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Is the contemporary Tibetan identity a modern one? (Migyul Magazine, Vol.2, May 2004)
T. Keyzom Ngodup

"What has occurred is the creation of homogeneity in the fight to preserve our identity. But the real Tibet is diverse."

The Tibetan discourse of a lost homeland is strangely painful, for memories of encounters with the Tibetan refugee community in India run vividly through my mind as I write about “us” outside of our community. The strangeness of “us” in “us” is a fiction of sort. What has occurred is the creation of homogeneity in the fight to preserve our identity. But the real Tibet is diverse. A suffocating love arises in my chest as I remember my maternal grandmother sitting in an air-conditioned room with her yak-skin chupa, while humming to songs from Ngari (Western Tibet). Can my friends from Eastern Tibet understand her song; can a modern Tibetan understand her words? No! The contemporary Tibetan identity in relation to old Tibetan identity is in question.

Tibet lost its independence in 1959 when the Chinese Communist government “liberated” Tibet. My land was liberated in every sense except for what liberation really means. Today every Tibetan refugee’s story carries the sense of loss and vulnerability to the unfamiliarity of other cultures: a tainted memory of helplessness. Today, stories of oppression highlight Tibetans within Tibet. It is more than fifty years since the forced dislocation of Tibetans from Tibet and within Tibet has occurred due to the implementation of Communist ideology Arjun Appadurai in the paper “Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy” questions the locality of culture and divulges in the creation of abstract culture without locality.

Is the contemporary Tibetan identity a modern one? The Tibetan identity is non-limiting to its location mainly due to the erosion of its people from its roots. Thus a Tibetan identity of oppression brings together diasporic Tibetans under the obvious combat to preserve the identity. The paradox lies in the newness of this identity.

The preservation of the Tibetan culture outside Tibet and within Tibet has resulted in homogeneity. As Madhavi Sundar, during a recent lecture at Cornell University, points out: The preservation of culture results in a delusion of culture, and tries to maintain and hide differences. Thus suppressing cultural descent or the diversity within an identity. Metok, a Tibetan-Indian-German woman goes as far as identifying herself as a Tibetan.

Metok, who is 21, faced difficulties dealing with triple identities and she believes she has proved herself to be a good Tibetan by recognizing the general basic ‘Tibetaness’, an identity stressed by our community leaders. For generations of Tibetans around Metok’s age, ‘Tibetaness’ differentiates them from their non-Tibetan peers. To manufacture Tibetan identity in opposition to the mainstream identities of the communities they live within Tibet, her generation has to force a fictive homogeneity upon themselves to fabricate and follow an official ‘Tibetan’ image. Thus the Tibetan identity is identified with only another Tibetan, which automatically weaves pathways for a homogenous identity within the Tibetan identity.

For the diasporic Tibetans living within the same region in exile to combat ‘the other’ they cannot be ‘the other’ to each other. The battle of domination is a symbolic battle, where dislocation from the origin places Tibetans in a forced position to assimilate. Please note that when I say Tibetans in exile, I also include the Tibetans in Tibet, the place where the least amount of freedom to maintain their culture is observed, mainly due to the fact those people have not dislocated and are strongly inclined to their old ways. In fact, ‘Tibet’ exists only in arbitrary terms now.

I met a Canadian Tibetan man Shau who was studying French in Quebec. Shau, 25 years old, had an interesting story; this man was only 16 when he walked for 21 days alongside the Himalayas escaping China’s Tibet. What made him escape the land I dreamt of going back to one day? I realized Tibet meant different things to each of us. For him it was a land where political repression was leading his life, where life was full of danger due to his political activity among his peers. For me, Tibet was a dream, the end result of my activist inclination. Shau learnt the modern Tibetan language, a homogenized version of all Tibetan dialects, when in India and before moving to Quebec. He spoke some of his Khampa dialect (an Eastern Tibet region) and it was beyond my comprehension. So we spoke in a shared tongue, the only way we could discuss our different ideas of Tibet was through a homogenized modern Tibetan language.

"Metok and I are similar Tibetans: We speak the same modern Tibetan language, sing along the same pop Tibetan music, even know the same history of Tibet, and struggle as activists in our universities to spread awareness about the plight of Tibet. The process of unity has been fostered in Tibet’s domination by China. The idea of what is Tibetan is being defined in this oppression."

