A Home Away From Home: Thoughts of A Tibetan-American in India

Songsten Library (named after a Tibetan King) on Sahastadhara Road, Dehradun

Tsering’s Fellowship is made possibly by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

Aloo, shogo, or potato? I look at the audience—hmm—potato. Yes, potato.

Like selecting from a menu for that particular dish, I screen through the languages in my mental dictionary, grasping and grabbing at the word, but it often betrays me. An abrupt silence fills the void as I scramble against the betrayal of my brain. That awkward pause mid-sentence, mid-conversation. The awkward pause that has been a part of my life ever as long as I can remember. That awkward pause before the teacher, the professor, the receptionist, the barista, and many others attempt at my alien name, always ironically butchering and shortening the lifespan of my name against its meaning of longevity. So, early on I innovated the sounds of my names to fit the foreign tongues as many other immigrants did in the United States.

Tee-seer-ing. Tears-ing. Tear-ing. The first invention: the “T” is silent like Tsunami. The second invention: It’s Tsering pronounced like Searing pain. Add the ‘pain’ for memorability. Que the laughter here.

 “Hello, I am calling to make a doctor’s appointment for my daughter. Lhamo. No, wait. Her first name is Tsering,” my Ama-la (mom) utters awkwardly while the lady on the other end asks for clarification. Having never used Tsering to refer to her daughter, she is disgruntled every time she has to make ‘official’ calls; to my Ama-la, I was always and forever Lhamo. It’s T S E R I N G, she spells. The receptionist repeats, and my mother responds with a head nod as if to send the invisible confirmation through the wires. After countless spelling tests of her daughter’s name, Ama-la now automatically spells when prompted: my daughter, T S E R I N G.

Many Tibetan youth have probably had similar immigrant experiences to mine growing up. Having to navigate multiple cultural dynamics and carrying the burden of the Tibetan legacy while trying to fit in—all starting with our names. Due to the stateless nature of our national identity, we don’t necessarily fit into any pre-categorized boxes. Not quite fitting in with the with the majority nor the minority— Asian-American in the U.S.—crowd. A strange third space in between.

The author with the novices and monk of Thiksey Monastery, Ladakh

We exist as refugees in foreign lands—our native tongue becoming secondary to the dominant language of the host. I can say with utmost confidence that any child born of Tibetan heritage today will by necessity speak another language apart from their mother tongue, even on the Tibetan Plateau. Thus, our names, accents, and behavior in accordance will be spiced per the flavoring of the host nation. With our necessary bilingual upbringing, we, the youth, in particular are influenced by the majority popular culture and often opt to use the dominant language and culture due to the sheer convenience and practicality for future prospects whether professional or personal. The scattered Tibetan diaspora end up assimilating into their respective host cultures — each host country and culture as diverse. Thus, the fear of losing the Tibetan culture and language is a reality for the coming generations in the Tibetan diaspora.

Here in India, generations of Tibetans are born who have never seen their ancestral land and perhaps may never. In this space, Tibetans speak Tibetan and Hindi as fluidly as a dolphin breaks the pull of the ocean floor for the surface. Tibetan children are transitioning and creating a new code of “Tib-indi” while Ama-la’s and Pa-la’s adopt Hindi vocabulary into their vernacular, eventually finding the Tibetan equivalence too cumbersome or flamboyant for their tongues. Thus, the fear of cultural loss is also apparent in the Tibetan communities in India, the largest population of Tibetans outside the Tibetan Plateau.

 

Thiksey Monastery in Thiksey, Ladakh

However, my time in India, especially my visit to Ladakh with fellow AIF Fellows, has also shown me that the Tibetan culture is very much alive here; although it is also evolving and adopting the host nation’s culture, that might not necessarily be a bad thing. Tibetan monasteries, nunneries, schools, communities, cultural centers, language, performing arts and traditional crafts have been revived and conserved here in India. Tibetan culture hasn’t just revived but also ebbed into the daily lives of their Indian counterparts. From the Chuba (traditional Tibetan dress) tailors in Punjabi Busti, Delhi, the wholesale sweater merchants in Ludhiana, Punjab who thrive on Tibetan customers, to the fruit and vegetable vendors in the Tibetan settlements in Dehradun, the symbiosis of the Tibetans and Indians is indeed an interesting sight to behold.

For example, in the city of Dehradun, Buddha Temple in Clementown, a park complex consisting of multiple Buddhist monasteries and gigantic statues of Buddha and other dharmic deities, is a popular destination for many Indian and Tibetan tourists alike, albeit not for the same reasons. For many young Indians, Buddha Temple is the known as the lovebird’s sanctuary while for Tibetans, it’s a sacred place of worship. Despite the difference in function, Buddha Temple holds a special place for both the Indian and Tibetan people in this city.

The Tibetan Market, located near the Clock Tower, or the Deckyiling Tibetan Settlement on Sahastadhara Road, or Sakya Buddhist Center near Sai Mandir are as much a part of the city’s geography as the Rajpur Road, ISBT,  Mussoori Hills, Gandhi Park or Prem Nager in Dehradun. Thus, the Tibetan presence in

Drikung Kagyu Monastery in Dehradun

India, particularly Dehradun, has not been a one-sided affair; the exchange of culture is evident by the number of momo, thukpa, and chomein dhabas as well as the restaurants that readily serve the Tibetan dishes along with biryani, samosas, or chicken curry found around the city.

Thus, the vibrancy of Dehradun city and her role in the preservation of the Tibetan culture is something that allows other Tibetan diaspora to connect to the proxy foundation in India when we cannot do so on the Tibetan Plateau. Thus, Dehradun like other cities in India such as Dharamsala, Varanasi, or Bodh Gaya for many Tibetans is our home away from home; it is where we go to learn our culture and language, visit family, and feel a sense of belonging.

 

Tsering was born in Tibet and raised in a Tibetan Refugee school in India before immigrating to the United States. She studied international relations, focusing on environmental sustainability and global health, and minored in biology from American University. She created and co-led her university’s month-long study-service program to Tibetan Refugee settlements in Northern India to study the impacts of political identity on the social health of the refugees. Originally intending to pursue a medical education, her volunteer experiences abroad in the hospitals of the Philippines and India inspired her passion for global health and the political ecology of disease. Prior to joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Tsering worked as a laboratory associate at Yale New Haven Hospital and interned at an international development NGO. In her free time, Tsering enjoys drawing, traveling, learning new languages and exploring new cultures.

Tsering's Fellowship is made possibly by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

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