From Wisconsin to Tibet—and Back

Alyssa: I grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. I remember being a little girl and walking from our home, past my friend's home, to where we could feed carrots to the horses at the farms that bordered right up to our neighborhood. But then the suburban sprawl increased, and the farms were pushed further and further away.

Photos by Megan Monday

Alyssa & Dhondup | Dousman, WI

I was in the Catholic school system for elementary and middle school. Most of the people that we interacted with were also white Waukesha Catholics. My life was very comfortable, but my world was fairly narrow. I was really curious about the world. I loved National Geographic magazine; I loved learning about new ideas.

Early on, my mom recognized the way I was compelled toward creative work and the arts. She was really supportive and sought out experiences for me. I got to take drawing and painting classes; I loved pastels. I was a big reader. I took guitar classes. So art, music, humanities...that’s how I started to express myself and broaden my worldview.

And then something really amazing came out of my small community. A friend of mine’s mom started something called ‘International Peace Camp’ in Fond du Lac. I heard about it, got the paperwork, filled it out myself, and handed it to my mom to sign. It was so clear to me that I needed to go.

Peace Camp was in the woods with other kids from Wisconsin, but also students from other parts of the country, with different abilities and different religious backgrounds. We had a counselor who was Ho-Chunk; we had an African dance group work with us. We ate falafel for the first time. We had Jain monks teach us meditation every evening. We learned the meaning of ahimsa, a principle of nonviolence. I can truly say that going to Peace Camp at that age changed the course of my life. I was 13 years old, the same age as my son is today. The camp doesn’t exist anymore, but friendships I made there I still have today.

As a teenager I continued my interest in the things I was exposed to at Peace Camp. I did a research project for my English class that was on sacred mountains of the world, so a lot of the information that I was finding was about the Himalayas. Those are THE mountains. So I was learning about Tibet and then about the issues there. It was the ’90s, so the Beastie Boys and Bjork and all of my music heroes at that time were activists for the Free Tibet cause. So that was kind of the beginning of my awareness expanding.

I was ready to go off to college. I didn’t fully know it yet, but my little world was about to get a lot bigger.

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Dhondup: When I grew up, my parents, especially Mom, put all her energy into sitting in the prayer room, doing prayers, cleaning the altars. That is my favorite place at my home, too. I like to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes a day, sometimes in my prayer room, sometimes by the lake, to sit and meditate. Stopping for that time takes all my garbage out of my mind. I try to focus more on the love, compassion, happiness, all the positivity in the world.

In Tibetan culture we have prayer beads, it’s a necklace that we hold while we meditate or say our prayers. Before my dad passed away, he gave me his prayer beads and I gave him mine. He carried his with him all the time, everywhere he went. When I hold the beads, I can feel my dad there.

I am Tibetan, and my parents lived in Tibet before I was born. Tibet was a peaceful, independent country, but the 1950s, China, led by Chairman Mao, invaded Tibet. China claimed that Tibet belonged to China, and they tried to destroy our culture and take the land.

They restricted our freedom of religion, they destroyed all the big monasteries, temples. The one stupa in our town, they destroyed it. They took all the precious things and then burn all the prayer books, and then people who are on the leader positions, they put into jail. People were killed for resisting.

At that time, every Tibetan house had a portrait of our spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, hanging in a prominent place. When the Chinese started occupation, they made everyone hang a picture of Chairman Mao Zedong, too. Mom told me that one time the Chinese police came into the house to look around, and saw that His Holiness Dalai Lama’s picture was spotless—my mom cleaned it every day—but Mao Zedong was a little dusty. So they told Mom and Dad, “Come to the main ground.” Mom said that police grabbed my dad’s neck and held him with his face pushed on to the ground in front of all the public. It was humiliating for my dad, who was a leader in our community.

When my mom was pregnant with me, my parents finally decided to escape occupied Tibet. They decided to travel to Nepal. They put a few things on one yak and one horse and escaped at night without the Chinese police knowing. There was one river they had to cross…that river crossing was almost the life-threatening thing. But the worst was the snow. While traveling over the mountains my dad got snow blindness from all the white light reflecting. His vision never recovered.

Once they crossed that border, they felt very, very relieved. Then Mom and Dad felt very tired and fell asleep in a little camp they made there. When they woke up, the yak was gone. Mom and Dad look around and found it going back toward Tibet—even the animals didn’t want to leave their own country. So many suffered. So many dead. Since 1959, over one million Tibetan are dead, and it’s still going on.

