“Speak Tibetan, Stupid”: Concepts of Pure Tibetan & the Politics of Belonging
© 2013 Dlo08
In the last decade, high speed internet via broadband, wireless and mobile devices initiated by globalization have transformed how Tibetans maintain communication with each other across the world in ways that were previously not available. These new forms of communication have allowed Tibetans to peer into each other’s lives, whether in Tibet, India, Belgium, Taiwan, or California, through social media platforms such as blogs, Youtube, and Facebook. These virtual spaces have permitted the Tibetan diaspora to communicate in ways that allow a transnational network of Tibetans to communicate and mobilize. However, one of the downsides to this transnational network of communication has been the disclosure of sensitive—sometimes hateful—topics that gain longevity and audiences on the virtual space in ways that would not have been possible before this technological boom from globalization.
Recently, the Tibetan virtual world has seen an increase in the controversial subject of racial and linguistic “purity” framed in the context of preserving the Tibetan identity. According to these Tibetans, the ideal Tibetan needs to be of “pure” Tibetan blood and speak “pure” Tibetan. The conversation has attracted transnational participants and audiences that include Tibetans of racially mixed backgrounds and/or engage in speaking Tibetan mixed with other languages. In this post, I frame this current purity conversation, rooted in the idea of a “pure” Tibetan ideal, in relation to earlier Tibetan conversations of purity to better understand its historical significance and how this current version, like its previous avatars, also engages with Tibetan identity politics surrounding who does and does not get to be Tibetan.
FRAMING PURITY CONVERSATIONS IN THE POLITICAL MOMENT:
The subject of cultural preservation is not a new topic to Tibetans. In contemporary Tibetan experience, cultural preservation has been an on-going project proliferated by Tibetans living inside and outside Tibet since Tibetan society as a whole was threatened starting with the Chinese invasion in 1959. However, current Tibetan conversations on cultural preservation seem preoccupied with purist ideals of the Tibetan culture that view young Tibetans—who are either of mixed heritage and/or speak Tibetan mixed with other languages—as threatening this purist ideal.
How are current Tibetan conversations on purity different from past conversations on preservation? In the current moment of globalization, discussions on preservation are partly shaped by: (1) the advancement in global technology that has changed the nature of how Tibetans (and the world at large) communicate across borders. (2) The heightened Tibetan sense of awareness on current political happenings such as Lhakar and self-immolations inside Tibet that has been used as frameworks on why purity is needed. (3) And finally, I view these purity conversations as taking place in reaction to the growing awareness in the Tibetan diaspora of the rising number of Tibetan youth (of both mixed and non-mixed heritage) born and/or raised in non-Tibetan spaces in the west that was previously not seen in the Tibetan experience.
Before the age of high-speed Internet, protests by Tibetans inside Tibet trickled into exile at a snail pace—resulting in delayed reactions by Tibetans outside. Globalized technology, Internet, has changed this process; recent political protests in Tibet are now covered outside Tibet as soon as they take place on the ground inside Tibet. The current conservative conversation on language purity coincides with this advancement in communications technology. On the one hand, this advancement has allowed Tibetans inside and across the diaspora to react in unison with the happenings taking place inside Tibet; however, on the other hand, it has also allowed for purist conversations, which were previously land-locked to the spaces in which they were spoken, taking on a new life and become amplified on the internet (see Hall & Nilep 2014).
