She is a woman without a country, awakening every morning with memories of India and of her new life in America. But Lhaksam Choedon's heart belongs to a place she has never been: Tibet.
"It's part of my soul I dream about it all the time," says the 22-year-old University of Utah health education student. "I live for the day when the people are free and I can finally go there."
Lhaksam grew up hearing stories about how her parents fled Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, taking refuge in India, where they met and married, raising two daughters.
"My sister and I heard stories all the time about how our parents had grown up in peace, raising cattle in the mountains," Lhaksam says. "They were poor, but they were happy. Then one day, everything they knew was stripped away."
Hoping to shine a light on the situation in Tibet, especially now that China is about to run the Olympic torch through the streets of the mountainous nation it invaded almost 50 years ago, Lhaksam met me for a Free Lunch of vegetarian chow mein at Cafe Shambala in the Avenues.
The restaurant is owned by family friend Tsewang Rinzin, one of 20 Tibetans who came to Salt Lake City with Lhaksam's mother, Pema, in 1994 after their names were drawn in an immigration lottery.
Working as a hotel dishwasher and as a janitor at the state Capitol, Pema saved money for six years until she could bring the rest of her family to Utah. The long separation was hard for Lhaksam, but she admired her mother's devotion and determination.
"It taught me how important it is to follow what you believe," Lhaksam says. "My parents wanted my sister and I to grow up knowing freedom. Now it's our turn to carry on that dream."
When the Olympic torch was brought to San Francisco last month, Lhaksam was among the thousands of protesters who marched in the streets against China's harsh rule of Tibet. The torch was quickly whisked back to the airport before anyone could disrupt the symbolic relay.
"It's not that we don't want China to have the Olympics the athletes have worked for this all their lives," she says. "But we need to raise awareness. People are still being arrested and killed for speaking out in Tibet."
Even after five decades, Lhaksam's parents still don't know the fate of the majority of siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins that they left behind.
"Some of them could have died during the invasion," Lhaksam says. "Others probably had their land taken away and were relocated. It's not like you can just make a phone call to find out there has been no communication. They're basically cut off from the rest of the world."
With everyone in Tibet under order to speak only Chinese, Lhaksam worries that her language and culture may one day be lost. To help preserve the last links to her heritage, she speaks Tibetan whenever possible and helps her mother cook spicy dumplings and other native dishes at home.At some point, Lhaksam will likely become a U.S. citizen, which will enable her to go to Tibet as a tourist, accompanied by Chinese chaperones. "But it won't be the real Tibet until there is a free Tibet," she says. "I can't give up faith that freedom will win in the end."
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