an Australian who has worked as a volunteer for two years in Dharamsala, draws a distinction between the newly arrived refugees, many of whom are from Amdo, and the better established Tibetans who grew up in India.

'The Amdo guys have got no choice, they've got no jobs, it's a way out. But for these other guys, these people born in India, it's like a game. It's not about getting to the west, it's a game that they play. It gives them a sense of power and it's socially prestigious. It's a bit of fun, and they know that western women have money.'

Tsang complains that when she first arrived in Dharamsala, she could not walk along the street or go to a restaurant alone without being approached by men. One of her former boyfriends says that he has had 10 to 15 western girlfriends.

Not everyone is looking to migrate. Karma Sichoe got together with Mona Bruchmann from Germany about a year ago. But the thangka painter, who went on hunger strike in protest at the plight of Tibet for 47 days back in 1998, says he is determined to stay in India to fight for his country's freedom. Mona is devoted to her Buddhist practice, which is far easier to pursue in India than in Germany. She names three other western women in similar situations; the ones who have returned to the west have done so mostly for the sake of their children.

Nor is migration a particularly easy option. Lobsang Tenzin came from Tibet in 1993 as a monk. He disrobed in 1999 and met a German girl, Nina, in 2000. The couple now have a 21-month-old daugher, Karma, who stays with her mother in Germany. Tenzin wants to visit them but has been refused a tourist visa three times. 'I've never been in a western country. It's a very different culture and I don't know if I want to stay, but I love her and I want to be with her,' he says.

Many marriages fall apart under the strain of migration. Suja, a 30-year-old from Amdo, married his Swiss girlfriend in 2002. When they got to Zurich, she had to support him on a meagre salary. He had difficulties with the language, he worried about his family in Tibet constantly, and he couldn't understand how she could kiss other men in front of him. In April, she told him she wanted to divorce. Because the marriage had been so short he was unable to stay in Switzerland and is now back in Dharamsala, jobless.

'I don't put all the blame on her. I think she was just too young,' says Suja of his 23-year-old ex-wife. Burton's marriage lasted a year.

Charlee Tsering, who married in 2001, returned to India this year to study Buddhism; although they're still married, her husband is in Hawaii and doesn't want to leave. There are no statistics, but the usual estimate is that no more than half of these marriages survive the upheaval of migration. 'When I meet women who are engaging in relationships with Tibetan men I try to advise them against it. It's very difficult. The visa process and the communication problem - there are many things about it which are very difficult,' says Tsering.

'Western women are becoming more independent and in Tibetan culture, maybe women don't have these kind of roles. It was a cultural difference that came from him coming home from work and asking, 'Where's my dinner,' and me saying, '~I just got home from work too. Where's my dinner?'''

Samdhong Rinpoche makes a distinction between those who marry out of genuine love, and those who marry simply to get a visa. 'If your relation is genuine love it is okay,'' he says. 'There are many people who get married to get a visa or passport - for that purpose it is immoral. You are misusing your partner.'

Back at the Tsongkha Restaurant, Rinchen tells me that he's not concerned that his fiancee is 12 years older than him. 'I just love, I don't worry about that at all,' he says. 'There are lots of guys around here, they want money, they want a passport, a lot of stuff, but for me it's not like that, because if I want that I could easily find somebody to get married to, go there, get separated and kick her out. Lots of people think like that around here. When I love someone it doesn't matter if she's Tibetan or English or Indian - I just love. I don't care about any other things.' (Some names have been changed)