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
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.
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
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.
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
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