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Identity Interrupted

The story of exile Tibetan Youth

Thursday 27 December 2007, by Topden Tsering

The young man was probably nineteen or twenty and appearance-wise, everything about him was Hip Hop: bright, oversized jersey worn over a pair of dangerously sagging baggy jeans, his hair braided in cornrows. Out on the streets, I’d have taken him for another Rap-bellowing, weed-smoking, Black ghetto-inspired kid of ambiguous ethnicity, Asian, Latino, Mixed or what have you. But here he was, a Tibetan young man, everything about him Hip Hop and Bling Bling, except for his medium of communion with others in the room: the song of his ancestors, Tibetan folk music.

Now this scene would easily have surmised a picture-perfect snapshot of today’s Tibetan youth in the West: all Western in appearance, but cent percent Tibetan to the core. Except that it is not. Things are more complicated, more layered and less black and white. As in the case of youth of most countries, the Tibetan counterpart too is a narrative in conflicting experiences. Staring into the eyes of our very assumptions, both in terms of our cultural self and our political struggle, is the searing question of their being and becoming. What to make of them?

If anything, Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche’s recent "anti-Buddhist" invective against the Dharamsala Miss Tibet pageant is an appendix to the discomfort with which our mainstream society approach the youth angst. On the part of our elderly populations, it informs a deepening disconnect; for the young, further alienation, for now camouflaged by shimmering Chubas worn to occasional Tibetan festivities.

I am reminded of the first 2001 Miss Tibet contest, which announced the participation of some thirty beautiful, educated and passionate women. One utterance of displeasure from the highest office of Tibetan governance later, the number had dwindled to mere four nervous contestants. It was hard not to feel for the girls. Harder still it was to miss the irony when the event, though frugally staged, went on to generate a media frenzy that Dharamsala hadn’t witnessed since the Karmapa’s arrival two years ago. And the icing on the paradox: a "Miss Tibet meets Miss China" photo-op that beamed over a several websites from the subsequent World Miss Tourism in Columbia.

The intent of this article is not to defend the Dharamsala event’s wardrobe-impaired organizer, nor is it to criticize our Prime Minister, Prof. Shamdhong Rinpoche. It is simply to put up a mirror to the foibles, frivolities and failings of the Tibetan young, their challenges, their hopes and their triumphs, through a real acknowledgement of things as they are. A pedestrian perception if you may, an earnest observation in the hindsight.

Exile Tibetan Youth is…

Youth is a deceptive concept. At once static and fluid, it could be bound within an age grouping, or it could meander into musings over the matters of heart and spirit. Philosophers have forever countered: "Youth is not in numbers, it is in the lightness of your spirit, the daring of your heart, the alertness of your mind."

In the exile context, the idea of youth is rendered convoluted by the fleeting stretch of the Diaspora. The expiry tag on the process of being young comes with a sooner date in India than, say, in the U.S. And so in New York, at 35, you can still be a freelancer, both at work and in relationships, even unintentionally so, but in Dharamsala, shame on you if you are not by then comfortably married, complete with a kid or two to make up for the family portrait! On the exile shore, youth takes on a kaleidoscopic visage. Exile Tibetan youth is the 27-year-old girl in some northern Indian city of her family’s seasonal sweater-selling destination, where from a makeshift store, she retails woolen garments, hand-knit scarves, and the like, to local customers, while her aging parents ponder over her childhood swiftly passed and wonder if she will grow old to be like them, forever slicing a life and livelihood from the roadsides of their surrogate homes, warding off miscreants, haggling with clients, buying off municipal goodwill and worrying over how favorably winter will strike come next year.

Exile Tibetan youth is the 40-year-old man, a father of three back home in Bylakuppe, who upon arriving in New York, finds himself in a dormitory-like situation he had never known, sharing a room with three other Tibetans in their twenties, all of who when not slaving under the weight of the American dream steal moments of reprieve from playing cards, joking around, sharing grocery bills, and getting drunk on the money left over from purchasing gifts back home of Nike Shoes, Gap sweatshirts and cheap Chinatown watches. At the local pub, with his rowdy friends, and eyeing a happy couple across the table, the man wonders when he will get to see his wife again, the mother of his three children, if ever, before being brought around by a stinging pat on the back: "Yah khore tha thung, Kyipo thang (Here man, have a drink. Enjoy now)".

Exile Tibetan youth is the 23-year-old student in Delhi, making a steady ascent toward an Engineering career, both his ambition and his motorcycle fueled by the American dollars sent home by his Madison-residing elder sister, now married to an American man, for reasons of citizenship. Between his occasional activism under the banner of Tibetan Youth Congress, getting arrested for burning Chinese flags, and sifting through Indian weeklies on technology and politics, he wonder where his future was going to take him, and if at all, he was going to become the "Seeds of a Future Tibet" his elementary school teachers had once baptized him with?

