FROM BUDDHA TO BOLLYWOOD, AND HOLLYWOOD TO HALLYU: exile living in the age of pop culture
(Guest Post by Tenzin Nyiwoe)
Far away from my family in rural England, I was lost and maimed by self hate throughout my entire adolescent life, and beyond. I blocked out the constant reminders of the sufferings endured by our people and the dilemmas of being a displaced group. It was hardly uplifting and the least of my worries for teenage life was hard enough. Though I understood the motive in keeping those memories alive- to inspire us to achieve greatness in order to contribute toward our struggle- I just wanted to escape reality like most emotionally angst teenagers and be distracted for a while.
Thus, I understand why the current global phenomenon of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave has had such profound impact amongst the younger demographic of the Tibetan Diaspora. From films to drama, and food to the utter nonsense yet delectably fun K-pop, more young Tibetans than ever before are embracing all things Korean and neglecting aspects of our culture. Apart from the content which is central to the popularity of Korean drama, often exploring family issues that many Tibetans can relate to, and the visually appealing K-pop idols, labyrinth of other factors may lie in this certified phenomena, albeit slightly obscured.
For a start, Rinpoches are the closest personalities to pop icons young Tibetans aspire to emulate, and the idea of relating to and identifying with a living Buddha is simply inconceivable. While they are perfect enlightened beings, we are just mere fallible mortals with frivolous wants and needs that only mass culture can offer. Yet, in our respective (and dominant) host nations, we struggle to find connections with the local icons due to certain factors- be it colour, creed, sensibility or nationality. So we resort to seeking elsewhere.
Prior to the revolutionary electronic media, back in the dark ages, my older sister’s generation imitated bonafide Bollywood starlets like Madhuri Dixit and Manisha Koirala. Today’s youth seek something far more exotic and yet, a little familiar. Hallyu stars are incredibly beautiful and they resemble us by race. To my younger sisters and their friends, commitment is measured by adopting the care a damn style of 2ne1 and devotion is knowing the entire lyrics to the songs of all Korean girl group Girl’s Generation. They spend idle hours watching Hallyu clips on You Tube which has now become a portal to the outside world. Where once my soccer fanatic of an older brother idolized David Beckham, my younger brother glorifies Manchester United’s Korean superstar Ji-Sung Park.
In the 90s, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan dominated in the iconography stake until, approaching the millennium after the release of Titanic, Leonardo Dicaprio surpassed to command a demigod like status. Today, it is the likes of Kim Bum and Lee Min Ho that hormonal charged girls dote on and adolescent boys fashion themselves after. The highest compliment one can pay a Tibetan is to tell them they look Korean and not Tibetan. My younger sister is forever battling her insecurities caused by her “broad Tibetan face” and yearns for a “tiny delicate Korean face”, complete with porcelain skin rather than the dusky Tibetan complexion. And she is not alone.
Adolescence is not recognized as a phase of life by most of our parents who only distinguish between childhood and adulthood, and such complexities to them are just absurd. They were married in their teens as tradition demanded of the time and the responsibilities that followed allowed for no time to dwell in teenage angst. To them, adolescence is a modern theory constructed by the Western society and thus, inapplicable to Tibetans. When I consoled in my father of my bane years back during one of my brief summer vacation, he gave me a stern lecture typical of a patriarchal Tibetan and sought me a Rinpoche’s blessing.
My quest to escape the Tibetan reality began from the shame of carrying the bright yellow I.C at the airport, which served as a pseudo passport and which equally defined us as colonial subjects. Then there were the haunting memories from the years of performing cultural dances to rich, caucasian patrons of the scholarship trust I was a product of. Had there been a Tibetan rock star who reached out and told us that being Tibetan was ok, then may be, I would not have gone through life with deep antipathy toward the Tibetan experience.
And just may be, I would not have been so thrilled when Thais told me that I resembled a Eurasian Thai pop star called Jason Young or when my Eurasian friend Melissa introduced me to her younger brother due to our uncanny physical likeness. I had people believe that I was everything from biracial Thai to Japanese and Korean but never Tibetan. Having embarked on a life of variable vowel sounds, the name bestowed by Kundun when my mother was three months pregnant, predicating along that she would birth a son, was shunned out of shame in a whim. Tenzing Nyiwoe became Tenzing Nio and my new, short trendy surname indicated, among other things, a part switch in my ethnicity.
At university, rich Chinese students refused to believe I was a Tibetan under the pretext that I was far too sophisticated. An insult and a compliment thrown right in my face but my insecurities compelled me to believe that Tibetans were indeed backward. To the Chinese students in their ivory towers, Tibet was nothing more than a sick disneyland they visited once in a while in order to heal from their depression. By donating worn clothes and aides to poor dirty children, they gained momentary happiness and perspectives on their privilege lifestyle until the next depression called. They flaunted pictures of their sojourn in Tibet with the disheveled children and their wild looking parents, and filthy black tents deprived of basic amenities and mud houses that seemed to organically grow out of the arid earth.
