Observations on Exile

Rebecca Orton
By Rebecca Orton
January 31, 2014

“It’s like being in a zoo; people come from all over the world to look at the Tibetans living in India. I feel like I’m an animal in a cage sometimes”. 

This is what my friend told me one afternoon while we sipped hot ginger lemon honey. She should know after nearly 15 years living here in McLeodganj. I confessed to her that 5 years ago, when I first visited Dharamsala, I was one of those foreigners who simply didn’t know better. I too was excited to see the Tibetans and live among them. I was foolish, uneducated about the rigors of a life in exile with refugee status. 

The challenges of living a life exiled from one’s homeland, separated from loved ones, without citizenship, without a passport or any documentation showing national affiliation, were beyond my understanding or life experience at the time. By the end of my 5-month stay in McLeodganj, and daily interaction with Tibetan’s I was teaching, and budding friendships that remain steadfast to this day, I had a much better grasp of the dark side of a life in exile and a very different viewpoint upon leaving.

To the foreigner with stars in their eyes, coming to McLeodganj, aka Little Lhasa, is an opportunity to intermingle with people who have for decades been given an elevated status in the west. Pseudo celebrities, Tibetans are stereotyped beyond reason; peace- loving, gentle, kind, non-violent, happy and fun loving Buddhists; as if each and every one of them were a replica of the Dalai Lama. There is so much more to be said and understood about the small population of Tibetans throughout the world, things that would render those stereotypes truly insulting. What lies behind the mirth and smiles is a long festering wound of collective epic proportions. Individually, I’ve discovered that many Tibetans have an enormous capacity to hold it all in, brave a smile in the face of hardship and sorrow and cry in despair when no one is looking. Depression is common, and with the exception of growing substance abuse, is mostly contained in the private confines of home and ones own thoughts.

My Tibetan friends here are amazed when I tell them that crying is absolutely normal and in fact necessary for sound mental health. They look at me in utter disbelief, as if suddenly I have grown three heads, and I am reminded of my very tearful departure from this place 5 years ago, when I was scolded by a tiny woman, “Acha la, you must not cry because it will make others unhappy”. It was however, impossible to contain my sorrow, as I said goodbye to a group of friends and students who had securely entered my heart. That tiny woman and I are now like sisters, so close that she freely sobs in my arms when she is troubled. As stoic as my little sister appeared, I always knew she cried in private, no one could possibly contain so much sorrow and not shatter into a thousand jagged fragments.

An immensely deep sorrow and anguish from being separated from family and homeland, lies just below the surface of happy joviality. I have repeatedly observed that the happiest, funniest, people in this world are very often carrying a significant burden of pain and heartache. For Tibetan’s, life here is a limbo state, estranged unwillingly, from what they consider true home. Being unable to go to the aid of sick or dying family members in Tibet, to help, grieve or comfort is excruciatingly painful. Estranged from parents, siblings, and birthplace, is to be adrift and untethered; stuck in a place that maybe isn’t what one thought it would be when striking out with a guide from the streets of Lhasa. Not being able to leave without the assistance of some benevolent person, family member or government, is to be powerless. As my friend said during the course of our conversation, she never feels settled, never feels like making a home in one of the cement blocks that pass for housing in India. There is no permanence; how very Buddhist; and also an unwelcome condition for many.

For those Tibetan’s who have never stepped foot on the roof of the world, Tibet is a dream, a fabled land they long for in a very different way than those that grew up there and can not return. An aching desire unquenched by the reality of experiencing a place, persists on a daily basis. The fight for Tibet’s freedom is colored by this desire to see and experience the roots of their heritage, alive in the history of geographic space. The question always in the mind is when? When will Tibet be free? Their pain is no less real, no less valid; it simply originates from a different space. They’ve never intimately known their geographic roots.  

A monk from Europe, once told my friend, “oh you must be so happy living here, I would love to live here!” She being wise and smart said to him, “sure you can live here, give me your passport and all of your identifying documentation and I will tear them up and throw them away, then you can live here forever”. She made her point well. He was stunned into reflective silence.

As my time here draws to a close, I am reminded of my great privileges. I have a passport. I have American citizenship. I am relatively protected by this status. As an American I can go just about anywhere in the world I choose. Being here reminds me to never take my privilege for granted, extending assistance to others when and if possible, even when it might be inconvenient.

To all my fellow foreigners, McLeodganj is not a fairytale wonderland filled with happy Tibetans. Scrap the stereotypes you have come to believe, peel back your eyelids and dare to see what lies behind the smiles and laughter. And then tell the world what you have come to know and remind them that for 55 years Tibetans have been in this place, waiting to go home, sometimes hanging on by a thread. And through all the difficulties, the challenges, and the heartaches, they strive to be productive, to smile and make you laugh, unknowingly capturing your heart with something unfathomable, something wild, and raw and more real than anything you will find at home. 

NOTE--  Rebecca Orton is a writer, photographer, grad student and teacher whose permanent home is Seattle, Washington, USA. She has taught Modern Tibetan History at Antioch University and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in World History and Culture with an emphasis in Alternative Dispute Resolution through the University of Denver.


  1. Excellent, poignant write up by Rebecca Orton. I can only wish you best of luck in your future endeavours.

    Bit of that last line, ".....something unfathomable, something wild, and raw and more real than anything you will find at home."

    More Real? As a Tibetan who calls the West his home, who love the West, your quote is bit insulting, it's as if you are insinuating that people in the West are soulless, jaded, misanthropic creatures who can only fake it...

    Anyway, you may be right, or maybe, you are right because of the company you keep. lol

  2. LOL good point...and maybe it's the company I keep and maybe it's simply the mindset of the west in general...True open heartedness and authenticity is a tad difficult to come by in the west, and generally I am referring to those of us born and raised there and the product of many generations of westerners. However, I don't think I'd go so far as to say "soulless, jaded, misanthropic creatures"!! Jaded maybe... ha ha ha

  3. LOL!! O.k. maybe it is the company I keep, but I doubt it. In fact I think many of my western friends would agree to some extent. Attitudes are different, the mindset of the average westerner is very different.

    Jaded, yes probably many are myself included. Soulless...only your average Wallstreet tycoon or GOPer! Misanthropic may go a tad too far though and as for creatures...well aren't we all?

    All I know for sure is that when I spend time in Dhasa surrounded by Tibetan friends it is a vastly different and more heartening experience than here in the west. No insult meant to anyone.