Exile Tibetan youth is the 35-year-old man, formerly a monk, the strain of the Canadian life having plucked him out of his erstwhile monastic existence, and having traded his maroon robes for Levis Jeans and Old Navy fleece, he plunges deep and wide into the bonhomie of his lost adolescence, smoking, drinking, courting women; and when tired and depressed after a back-breaking 10-hour shift, he wonders if Buddha really had a map out of this quagmire, in the scriptures of his past memorization.

Exile Tibetan youth is the Christina Aguilera-inspired 19-year-old Tibetan girl in San Francisco, all skimpy dress and bubble gum talk, thumbing relentless text messages on her mobile phone, gyrating at loud Hip Hop clubs on the weekends, and occasionally dressing up in Tibetan chuba to attend with her family a religious teaching by a visiting Tibetan lama. In between her "That’s Hot!" and "Whatever!" she struggles with remembering how to clasp her hands in a supplication gesture, when huddled before the incarnate figure, his words all lost to her, except for the amusing sight of his swaying figure, causing a slight abrasion on the mike system.

Exile Tibetan youth is the 30-year-old newly arrived from Tibet, living in Dharamsala, a wannabe writer of Tibetan Fiction, presently scouring every fold there is to the exile Diaspora, for ideas to give flesh to his epic on Tibetan freedom struggle, for now invisible except on the pages of his unwritten first novel. Exile Tibetan youth is also his Manali-born counterpart, similarly dreaming of writing the definitive Tibetan novel, in English; devouring every picture, text, illustrations there is of his lost homeland, only to forever find himself tricked out of that ability to bring alive the setting of his narrative: a neighborhood in a village in a country he has never seen, his own.

Exile Tibetan youth is all these and more: curious, sad, funny, frustrating, poignant, hopeless, sometimes inspiring too, lives that play out before your eyes, our eyes, as we watch them, goad them, condescend over them, ignore them and, sometimes, pull our hair over them.

The Politics of Being Young

The idea of youth is unabashedly political in the exile context. In Tibetan schools, before a child learns to spell "Apple", he is given a new name: "Seeds of the Future Tibet". March 10 demonstrations; "Hamey Kya Chahiye? Azaadi Chahiye (What do we want? Freedom!)"; Pressing bodies with flags and placards; A leader perpetually shouting into a big microphone, scribbled "Ashoka Electronics"; The school headmaster unfailingly evoking the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for all the good things in life.

In the book of one’s early life, one chapter perennially open is that of the politics of his being, its pages fluttering to the wind of his statelessness, his confusion. The letters are all too clear and bold, those depicting his parents’ early years of survival, the dislocation of a nation and the banishment of a God in the person of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; the sheer evil of China as a nation, as a history, as an idea.

If anything, Tibetan Youth Congress is the must-read flyer that’s thrust in one’s hand as soon as he reaches certain maturity, that threshold to armpit hair, the first cigarette and the sexual awakenings. The contents of the publication, the raison de tre of the organization; these are all known to him, right down to the green logo (yet another version of Tibetan map), one more souvenir to add to the images Tibetan on the mantelpiece of his exile identity.

In certain ways, Tibetan Youth Congress is less an organization than a way of life: the Identity Card, the occasional storming of Chinese embassy gates, all these an index to preserving the very little that remains of the politics of the later, grown up, days; beyond praying to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, beyond paying one’s green book dues to the exile administration; beyond waiting out for the miracles hinted at by a returning exile delegation to Tibet and China.

Also when it comes to age limit and dynamism, TYC is no less puzzling than the concept of youth as grappled with elsewhere in the world. And so the first exile martyr, Thubten Ngodup, was a Tibetan youth congress member at sixty. And conversely, the organization and its many chapters face flak for not having younger faces at the helm. "Old-fashioned, too formal and unimaginative:" are few of the criticisms leveled at the group.

Furthermore, as conveniently inherited, the politics of one’s youth is as easily replaced by the myriad callings of an adult life: Higher studies, career, work, family and hobbies. Banished to the margins, the occasional protests outside Chinese consulates and all, the dynamism of his youth, as predicted to him early on in life, is as vague as any concrete sense that one could make of the life as he knows it, his own and those of his friends.

Perhaps it was the school textbook that did it? Or the history lessons. All of which - beyond the tales of spiritual kings who climbed to heaven on a ladder that was subsequently cut-off; beyond a Sakya scholar who dispensed wisdoms on life and death in lyrical quartets; beyond pinpointing Lhasa on a blank map of "Tibet Our Country" school curriculum; beyond memorizing 1959 as the year in which China’s occupation of Tibet was cemented - stop woefully short at invoking the kind of politics that inspire and the history that endure. Hence, heroes like Andruk Gonpo Tashi and Yurupon are names not mentioned, so too revolutionaries like Amdo Gedhun Choephel. The celebration forever centers on spirituality, and what is reduced to whispers is the conversation on the textured humanity of a country’s destiny.

