I’m sitting here in a small Tibetan cafe/restaurant I’ve begun to frequent since quite recently. It’s called the Shangrila Express. It has these high swivel stools facing the window that are surprisingly easy on your tush. And it allows me to people watch passersby as I lay out my notebook, novel, iPod, cellphone and a cup of tea all over the table space in front of me and try in vain to concentrate on one thing alone. The view outside isn’t especially charming if my description deceives you thus. I will only have to tell you that I’m in Jackson Heights, Queens, for you to picture the place and agree.
But regardless of the pathetic looking pavement outside that’s littered with pigeon droppings, the occasional deafening roar of trains passing overhead, the bleak, graffiti-ed cement walls staring back at me from across the street and the rusty underbelly of the train tracks hovering above it, I’ve decided I like sitting here, looking out at all kinds of people walking by, as colorful music videos of singers from within Tibet grace the television behind me nonstop.
At one point, I caught myself smirking stupidly at the TV screen in an attempt to stifle a laugh at how ridiculous one singer looked in a bright yellow suit, serenading with panache about something or the other. It was Tibetan all right but I could not understand a word. I’ve begun to realize that it is always with an undeniable sense of detachment that I watch such videos. A feeling of belonging to these places, with these people, and not belonging to them at all at the same time. Should I feel shameful? After all, most songs they sing are for ‘phayul‘, and wistful odes that yearn for freedom. (And maybe few about a ‘Dolma’ or a ‘Lhamo’).
The frail looking Popo la with a backpack reminiscent of my TCV days is sitting one chair away from me today; intent on his meal, mumbling inaudible comments once in a while to no one in particular. He looks like he’d be most comfortable in a teashop among his peers at the korlams of either Boudha or McLeod. I dare not ask him where he’s from. Yesterday, I turned around to smile at him sweetly as he took a seat behind me at the same cafe. But my attempt at politeness backfired when I heard him mutter under his breath with disdain, “Bhumo chung chung dinzo go serpo soena lempo tsa ni minduk.” (It is unbecoming when young girls color their hair yellow). I decided against pointing out to him, “Popo la, serpo marey. Gyamuk light rey.” (Grandpa, it’s not yellow. It’s light brown).
Because hey, what is ‘light ash brown’ called in Tibetan?! Can I speak one whole sentence in my own mother-tongue without having to use a single English word? Are you happy here, popo la? Does New York treat you well? Do you not think my appearance befitting for a Tibetan girl? I promise I would never dye my hair yellow. I promise you’ll not have to give up on my generation with a shrug of shoulders. I promise we’ll keep our promises.
Whatever shade of yellow our hairs might look, the dark roots will remind us. We promise.