The creation of one kind of Tibetan is parallel to Benedict Anderson’s argument in his work Imagined Communities (New York: Verso Books, rev., 1991), where language and a contemporary Tibetan is the imagined boundary of unity. Anderson argues that it is the preservation of culture within museums and defined borders on maps that fosters nationalism and unity among the colonized. In years of suppression and exile, the unity among Tibetans has never been so clear as it is today. Metok and I are similar Tibetans: We speak the same modern Tibetan language, sing along the same pop Tibetan music, even know the same history of Tibet, and struggle as activists in our universities to spread awareness about the plight of Tibet. The process of unity has been fostered in Tibet’s domination by China. The idea of what is Tibetan is being defined in this oppression.

Within the Tibetan government in exile, the cultural differences among Tibetans initially hinder the workings of the parliament. The founders were old Tibetans who had fled Tibet after 1959 and therefore their regional identities defined their identity. But the generations born in exile no longer adhere to regional distinctions within Tibet. For them Tibet is their fight and the struggle lies in balancing their Tibetan identity with the assimilating character of their contemporary locality.

Chokle is a Tibetan woman who works at the Cornell University Temple of Zeus Café. She grew up in Eastern Tibet, where Chinese infiltration has been so dense that the Tibetans are a minority within that region. In Ithaca she watches Chinese movies every weekend. She even converses with Chinese customers in mandarin. Chokle identifies herself as a Tibetan mainly because she believes in the Tibetan independence. It is very apparent that the contemporary Tibetan identity is built around the fight for Tibet and around the knowledge of Tibet’s lost independence. When in Tibet, Chokle did not know Tibet wasn’t independent. Her relation to her identity was localized to her region Kham within Tibet. It was after she migrated to India in early 80s that Chokle identified herself with the Tibetan struggle for preserving its identity. Tibetans within Tibet rarely associate with each other due the lack of mobility: What Tibet means for them is relative to where they live. While in exile, the Tibetan identity has been homogenized to the identity of an exiled victim. It is only when faced with threats against our Tibetan Culture culture that a definition of oneself becomes key to survival.

"It is only when faced with threats against our Tibetan Culture culture that a definition of oneself becomes key to survival."

My non-Tibetan friends are always appalled that I know of every Tibetan in the Ivy League institutions without actually having met them. The sense of community is strong within the Tibetans. It is in this domain where the meaning of community is beyond what the word actually means. The struggle for justice in Tibet creates our sense of community, and the questioning identity of Tibetans without a ‘Tibet’ relates us to each other.

Our larger Tibetan community is located abstractly as each one of us lives in assimilation to various other identities based on our location on the map.

I envision Tibetan identity at demonstrations during Chinese leaders’ visit. I envision it during uprisings in Tibet. And I envision it in the eyes and hearts of Tibetan political prisoners. The modern Tibetan identity is located on the basis of our struggle for justice in Tibet. While I will not say our diversity as Tibetans has been compromised, it is sad to notice that this homogenization of our Tibetan diversity has occurred forcibly. That lies at the heart of every Tibetan all over the world.

We, as Tibetans in exile, have managed to weave an identity where only impossibilities are our idealism. With the preservation of culture and reiteration of old Tibetan beliefs in daily lives, we disallow differences of ideas and inhabit an evolution of culture and new ideas that are i necessary to answer the question : what can we do for Tibet?

Each culture maps ideas that are imposed on people and thus it becomes the order we impose on the world. Culture is constantly evolving, highly pertaining to the experiences of the people. What we have managed to do is to hold on to our Tibetan culture to preserve it, thus disallowing any possibilities for answers to our current situation.

Hunger Strike at United Nations, April 2004

For instance: the issue of Panchen Lama is an insult to our cultural beliefs. How can an atheist communist government recognize the reincarnation of a religious head? How dare they force their boy upon the Tibetans inside Tibet over His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s choice of boy? We can only condemn the brutality of the Chinese Government, but why don’t we beat them at their own game: Why doesn’t the Tashi Lumpo monastery take the other Tibetan boy and give him the teachings a Panchen Lama would require. As radical as I may sound with my suggestions, I ask what is more at stake? Many have already raised the fear of China brainwashing these two boys. After a while it won’t even matter if they give us back Gendun Chokyi Nyima, the true chosen one. He will not have had the upbringing a Panchen Lama needs for him to be Tibet’s Panchen Lama. And, finally, why cannot we create spaces for variance in our cultural ideas mainly for our culture to remain alive?

Keyzom is an undergraduate student at Cornell University.