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.