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Tenzin Dorjee
Tenzin Dorjee

Tibetan culture comes to Plattsburgh

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Last spring downtown Plattsburgh got a new restaurant: a Himalayan restaurant. It's owned and operated by Tenzin and Yangchen Dorjee, a Tibetan couple who moved to northern New York with their two kids in 2007.

This month they're putting on a Tibetan arts festival where visiting monks will make a mandala out of sand, and offer lectures on topics ranging from Tibetan medicine to religious ethics. Sarah Harris visited the restaurant and talked to Tenzin Dorjee about the family's journey to Plattsburgh and how they're keeping their culture alive in the North Country.

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Open the door to the Himalayan restaurant in downtown Plattsburgh and prayer flags wave down from the ceiling. Tibetan religious murals detail the restaurant’s warm yellow walls. There’s a small fireplace, a small alter to the Dalai Lama, and a series of photographs depicting life on high Tibetan plateaus. And it smells great.

"A restaurant is something I always wanted to have," said Tanzin Doorjee, a small, soft-spoken man who wears wire-rim glasses.

"But I wanted a restaurant not for the sake of a restaurant, I wanted it where it could encompass the traditions, the culture, the food, an environment where you could have discussions, you could learn more about each other."

The restaurant has been a long time in the making. Tenzin and Yangchen are Tibetans-in-exile. He grew up in Bhutan and was educated in India and the United States. She grew up in India. Tenzin was working at the European Human Rights Foundations as a program officer in South Asia when he met Yangchen at workshop about democracy.

"My wife is the one who was political she was with the central executive committee of the Tibetan youth congress in Dharamsala, India. I think she was the first general secretary of the Tibetan youth congress, first woman. She’s always been very vocal. And she’s famously known as Shunu Yangchen, shunu means the Tibetan Youth Congress….and of course I have to say I’m Shunu Yangchen’s husband," he said, chuckling.

Tenzin and Yangchen decided to build a life together in India. Their daughter was born there. But as Tibetans-in-exile, they couldn’t receive Indian citizenship. And because of Yangchen’s politics, they were never really safe.

"My wife and I were attacked, and my little daughter she was a year and a half when she was attacked. When she got attacked, we asked ourselves one question: is it really worth it for us to stay here?"

Yangchen was friends with SUNY Plattsburgh professor Amy Montcastle, who encouraged the family to relocate to northern New York. So they visited Plattsburgh and decided they liked it.

The family applied for political asylum because of the persecution they’d faced in India. They were granted asylum, and they stayed. Now, they're U.S. citizens. 

Tenzin and Yangchen had hoped to live in Plattsburgh. But there weren’t jobs available. So they settled instead in New York City.  

"I was never happy," Tenzin said. "I felt a sense that I was losing the purpose of why I actually came to the United States. I was missing out on the growing up of my children."

The family visited Plattsburgh 7 or 8 times a year. They felt an enormous pull to move to northern New York.

"I guess it’s more like home where I grew up in Bhutan—I see the trees, hills, greenery, not massive modern infrastructure. We met a lot of people and people here are so much more calm and willing to share and so much more willing to say ‘we, us, the community,’ where in the city it’s ‘I, me, myself,'" Tenzin explained. 

So in 2007, they relocated. Last spring, they opened the restaurant. And now they’re putting on a Tibetan arts festival, where visiting monks are making a sand mandala, performing traditional dances, and offering lectures.

People have been receptive, Tenzin says, to the family’s presence in town and the ways they’ve worked to share their culture. It doesn’t matter that they’re the only Tibetan family in Plattsburgh.

We have a community family and friends, not necessarily Tibetans, but they are family and friends.

In fact, being the only Tibetan family in town allows them to maintain their culture in a really public way. And that, Tenzin says, is how they can contribute to their new home.

"We have made people aware of Tibetans and we have become more Tibetan, more conscious of doing those things, because we’ve seen the results that it brings in terms of preserving  our culture, preserving our traditions. And this is our way of introducing ourselves. And by doing these festivals we are making people aware of who we are so that they also become a part of my family."

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