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A bird without wings: A conversational approach toward heritage preservation among Tibetan New Yorkers

Rebecca G. Smith (Global Asia Program, Pace University, New York, USA)
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (Department of History, Pace University, New York, USA)

Social Transformations in Chinese Societies

ISSN: 1871-2673

Article publication date: 2 May 2017




The five-decade-long Chinese colonialization of Tibet has led to a refugee flow. No longer confined to the Tibetan Plateau, Tibetans are scattered over the world, placing deep roots in host nations, in cities stretching from Oslo to New York City. Faced with new ideas, cultures and ways of life, diasporic Tibetans confront the same challenges as countless refugees before them. The purpose of this study is to investigate the efforts of Tibetan New Yorkers to preserve their language and culture. To what extent should they integrate themselves into host countries? What mechanisms could they use to hold onto their native heritage without isolating themselves in a foreign environment? How should they construct new diasporic identities and reconcile such efforts with their ongoing political struggles?


This paper draws on documentary sources and interviews to examine the ways in which diasporic Tibetans understood and portrayed the conventional categories of language, cultural heritage and religion, especially with respect to the Tibetan Government-in-exile in India, and in which they maintained and reinvented their linguistic and cultural heritage in the cosmopolitan environment of New York City.


There is a gradual process of identity formation among Tibetan New Yorkers. While exiled Tibetans are asserting their agency to reinvent a new sense of belonging to America, they still hold onto the regional identity of their family households. Meanwhile, the US-born younger generations strengthen their ties with the larger Tibetan diaspora through community events, socio-cultural activism and electronic media.

Research limitations/implications

Despite the small sample size, this study presents the first investigation of the Tibetan New Yorkers, and it provides an insider’s perspective on the efforts to preserve their native heritage in a globalized environment.

Practical implications

This study is a useful case study of the Tibetan diasporas in comparison with other Chinese diasporas in the West and beyond.


This study is the first scholarly investigation of the sociocultural experiences of Tibetan New Yorkers.



Smith, R.G. and Lee, J.T.-H. (2017), "A bird without wings: A conversational approach toward heritage preservation among Tibetan New Yorkers", Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, Vol. 13 No. 1, pp. 91-103.



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Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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