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Lutes and language: How Colorado’s Tibetan families fight to retain their culture from half a world away

Families from across the state, some generations removed from exile, converge every Sunday in Boulder to share Tibetan traditions. Some drive hours to preserve their past.

Khandro Aungae, 5, practices the Chinese yngie. When she is older, she will learn to play the Tibetan lute. Khandro and her family travel from Eagle every Sunday to participate in classes at the Tibetan Cultural School in Boulder. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In a classroom unused by Boulder’s Naropa University on Sundays, 11 teenagers sit in a semicircle playing Tibetan lutes in unison. The teacher, not much older than some of her students, paces the room. “Sit straight,” she says. “Slow down. You’re speeding up.”

The students begin again, playing faster and faster as the melody progresses. A kid with dark glasses keeps going after the others stop, then looks around. “We have to play it four times,” he says, lute perched on athletic shorts. “That was four times!” the class responds.

While all of the students are ethnically Tibetan, most were born and raised in Colorado. Many of their families have not lived in Tibet for three or more generations, when great-grandparents fled the country in the face of Chinese occupation and oppression. At first, Tibetans formed a tight community in Nepal and India, but have slowly emigrated to countries around the world, some settling in Colorado, where the altitude and landscape reminded them of home.

The more than 400 Tibetan families now in Colorado are banding together in an attempt to pass down culture, language and values to kids who’ve never seen a Tibetan lute, and were raised in a world where they don’t need to speak their parents’ language. The families are spread out across the state. The Aungae family makes the two-hour drive down from Eagle to the Tibetan Cultural School every Sunday so their kids can pray, play music and learn dance, and take language classes. More than anything, Samten Aungae thinks it’s important that they spend time with other Tibetan kids.

Tenzin Tinley, Tenzin Tsering, and Dhundup Tashi (left to right) are in the advanced Tibetan lute class which starts every Sunday at 11 a.m. under the instruction of Tenzin Khepa who is a student at the University of Colorado-Denver. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Tenzin Khepa, 19, the lute teacher, recently made the transition from student to instructor. Now in her first year of nursing school at the University of Colorado-Denver, she volunteers every Sunday to help get more young people interested in their culture and history. “I’ve been going to Tibetan School since I was really young, but we just started the music program,” Khepa said. “I wasn’t speaking much Tibetan in the house, so my mom sent me to boarding school in India.”

In the three years Khepa spent in Dharamshala, she met other Tibetans from all over the world. “A lot of Indian students, kids from Europe, all over. I had a friend who was half French and half Nepali, and I also made a friend my freshman year who came from Boston,” Khepa said. “I hated it at first, because it was a new environment, but I kind of adapted to it. It was nice to have a lot of Tibetans around me, and to be able to practice the language.”

Khepa’s dad escaped from Tibet. Her mom grew up in Nepal, a common experience for middle-aged Tibetans now living abroad. Samten Aungae was raised moving back and forth between India and Nepal. His mom was too young to remember much of the mountain crossing, but his grandparents told him harsh stories of what they went through to escape their home country.

Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled the country in 1959, in the midst of the Chinese occupation that began nine years before. Aungae’s grandparents were eager to follow. At the time, the Chinese were not allowing anyone out of the country, and refugees fled over treacherous Himalayan passes.

“The safest places to escape were the harshest places to pass, because the Chinese were unable to get there,” Aungae said. “People were poorly equipped, all they knew was that they were following his holiness the Dalai Lama and saving Tibetan culture.”

In India, they found a community of Tibetans equally eager to keep the culture alive until they could one day reclaim their homeland. In Aungae’s boarding school, the caretakers and teachers all were Tibetan. “It was very much a Tibetan culture that we were raised in,” he says.

Tenzin Jigme, known as the persistent one, went searching for a space where language and culture classes could be taught back in the early 2000s. He went to 19 churches over a period of eight months looking for a space. Finally, in 2007, a church in Boulder agreed to share space, where the Tibetan Cultural School met for five years. Now the school meets on Sundays at Naropa University. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As a kid, his parents and grandparents told him they would one day return to Tibet. When he was young, he believed them, but as he grew up he discovered a different reality. In India, he took formal Tibetan classes through high school, and spoke the language as a part of everyday life in Dharamsala, which in 1960 became the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.

