By Tenzin Jampa
I love to meet new people. I love to know where they come from, what they think about things, what they hold dear to and more. But there is one question that I dread with every new meeting that comes and that is the question of “Where do you come from?”
I answer “I am a Tibetan refugee living in India.” Then they might say “Oh then, do you come from Tibet?” “No, not really. I was born in India but my parents fled Tibet when they were in their teens.” “Oh, then are you an Indian citizen?” “Not really, I am stateless.” “Oh…”
I have had so many conversations like this that occasionally my mind has an auto-pilot nature to it when fending these questions. Sometimes it seems almost like a script out of a boring sitcom of a scene where the strange but charismatic (incredibly specific, I know) young stranger greets the main family and is questioned of his ancestry.
But fending these questions off is not what I fear, I fear the fact that I will be reminded once again that I have no solid answer to the question of “Where do you come from?” And therein lies the contradiction of my existence, a perfectly sensible question from the world that I do not know a proper answer to.
What is someone’s national identity? And how can one feel it so strongly yet have no proof to show for it. Is it just a common land, a common government, a common birth that hands you your identity? Is it an invisible collar that is tied the moment you are born?
What is it and where does it come from? You call yourself an American, he calls himself an Indian, she calls herself a Chinese and I call myself a Tibetan but can I really call myself Tibetan when Tibet is (sadly) not recognized as a country anymore. Americans have America, Britishers have their UK, so do Indians, their India but what do the Tibetans have? We have nothing but empty talks and legends of a prosperous and free past.
But then what is this sadness that I feel when I tell people about my ‘fellow’ Tibetans suffering in Tibet and they don’t care deeply?’ I don’t blame those people, after all there is much sadness in this world and one can’t grieve for all of them: Otherwise, how can one walk? But I feel something and it is both my duty and my honour to have been able to do so. I feel sad, dejected, and hopeless. I grieve though I don’t show. I cry but rarely through my eyes. I break down but only in my heart. I know, at least, that I have a right over these emotions. I own these emotions and they rise through me. So then can my grief attest to my Identity? This grief. This unending illness. This ever prescient spectre of hopelessness and disappointment. This is my pain, a pain entirely mine over my fellow suffering Tibetans. Is this my evidence? Have I found it? Do I have to solidify my sadness so that I can stamp with it, my Tibetaness. Does this pain, that I feel and so do many Tibetans, unite a nation and its people?
Again, where does this national identity come from? Where does it come from that it is able to so strongly move my heart and, of many more. Sociologists have their theories, anthropologists have their conjectures, Philosophers have their thoughts but none of them have been able to quench this thirst of mine(or at least for now). If it was as simple as a piece of document, I would abandon my Stateless situation as soon as I can, pledge to a proper country and sleep happily. I would sing their anthem, study their constitution, revel in the rights and services offered, and would become a citizen better than its natural born. I would forget about ever being a Tibetan, ever walking amongst Tibetans, and live peacefully as a citizen of x country
But I know I am not a Jesus, nor a Buddha. I will not be able to walk amongst mortals and this world without being touched by it and be tainted by mortal problems. I have walked amongst Tibetans and have been touched by it. Therefore, I know that I will wake up one of these nights-after I pledge to another land- and remember that I am a Tibetan and I still have no proper answer to the question of “Where do you come from?” It is almost like a parasite, a malware,a virus, a malignant tumour that never really disappears and always comes back to haunt you. This cruel and demanding voice, this torture, this disappointment, It seems that I will never outrun it.
We have a saying back in the exile community that we are born with the letter R (for Refugee) engraved on us. I don’t know the origin of it nor from whom and exactly when I heard of it. As a kid, I never really paid much attention and thought that deeply of it. But as I grow, I understand it more and more. It seems to me,as I think right now, to be a remarkable insight, packaged in throwaway sayings, of our exile condition. Almost like a birthmark, a natural tattoo, this letter R will be invisible but will persist with you for ages to come. No one will naturally see it but you will look in the mirror and see the inked R. Experts of a kind are able to erase most body inks but nothing of that kind has been discovered for this birth tattoo. Much like a chronic illness, It can’t be cured, only hidden and alleviated and only the patient knows how much it hurts.
Due to this, I realise now, that no matter how much I try to run away from my ‘invisible national identity’ - how much of a ‘free individual’ I want to be, how much of a global citizen I aspire or purport to be- the World, your Community and a part of you has a way of reminding you of who you are. It is indeed a strange existence: a paradox of life laid bare.
(I am Tenzin Jampa -a Tibetan student born and raised in India.Currently an undergraduate at MIT, Cambridge, USA majoring in Physics and Philosophy with concentration in ‘Meaning’. Interested in Physics theoretical research, making philosophy more accessible, alluring, and applicable for people for all walks of life, writing stories and blogs, podcasting, and adventuring. You can find me at tenzindjampa.com I hope you found something of value and enjoyment.)