The scent of Nag Champa wafts through the air. Red, blue, green, yellow and white prayer flags flutter in the breeze coming from the open door. The guttural chants of a monk, beautiful and eerie, fill the Potala Gate gift shop in downtown Eugene.
Kyizom Wangmo’s boisterous laughter cuts through the soft music. One of Potala Gate’s regular customers, a woman named Kay, tells Wangmo that her 12-year-old granddaughter aspires to become president of the United States.
“It’s because of this wonderful store,” Kay says. She continues to tell Wangmo how her granddaughter has been inspired by the Tibetan gifts she receives from her shop.
Wangmo’s eyes shine as she brushes off the compliment.
“Her granddaughter is so beautiful,” she says with a smile.
Kay soon leaves the shop, but not before she shows Wangmo her fringed black-leather purse with bells sewn on.
“It’s Tibetan inspired,” Kay says as she waves goodbye.
Wangmo owns the Potala Gate gift shop, next to the Eugene Station on Willamette Street, with her husband Jigme Lama. The store bursts with tapestries, prayer flags, incense, whimsical clothing and postcards of the Dalai Lama. As Wangmo talks about her roots in Asia, she casually switches back and forth between Tibetan, the only language her husband speaks, and English. Even though Wangmo considers Tibet to be her home country, she has never been there.
Wangmo was born in a Tibetan refugee camp in Orissa, India, where she spent the majority of her childhood. Her mother, who is from the Mt. Kailash area, and her father, who is from Eastern Tibet, both fled their home country in 1959 when they were children. Wangmo’s parents were two of the 80,000 Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama to India after his exile in 1959. China invaded Tibet in 1950, and the government has continued to make it difficult for Tibetans to return.
Wangmo goes back to India once a year to visit her parents, but she is still waiting for they day she can reconnect with her Tibetan roots.
“At the moment I don’t think it’s possible,” Wangmo says. “They don’t give visas to people with a Tibetan name,” she says, referring to the current Chinese government.
Wangmo and her husband moved to Cottage Grove 15 years ago because they had a good friend who settled there. After seven years in Cottage Grove, they moved to Springfield and finally to Eugene. They opened the Potala Gate, which sells Tibetan, Indian and Nepali gifts and handicrafts, almost nine years ago.
The Eugene community has always been comfortable for Wangmo, but there are things she misses from her life in India.
“The refugee camp is sort of like a family,” Wangmo says. “Everybody knows everybody. Everybody takes care of everybody. Here we barely speak to our neighbors.”
Wangmo’s welcoming presence, bright eyes and easy chat attract a number of people like Kay, who just like to stop by to talk.
“A lot of people come here to find a sense of peace,” Wangmo says. “They come here and see all these images of Buddha. Even if they don’t understand, they know that Buddhism is all about peace.”
Wangmo turns toward the door and cracks a smile. “Hey friend!” she says. It’s Frank, another regular, who is wearing a forest green sweat suit, saunters into the shop leaning heavily on an aluminum cane. She stops what she is doing and gives Frank her full attention. Frank slowly tells her he is afraid he is going to miss his bus and that he forgot his address. Wangmo laughs so loud it rings off the ceiling.
Frank says goodbye and turns around. “Bye hon,” Wangmo says.
Frank beams, looking like he just won a million dollars.
“Walk slowly because it’s raining,” she shouts.
“I will,” Frank says with a faintly Southern drawl as he hobbles out of the store with a grin on his face.
“We talk a lot and other people will listen,” Wangmo says, referring the not-so-regular customer. “They ask: ‘Do you do counseling here?’” Wangmo bursts into another fit of laughter.
Although Eugene is home for now, Wangmo says that like all Tibetans, she hasn’t lost hope to someday live in the country that she has never seen, but still knows is her own.
“Everybody wants to go home. That’s where your ancestors are. That’s where your culture is. I think that I would want to die there,” Wangmo says with a chuckle. “As comfortable as it is here, it’s just different.”