World

Among exiles separated from Tibet since they were children, the search for home never ends

  • In this Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 photo, Tibetan monk Dorjee, 38, displays a photograph of his father, left, and himself, center, taken in Tibet, in Dharamsala, India. Dorjee said he held back his tears when he spoke with his parents on the phone after a separation period of 27 years. He exchanged a few words with his father but said his mother fainted on hearing his voice. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

    In this Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 photo, Tibetan monk Dorjee, 38, displays a photograph of his father, left, and himself, center, taken in Tibet, in Dharamsala, India. Dorjee said he held back his tears when he spoke with his parents on the phone after a separation period of 27 years. He exchanged a few words with his father but said his mother fainted on hearing his voice. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014 photo, Tibetan exile Tsering Topgyal sits for a self-portrait in New Delhi, India. When he was 8 years old, Topgyal’s parents paid a smuggler to take him across the Himalayas, a weekslong walk over the mountains from Tibet to India. But 18 years later, he still does not know why they did it. He has not seen them since. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

    In this Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014 photo, Tibetan exile Tsering Topgyal sits for a self-portrait in New Delhi, India. When he was 8 years old, Topgyal’s parents paid a smuggler to take him across the Himalayas, a weekslong walk over the mountains from Tibet to India. But 18 years later, he still does not know why they did it. He has not seen them since. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014 photo, a young Tibetan exile Pema Lhamo, 8, fits herself into a box to enact her escape scene, in Dharmsala, India. Lhamo fled to India when she was 3 years old in a box and now lives with her grandmother. She is presently studying in a Tibetan Children's Village School. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

    In this Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014 photo, a young Tibetan exile Pema Lhamo, 8, fits herself into a box to enact her escape scene, in Dharmsala, India. Lhamo fled to India when she was 3 years old in a box and now lives with her grandmother. She is presently studying in a Tibetan Children's Village School. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)  (The Associated Press)

When I was 8 years old, my parents paid a smuggler to take me across the Himalayas, a weekslong walk over the mountains from Tibet to India. It was a trek that tens of thousands of other Tibetans have taken since the Dalai Lama fled a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

My parents must have had their reasons to send me here; they must have had the best of intentions. But 18 years later, I still don't know why they did it. They are not political people. They are small farmers who raise barley and a few yak in a rural area not far from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. I have not seen them since I left.

As a boy, I hardly thought about them. I was in a new country, part of a community-in-exile the Dalai Lama had created in India. I lived in a school with hundreds of other Tibetan refugee children. But as I grew older I began to long for them.

Today, we occasionally talk on the phone, and that has helped keep us together despite the distance. But long silences often fill our conversations. Over the years, our relationship has only grown more complex, more limited.

It is a relationship so many Tibetan refugees understand. These photos, all of Tibetans who have not seen their parents since coming to India, are my attempt to understand the ideas of family, home, belonging and nostalgia. Some of us cling to family artifacts, some cling to old photos. We learn not to cry as our mothers weep on the telephone, fearing we will make them feel even worse.

Across the years, and with so much distance, everything changes. Time heals many wounds, but also works in strange ways.

Tsering Choephel, a Tibetan who left home 23 years ago, said he sometimes dreams of seeing his family again. Often, he mourns the fact that he barely misses them.

"The great tragedy of my life is not being separated from my family, but being separated from the sensibility of missing them, after living without them for decades."