I view the purity conversations currently taking place in the context of the recent political activities taking place inside Tibet. Movements such as Lhakar—which began in Tibet and has taken off in the Tibetan diaspora—and the self-immolations by Tibetans have intensified the anxieties Tibetans feel about the possibilities of losing grasp of the Tibetan culture and has also initiated different conversations on strategies to counter these threats. For Tibetans inside Tibet, these anxieties have manifested under past and current state development and assimilation projects carried out by the Chinese colonial state, while the Tibetan diaspora fears the possibilities of becoming assimilated in the cultures of nations they reside within and failing to maintain the Tibetan cultural identity (Lau 2009). Current movements such as Lhakar and the self-immolations have captured multiple audiences and inspired many different actions initiated by Tibetans across the Tibetan plateau and outside. The emphasis on the need for the preservation of the Tibetan culture in the messaging of both the Lhakar movement and those who have self-immolated has inspired differing conversations on how to approach the question of cultural “preservation.” Current conversations on purity should therefore be viewed in relation to the intensification of the Tibetan political activities inside Tibet, whose messaging has largely included the need for the preservation of the Tibetan culture against the backdrop of Chinese colonization.
Voice of America Tibetan (VOA-Tibet) recently aired a segment acknowledging and engaging the topic of Tibetans with mixed heritage. The conversation was soon laced with purist reactions that condemned Tibetans from mixing in order to honor historic and current sacrifices of Tibetans inside Tibet. They also framed these sentiments with regards to the survival of the Tibetan race. Although I don’t agree with their assessment—that to promote and preserve the Tibetan culture, one needs to retain some form of racial and linguistic purity—this sentiment is important to engage. Especially when anxieties around cultural preservation are not new to the Tibetan experience (see Diehl 2002; Childs & Barkin 2006; Lau 2009; McGranahan 2010). They can extend back to histories of Tibet even before the Chinese invasion. Back in those days, the pure Tibetan ideal in the eyes of a Lhasan may have looked drastically different from a Lithang Khampa. These tensions in cultural differences marked by the many regions with different customs and dialects, as can be seen in a recent video titled “Lingustic Diveristy on the Tibetna Plateau,” complicates how the pure Tibetan ideal sounds:
For purposes of clarity, it is important for me to identify who the individuals engaging in these purist topics are. It should be clarified that the Tibetans who are having these conservative purist conversations are not limited to the older generation; they include Tibetans of all ages and backgrounds whose purist ideas of the Tibetan emphasizes the romanticized frozen-in-time image of the Tibetan before this image was contaminated by China’s invasion and exile living (Lopez 1999). This image of the Tibetan does not consider change or diversity of Tibetan cultures and/or experiences. Those taking part in the current purity conversations are not just generational, they include Tibetans of young, old, mixed, and non-mixed, monks, nuns, born and/or raised in the west and the east. Although I argue that generational differences have influenced the conversation on purity, my emphasis is the transition that takes place between the older and younger generation, not the generations themselves.
RACIALLY PURE: POLITICS OF BLOOD
On the 24th of March 2014, Voice of America (VOA) Tibetan posted a segment discussing Tibetans of mixed parentage on its official Facebook page. The post quickly attracted Tibetans who believed that Tibetans should not engage in racial mixing—never mind that the segment itself covered youth of mixed heritage. This inspired a heated debate between Tibetans (and some non-Tibetans) who felt such comments were harmful and even racist, while others felt mixing would degenerate the Tibetan blood, and so, culture—which they felt was already under the threat of disappearance. Here is one example of a conservative comment on racial purity (some comments have since been removed by the administrators):
Soon after, Tibetan friends of both mixed and non-mixed backgrounds expressed how “racist” they thought some of those “purist” views on the comment thread were. Sonam (name changed), of mixed heritage, told me how she was not surprised by some of these purist comments and discussed how she had heard such comments by Tibetans made throughout her life.
In a separate Facebook conversation with Dhondup (name changed), also of mixed background, on the topic of purist attitude by Tibetans, he wrote, “I’ve become increasingly disillusioned about the ‘Tibetan cause’ in general over exactly this [purist sentiments by some Tibetans] matter.” Although Sonam and Dhondup expressed no surprise at such purist sentiments, it was obvious that they felt unsettled and hurt by these comments. For Dhondup, these purist conversations, which dictate the politics of belonging that exclude Tibetans such as him, were hurtful enough to discourage him from participating in his passion for the “Tibetan cause.” However, such purist sentiments by conservative Tibetans are not limited to ideas about racial ideals, these discussions include discouraging and reprimanding Tibetans of any background from mixing spoken Tibetan. In other words, such discussions are not only about how the ideal Tibetan should look but also included how Tibetans should speak Tibetan.