I was ashamed alright, and more. It brought back those painful years of performing as a child and posing for pictures with the rich British patrons in our colorful exotic attire. Though I did recognized the generosity, I felt the philanthropic advertising was over-stretched and everything has its dignity. If this was what it meant to be a Tibetan, then I wanted not any part of it. Such was my artificial inferiority complex that I dared not be seen in public with a lot of Tibetans out of fear of being labelled a fob (fresh off the boat), a derogatory term for those washed up in Britain looking for a better life.
I only felt inferior as a Tibetan because I allowed the demon within to let the Chinese students dictate we were backwards, and had Bollywood, Hollywood and Hallyu condition my younger sister that there cannot be fairness without the fair skin. Like her, I too yearn for a progressive homeland like South Korea, a nation that has emerged spectacularly out of its many crisis, and one that esthetically bare the hallmarks of the Mind Tibet. This is where the attraction in Hallyu lies: Korean pop culture offers hope and depicts a proud developed nation that is in harmony with the ancient Confucius and Buddhist spirituality alongside brash commercialism, and inhabits highly desirable people who personify the ideals of Tibetan physical beauty. It is this opiate, the Shangri La syndrome, that many Tibetan youth with no sense of belonging strive to escape to, especially in times of fear and insecurity.
We may not have glossy icons and charismatic sport stars to comfort us but today, we have virtual avenues like Lharker Diaries to share our experiences, warts and all. And my younger sister has an understanding cho cho to console in throughout her pilgrimage as a yellow booklet holder. My self acceptance in being a Tibetan continues to play hide and seek with me. I don’t know who is hiding and who is seeking but for now, we are old friends. And contrary to my prior beliefs, my Tibetan experience has not disabled me. It has enabled me and contributed significantly towards my growth, forcing me to rely on my imagination to survive in any challenging situation. To mark a new chapter in my life, I pledge on this auspicious Lhakar to revert to my former name and celebrate my heritage, which I had often neglected and thus, disconnected myself from who I really am- a Tibetan.
Interesting post on the identity struggle that Tibetans and other displaced people must face. It is indeed sad to see or hear of a backward Tibet that is so focused on religion that material advancement is easily ignored. At times, I do feel grateful to the Chinese for trying to develop Tibet, which should in turn raise the education levels and the standards of living of those in Tibet. It is especially disappointing and hypocritical when Tibetans claim that they would rather opt for the satisfaction (whatever that may be) from religion rather than seek material advancement. For one that is not true and second in our society Tibetan Buddhism seems to revolve around an ostentatious display of ceremonies, pujas and the like, while ignoring the basic precepts of compassion that today even in monasteries you find supposed religious people engaging in acts of violence. Religion indeed poisons the mind and I am afraid to break from the shackles of backwardness and illiteracy, one must first learn to mitigate the influence of religious people such as rinpoches (other than the DL) who it appears work solely to raise money and appear religious. And I say this as a Tibetan with no connection to the Chinese government……
.. this is indeed a degenerate time…. I am saddened to read this and don’t know where to start.
I know of wonderful Rinpoche’s and teachers whose motivation isn’t to make money. There may be a handful where one may question the intention, however, this is where one has to judge for themselves and choose their teachers carefully. I am sure I have made careless remarks about some lama’s and rinpoches before – I don’t pretend that I haven’t. However, I am also reminded by mother-in-law that even monks, nuns, geshes and rinpoches (yes even some rinpoches) carry bharchey and are subject to human emotions. It seemed to make sense when I read about the story of Ma-chik Labdron…. it suggest you read it some time. When the villagers of the time doubted and turned on this female yogini of Tibet, another teacher of the time said (something along the lines of….)… “.. They don’t look at their own limitless faults, and yet go looking for flaws in the moon”… (or something along those lines). When I read this, I felt a sense of shame at myself for doing exactly that. Who am I to judge others…. I can chose to be careful of who my teachers are but I have plenty of flaws to last me many lifetimes before I go critiquing others, especially those who may know more than me.
As for religion…. it gives meaning to having wealth. Of course, on a practical level, money talks but I really object statements where religion has to take the blame for the error of human misgivings.
BRAVO! good for you! it’s so much easier to ignore our “Tibetan-ness” and try to be someone who we are not. Very well written and honest account. thanks. keep up the good work and keep workin’ at it. virtual hugs.
Nyiwoe! I am so proud of you and at your honesty. Whats more, you write so well. Ours, is a sad situation but at the same time, I feel that as Tibetans, we have never been so united and so determined, as we are now. Our “situation” gives many of us a sense of identity and purpose. It gives meaning to our lives… you will know only too well, what it might be like without these things….
“The true test of a person character is how they stand during test of adversity”.
I believe the Tibetan people will come up trumps through this period of adversity. Bod Gyalo !
P.S. Welcome home 🙂
I read this, and while it’s not particularly well written, there are some interesting points.
As someone who has lived in China, and is currently living in Tibet, I see the fascination with Korean dramas, music, and so on to be an import from the Chinese, who are perhaps well ahead of the Tibetans by a decade!
I wouldn’t hold too much hope in South Korea. Yes it is modern but like every other society, it has its fair share of problems, not to mention religious tensions. I wouldn’t call it a proud commercialised nation in harmony with Confucian and Buddhist ideals – 33% more people profess to be practicing Christians than Buddhists.
