“Identity crisis” — Is that for real?

Ugyen Gyalpo

Ugyen Gyalpo

By Ugyen Gyalpo

NEW YORK, US, 2 September 2016

Often we hear from young Tibetans in diaspora that they face an “identity crisis”. I recently heard it again at a public gathering, and it makes me wonder, what metrics and dynamics dawns into such thinking.

After all, what is an “identity crisis” actually? Is it insecurity or confusion, that creeps and feeds into ones mindset, that alters their objectives and hammers their personality? Or is it just a shallow attempt to establish the already-cemented identity inwards, from the outward facade of having an “identity crisis” generally to gain attention or support to clear the fog of confusion that seemingly hovers in a culturally-assimilated and infectious foreign society we all live and breathe now.

I was born in Darjeeling, India, and grew up in the hills surrounded by people of Nepali descent. From my early childhood, I went to an all-Tibetan day school. There were others, my Tibetan friends, who were born in the same town in a similar surrounding and backdrop, but went to non-Tibetan-dominated schools, and yet, after years and years of our upbringing and despite soaking ourselves into the infectious cultural assimilation and influence, we all but emerged as authentic as any Tibetan, without any fear of an “identity crisis”, or any inkling of insecurity over our roots, ancestry, and heritage. But all things not being equal, I can’t relate my story to your story emphatically and therefore, I have opened this door for debate.

I think given the many variables and circumstances, “identity crisis” as a concept could occur and overwhelm, if a child is born into a interracial marriage, or if a child is orphaned at an early age. It could also occur if a person is the only race, or in that case Tibetan, in the whole town or school or college they attend. It could also occur knowingly if one seeks attention or endorsement of some sort even after establishing one’s background and ancestry.

I am Tibetan born and raised in India. But sometimes, a lot of times in fact, I think and act like Indian. Sometimes, I feel like a product manufactured in India but with a label that says “Made in Tibet.” Does that qualify as an “identity crisis”? Am I confused? Certainly not!

My daughter is American-born, but she is instinctively more attracted to Tibetan values than I probably was at her age, since her interest in our culture has flourished thanks to the Tibetan summer camp that she attends every year. Perhaps I did push her into Tibetan programmes, where she could learn and nurture our heritage. But did I force her to embrace our culture … certainly not! And that is where a line can be drawn between the ones who face issues over their identity and those who don’t. As for my daughter, as an example here, she embraced our culture, like the river would embrace the ocean.

“Identity crisis”, as a concept that disrupts ones life and mindset, is unimaginable if you are born into a genuine Tibetan family. It’s ever more embarrassing to admit it like you do, unless you are forced into a different culture or heritage and brainwashed to such an extent that you forget your roots, or by some fictional scientific intervention, you are metamorphosed into thinking like a different race.

If you are a Tibetan in India and celebrating Diwali with lighting shimmering lamps, like many Tibetans in India do, you do not become less a Tibetan than you are now. And the same applies to the younger generations in the West. A sweet sixteen birthday, a glamorous prom, a Christmas tree in your living room, cannot alter one’s personality and the traits of being a Tibetan, unless you are hypocritically bent on acting like one who is now not just confused but sublimely idiotic to the point of no return.

My friends, “identity crisis” is a myriad concept, and don’t let that creep your chaotic confused world within you. You can act all Indian, Nepali, American, or French, but you will never sink into a crisis of not knowing in the glimmer of daylight, where you originally belong and where your ancestors have come from.

If you are one of these confused Tibetans — and (on a lighter note) hungry now — go to the nearest Tibetan restaurant and eat momos to bring back the yak in you. If you are in the suburbs, sit under a tree for moment and look up to the branches and see for yourself if they all originate from the same root. And probably that will help to trace not just your ancestry but also embolden your unique identity as a Tibetan and free you from any “identity crisis” your might be fearing of getting drowned into — a self-created abyss of anonymity!


About the author

Ugyen Gyalpo lives in Woodside, New York, and works as an insurance agent for United Health Group, New York.

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