I was reminded of that last week when ICT welcomed Tenzin Tsundue, a renowned Tibetan activist and poet, to our office in Washington, DC. I had been excited to meet Tsundue la, both because I am a (very amateur) poet myself, and because he seems to have led the kind of authentic activist lifestyle I’ve always admired. The man has been in jail 16 times, after all.
Tsundue joined us for a lunch discussion with NGO representatives and government officials. The sight of this goateed Tibetan protestor, dressed in traditional garb and a red bandana that he says he won’t remove until Tibet is free, mixing with members of the dapper DC professional class was striking enough. But Tsundue also showed a sharp contrast in thought to what echoes through the halls of power in the US capital.
In his remarks, Tsundue criticized consumerism, one of the bedrocks of American life. He noted that US consumption of cheap Chinese goods helped fuel China’s rise to superpower status, threatening American dominance around the globe.
Consumerism is also harmful to the Tibetan movement. In fact, it can be an even bigger threat than repression, Tsundue warned (I’m not using quotation marks because we didn’t record his speech and I didn’t take notes, so I’m recalling as best I can from memory).
Inside Tibet, China’s abuses are so visible that the Tibetan people likely see constant reminders of it. An ordinary Tibetan under Chinese rule must live with the awareness that she is a second-class citizen, that her country is occupied and that her community is being assimilated against its will.
It brings to mind an anecdote from Barbara Demick’s excellent 2020 book, “Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town.” Demick shares the story of a young man named Tsepey, who “was into partying, not politics” growing up. However, the condescension he faced from Chinese tourists and coworkers—including a boss who told him, “You need to behave more like the others”—led to a political awakening. Tsepey eventually took to the streets during the 2008 pan-Tibetan protests, got arrested and eventually escaped into exile.
Tsepey’s life—sadly he died from flu a few years ago—shows how systemic repression can, counterintuitively, harden a person’s attachment to who they are. But in a consumer society like the US, where you can supposedly choose your identity as easily as buying a new shirt, who you are can get lost in a sea of false choices. I speak from experience.
After the lunch at ICT, I spoke with Tsundue la for a few minutes to dive deeper into his thoughts. I shared that I was born in Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. When Tsundue tried communicating with me in Tamil, I had to admit that I couldn’t speak it. (For the record, my ancestral language is Malayalam, a relative of Tamil and the official language of the neighboring state of Kerala, where my family is originally from.)
Though I was born overseas, I moved to the US at just four months old. Growing up in suburban Pennsylvania in the 1990s and early 2000s, I mostly tried to distance myself from my ethnic background. While I likely couldn’t have embraced Indian culture even if I wanted to—the world was less digitally connected in those days—I mostly sought to ditch my identity because I felt the pain of being different.
Looking back, I of course feel ashamed now of being ashamed back then. But I was responding to the pressure I faced in that situation. Whether it was classmates mocking my dark skin, girls telling me they would never date a non-White guy or teachers accidentally calling me the name of one of the few other Indian students in my school, I was frequently reminded of my separateness at an age when many of us are desperately trying to fit in.
Freedom to destroy
But there was more to it than that. As a teen and young adult, I internalized the American belief that where you come from shouldn’t matter, and that you have the right to be whomever you want. The problem with me being Indian was not just the discrimination, but the fact that it limited my freedom.
In other words, I wanted to assimilate because it felt like the way to be free and happy. But a few decades later, I’ve found that the abundant freedoms this country provides can do as much to restrict your sense of self as to liberate you.
For one thing, if you are a person of color, assimilation will never be easy. No one will ever miss your otherness when they look at you. (Although, like Tsepey, direct discrimination might lead you to double down on your identity, something I’ve definitely experienced in life.)
Moreover, the differences between you and the majority will almost inevitably pop up, whether it’s through a contrast in values; a condescending remark that reminds you how other people truly see you; or just the inescapable feeling that you’re not like everyone else. No amount of effort to fit in can erase that, it seems to me.
Perhaps worst of all, if you try to abandon where you come from—geographically, culturally, religiously, etc.—you’ll have nothing but fragments to hold onto when you get older. Internally you’ll feel divided and unsure of who you really are. Rather than finding the freedom to be happy, you’ll only get the freedom of a balloon without a string.
I threw away being Indian as a kid so that I could be American, but today, I don’t feel fully like either, or anything. Thankfully, when I touched on these topics with Tsundue la, he seemed to grasp what I was saying immediately.
It’s tempting in a country like the US to walk away from your origins and seek to remake yourself as a free individual. But if you do that, Tsundue cautioned, you’ll end up in an international desert.
Empowering Tibetan American youth
That’s a fate I want to help Tibetan American youth avoid. Obviously, I am not saying all Tibetan American kids need to adhere to their ancestry, nor am I calling for anyone to avoid engaging with the wider world. But I know how important cultural preservation is and how difficult it can be in this society, and I at least want Tibetan American youth to have the opportunity to stay true to their roots, because I believe it will help them when they’re older (not to mention that it’s a crucial part of keeping the Tibetan struggle alive while China continues to occupy Tibet).
To be sure, Tibetan Americans seem to do a great job of that already. In my five years at ICT, I’ve been so impressed by how well the community comes together not just to advocate for their homeland but also to pass their culture to the next generation. Especially important, in my eyes, is the Tibetan Sunday schools that help teach Tibetan American kids the ways of their people. It’s a stark contrast to the Chinese boarding school system that has separated 1 million Tibetan children from their families, religion, language and culture.
I’m also pleased that ICT has so many programs that empower Tibetan Americans. In fact, we just started accepting applications for our 2023 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program. TYLP gives Tibetan American college students a unique, hands-on learning experience in policymaking and advocacy right here in Washington.
Having participated in the program the past few years, I can attest that it is a remarkable opportunity for Tibetan American youth. If you’re a Tibetan American undergrad or graduate student—or know someone who is—I encourage you to check out the application process.