Racial purity conversations led by conservative Tibetans discourage other Tibetans from racially mixing, while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the fact that there is an existing population of young Tibetans of mixed backgrounds. Linguistic purity conversations are critical not only of Tibetans with racially mixed backgrounds, but Tibetans of “full” Tibetan backgrounds (having two parents of Tibetan heritage). Linguistic purity conversation targets any Tibetan that mixes spoken and written Tibetan with any other languages—such as English, Chinese, Hindi, Nepali, Japanese or any other European languages. However, linguistic purity conversation in the contemporary context has been especially critical of Tibetan youth born and/or raised in the west. This is partly due to the growing population of Tibetans in the west that began with the migration of Tibetans from India and Nepal to the west in the early 1990s (Yeh 2006). In the last twenty years, the Tibetan community has seen a rising number of young Tibetans who are born and/or raised in the west. These children, some of whom are now adults like myself, are highly visible on the Internet and can be seen interacting on social networks like Facebook or enacting their different Tibetan subjectivities through different mediums such as music, art, and poetry—influenced partly by the style of the cultures within which they’ve been socialized—on popular platforms such as Youtube.
LINGUISTIC PURITY & ITS HISTORIC TRAPPINGS:
Two years ago, my friend Pema Yoko, NYC Yak, and I did a video blog for Lhakar Diaries titled “Shopping in Little Tibet” exploring Tibetan businesses in Jackson Heights to highlight the cultural empowerment movement “Lhakar” that’s taking place inside Tibet, while hoping to encourage others (Tibetan and non-Tibetan) in joining this movement by supporting Tibetan businesses. Soon after we uploaded the video on Youtube, we received the following comments in the comments section:
As can be seen, commenters Nemo and 456 both tell us to “speak Tibetan.” I should make it clear here that both NYC Yak and I are not of racially mixed background, however, Pema Yoko is of both Japanese and Tibetan heritage. But in this video, racial background doesn’t seem to be the issue; instead the issue according to 456 and Nemo is the need for us to “speak Tibetan” (even though the video was meant for both Tibetan and non-Tibetan audiences and was emphasizing the need to financially support local Tibetan businesses). While conservative ideas and conversations on racial purity by Tibetans target Tibetans of mixed heritage, linguistic purity conversations target Tibetans of any—mixed or non-mixed—backgrounds that engage in either mixing spoken Tibetan with another language or uses languages other than Tibetan.
In “Transidiomatic practices,” Marco Jacquemet describes ethnic minority groups that move into multicultural and global spaces, such as London, where one language and culture, English, reigns dominant, such groups become threatened at the realization of becoming a minority. In response to these threats, Jacquemet writes:
“[M]inority groups respond with their own strategic ideological retreat to defensive positions, such as re-identification with cultures of origin, reliance on symbolic membership in strong counter-ethnicities, revival of cultural integralism and traditionalism, and defense of the ‘purity’ and ‘integrity’ of their ‘communal’ language (Hall 1992; Hill and Hill 1986; Silverstien 1996). At the base of all these cases, we find people who, feeling threatened by the linguistic diversity and communicative disorder (among other unsettling changes) brought about by deterritorialization, activate an exclusive linguistic ideology to raise the membership bar (Anderson 1983; Crowley 1992; Crawford 1992; Silverstien 1996; Errington 2000).” (2005:263).
