Sunnyside, Queens, may be as remote as Tibet for the average Manhattanite, but for Tibetan exile Yungchen Lhamo, it’s the cozy center of life. For a woman born under the brutal, and ongoing, Chinese occupation of Tibet, Sunnyside offers security, economic prosperity and religious freedom-not to mention international acclaim for her singing. It was a torturous path that led Ms. Lhamo from the high Himalayas to the concert stages of the West. Performing with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Natalie Merchant and Jewel, Ms. Lhamo jets back and forth across the United States and the world, appearing in such cities as Santa Barbara one week and Berlin the next.
Ms. Lhamo lives in a modest apartment off Queens Boulevard with her teenage son, Shady. A Buddhist shrine dominates one wall of her living room, accompanied by a motorized prayer wheel that spins perpetually. On a recent afternoon, she was dressed in a traditional turquoise Tibetan gown-like a sari, but fuller and thicker-with a slash of pale pink on her right shoulder. It contrasted with her toasted-almond skin and the long, braided black hair that cascaded down her back to the small of her knees.
Ms. Lhamo was born in 1968 (more or less-Tibetans don’t pay much attention to birth dates) near Lhasa, the country’s mountain capital. Her parents were a former nun and monk who met in a Chinese-run labor camp. Ms. Lhamo’s grandfather had been killed by the Chinese government for being a vocal supporter of the Dalai Lama and providing assistance to Tibetan insurgents. Ms. Lhamo lived with her parents in the labor camp until she was 13, at which point the Chinese sent her to a factory town to work in a wool-processing plant. This was a common practice, Ms. Lhamo said, in order to break Tibetan familial bonds. “Every child worked at that time,” she said. The children were packed onto trucks, and “many of us in the truck didn’t know where we were going.” She was forced to perform for other factory workers, singing songs that extolled the virtues of Communism and Mao. Occasionally she was allowed to see her family. “If you are a really good worker, after three years, you can see your parents for one month,” she said.
Then, 11 years ago, Ms. Lhamo decided to follow her abiding dream since childhood-to see the Dalai Lama-and so she made plans to escape. “I really wanted to see why my family had so much faith in him,” she said.
Ms. Lhamo paid Nepalese sherpas to smuggle herself and her son, who was 5 years old at the time, into Nepal, and from there to India. The journey across the Himalayas was particularly arduous because of Chinese patrols along the border and Tibetan informers working for the Chinese. “It’s like a dream, but it’s really unimaginable,” she said. “If people catch you, then they turn you in.” For some impoverished Tibetans, the reward for turning their countrymen in was too much to resist. Others demanded money from the refugees themselves.
“They ask you for money, and whatever you can pay, you pay,” Ms. Lhamo said, her brow furrowing. “We saw people beaten and dead on the road who couldn’t pay.”
It took a month for Ms. Lhamo’s band of refugees to make the journey to Nepal. They rested for one day, then headed for India. During this leg of the journey, Ms. Lhamo looked down at her trousers one day and thought they’d changed color. Then she realized that it wasn’t her pants at all: Hundreds of leeches were covering her legs. She still has the scars. “It seems like 60 years ago now,” she said after a long pause.
Her group finally made it to Dharamsala, India. (Tibetans are still using this route, so Ms. Lhamo declined to discuss the precise details of her escape.)
She spent the next two years in a refugee camp in Dharamsala, which is where she first performed as a free artist, and where she realized her dream of meeting the Dalai Lama.
Next she was invited to perform in Australia for a government-sponsored cultural show. She made an impression and soon found herself playing small venues across Australia. In 1995, she released her first album, Tibetan Prayer , on a small Australian independent label, which caught the ear of someone at Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. Her 1996 sophomore effort, Tibet Tibet , and her 1998 album, Coming Home , were both released on Real World. She joined Mr. Gabriel’s WOMAD music fest and Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair. In 2000, she decided to make the U.S. her home.
She moved in temporarily with the family of Robert Thurman, the director of the Indo-Tibetan Studies department at Columbia University, and his wife, Nina. “Maybe if I hadn’t lived with them, I wouldn’t have stayed in New York,” Ms. Lhamo said. “Bob and Nina knew a lot about New York and Tibet.”
In addition to constant touring and recording for her next album (tentatively due to be released next year on Real World), Ms. Lhamo is involved with several Tibetan charities. She said she considers herself lucky, and feels she owes her countrymen. “I live here now and feel I should contribute something,” she said. “You become happier because you make a difference.
“People write me from Tibet and ask for money, but I cannot give them all money,” she continued, showing pictures of the Tibetans who have written her, many with shrunken, withered legs from infections that resulted from forced vaccinations with non-sterile equipment imposed by the Chinese.
Each year, she involves herself in a different project for Tibet through her foundation, the Yungchen Lhamo Charity Foundation. This year, she’s raising funds to purchase prosthetics and shoes for Tibetan children; she previously helped fund the construction of a library near Lhasa (she won’t name the town, for fear of retribution from the Chinese authorities). Funding for her charity comes mainly from her concert appearances and CD sales, although she accepts contributions through her Web site (yungchenlhamo.com).
Ms. Lhamo still dreams about returning to Tibet someday. “The repression is less now,” she said, “but like the weather it changes …. I will go one day, no matter what happens. Even birds need their bird’s nest.”
Ms. Lhamo added that the Tibetans are not the only people who have been badly treated by the Chinese regime; the same is true for many of her Chinese neighbors here in the U.S.
“I’ve met so many Chinese in America who want to see China again,” she said. “I really have a big hope it will change soon.” She added that tourism and access to the rest of the world have helped the situation. “The Chinese see visitors and learn about the rest of the world,” she said. “The new generation of Chinese has seen the world.”
For now, she’s concentrating on her music and trying to increase awareness of her homeland’s plight. Sometimes the fear comes creeping back.
“I still have nightmares about it,” she said. “Even if somebody knocks a little hard on the door-then you have to tell yourself, it’s New York City.”
Our conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door, which turned out to be a Chinese delivery man with Ms. Lhamo’s food order. She spoke a few words in Chinese to him, and he smiled and shrugged as he accepted his tip. After he left, Ms. Lhamo explained that she was asking him why the order took so long.
In her travels, Ms. Lhamo said, when people ask her where she now lives, she sometimes feels at a loss. “I am not embarrassed, but I don’t know how to explain that I love this country,” Ms. Lhamo said. “So much money for guns and army. We need technology, but we also need people’s hearts and happiness.”
In the end, she said, she feels her adopted city suits her perfectly.
“Nobody says, ‘Come to New York and sleep,’” she said. “No, they come here and do something.”