As someone who continually tries to support Tibetans here inside Tibet, it is funny that you mention Tibetans as ‘dirty’ and ‘poor’. While Tibetans (in Tibet) are indeed poorer than their Chinese counterparts, they are, in nearly every way, cleaner. Whether it’s clothes, or food, or shops, or taxis (Chinese-driven taxis are revolting, while the Tibetan ones are great, with carpets on the seats, no smell, cool music…) the Tibetans always outdo the Chinese. I’ve never been sick from a Tibetan restaurant, but many times from a Chinese one . . .
If you really want your ‘nation’ to have Buddhism alongside brash commercialism, then you’re in luck – for better or worse, it;s already happened.
oh tashi delek!
i got here because a friend alerted me on the comments and felt i should clarify few things….. so here goes.
1. i know i write like a kid (or in the nicer words of my uni lecturer, “very innocent”)
2. i know south korea has its problem. in fact, the pressure placed on their youth is depressing. many feel suicide is the only way out. my friends are forever trying to get out of their society’s conditioning and like us tibetans, the young are lost and stuck between two extreme worlds- the ancient and the modern. then there’s the border tension and the racism directed at “foreign workers”, dark skinned migrant workers from the philippines, indonesia, thailand etc (tibetans also fit the bill). hallyu or the korean wave conceal these problems beautifully and continue to paint over the rusts with its gloss….. it is this myth, this fantasy, that draws us in (the shangri la syndrome) besides offering hope…..and in the west, it’s a pleasant change from the hollywood stereotypes of “geek asians”….
3. if you read carefully, i never said that tibetans were “poor” and “dirty”. the pictures i always came across on tibet depicted either monks, poor children, monasteries or mountains (basically projected a very backward nation). this leaves a very negative impression on a lot of us, and my insecurities allowed me to view tibet in such way……..
4. spirituality alongside commercialism- in an ideal world like those projected by korean dramas and film, who would not want the best of both worlds? spiritual and material contentment? that does not mean i approve of the chinese interference in shaping “a progressive tibet”…….
thanks for all your comments people. free tibet by educating tibet……
Actually, I think you write beautifully. Point of writing is not to sound pretty but to get your sentiments across and I think you did that beautifully while empowering our youth who may also be suffering from the identity crisis.
Very well written article. Never mind the detractors here who seem incapable of adequately comprehending your article. Many Tibetans have and are going through the same experiences as you. Keep up the good work.
trust me, it’s not just some tibetan girls who have a inferiority complex over their “broad faces”(as your sister called it) but also everyday korean girls do too….i follow this canadian couple on youtube who live and teach in south korea and they talk about how the girls at the school compliment Martina(from simoandmartina on youtube) on her “tiny face”…the korean girls complain about their “broad square faces’ and they try to hide their broad shaped faces by getting certain hairstyles or something like that….they also sell tools to narrow/thin korean noses at the supermarkets in korea…also, apparently, it’s common for young teenage girls in south korea to get their eye shape altered through surgery during the holidays ….the asian race needs to wake up..especially the younger women…love yourself…your asian features are beautiful…you stand out with your asian features…don’t try to change it by mimicing caucasian beauty standards…wake up!!!!!!!love yourself cuz if you can’t & don’t love yourself, no one else will.
yes, very true that south korea is a nation that is highly obsessed with vanity. when i was there, i could not believe my eyes. apart from the place being immaculately clean and in order, i did not once see an overweight person and a badly presented person (though of course they do exist). wandering around youth centric and hip places like gangnam district in seoul left me speechless because i had, prior to that, never seen so many stunning, stunningly beautiful young people in my life. they are a very self conscious group of people and thus, plastic surgery is a norm there.
like the tibetan youth, south koreans also yearn to look like their idols. hallyu or the korean wave may have been established in china and japan a decade ago and later, throughout thailand, philippines and singapore and taiwan, but 2011 saw the korean wave break through europe, america and south america. the year saw hallyu concerts sell within 15mins in europe, america and south america indicating it’s now a global phenomena and not just in asia. channels in usa have begun showing korean dramas too.
regarding south koreans wanting to mimic western features is also false. on the contrary, the general consensus in south korea is that the average caucasians look much older than their real age and age very badly. my korean friends don’t find caucasians very attractive. likewise when a caucasian tan their skin, it does not mean, they want to look black, latino or south asians. my younger sister is obsessed with attaining fair skin (though she has always been fair) but she does not find the reddish-white caucasian skin attractive but rather, the japanese and korean porcelain light skin she craves……………
It’s an interesting read better than pulp fiction where pessimism is the norm. Everyone goes through such phases sand everyone can relate to what u have put down so beautifully. Critic is the one who knows the price of everything but sadly the value of nothing. You go, girl and cry your heart out and it’s a soothing cry if there is. 🙂
Very well written and straight to the present’s condition of tibetan’scondition, We might b poor in infrastructure in Tibet, but we are rich in our culture and tradition,
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you write veay well;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
If you weren’t going to ask for permision to use the image at least it would be polite to put some credits. Thanks.