Prom and the Dalai Lama

Wangyal T. Ritzekura is the Minneapolis schools' first Tibetan staffer
Kristine Heykants

If you're looking for the Tibetans, stop at Southwest High School any time around lunch. Walk into the cafeteria, with the pizza line on your left. Keep going until you reach the last row of booths, where groups of dark-haired boys crane their necks toward tables of girls who giggle and roll their eyes. Then try this: In a voice just loud enough to rise above the din, say, "Hey, Tenzin." Watch 50 or 60 heads turn.

One of those heads belongs to Tenzin Tsomo, a 16-year-old junior clad in the athletic look--red track pants, blue sweater with a white stripe down the sleeves--that is the rage among her peers. In her two years at Southwest, Tsomo has had plenty of practice answering the obvious questions: "Everyone asks us: 'Have you seen Seven Years in Tibet?' and 'Why are you all Tenzins?'" The answer to the first question is simple--a "yeah," a shrug. The second calls for some lengthy explaining of a culture thousands of miles and thousands of years removed from this Minneapolis lunchroom.

Which is where Wangyal T. Ritzekura comes in. A few months ago, the round-faced 45-year-old became the Minneapolis school district's first Tibetan community liaison; it's his job to bridge the gulf between the schools and one of the city's newest and fastest-growing immigrant communities. According to district officials, some 180 Tibetan students attend Minneapolis schools, with more than one-third at Southwest. No other school in the U.S. has more Tibetans, according to Dr. Bobbi Nassar, a social-work professor at New York's Yeshiva University who has studied Tibetan resettlement.

Wangyal, as everyone calls him, discovered the confusion Tibetan names can cause two years ago, when he registered his four boys in the Minneapolis schools. Seeing that three of the kids--Tenzin Jigme, Tenzin Jambec, Jampa Tashi, and Tenzin Khedu--had the same first name, and none had Wangyal's "last name," the staffer handling the registration demanded proof that Wangyal was indeed the father. Wangyal says he hopes to prevent future misunderstandings by giving his children the name Ritzekura, which he took when he became a U.S. citizen last year--and by educating district staffers about his country's native customs.

Hiring Wangyal is an "experiment" for the schools, says Karen Webster, director of the district's Services for English Language Learners. Webster's department was formed in response to the influx of Vietnamese, Hmong, and Laotian refugees following the Vietnam War. Ever since then it has struggled to keep up with the civil wars, economic upheavals, and U.S. immigration law changes that bring an ever-shifting stream of newcomers to the Minneapolis schools. Currently, Webster says, the department serves some 8,000 students, or nearly 20 percent of the total student body.

For large immigrant populations, such as the 2,000 Somali students who have arrived in the past five years, the district has designated "language center" schools; Roosevelt High and Sullivan Middle School, for example, have Somali translators and teachers. But for smaller groups, Webster says, the schools currently offer few resources. "If we have the budget, we're also looking at liaisons for Bosnian, and Amharic and Oromifa [languages spoken by Ethiopians]," she explains. "We've decided that when a group reaches about 200, we should start doing something for the families."


Wangyal was among the first immigrants to arrive in the Twin Cities following the U.S. Congress's decision in 1990 to grant 1,000 "special visas" to Tibetan refugees. Tens of thousands of Tibetans fled their country in 1959 after a failed uprising against occupying Chinese troops. Many sought shelter near the small town of Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama was setting up a government in exile.

As they began arriving in 1992, most of "the original 1,000," as those with the special visas are sometimes called, were funneled into "cluster sites," chosen by the Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project, an independent coalition of exiles and their American supporters. Because the Twin Cities metropolitan area had lots of enthusiastic volunteers--led by Thupten Dadak, a Tibetan who moved here in 1985 and founded the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota--it was designated as one of 22 such sites in the nation.

