What is your identity?

Tenzin Namdak

Tenzin Namdak

By Tenzin Namdak

DHARAMSHALA, India, 20 January 2015

It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.

― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

I sat ruminating on the question of “what is your identity?” It seems really simple, but I had difficulty in answering it. This question of identity keeps appearing in my mind for times, but I don’t want to draw a solid conclusion. No matter how hard I try to come up with an answer, the criteria that I’ve come up with fail to define the identity of the people around me or of myself. Therefore, I found that it’s actually up to one’s own definition of their identity.

The most basic problem of “identity” is that it often fails to really identify people. First of all, the ideas of identity are usually not original. When I was young, I neither knew much about my identity nor cared about it. Most young Tibetans claim themselves as Tibetans, because their elders and the education they receive tell them so. And that constrains many younger Tibetans from choosing who they want to be. Additionally, these influences of the older generation and the surrounding Tibetan community induce them to “feel like” they have to be Tibetan. Tibetans usually define a Tibetan as wearing Tibetan clothes, eating Tibetan food, speaking Tibetan language, etc. Since I don’t wear chupa, or eat tsampa, my question is: Does that make me “less Tibetan”? Obviously not, I am still Tibetan, because I feel like a Tibetan, in fact a proud Tibetan. The pride and dignity involved in my Tibetan identity does not change a bit because I don’t conform to those criteria.

Therefore, how others view a person wouldn’t change that person’s notion of identity. Many people do not fit the traits or ideas of identity set up by the general public. For example, people expect Tibetans to be fluent in the Tibetan language, be fond of the traditional culture and arts, and look in a “Tibetan way”. But many of us would fail to meet a few of these criteria. These ideas seem like a stipulation of Tibetan membership that exists in the society, but on a personal level it doesn’t really matter.

Unfortunately, the concept of identity creates arguments and disagreements. Though Tibetan identity should be used as a means of unity, it’s often misused for separating people. People often talk about purity, but what is a “pure Tibetan”? This could cause an endless debate. “Tibetan” is a group of people who used to live on a huge range of land, and we have a great diversity among us. So it would be nearly impossible to define a “pure” Tibetan. Since the concept of purity is problematic, one of the biggest problems about the Tibetan identity is the “ethnic purity” that is insisted upon by few of our fellow people. Sadly, when we try to unify our people by identity, some others are using it to alienate their own fellow Tibetans. Some of them regard our Tibetan descent as in danger, therefore they exclude those Tibetans who have mixed-race heritage, saying that they are “not enough Tibetan”. This would be a huge threat that undermines our community and the efforts of the Tibetan struggle. Though identity plays a vital role in restoration of Tibetan culture and traditions, somehow out of sheer fear we exclude others (mixed-race and foreigners) who claim themselves as Tibetans. Suppose we get our independence tomorrow. It is very obvious that we all will be carrying a passport stating “Republic of Tibet” which typifies our identity to the rest of the world. Eventually an alien will be carrying the same passport claiming themself as Tibetan. And we have no space to argue about identity if that person believes themself as Tibetan with that passport.

So, besides identity, is there anything else which can be a pillar of the Tibetan struggle? In the words of Prof Samdhong Rinpoche, “The Tibetan people will remain alive as distinct from other nationals as long as the Tibetan language exists.” Hence the only thing that really matters to our struggle is our language. The Tibetan language is the means by which culture, traditions, and shared values may be safeguarded and preserved. Language is a means of communicating values, beliefs, customs, and knowledge from one generation to the next. It cultivates feelings of group identity and solidarity. The loss of language means the loss of culture and identity. Currently in Tibet, there is suppression of the Tibetan language, used as a deliberate policy by the Chinese government. Tibetans are becoming a minority in Tibet, and Chinese language is the major medium of communication in Tibet. Those who are living in exile speak more than one language, and some don’t speak Tibetan at all. This is an implication of neglecting the vitality of the Tibetan language. We should work harder on preserving and safeguarding our language, rather than debating Tibetan identity issues, which will be a never-ending debate even after Tibetan autonomy or independence.

The realization that there are many individual definitions of Tibetan identity reinforces the need for mutual understanding to achieve the greater goal of our struggle. In a nutshell, though it’s great to own an identity as a Tibetan, there is no doubt that I am a proud Tibetan whether I fit the Tibetan definition or not. I would rather put the Tibetan identity debate as a personal choice. Anyone who regards himself or herself as Tibetan shouldn’t be looked down upon or questioned. The concept of Tibetan identity should be forever open.


About the author

Tenzin Namdak received a BA in Economics (Honours) from Loyola College and his Masters from MS University, Baroda. He is currently working as a Tibet Corps volunteer at the CTA Department of Health as an Assistant Project Officer for the Tibetan Medicare System project.

Copyright © 2014 Tenzin Namdak Published in Tibet Sun Posted in Opinions » Tags: , ,