My great grandmother was 77 years old when I was born. I grew up with her presence, which created a strong bond between us. When I was little I would watch my mother bathe her, brush her hair, and cut her nails.
She could not walk to the toilet, so we had a portable toilet placed outside her room. My mother would clean the toilet every evening. Growing up, watching my mother take care of my great grandmother, made me think about when I would take over to help her.
When I reached the age of 13, I started taking care of my great grandmother. I showered her, just like my mother did. I cut her nails often, and fixed her hair. I even cleaned her toilet. One day, my great grandmother called to me and started crying in joy. She thanked me for the service. She felt so loved to see her great granddaughter care for her.
The best part was taking care of her basic needs. During those years of caring for my great grandmother, I realized the real contentment of helping others. She appreciated my effort and time for her and that in return gave me joy.
Whenever I came home for vacation from boarding school, I would help her and accompany her while listening to her stories of fleeing Tibet. She would share her near death experiences from the excruciating pain caused while crossing the great ranges of the Himalayas or her fear of execution from the Chinese soldiers. Her stories of running from domination of the Chinese to preserve our fragile Tibetan culture and linguistic identity, made me want to become someone in the future who could inspire and educate others, just as she did me.
When I moved to the United States in 2013, I heard of various opportunities to serve the greater community. The idea of community service excited me, because of how purposeful I felt when helping my great grandmother. One of my favorite experiences with community service is dancing for the Utah Tibetan Association (UTA). UTA is a small Tibetan community organization in Utah for Tibetans. Dancing is a great way for me to embrace my culture at the same time educating others about Tibet and the plight of refugees, like me, striving to hold our cultural identity.
My first dance for the Utah Tibetan Association was in the summer of 2013. On July 7th, there was going to be a celebration party for His Holiness birthday. My aunt, who had been dancing for the UTA, asked me if I wanted to dance with the group. At first, I hesitated, because of the new environment. I was not sure if I was ready to be involved. But then I remembered my great grandmother’s struggle to escape Tibet. And I thought it was a great platform for me to continue to embrace my cultural identity. I decided to dance.
We practiced once a week. A lot of the other dancers knew the steps, because they had danced it before. It was just me who had to learn and perfect the steps. During the practices I got to meet other kids from the Tibetan community who had the same passion for dancing to Tibetan songs as me. Most of them grew up in the U.S., but our singular passion connected us all in many ways, even though I was raised very differently.
When I performed at the celebration, I felt a sense of pride while dancing. I felt like doing the dance glorified the Tibetan culture identity. From that day on, I decided to join the dance group and take part in other events as well. The group would meet once a month to practice the old songs and perfect them. At parties we danced, which made the audiences happy, which in return made me happy. I felt like my efforts were appreciated. As I danced, I thought back to the stories my great grandmother told me as I cared for her. Dancing to traditional songs, performing at Tibetan gatherings – this is what she fought for, this is why she ran. I was keeping her legacy alive, my legacy alive, through dancing.
As the dance group got stronger we added extra hours of practices. Our hard work paid off when we got the opportunity to dance at Utah’s Living Traditions festival. Our dance was loved by the audience. I was so proud of our team for confidently representing the Tibetan community and culture.
To my surprise, a lot of people came to us later asking us about Tibet and the origin of the dance. I was humbled to explain to them the tragic history of Tibet and the loss of much of our cultural identity. Through this event, I didn’t just get to represent my culture, but I also got to educate people who weren’t aware of it.
It’s almost been three years since I had this wonderful opportunity. I learned the importance of how small things like stories of my great grandmother and dances can make a big difference, as they both encouraged me to preserve my Tibetan cultural identity. Dancing is not just something that I enjoy, but my contribution through dance has educated many about Tibet.
Our dance group will continue to give back to the community through our dances, something that even wealth cannot replace. As I take steps in the dances my imagination will think about the steps my great grandmother took as she fled her beloved country to keep the dances, the songs, and the language alive.