What does it mean to live in exile? To be a minority within a minority? To call oneself “Tibetan-American?”As young Tibetan exiles, a sense of physical security in our adopted country is almost always accompanied by a kind of emotional distance. As a people who’ve been dislocated, all we have left is the memory of our lost country.
I remember when my refugee mother once told me that her “soul lives in Tibet.” Although born in an independent Tibet, she became stateless after fleeing the Chinese invasion and occupation when the communists seized power in 1949. Forced into exile, she had to cross the Himalayas to Nepal as a child and start a new life in India. Again resettling in the US, she finally gained citizenship in a country not her own. I was born in India but had the privilege of coming here as a child and, thus, had less difficulty adapting to a new country as an immigrant. My mother may have a greater sense of freedom here, but she still mourns for Tibet. Yet, despite the severe trauma she endured, she still finds happiness in her memories of her ancestral homeland. I realize now that I was raised with a similar longing for a lost nation. The difference between my mother and I, however, is that I only know Tibet in my imagination.
I wanted to talk about my Tibetan-American identity at a time of increasing self-immolations inside Tibet and increasing racial tensions inside the US. In places like Ferguson and Baltimore, peaceful protests have been glossed over by the media in favor of scenes depicting graphic violence, no doubt for fleeting ratings boost. When I see such images, I can’t help but be reminded of the distorting of the peaceful protests in Tibet during the summer of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The state media portrayed Tibetans as violent “thugs” targeting the dominant ethnic group, Han Chinese, in a so-called “autonomous region” that once was an independent Tibetan state.
Now scattered throughout the world due to resettlement, the Tibetan diaspora has begun an internal dialogue on issues influenced by our host countries. Reconciling such issues with our own cultural history has been the greatest challenge for many Tibetan youth like myself. One important distinction that should be made here is that as an exiled nation, our culture has become a sort of collective body of trauma. And while the first generation of Tibetan exiles may not be the last, young Tibetans cannot move forward until the world acknowledges our history and, therefore, our existence.
On our part, we as a community need to admit this and encourage fellow Tibetans to seek help and engage in he healing process of dialogue when they need it. For example, there is a severe lack of culturally appropriate community health resources at the present moment. That said, these spaces are slowly growing and emerging as we engage in a larger public conversation among our communities. In the Tibetan community, this has caused fear and doubt among some—particularly the older, more conservation generations.
The existence of white privilege and patriarchy also factor into this fear of difference. Having inherited the trauma of our elders and our parents’ generation, we now carry the pain of our ancestors with us as we grow and shape our identity. But collective trauma requires collective healing. The sooner we come to realize this, the sooner we will truly be free.
Tenzin Pelkyi is currently a J.D. Candidate at the University of Minnesota, where she received her B.A. in Political Science and Global Studies. While in law school, she worked as a law clerk at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC and the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for Senator Amy Klobuchar in Washington, D.C. She also worked as a research assistant at the law school’s Energy Transition Lab and as a law intern for the Executive Office for Immigration Review at the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition to serving as president of her Law School Democrats chapter and as a member of the law school’s Diversity Week committee, Pelkyi has received widespread recognition for her advocacy, including from her university, several bar associations, and the Dalai Lama Trust.
Prior to law school, she worked in the nonprofit sector for various progressive organizations, legislative affairs at the state capitol, and community organizing in the Tibetan community. Her interests include immigrant rights, reproductive health, and racial justice. You can keep updated with Tenzin on Facebook and Twitter.
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