The mainstream struggle increasingly shying away from the idea of Tibetan independence, that signboard to the distinctiveness of one’s identity, the politics of the Tibetan youth is today at a crossroad with very few familiar landmarks in sight. The battle cry has been censored; the spear pointed inward; and bounding crazy is the horse on which he was first comfortably ensconced, with a ritualistic send-off and all. "Seeds of a Future Tibet."

How surprising is it then that in distant Switzerland, or even in an all-Indian community like Bangalore, an exile child growing up would have little to look for in the name of Tibetan references? And so for every Pawo Thupten Ngodup that blazed across the Tibetan freedom world, there are ten TYC chapters that haven’t taken off in American cities where there are five hundred plus Tibetans and where the local Tibet sympathy is an oilfield ready to be harnessed.

For every regular face that adds to the soldiering gusto of our local activism (That Acha, this monk, or that young school drop-out ever ready to lug around the placards and the banners), there are hundred plus young Tibetans, educated and informed to the boot, living in these many cities, for now nursing their leadership in the convenient portals of cyber message forums. Perhaps married, perhaps too busy, perhaps too unmotivated, perhaps too tired before he has even lifted a finger! Perhaps.

The politics of Tibetan youth, somewhere along the way, has been rendered apolitical. Or so it’d seem. And what is left of it, given the cataclysmic proportion of the Tibetan struggle, is a balloon tiger that we all prop up, every so occasionally, with its glistening teeth and blown up bulk, its tail wagging about in the breeze of the occasional "release" campaigns that constitute the highpoints of our exile freedom movement.

Modernity and Tibetan Youth

"Everything is a version of something else". In the days of my father, it was bell-bottom trousers and Rajesh Khanna hairstyle; growing up, the local fashion idols of my childhood days wore woolen legwarmers over their white sneakers; and around the time I was in college, it was torn jeans and motorcycle boots. Today, it’s pants almost falling down, jerseys two sizes too large, cornrows and tattoos. In the stroke of forty years, the reigning fashion for womenfolk has shrunk from full-bodied Chuba to handkerchief size tops!

From the little reading I’ve done on Hip Hop as a culture, it’s a code for the rebel mass- produced in clothes, music, accessories, and finally, a lifestyle; a currency for acceptance in the denomination of defiance. Emerged from an environment of extreme deprivation and decay in the South Bronx, New York City , Hip Hop is a concept of pure invention , of creating something from nothing , as in the graffiti of 1970s ("borrowed" spray paint), breaking (cardboard as dance floor), and outdoor jams (electricity source: the base of street lights) which, coalescing into new forms of artistic expression , captured the attention of urban youth. Finally, Hip Hop is an identity for today’s young black power, just as the sixties’ Hippie movement was a revolution countering the pitfalls of rampant capitalization, and which found its political stance in the anti-Vietnam war, the Black Panther movement et all.

Chances are that lost to our kids today wearing sagging pants and bulbous lockets would be the political connotation of Hip Hop, its cultural history, and its commercialized reality. But it is not difficult to see why they should be drawn to a dress code that bespoke rebellion, separateness, in the White-dominated American milieu. For the exile Tibetans, it seems, clothes have played an important role throughout, and it continues to do so, for blending in and yet standing out. We continue to make hip our weapon against obscurity!

A cursory glance at the modernity of clothes would also reveal the modernity of minds that’s yet to take roots in the exile Diaspora. For the greatest science on the process of mind and the phenomenon of heart that Tibetan Buddhism is, that might come across as a contradiction, an anti-climax even, but the current state of affairs seem to be just that. Otherwise what would explain the utter lack of curiosity when it comes to learning about, and being inspired by, the "Other"?

Maybe it’s the ritualistic aspects of Buddhism that filled up our school spiritual curriculums, with very little focus on its rationale practice; maybe it’s the overzealous shepherding into a flock every single time; maybe it’s the didactical negation of self as preached in "Life after Death" and "Others Before Self" which discouraged creative individuality; inadvertently so; but whatever the reason the exile Tibetan youth today is not a modern being, in a true sense.

