Tibetans in Utah - Part 1 | KUED.org

Tibetans in Utah - Part 1


It is called “overtone” singing. The performer manipulates his or her mouth, throat and diaphragm to create several pitches, or layers, of sounds at the same time, starting in the lower range of human voice then adding another note up to an octave above the first. Also known as harmonic or throat singing in western cultures, overtone singing is a distinctive sound that is felt as much as it is heard. This kind of voice manipulation is central to the prayers of Tibetan monks. Several monks chant in unison, integrating their prayers with each other until a wall of sound rumbles in the room.

Of course, the sound is not the goal of the chants. The words are.

On October 9th, 2015, in South Salt Lake City, four visiting monks, dressed in burgundy robes and traditional curved saffron hats that brings to mind a roman centurion helmet, spoke in overtone voices the words of prayer, and dedicated a community center.  What was once an unused warehouse was turned into a place of reflection, celebration, and peace.

This is a story of the Tibetans who live in Utah…one of the smallest ethnic communities in the state, proud of its heritage and focused on its challenges.  It is about the building of the center, what it means not just to Tibetans but all Utahans.  And, it is about how one woman became the “Mother of Utah’s Tibetans.” 

Mother of Utah's Tibetans
Pema Chagzoetsang
Gentleman, Pema, Tenzin and Lobsang review preliminary photos of the Buddha statue.
The Buddha statue arrives for installation!
Steven Price and Pema Chagzoetsang honor one another on this auspicious day - the day the Buddha statue is blessed.

Pema Chagzoetsang watches as the group talks about the center’s auditorium. Slight of frame, with dark hair and complexion that makes her age hard to guess, she listens, following the conversation, ignoring incoming texts. She may not have the final say in all decisions, but all decisions go through her. She has earned the respect of both the Tibetan and greater Salt Lake City communities. She is the “mother” of Salt Lake City’s micro settlement of Tibetans in diaspora.

Pema was one of those displaced. She was only a few months old when, in 1959, the Chinese army moved in and started occupying Tibet, claiming it as sovereign and part of greater China.  Pema’s parents bundled her up and hid outside the boundaries of the capital city Lhasa, her hometown. Her father, a Yogi of high regard, and her mother, a former nun, feared they would be targeted during the Chinese invasion. Pema’s older sister was left behind; her parents believed they would come back in a few days to a Lhasa returned to normal. But the troops didn’t leave, so Pema’s family had to flee. The fractured family started its trek to safety.

“Sleeping…sometimes in [a] cave, sometimes in the snow,” Pema says, “and eventually [we] made it to India.”

“Everybody’s just exhausted. The clothes that they were wearing, all tattered and torn. My mom said her shoes were just completely ripped open, they had to tie it up with rags.”

"I mean, you have everything in Utah for me. You have a house that has hot water running, everything is so convenient. But then I was missing the actual life. The whole life. Having people around you and being able to connect, because I was torn between two cultures. Being a Tibetan from Tibet and coming to a new culture that I don’t even understand or know how to fit in was very challenging.”

Pema tells the story of what happened to her sister after she didn't escape Tibet

It was very lonely...Coming to a foreign country, when you do not know a soul, and living in Utah was very lonely. You feel kind of empty."
~~Pema Chagzoetsang

While she worked at different positions for the State of Utah, which eventually included a stint as Utah’s Refugee Coordinator, Pema made sure her family observed the Tibetan holidays, cooked traditional food, and did her best to pass on Tibetan culture and language to her children. But not being able to talk and share similar experiences or memories with anyone outside her family weighed on her. Still, she embraced and loved her new life in Utah.

Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, decisions were being made that would change her life, along with the lives of many other Tibetans.