My parents stayed at the basecamp to Mount Everest on the way to Nepal, but finally they got to Kathmandu. I was born there. I spent my days walking, studying Buddhism, taking care of Mom and Dad, drinking tea around the stupa…and then one day I met Alyssa.

Alyssa: I left Waukesha and went to college in Baltimore, Maryland. It was very exciting—it was a fine art school and I made a lot of crazy artist friends. We were exposed to really interesting different cultural stuff through our art classes, but most of it was European. When I got the the opportunity to spend a semester abroad, all of the colleges official relationships were with European schools. At that time I was into documentary photography and wanted to go somewhere different. Since my college didn’t offer the places I wanted, I looked into opportunities through other colleges and made the arrangements.

I ended up finding a program that would take me to Nepal. I was off to those mountains I had written a research paper about, off the study the Tibetan culture my music heroes had been advocating for. The program I went to was situated in a neighborhood in Kathmandu that is primarily Tibetan refugees. So I got to experience a combination of traditional Nepali culture, language, history, and Tibetan Buddhism, culture, and language.

Early on during my semester abroad I learned that when you’re in Nepal, you drink a lot of tea. That’s just part of the fabric of your life. During my five months studying abroad, my friends and I would often hang around the stupa [a Buddhist shrine] in a tea shop, chatting and drinking tea. It’s very leisurely, culturally, not hurried. Often while drinking tea, a guy named Dhondup would walk by.

If Dhondup walked by, he would always stop to join us. He was deep into studying Buddhism at that point, and he was curious about me and my fellow students. We were also studying Buddhism as part of our abroad experience, and we were seeing some of the same teachers, so he enjoyed chatting and joking around.

At the time, most of the Tibetan young men that I was meeting were either businessmen or professional hang-outer type people. Dhondup was in a different category. He was really into studying and discussing Buddhist philosophy. He stuck out to me. We were friends, but then my semester was done and I was back to the States.

After I graduated college on the east coast, I came back to Wisconsin. I was teaching at a school and trying to find out where I was headed. I was in my early 20s, questioning what to do with my life.

I decided I had to go back to Nepal. This time, my dear friend from art school was going to go with me. We were all set to buy tickets, but then she broke her leg and couldn’t travel. Suddenly I had to decide if I wanted to go halfway across the world alone.

I was weighing what to do and I talked about it with my dad. He‘s a lawyer; he always gives super practical, logical advice. But he said, "Well…sounds like you should go now." It was so contrary to anything I expected, that I took that as a sign.

While I was trying to figure out all my plans—which included traveling to India alone for some Buddhist teachings—I got in touch with a friend from Nepal named Tenzin. He said, “You can’t just travel in India alone. But remember our friend, Dhondup? Dhondup is like an old man. He does all the religious things. Write to him and see if he’s going to the teachings, I bet you can travel with him.”

So I wrote to Dhondup and a couple days later, I got a response in all caps: “YES. I AM GOING TO THE TEACHINGS. YOU CAN TRAVEL WITH MY SISTERS. LEAVE EVERYTHING TO ME.”

Alyssa: I ended up traveling from Nepal to India with his sisters. Dhondup and I began spending time together every day there for about a month, studying Buddhism and listening to the teachings. Somewhere along the way, we started to become more than friends.

Dhondup: I wasn’t thinking of dating, not at that time. But of course, I thought she was charming and beautiful. I did feel an, “Ooh!” After the teachings we traveled around India together and then back to Nepal. The more time we spent together, the more our romance grew.

Alyssa: When we were back in Nepal, I started teaching at a local school for girls. Dhondup and I were dating and I was spending a lot of time with his family.

I started to notice little things, like how he truly cherishes his family and his mom especially. I was struck by his gentleness and the joyful way that he interacted with kids. As a teacher, that interaction with young people, that respect for them and encouragement of them, that was really important to me.

I remember there was a holiday when a lot of the girls went home to their families, but several girls didn’t have families to go home to. Dhondup and I wanted to do something special for them. So he came over and we took them all out to go see a Bollywood movie together. The girls were so happy for that treat and we had a wonderful time.

It was little moments like those that made me start to think about how Dhondup would make a wonderful dad. Over time it became obvious to both of us that we wanted to get married.

