“I don’t feel like a king. I feel like you guys — just a little older.”
That’s how Namgyal Wangchuk Lhagyari Trichen began a morning visit with students at the Aspen Community School on Friday.
But Trichen, 19, is indeed a king, and was coronated when he was the same age as some of the fifth through eighth graders he met at the Woody Creek school. Descended from Songsten Gampo, the first Dharma King of Tibet, Trichen was crowned by the Dalai Lama in 2004, following his father’s death. The teenager has lived his whole life in exile from his homeland.
“The sad thing is I’ve never seen my home,” Trichen told students in an informal 40-minute chat that ranged from serious to spiritual to silly.
Preparing for his visit, the students watched the film “My Country is Tibet,” a 30-minute documentary which Trichen directed with BYKids, a group that brings established filmmakers and young people together to make movies about their lives.
Currently a senior at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware, Trichen greeted the kids without any regal airs. Wearing docksiders, khakis, an easy smile and a checked button-up shirt under a windbreaker, the teen refugee monarch answered queries about whether he likes Justin Bieber (he doesn’t; he’s a Green Day fan) and whether he has a girlfriend (also no, though he wouldn’t mind one) along with questions about his geopolitical aims.
He spoke of the invasion and occupation of Tibet by China, ongoing since 1959, and about the weight of responsibly he feels to lead his people from abroad. He touched on the self-immolation of monks at home, and the struggle between fighting for freedom and the peaceful discipline of Tibetan Buddhism. He talked about the scars that covered his father’s body, from living in chains in prison for more than 20 years under Chinese rule. And he talked about missing his father, who operated the Tibetan government in exile with the Dalai Lama after leaving prison, and who died when Trichen was in sixth grade.
“I have to do something,” he told the schoolchildren, “something like my father. He spent his whole life doing good deeds for the Tibetan people.”
Since his coronation, Trichen has been mentored by the Dalai Lama. He moved to the U.S. from India three years ago, and is now college-hunting for the fall. He’s hoping to study political science. Though he is growing into his role as king and global ambassador for Tibet, he said the idea was difficult to grasp at first.
“It was hard,” he said with a laugh. “I was a 13-year-old boy, and I had to sit with old people and pray and meditate — and I knew my friends were playing outside.”
When a student asked if he’d go to Tibet and fight for independence, Trichen stressed the importance of dialogue and diplomacy.
“This is the 21st century [and] the only way to fight is to talk,” he said. “I would fight when I was a child. Fighting doesn’t solve anything.”
Asked if he hates the Chinese for occupying Tibet and forcing his family into exile, he said no.
“We don’t hate Chines people — we consider Chinese people our brothers and sisters,” he explained. “I love Chinese food. We don’t hate them. We Tibetan people are only against the Chinese government.”
He said that the Chinese have used Tibet for nuclear tests, and to dump nuclear waste, while mining its mountains for silver and gold. But, he said he feels the country’s biggest loss has been in its freedom of expression — as even hanging a picture of the Dalai Lama in a home has been outlawed.
“If you go to Tibet, it’s not beautiful like it used to be,” he said.
The unlikely visit by the king to the small Woody Creek charter school came about through a parent, who was acquainted with BYKids filmmakers who brought Trichen to visit Colorado College, and invited him to the Community School.