Exiled Services: Identity and Nation Building in the Tibetan Diaspora

Service can be an intimate, personal experience for some of us. Why and how we choose to serve in the organizations and communities we do often goes beyond the idea of simply the desire to do good. At least it has for me. As a Tibetan-American, my decision to come to Dharamsala and work as an AIF Clinton Fellow in the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) largely stems from a deep personal connection and commitment to the history of my family, my community, and a broader Tibetan exile history that had forcibly been borne out of occupation. 

Moreover, there is a growing number of Tibetans youths, who, like me, come from across the world to Dharamsala to volunteer and serve in the Tibetan exile government. They join the CTA through its volunteer service initiative, Tibet Corps, which was created in 2011 to encourage Tibetan professionals to “strengthen the community, its institutions, and the Central Tibetan Administration.” [1] I spoke to six other CTA volunteers from across the diaspora to see if and how their identities may have inspired their decisions to serve in the CTA. What resonated with me through these conversations is that although “we come from a history that has been taken away from us,” as one volunteer aptly stated, Tibet nevertheless persists strongly in our imaginations and consciousness, enough to compel us to serve our communities. I would go as far to argue that despite greater historical, political, and cultural forces of erasure and assimilation, young Tibetans, in choosing to serve and thereby claim ownership over their identities, are participating in a quiet act of rebellion and resistance. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s audience with staff from CTA on October 6, 2019. Image by Tenzin Choejor Office of His Holiness Dalai Lama.

Identity Formation: Inheriting History, Memory, and Loss

That young Tibetans, despite their limited direct access to Tibet, still strongly connect with Tibet largely has to do with the fact that Tibetans from my generation are only a generation or two removed from Tibet. In fact, the global Tibetan diaspora, which is largely centered in India, with a population of around 100,000 Tibetans, and which span to other countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, the US, Canada, and Switzerland among others, is a relatively new phenomenon that only began in 1959 when His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s political and spiritual leader escaped Chinese-communist occupied Tibet and settled into exile in India. [2] With limited physical access to Tibet, secondary sources such as our family’s narratives, literature, history, and media around Tibet thus become important conduits for historical and national transmission, conduits through which we both respond to and reaffirm our identities.

Central in this narrative and process of identity-formation is the political history of Tibet post-Chinese invasion in 1950 and the way this knowledge would be transmitted through family and communal networks. [3] For one Tibet Corps volunteer, it was largely through stories about Tibet pre and post-occupation from her grandfather that she felt connected to Tibet. Another CTA volunteer attributed his connection to his identity and the desire to serve to his own parents’ involvement in Tibetan activism and other inspiring Tibetans he met who had dedicated their lives to the Tibetan cause. He added that because we “come from a history that has partially been taken away from us, there’s a duty to right that wrong and makes your own contribution to this cause that all my relatives and all of the people that are close to me have made at some point in their lives.” 

Knowledge and Identity

An important aspect that has shaped some of the volunteers’ relationships with their Tibetan identity and ultimately their decision to come to Dharamsala was the role that knowledge about Tibet or their perceived lack of it played in their decision to serve. One volunteer mentioned that prior to her involvement in her local Tibetan Women’s Association, she had grown disconnected from her local Tibetan community. However, joining the women’s group and acquiring a deeper political and cultural knowledge about Tibet gave her the confidence to claim her identity and be more involved in Tibetan-related work like the CTA. Another volunteer, having mostly grown up in an Indian community, remarked that when asked about Tibet by her fellow classmates and teachers, she felt she had no entitlement to talk about Tibet because she herself was so disconnected from her community and thus lacked the cultural and linguistic knowledge to talk about Tibet. It was this tenuous and precarious connection to her identity that inspired her to come to Dharamsala to volunteer and reconnect with her community. 