Alyssa: I desperately wanted to fly home with Dhondup and introduce him to my family. But we learned that it wasn’t going to be that easy. Dhondup wasn’t able to just get a tourist visa to the U.S. It’s easy for us Americans to travel around the world as tourists, but it’s much harder for many others to visit the U.S. It looked like we wouldn’t be able to visit my home together, and that my family wouldn’t be able to meet him before we were married.

That meant introducing Dhondup to my family over international phone calls that you pay for by the minute. I think my parents know who they got as a daughter, which is to say the undeterrable girl who filled out all the paperwork as a 13-year-old to go to Peace Camp. I remember my dad saying how interesting and what a joy it had been, watching me grow up. They have always been really supportive of me, so they rolled with it. In fact, my dad sponsored Dhondup’s visa application because I didn’t have the income to be a sole sponsor for him. And my mom and I planned our wedding ceremony in Wisconsin over email. I had our Wisconsin ceremony invitations printed in English and Tibetan on handmade paper in Nepal. Dhondup and I were married officially in Nepal, in a small ceremony surrounded by his family.

My family is a Wisconsin family. Not quick to criticize or confront one another. I think there’s a tendency toward trying our best to keep harmonious family relationships. But my grandpa, as the male figurehead in my mom’s family, wrote me a letter before we got married that I will always remember. In that letter, he shared his disappointment that I was making such a big life decision so many miles away from my family, to marry a man they had not even met. The letter was loving, but brimming with concern.

I absolutely can understand that my marriage to a foreign man he had never met was alarming to him. It sounds preposterous. I had always been a pleaser, and the disappointment in that letter really stuck with me.

But after we had been in America for probably no more than six months, my grandpa sat me down at his kitchen table and retracted his letter, formally and officially. He said, “We have gotten to know Dhondup and I see now that he is such a kind man and such a wonderful husband to you. We love him. I see now that you had to go to the other side of the world to find someone like that. I retract my letter. I was a grumpy old man.” I told him, “I understand that you wrote that letter out of love.” He said, “Yes, but it was wrong.” I think that just speaks to who Dhondup is and to who my family is, as Wisconsin people. They can remember what it was like to have grandparents who spoke Polish and had a challenging life and made their way here in America.

Dhondup: I love Wisconsin, so green, very nice, but I had a little bit of hard time to adjust, honestly. Missing Nepal, Tibetans, family. Alyssa was trying her best to make me comfortable. While adjusting to American culture, I took everything slowly. Slowly experiencing, learning, speaking, understanding the people, food, and language, then learning driving, getting better at English.

Alyssa: There is a Bollywood song that Dhondup and I would sing to each other all the time in the early days of him being here in America. It’s called ‘Hum Bane Tum Bane’ and it’s about two cultures coming together. It goes, “I don’t know what you say, I don’t know what you say…but I want to dance and play the game of love.”

Dhondup: Yes, we sang that all the time. Now our two boys were born here in Wisconsin, and we stay close to all Alyssa’s Wisconsin family. I guess I slowly became used to things and much happier. Then I also learned, in this area of Wisconsin there is a Buddhist center. Alyssa says, “There’s a Tibetan monastery. It’s called Deer Park. Let’s check that out.” When we got there, just seeing the temples and then meeting the monks there…it felt like home. I thought, “Oh, now have everything.”

According to myself, I’m trying my best…still learning. Till the death, learning never ends. But I always try to keep first oneself happy. If you have happiness then you can give happiness. When I’m not happy, I can’t help.

There’s a Tibetan saying that means without kids, no laugh; without kids, no crying. So it’s all together. Happiness is there, suffering is there at the same time. Take it, experience it, and let it go.

Now that I have my boys, my biggest wish for them is for them to be happy, compassionate, smart, young men. And then I hope my best they can meet more Tibetans so they know both cultures and can interact in both cultures confidently.

As Tibetans, since Chinese occupation, we have had our culture, language, destroyed. I am trying to preserve it. For Tibet itself, I am hoping for genuine autonomy from China, back to peace, no more oppression.

Really, it’s love, compassion, and teachings of acceptance that help me. Being married to an American wife with bi-racial kids, we accept each other. Tomorrow I don’t know what happens; yesterday’s gone. But to live the present moment fully and to utilize your energy as much as you can is the best way.

-Alyssa and Dhondup | Dousman, WI

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