I remember enjoying listening to people talk about the late Tibetan Review editor, Tsering Wangyal la. It was way back when he was alive, when from his delightful, sometimes blasphemous, eccentricities, TCV Delhi Youth Hostel denizens sought their amusement; and when during one of the conversations about him, officiated by someone who knew him closely, it was said that in New York of early days, perhaps Tsering Wangyal la was the only young Tibetan who went to watch Broadway shows on the 42 nd Street, alone, because no one else would come with him, failing to see the point in paying 25 dollars to see a bunch of costume-clad people prancing about on a light-washed stage. Decades later, in a New York populated by several thousands of Tibetans, Broadway still isn’t a favored destination, except for maybe a handful of exile Tibetans, dragged by their Injie patrons.

For some reason, our appreciation of "other" seems even suppressed. Take for instance Tibetan Children’s Village School in Dharamsala. The school is a village on its own, removed from the reality of omnipresent Indian community around and about. And so, the weekly Hindi classes are almost an aberration, something to be ashamed about. During the monthly Second Saturday excursions to the nearby Indian towns, Hindi is spoken with a tinge of English accent, sometimes with regret. I saw this extend to our college years in Delhi, when my friends, all of who had been brought up as boarders, experienced a certain discomfort in accepting themselves as part of the greater Indian milieu, in befriending the Indian students, in letting in the sights and sounds of their host country, except for an occasional Hindi movie, that too a guilty pleasure in the most literal sense.

Now in the United States, or even in Canada, Hindi movies remain singularly the prevalent medium of entertainment for the exile lot. So much so, that when I first arrived in Berkeley, and during my days of attempting a closer look into the lives of our 19 or 20-something Hip Hop young Tibetans, I was pleasantly surprised, when left to ourselves in a room in which rolls of weed circled around and video games blared from a TV screen, they were mouthing Hindi dialogues from older, well-known, movies; and laughing their heads off over it. "Aati Kya Khandala (Want to come to Khandala?)"

Theaters, plays, cinema, documentaries, books, poetry, science or technology, when it comes to relating to truths beyond the plight of our political tragedy, we Tibetans make very little effort. As Donald S. Lopez put it in his Prisoners of Shangri-La: "Tibetans are, at once and both, the jailers and inmates of the prison that is Shangri La."

Of course, the issues of modernity and youth are sprawling subjects, fit for doctorate students, or armchair scholars, more into inserting snippets from dust-gathering tomes of yore, than really living the ebbs and flow of the twin tides, but in the context of exile Tibetan youth, I believe, the modern mentality has not yet taken shape, and even if it is taking shape now, the voices are little too muffled to be heard.

The Way of Future

Once, I had this girl from UC Berkeley Journalism School come up to me with a proposal to write a story about the local Tibetan community and its challenges in America. Three interview sessions later - a short walk through Tibet’s early history, China’s invasion and occupation, and the story of exile Diaspora - and guiding her to other sources for sound bites, what should she come up with but an article on Tibetan gangsters (This report came out on Phayul.com among others)! The centerpiece of her story is one 17-year-old Yougyal Tsering, and through his random utterances, she builds a deadly scenario of Tibetan kids involving themselves with South Asian gang members.

According to her, Yougyal calls himself T.I.B., or "Tibetans in Blue", an offshoot of S.O.D. (Sons of Death) gang which started as a Mien (a Laotian ethnic group) and whose members all wear blue. Yougyal is one of the four Berkeley High School Tibetan students, among seven, who identify themselves with the group, and have tall tales about having beaten up, and having been beaten up by, members of the rival gang: C.O.B. (Color of Blood), whose members are pre-dominantly Khmu Laotian and who wear red.

The story was alarming indeed, but not really true. The writer’s fault was only being more attracted to shock value than real stories. On the part of the main character, Yougyal Tsering, although he and his friends do wear blue and call themselves T.I.B., it was just a routine happenstance of taking somebody for a ride, this time it was a journalist, with tales of fisticuffs, blood and red handkerchiefs. "You know how he is, Chocho:" a friend of his told me, alluding to his lying and weirdly hyper character.

Even so today, from Minnesota to San Francisco, in many Tibetan conglomerates in the West, Tibetan kids’ brush with Hip Hop is not always without a hint of danger. Gang fights; arrests and imprisonments; a life wasted beyond repair; these are just few of the worrying factors for Tibetan parents working in the warehouses of their day jobs.

It is interesting, though, how T.I.B. should be an abbreviation not for Tibetan but for "Tibetans in Blue". And how, even if journalistically contrived, this one section of Tibetan youth should achieve a sense of belonging with their school-going peers (Black, Asian, Latino, Mixed, even White, and what have you) by subverting their real Tibetan identity and through many layers of their blue clothing.

And conversely, when under the banner of a Miss Tibet Pageant, even if it means having to parade in skimpy clothes and glistening make-ups, and in stretching the innovative factor of their contribution to the cause, when the young Tibetan girls are rebuked for coming across as "anti-Buddhist", there seems to be missing more than a few beats in our society’s understanding of the youth.

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