“When we were growing up it was always the belief that, ‘Someday, we’re going to go back to our land.’ The Chinese illegally took it from us, but they thought that China would change,” Aungae said. “We were raised with that mindset. When you get older, you learn more information, and reality is a little different. But we still keep the hope.”

Aungae decided to immigrate to the United States, settling in Eagle after a stint as a sushi chef in California. He says he came for the reason any immigrant comes to the country — better opportunity. Aungae felt constrained in India and Nepal, and felt the move would help him make something more of his life. Now, he owns a rug business with his wife, Dechan, employing 200 people in Nepal who weave rugs to fill custom orders for U.S. markets. He’s happy with where he is now, and says he likes living in Eagle County. But he worries that the more Tibetans spread out, the harder it will be to keep the culture alive.

“We grew up in a very minimalist circumstance, but it was parallel across all of our communities. We were in the same boat. Now, we’ve got some education to keep up with modern development, and people migrated to different areas to find better opportunities,” Aungae says. “At the same time, the drawback is that we get scattered all across the globe. It’s hard to retain your culture and values when you are in a completely different environment.” He particularly wants to teach his kids the Buddhist values of loving compassion and altruism.

In the last hour before the Tibetan Cultural School breaks for lunch, students from all age groups come together to learn traditional Tibetan prayer songs from teacher Dhargay Phuntsok. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Aungae’s three children are 11, 8, and 5, and have only known Nepal as a place for family vacations. He says he’s pleased with the education they’re getting in the U.S., and hopes they thrive in the new environment. Still, it can be difficult watching them grow up in such a different society.

“It’s always a struggle for us, because we grew up with a strong sense of Tibetan identity even though we were outside of Tibet,” Aungae says. “We think it’s a critical element for our cultural preservation, to have some kind of language preservation. And maybe the kids get to experience that, and retain some kind of good values from our society.”

As Khepa got older, she learned to understand the importance her mom had placed on the language and history of a country she had never visited. For now, she’s happy to volunteer her weekends to help inspire young people to place more value on their cultural history. She wants to keep teaching as long as she can, but doesn’t know if she’ll have time after graduation.

“I know now how important it is to preserve the culture, and preserve the language. Not a lot of these students speak Tibetan fluently, and I don’t either,” Khepa says. “It’s strange to see how my parents’ generation, they’re very fluent in Tibetan, and they know a lot about the culture and the history, but my generation is a lot different. I don’t know a lot. I feel like it’s kind of my responsibility as a Tibetan to be more interested in it.”

From age 10 to 13, Tenzin Khepa attended boarding school in India for Tibetan kids. There she better learned the languages of her family and became proficient playing the Tibetan lute. Now that she is a college student in Denver, she says she feels it is her duty as a Tibetan to pass on these language and cultural practices to the next generation, which is why she volunteers at the Tibetan Cultural School every Sunday. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Over the years, the Tibetan Cultural School has bounced around between different homes. First in a church, then at a school, and now at Naropa, which was founded by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. The community has been fundraising and saving for years, with the hope of one day moving into their own location, a bit of Tibet on Colorado soil. Each family contributes $500 a year to support the culture program.

As Aungae’s kids get older, he hopes they, too, will take something from both worlds. He’s happy to be in America, with opportunities for his children that he could not imagine when he lived in India. He also wants to pass on the Buddhist values that he feels are the core of Tibetan culture.

For the Aungaes, the four-hour round trip drive from Eagle is always worth it.

“I don’t hold a very definitive identity, like you have to fit in a rigid frame. But I want them to feel comfortable with who they are, and be a constructive member of society wherever they go,” Aungae says. “I really feel like it’s such a blessing for me to have a little support system here. It gives me extra tools to pass on some of our values, hopefully the good parts.”

For the last six years, Dhargay Phuntsok has volunteered as a teacher at the Tibetan Cultural School. The language and culture program is built on the donation of free time by many volunteers who come every Sunday to teach. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)