Identity and Service Meets CTA: CTA’s Role in the Diaspora and in Exile

For young Tibetans who identify strongly with their Tibetan roots, the CTA thus becomes an important space for which they can serve their community. While there are also selfish motivations for serving in CTA, such as the tangential benefits of work experience, resume-building, and the desire to experience life in Dharamsala, identity nonetheless still plays a central role in peoples’ desire to volunteer. My own decision to work as an AIF Clinton Fellow at CTA was largely due to the recognition of the valuable opportunity I had available to me and my desire to contribute to the Tibetan community in some way. I felt that as a Tibetan, it was important for me to learn how the Tibetan exile-government operates because of the important role it plays in shaping Tibetan political discourse and in the livelihoods of many Tibetans in the subcontinent. Another volunteer felt that the CTA, because of its far-reaching impact, was the most effective way for him to contribute to the cause. Another volunteer, who was serving as an architect for CTA, viewed Tibet Corps as an important opportunity and responsibility to change what she saw as the lack of Tibetan voices in the literature on Tibetan architecture. 

Service and Resistance

Identity and nationhood in the context of Tibetans is a somewhat peculiar situation to explain. Although stateless, the concept of a Tibetan nation resolutely persists based on a shared culture, identity, and history. In fact, as one of the volunteers puts it, “when you do not have an independent state, there grows an even stronger sense of nation.” Currently, the generation of Tibetans that I am part of still exists in close proximity to the history of occupation, only a generation or two removed from the wounds of political and exilic trauma, which live on through our families and their narratives. Tibet is far, yet occupies such a central place in our psyches. How we choose to negotiate with those identities as it intersects with the diverse cultural geographies and landscapes we are brought up in raises important question of what place identity and narrative-building have in nation-building and development, especially in the context of a people for whom no independent state exists, yet for whom the concept of a nation resolutely persists based on a shared culture, identity, and history. And what happens to that sense of identity as we become more and more removed from historical memory?

As my AIF Co-Fellow puts it, “Tibet doesn’t feel very removed from me, but that’s not necessarily going to be the case for future generations. It’ll be more difficult because of the forces of assimilation.” Knowing the importance of identity in the desire to serve, how can we use identity as a tool to sustain attachment and a sense of responsibility to a nation, to a collective? And how then can we take the place of former generations and ourselves become the conduits from which we transmit knowledge, memory, history to future generations? In the current political climate and world where identity and nationality, are used and misused for wrongs, how can identity be maneuvered and used for salutary purposes? In the Tibetan diasporic context, the ways in which identity and nationality intersect with service reveal just how intimate and subversive an act as banal as service can be. The young volunteers I interviewed may not think so, but when a group of people is confronting the greater forces of history and assimilation, that they still choose to affirm and reaffirm their Tibetan identity by serving, is in itself a powerful form of resistance.  

Works Cited:

1.  Central Tibetan Administration. “Tibet Corps Volunteers Receive Audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Tibet.Net, 4 June 2018. https://tibet.net/tibet-corps-volunteers-receive-audience-with-his-holiness-the-dalai-lama.

2. MacPherson, Seonaigh, et al. “Global Nomads: The Emergence of the Tibetan Diaspora (Part I).” Migrationpolicy.org, 2 Sept. 2008, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/global-nomads-emergence-tibetan-diaspora-part-i.

3. Ibid.

Tenzin is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is conducting gender sensitivity training in schools and settlements to further women’s empowerment within the Tibetan refugee community. Tenzin was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but raised most of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Tenzin’s Tibetan heritage has largely informed her interest in themes of exile, displacement, statelessness, how these elements converge both on the socio-political and the personal, existential level. She is interested in questions of how place constructs our identities, sometimes both grounding us and alienating us, especially in the context of diaspora and exile. In addition to having studied in India for two years during elementary school, this will be Tenzin’s third visit to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Her first visit to Dharamsala was in summer of 2013 when she interned for Tibetan Women’s Association and then after graduating from Bowdoin College in 2016, she enrolled in Sarah College for Tibetan Higher Studies for two years where she studied Tibetan language and Buddhist Philosophy. She is eager to make a third return to Dharamsala as an AIF Clinton Fellow and assist the CTA in addressing gender equity and gender violence in the Tibetan community.

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