Ultimately, says Wangyal, more refugees settled here than in any other cluster site: "Minnesota had 160 immigrants enter between 1992 and 1993, and the next site down didn't even have 100." Minnesota's Tibetan community became so large and cohesive, Wangyal says, that refugees from other cluster cities such as St. Louis, Los Angeles, and New York City started moving here. Today, according to the Tibetan American Foundation, there are 700 Tibetans in Minnesota. Yeshiva University's Nassar says the Twin Cities have now outpaced even New York City in the number of Tibetans who have arrived as refugees.

It took a few years for the original immigrants to finance their families' journeys to the United States. Wangyal, a teacher by training, worked in a variety of manufacturing, food-industry, and custodial jobs before sending for his wife and sons in 1996. They now live in a little rambler near Lake Nokomis, with a white prayer flag out in front. Eight other Tibetan families live close by.

Because Tibetans have tended to settle near each other, most of their children are concentrated at a handful of schools, says Wangyal. He typically spends at least one day a week at Southwest and splits his remaining time between other schools and late-night phone calls from his home: "Many Tibetans work housekeeping or nursing-assistant jobs where they don't always have a phone readily available," he explains. "So night is the only time to reach them."

Unlike their children, many parents also do not speak English, and Wangyal is working on translating school district materials into Tibetan.

Language isn't the only gap between Tibetan parents and American schools, says longtime local resettlement volunteer Mary Ann Lundquist. "The Tibetans are coming from a system where parents are expected to play a hands-off role in schools," she says. "Schools are completely in charge of the kids, and parents are not supposed to interfere. So it's a big mindset change to have schools asking for input and feedback." Lundquist says Tibetan families are also used to "very disciplined schools, and they're shocked by how much less respectful [American] kids are to teachers. That, for them, takes a little getting used to."

For the students, the biggest adjustment may be going home to their parents every day. About half of the Tibetan kids now in Minnesota attended boarding schools back in India, says Tsultim Tsagong, a member of the Tibetan American Foundation's board of directors. Many of the students in Tenzin Tsomo's row of cafeteria booths say they preferred boarding school, where they lived in dormitories and were surrounded by friends day and night. Now, says Tsomo, "We don't like vacation days as much as the American kids do, because we just stay at home without our friends around. We like school days more."

In addition to their regular school days, many Tibetan students also attend "Saturday school," Tibetan American Foundation-sponsored classes that teach their country's language and customs. Wangyal says such education is critical for a culture that now survives chiefly in exile. The Chinese--who consider Tibet to be part of China--have outlawed instruction in the native language and religion. Says Wangyal: "A Tibetan who has a picture of His Holiness at home could be put in prison, because he is, as they say, 'cooperating with the Dalai Lama [in] splitting the mainland.'"

Paradoxically, says Wangyal, the Chinese occupation in some ways has actually fostered connections between Tibet and the rest of the world: When he was born, the nonindustrialized Buddhist nation was practically invisible to the outside world. Now the kids he works with can surf straight to the Dalai Lama's Web site,, and attend the Beastie Boys concert at Target Center courtesy of band member Adam Yauch, who has helped to raise funds for the Tibetan cause.

Lundquist says that many Tibetans "take the long-term view that someday they can return to the homeland. That message comes to teenagers from their parents and from the Dalai Lama. But teenagers are so often in the here and now anyway that I don't know how much that comes up."

In the here and now, Tsomo and her friends seem to move smoothly between their two worlds. When a Tibetan boy comes up to one of Tsomo's girlfriends in the cafeteria and demands a pen back, she says--with perfect eye-roll and rising intonation--"Excuse you?" The guy finds the pen in his own pocket and leaves, elbowing the girls. A discussion of prom ensues--despite Tibetan culture's restrictions on dating, all the girls plan to go--followed by talk of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. (Losar started on February 17 and wound up with a big community celebration on the 20th.) For the past two months Tsomo and her friends have been practicing a traditional dance. Now they're ready to perform before the entire school--adding to the chances that next time Tibet is mentioned, their fellow students' thoughts will flash not to Brad Pitt's blond mop, but a row of dark-haired kids named Tenzin.

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