September 1, 2022

BERNSTEIN | The Middle of Nowhere is Home to All

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Up near the Ithaca College campus on Ithaca’s South Hill lies the North American Branch of the Namgyal Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, lives in exile in Dharamshala, India. And when he comes to the United States, he stops by Ithaca, New York.

There’s a strong Tibetan community in Ithaca. Almost twenty families of Tibetan descent live around town. There’s a Tibetan Association of Ithaca, which includes every Tibetan Ithaca, and organizes get-togethers and celebrations of local holidays. There are normally big parties once a month where the whole community gathers at someone’s house. On special occasions like Losar — the Tibetan New Year — or the Dalai Lama’s Birthday, Tibetan Ithacans celebrate at the monastery on South Hill.

I interviewed some Tibetan Ithacans last year for a podcast on the Tibetan diaspora and how a group of people from so far away have found a home in what often feels like the middle of nowhere. That’s often what Ithaca feels like, especially to Cornellians. Students who hail from all over the world, often near big cities or metropolitan areas, sometimes see Ithaca — dubbed “10 square miles surrounded by reality,” (a catchphrase first coined by Peter Hansen in the Ithaca Journal in 1993 that has become a badge of pride for Ithacans) — and think that “reality” makes our small city feel almost isolated.

But that isn’t necessarily true: Ithaca itself is worldly. I’m not just talking about Cornell, with its thousands of international students, its over 50 languages offered and vast array of multicultural programs, or its renowned reputation across the globe. I’m talking about when you step off campus. 

Ithaca isn’t just surrounded by reality — Ithaca is reality. It is diverse and beautiful, filled with immigrants, people of color and a variety of cultures. To be Ithacan is to celebrate this, and to be a part of it.

Look around town. In Collegetown, the Commons, the Farmers Market and just about anywhere you find Ithacans, you’ll see immigrant-run businesses and a variety of cultures. The Tibetan Momo Bar, a Tibetan restaurant downtown and a feature at the Farmers Market, offers traditional Tibetan momos (Tibetan-style dumplings) and some of the best noodles I’ve ever tasted. In fact, you can find all sorts of cuisines permeating the Ithaca dining scene. You’ll see East African, Middle Eastern, East Asian and Latin American foods alike. 

Ithaca has actually been a haven for refugees throughout its history. The example of Tibetans is one of the most prominent: in the early 1990s, the U.S. authorized the acceptance of 1,000 Tibetan refugees, and Ithaca was one of the 10 resettlement cluster sites selected across the country. Fifty Tibetan refugees came in 1991, and the Namgyal Monastery was founded a year later.

In 2016, Ithaca was approved to accept 50 refugees per year, and in 2017, it became a sanctuary city. Refugees from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan and Myanmar have settled in the small Finger Lakes town since. 

For many refugees and immigrants alike, it can be difficult to both feel at home in a new place and to maintain one’s culture. Organizations like Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, founded in 2015 in response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, have worked to achieve this goal, and help refugees integrate into a new place without an assimilationist dissolution of culture. Tibetan Ithacans, for example, are active in the Ithaca community, and maintain a strong Tibetan identity.

Cornellians often look at Ithaca and see the middle of nowhere. To a certain extent, that’s understandable. It’s curious how so many people from all over the world can end up here in the Finger Lakes, of all places.

Ithaca, however, has become home to people from all over, with or without ties to Cornell. Cornellians should appreciate the city they have for being so diverse and multicultural. We should try new cuisines and get to know people who have traveled to get here. We should learn about different cultures in our classes and appreciate them in all reality.

This isn’t just the middle of nowhere. Ithaca is filled to the brim of cultures and people from all over the world, who openly celebrate their identities and proudly call the Finger Lakes home. It’s beautiful, and it deserves to be celebrated.

Daniel Bernstein is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Feel the Bern runs alternate Thursdays this semester.