Tibetans in Switzerland

The Observer

ST GALLEN, Switzerland, 27 June 1964

Even in cosmopolitan Switzerland it is rather surprising to encounter, in the higher reaches of the Toggenburg valley, a group of Tibetan children singing a lively marching song on their way to school. There are now six Tibetan communities in eastern Switzerland at villages in those valleys off the beaten track of tourism.

Under arrangements made by the Swiss Red Cross, about 100 more Tibetan refugees, from the 35,000 now living in India, will be arriving here during the next few months. This will bring the total to more than 300, plus some 150 orphans with Swiss families. Typical of those expatriate communities is “Tibeterhelm Ennethur,” a big chalet on the hillside above Unterwasser, which, since last May, has sheltered 40 men, women and children including two lamas who give the children religious instruction in the evenings but during the day work at a textile mill further down the valley. A dozen other men have been found jobs as carpenters, market gardeners, and labourers — one as an electrician. The two oldest ones, well into their sixties, cope with some of the heavier domestic chores in the chalet. Being skilled tailors, they also make and repair clothes for members of the community. In addition, they maintain permanent supervision over the large cans to be found under several beds in the dormitories. These contain maize or rice beer, slowly fermenting to be ready for the feast days that are observed here with songs and dancing, as they were in Tibet itself — with the difference that such occasions are now generally compressed into a single evening.

Their Swiss employers say that the Tibetans learn quickly and are good workers — once they have understood that toil here is disciplined and that they may no longer curl up and go to sleep in a corner if they feel tired.

The language difficulties are formidable, except in the village school, whose teacher found himself confronted last autumn with seven brown-eyed youngsters. The eldest, aged 13, spoke some English, but otherwise they knew no word of any tongue other than their own. Today, they are fluent enough in Swiss Germen to take their place besides Swiss children in the class-room — and both the latter and the teacher have acquired a smattering of Tibetan.

Two of the boys hope to go on later to university and study medicine “so that we can be useful to our people.” The adults, too, have, on the whole, settled down well, the climate being much to their liking, and are demonstrating how quickly a people, traditionally distrustful of foreigners, can adapt themselves to a completely different way of life. They also have completely overcome class barriers among themselves — one of the women, who takes her turn in the kitchen at preparing food as near as possible to what they would eat in Tibet — except for some of the more exotic spices — grew up in a Lhasa family mansion with 40 servants.

The men’s earnings go in to a communal fund, from which they receive 50 shillings monthly spending money and the women 35 shillings. A few of the men from communities at other villages, who came from India two years ago, have bought themselves bicycles on which they ride to work and also, at the weekends, visit their fellow-countrymen in other valleys. One of them, informing his employer that on the way back to work he had knocked over a women pedestrian, shrugged off the incident by saying, “No matter, she old.” The women, fortunately, was not hurt, and the local police showe understanding.

In general such manifestations of especially Tibetan characteristics are confined within the walls of the communities’ chalets, most of which are now being enlarged to accommodate new arrivals. Innumerable cups of salty butter tea are drunk beneath pictures of the Dalai Lama; gaily gainted masks are mounted on walls to ward off the evil eye; ornate jugs are kept replenished with water from the hill streams in religious observance; still regarded as especially propitious for any fresh endeavour are the 8th, 10th, 25th and 30th days of the month. On the walls, too, are signs of how the new civilization around them is making its impact: magazine photos showing the latest styles for women and children and modernistic furniture.

This is in sharp contrast to the traditional dress to which the women still cling — one of them, from a nomadic tribe in the Karakorum Mountains, proudly showed me her broad leather belt, with pockets for lucky charms, spoons, knives and needles. Others have chains round their necks with charm boxes. The men, however, wear ordinary jackets and trousers; only the lamas change into robes in the evening.

Nostalgic memories of a similar instrument heard among the high mountains of Tibet are aroused on a Sunday afternoon, when Swiss alpenhorn players gather for practice, and deep, mellow notes echo across the Unterwasser valley. Memories, though are only for the adults. The children. instead, look to a future bright with what for their fathers were unimaginable new prospects.

By arrangement with the Observer, London.

Copyright © 1964 The Observer Published in Hindustan Times Posted in News » Tags: , ,