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From Tibet, El Cerrito's "People Man"

Meet Thepo Tulku. And be prepared to lose any stereotypes you may have about Starbucks baristas.

From Tibet, El Cerrito's "People Man"

Name: Thepo Tulku

Age:  56

Occupation: Barista at in the El Cerrito Plaza, one of the founders of Bay Area Friends of Tibet

Often when I visit Starbucks in the El Cerrito Plaza, I notice a gentleman with smooth brown skin, short gray hair and a tranquil demeanor. He constantly seems to be at the center of a hub of people and camaraderie. When he isn’t working behind the counter at Starbucks, he is dressed in casual clothes. Sometimes he reads quietly in a leather armchair. Other times he talks with people of many cultures and backgrounds.

After seeing his face again and again in the center of things, I became curious as to why he had chosen to work at a coffee shop in El Cerrito. He agreed to an interview, and as we talked, his history grew into much more than I would have imagined.

A native Tibetan, Tulku fled with his family to India in 1959 after Communist China occupied Tibet. He was 5 years old. After growing up in India, Tulku moved to the United States. He helps run three separate organizations focused on aiding and educating Tibetans as well as those interested in the Tibetan cause. In addition to his work with the non-profit organizations, he works on translation of Tibetan documents and has done project for the Smithsonian museums. 

How long have you been working at Starbucks? About six years.

Do you live in El Cerrito? Yes, I do.

How long have you lived here? Since 1996. Before that in 1983 I lived in Berkeley. I used to come here a lot when Emporium Capwell’s was in the old El Cerrito Plaza. This was kind of my hangout; I always came here for some reason. It’s a little bit quieter and a little bit unique. Then it disappeared for a while.

So for a while you didn’t have your favorite place to go then. No.

And when it came back, you decided to get a job here? Yes.

It seems like you have a big community around here. Yes … I like it because every day when I work here, I met a lot of very different and unique people. There are a lot of educated people. It’s like a history lesson. I learn a lot of stories about new countries and information. It’s really social here with a lot of people, families and kids. It reminds me of my country.

I was born in Tibet. In 1959 Communist China invaded my country and occupied it … I grew up in India for many years, until 1980. We (Tibetans) have a culture where all of us meet together ... We don’t have telephones; we help each other; we share our story and our suffering. One thing I like about Starbucks is it brings people together.

When I came here in 1983, we had only three Tibetans in this area. I was homesick and looking for my own Tibetans and I found (about) 15. But we were happy. We made a group called — for some reason we have a lot of non-Tibetans who are very interested in Tibetans at a political and historical level — Bay Area Friends of Tibet. I am one of the founders. It is still very active.

Ten years before this there was something called the Tibetan Resettlement Project. President Bush gave special permission for 1,000 Tibetans to come to America around 1990.

We do not (just) get all the benefits. We have to get a job and find a place. Once we prove that we can bring Tibetans here and that they have a job, the American government would give (up to) 1,000 Tibetans a working visa. We were able to help 65 Tibetans at that time. It was a big deal because we were only 15. There were also non-Tibetans in our group — at that time we had a lot of people giving us jobs and help. The Hyatt in San Francisco was one of them. The owner is very interested in Tibetan art and culture. From his interest in the culture, he learned of the Tibetan situation and all of the people killed by Communist China.

In 1994 we had a lot of Tibetans, so we made the Tibetan Association of Northern California just for Tibetans. We had to make it because we had a lot of new Tibetans who needed somewhere to get together where they felt safe with people who had grown up in the culture.

Now at the family reunion there are all of these families and their relatives. Because of the American government, if one member of the family has a visa here, they can bring their families within two years if they have the benefit. One thing that is good about this is that it’s not as difficult for Tibetans as for regular immigrants. This is a special exception by the government. They don’t need a lot of money in the bank. Within two years they have to have a job, know how to work and save money, stay out of criminal trouble. If everything goes well, within two years they can bring their family. That’s why we have 2,000 Tibetans (now).

I work here at Starbucks every morning because I like it. I spend a lot of time doing volunteer work for Tibetan issues. I have another one I belong to. Before that I (was) one of the first presidents of the Tibetan Association of California. I did two terms public relations for the Tibetan association.

Now we have another group and I’m one of the board members right now: Bay Area Chinese and Tibetan Friendship. This is new, combining it. This is very interesting because the Dalai Lama often comes here to America. This group is because many Chinese scholars, students and intellectuals understand the Tibetan situation so they became a friend of Tibet. We promote our relationship with the Chinese.

Many issues came out from the Olympics in 2008. A lot of Tibetans did a demonstration, a protest, all over the world. The Chinese government tried to use that more like a "Tibetan people don’t like Chinese, they hate Chinese" propaganda.

We are not against them. We believe human rights should be attached. Olympics is one of the principles of pride for the country. When people have pride and respect somebody, we believe the country should have human rights. If they don’t have any human rights, any other respect is unbalanced. We raise awareness to say, "Hey Chinese government, it’s great to have the Olympics," but we really reminded them to make sure there are no human rights violations.

Many Tibetans had no religious freedom, no Tibetan language freedom. Almost two million Tibetans were killed. Many Chinese don’t have a right to practice their religion right now. (During) Olympic time we try to make awareness. That’s why we make the friendship and good relations. We have a lot of Chinese students and scholars who learn about and support not only Tibet. This group is not anti-China. It’s to try and understand each other. We meet together and we share our beliefs. It’s very interesting.

We have a lot of Chinese people who were at Tiananmen Square. Last month the Dalai Lama came to Stanford, and we were able to have some Chinese students meet with the Dalai Lama. A lot of Chinese students from UC Berkeley came to see the Dalai Lama and talk about Tibetan issues. It’s a very non-violent and pure relationship. This is something we believe in for the future in the world. We have all of this trouble because of lack of dialogue. We believe that dialogue is very important. Ignorance causes a lot of trouble. Anyone in the world can have an open mind and share their views, meet together and talk. A lot of these things make it easier for people to respect each other.

The one thing I like about working here is that a lot of people come here from very different cultures and I learn a lot of things. At the same time it’s very healthy; it’s not like a bar where you’re drinking beer.

Is Tibet still closed to Tibetans? In Tibet, if you’re an American citizen you can visit. But it’s very difficult because one day maybe you go to Tibet and it’s normal, but you never know tomorrow what will happen. There’s no security. One bad part is if you go visit your family or relatives in Tibet now, maybe they’ll be overjoyed and you’ll see a lot of friends, (but) the Chinese government listens and watches all of the time. Maybe they don’t give you any political trouble until after you leave. Then they might go to all of the people who you visited and make it difficult for them. They might go at midnight and ask questions and force them to say something wrong. Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government are in exile in India.

What do you do for fun? I work here and my hobby is swimming. I go to 24-hour Fitness about four times a week. I like swimming but I don’t do the gym — I’m too skinny. I like meeting people. Some people call me “people man.” I learn here every day.

My other side is I do a lot of Tibetan translations for philosophy books and such. In India I worked in a Tibetan library. I did a joint project with the Smithsonian; I did a lot of work for them. That’s my interest, a lot of research and anthropology. I like human studies.

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