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Yet it's the closest he can get in Queens, he says, and the restaurant is run by his old friend Sherab. Since losing his job last March, Lama comes here every day for his meals, in between the activist work he does for the Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey. Although the sizeable restaurant is empty at noon on a Saturday ("Business is slow," Sherab admits), a steady stream of people comes in to talk with the two friends, and the staff is busy preparing the restaurant for a private function later that evening. Tables are being set and a stage in the corner of the room stands ready for live traditional Himalayan music.
Although a handful of restaurants in the neighborhood offer Himalayan cuisine, Sherab's stands out because its specialty is Tibetan, with a focus on the noodles and momos (meat or vegetable stuffed dumplings) that are staples of the diet. While the restaurant attracts Nepalese, Indian, and Western residents from the neighborhood, some of whom order from the smattering of Nepalese, Indian Chinese, and Indian options on the menu, the majority of Tibetan customers seek traditional Tibetan offerings.
Here in Queens, however, the community comes out. Signs advertising Tibetan protests, vigils, and holidays hang around the restaurant, and while many of the customers and staff speak multiple languages (Lama himself speaks Tibetan, Hindi, Nepali, and English—only a little, he says modestly), Tibetan is the language of choice. It's important to have a place like this, according to Lama. "I am Tibetan. I eat Tibetan food. It's human nature."
Immigrant communities gather in ethnic restaurants all over the city to eat their native cuisines and speak their native tongues; however, at Shangri-La Tibet Kitchen, there is an added element. Most of the customers didn't come from Tibet, they've been displaced for most or all of their lives; Tibet is filtered through Nepal or through India, or often both.
Sherab and Lama were both born in Tibet, but like many native Tibetans in their early 50s, they've spent most of their lives in exile. Lama's parents, who were nomad herders, moved two-year old Lama and his siblings from Eastern Tibet just before the 1959 Chinese invasion of Lhasa. Tensions had been building in the region for several years, and once they'd heard that the Dalai Lama was in India they headed in that direction, stopping for a year at a refugee community in Nepal on the way. Lama fondly remembers the long awaited arrival in India. After having lived without enough food in Nepal, the Punjabi people were very nice, he says, offering his family shelter and plenty of food. When asked if he liked Punjabi food, he thinks for a moment, then nods, all smiles. "Yes. In Eastern Tibet it was hard to get sweets."
After receiving the Dalai Lama's blessing in Dharamsala, his father, like many Tibetans, got a job in construction, going back and forth over the Himalayas. The usually gregarious Lama goes soft as he recounts how in 1962, when he was about seven, a heavy snow fell very quickly while families of the construction workers moved from site to site, and many of the Tibetan workers, wives, and children were killed in an avalanche.
Lama went on to study Tibetan philosophy at university before joining up with guerilla fighters in the hopes of obtaining freedom for the homeland he left at age two. While he acknowledges the peaceful teachings of his people's leader, Lama is comfortable with his decision to engage in military training. "That is young blood," he says of his choice. "We like to fight China—they were occupying my country." In the mountains of Northern India, he trained with other Tibetans, coming together each night to cook the closest approximations to their native food as possible—lots of momos, stuffed with lamb or beef, because you couldn't get yak like you could in Tibet or Nepal. (His longing for yak continues today, and not just as a condiment for tea. The last time he had it was a couple of years ago, when a recently expatriated Tibetan brought him some yak jerky. "It was delicious," he reminisces.)
Throughout our conversation, Sherab allows Lama, ever the raconteur, to elaborate, even when it comes to his own life story. He answers in a few words and then waits for Lama to fill in the blanks, nodding occasionally in the affirmative as his friend describes his background.
Sherab was born on the Tibet and Nepal border, and after the 1959 uprising his family also settled in Nepal. Although the instability in their country left them refugees, Sherab's family moved forward with their plan for him, and at age nine, he entered a monastery in Boudhanath, Nepal, a heavily Tibetan town outside of Kathmandu, where he stayed for the next 15 years, seeing his family only when they came for regular visits. He studied philosophy before eventually moving to a larger monastery in Southern India to continue his studies.