Routes to Roots: the journey of a Tibetan youth

[Guest entry by Tenzin Nio]

‘Like the tsampa ritual my grandmother performs on auspicious days, hundreds of identities scattered like barley grains by the wind to every corner of the world’.

A born exile, I hail from a stock that had lost everything: our house, land, wealth and our country. Today, we risk losing our identity as a people altogether. I was birthed in a miserable, hypocritical, poverty ridden refugee settlement in rural southern India and escaped the reality in the thrall of my grandmother’s folklores. My father served as an administrator for the Tibetan government in exile and my uncle was assigned to the Indian military until explosion fragments damaged his left eye during an Indo-Bangladeshi war. Along with my mother, he then ventured into the tedious profession of agriculture.

At the age of eight, I left India for the UK, much against my will, through a trust called Pestalozzi International Village, an organization that aims to promote international understanding and sustainable developments by offering bright children the benefit of education. We caused a stir at the UK immigration with our yellow booklet, our identification certificate. Living on borrowed land in India, our yellow booklet was a pseudo passport. We were six Tibetan children grilled for what seemed like hours before they let us into the country.

Pestalozzi was a multi cultural multi faith community and we resided in national houses with housemothers from our own countries. I lived with other Tibetan children in the Tibetan House whilst attending a local school that was overwhelmingly Caucasian British. The sole principle of the trust was to educate through the Heart (preserving our own cultural heritage), the Hand (we were taught skills for life like metal working, wood working and farming) and the Head (a Western Education).

Growing up with students from all walks of life and all corners of the world instilled in me the importance of being a responsible global citizen at a very young age. However, the new environment posed a huge challenge to adjust and I was unable to grow and establish a firm root. Thus, I often yearned for my family. With so many children in such tight space, differences often arose and we Tibetans never had the last say when others would jibe ‘at least we have a country’. How I yearned for grandmother’s tales of supernatural Tibet, the Mind Tibet, where justice and equality reigned supreme.

Throughout my rebellious teenage years, my identity as a Tibetan was almost non existence. It was an angry and disruptive phase trying to understand myself as the first person, defiant of any authoritative guardians. I loathed the daily praying session at 6pm and protested in vain that forced praying against one’s will would yield no dividends. Then for many years, I felt I gave up the reality of being a refugee to become a global citizen and went through university without much emphasis placed on my status as a Tibetan. I was lost and felt stuck in reality (no belonging) and myth (we will go home soon) and struggled to understand what it meant to be a Tibetan. So I decided to seal off this part of my life altogether. In fact I was so removed from it that every summer when I was reunited with my family, I feigned little interest in my doting grandmother’s adventures of her iconic journey into exile, with twists and turns that legends are made of. Tibet simply became a myth- a Shangri La my grandmother used to romanticize about.

However, 2008 proved the year of renaissance for me, as I am sure it also did for many other Tibetans. As I broke through the chaotic scenes across London, assisting my journalist friend cover the Olympic Torch relay, I suddenly felt the collective pains of the Diasporic Tibetans like never before. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to be a Tibetan and felt the overwhelming emotions that manifested inside. China may had the honor of hosting the Olympics despite what it symbolized- of universal peace, respect and brotherhood- but it gave many Tibetans a goal and a direction in life. I was re-born.

Today most Tibetans are born in exile. We are very much a people of Tibetan roots with Indian wings. The notion of Tibet, the home of the ancestor is very much part of us and we not only depend on written words but also on the transmission of memories. A sense of broken chain eludes most of us endeavoring to understand our national identity and we depend on our parents’ stories for continuity. I now understand why grandmother told me those stories: by telling us to be proud of our culture, she was fulfilling her duty as a Tibetan in the hope that we will also fulfill ours in the future. Through her, I have discovered the ‘Tibetaness’ in me. The issue of Tibet brings a strong sense of being a Tibetan: like an iron to a magnet, I am drawn to the images of the sacred mountains and the turquoise lakes of Tibet.

Tibet for me is more spiritual and down to earth than a Shangri La. I realize that Tibet doesn’t need to exist in Tibet. It can exist anywhere. It exists in my heart. But I still desire to see the place grandmother grew up in and trace my nomad forefather’s steps across the Tibetan plains. Grandmother’s stories feed into my dreams, I never let go of those dreams. For me, home is rooted in three different places: it is partly rooted in a place (UK), partly rooted in memory (India), and partly rooted in a dream (Tibet). To eliminate darkness, we have to light the lamps ourselves, and I will always keep the butter lamp burning.

I may be a body of India,

breathing English air,

but I dream of Tibet,

the home I have never seen

Tenzing Nio