While migration for Tibetans from India and Nepal to the west meant that they were becoming “deterritorialized,” this shift from the east to west, however, is not the first time Tibetans have faced the effects of deterritoriaization. As previously mentioned, the Chinese invasion in 1959 forced large numbers of Tibetans to become refugees in Nepal and India. Works such as Echoes from Dharamsala (Diehl 2002) and Arrested Histories (McGranahan 2010) details how the Tibetan refugee communities faced similar anxieties when faced with having to rebuild the Tibetan community in Nepal and India in the aftermath of the Chinese invasion against the backdrop of a complete foreign environment. Both McGranahan and Diehl’s work details the reconstruction of the Tibetan communities across Nepal and India after the initial shock and trauma of invasion and refugeehood in order to survive as a people and culture against China’s ongoing colonization of Tibet and to maintain the continuity of the Tibetan culture in exile.
Cultural preservation in Dharamsala played a central theme when it came to rebuilding community as refugees (Diehl 2002) followed by the promotion of narrowed ideas of Tibetan culture that took shape in an Utsang (central Tibetan) tone (due to the first wave of Tibetan refugees being mostly from Utsang areas) and was led by the Tibetan apparatus (whose leadership included the old Lhasa administration) to guard against multi-cultural assimilation threats in host countries (Childs and Barkin 2006, McGranahan 2010). Both McGranahan and Diehl’s work also reveal purity sentiments coming from Tibetans who felt the Tibetan culture needed to be preserved in a particular fashion.
In Diehl’s ethnography on Dharamsala in the early 90s, it was the newcomers from Tibet, sarjorpas, and India born and/or raised Tibetan youth (exemplified by the yak-band, who also represent my parents generation) who were harming the preservation of the pure Tibetan cultural ideal. Older Dharamsala residents—who were mostly of Utsang background and so, their cultural experience and expressions had been dominated by the Utsang tradition—felt young Tibetans born and/or raised in India were contaminating the Tibetan culture by partaking in rock and roll while dismissing newcomers from Tibet as having lost their “Tibetan” culture because they sounded and looked too Chinese. These anxieties still seem to hold weight as demonstrated by Tim Lau’s short ethnography Tibetan Fears and Indian Foes on a Tibetan community in India (2009). While Lau could have done a better job contextualizing this “fear” by framing it within the recent discourse between Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet, I agree with his emphasis that these anxieties are associated with “Tibetan fears of cultural extinction in exile” (25).
While Tibetan youth in Dharamsala enjoying rock and roll music or singing in a Chinese style were triggering “fears of cultural extinction” for Tibetan elders in the early 90s, the group that’s currently causing similar fears seems to have shifted to include Tibetan youth of mixed and non-mixed racial backgrounds speaking Tibetan mixed with other languages in the west. This shift can be viewed as a similar manifestation of previous anxieties faced earlier in the 1990s when older members of the Tibetan community in Dharamsala—who had escaped the Chinese invasion—were encountering a new generation of Tibetans born and/or raised in China and India whose subjectivities did not match their own upbringing back in pre-invasion Tibet. Similar to the unsettled feelings that Diehl and Lau unravels in their ethnographies, Emily Yeh’s “Hip-hop gangsta or most deserving of victims?” also uncovers similar “fears” amongst older Tibetans in California in the early 2000s, whose upbringing in India and Nepal did not prepare them to make sense of their children whose subjectivities were being enacted through American pop-culture in California (2006).
Young Tibetans from my generation, early 90s, whose families migrated to the west are the first in our families to have been born and/or raised in the west. The Tibetan diaspora, which previously only extended to Asia, has experienced a gradual rise in the number of mixed and non-mixed young Tibetans who were born and/or raised in western cultures in the last two decades. I argue that this rise in the number of Tibetans born and/or raised in the west, matched with their growing visibility in Tibetan spaces online and on the grounds, who look and sound different from the generation raised in the east, are one of the reasons why the topic of purity is resurfacing.
THE POLITICS OF BELONGING: WHO DECIDES?
In a short film that Pema Yoko made in 2007 called “British Tibetan,” she shares intimate thoughts and frustrations on her relationship with her Tibetan father and their opinions regarding Pema’s Tibetan identity:
- I can’t speak Tibetan, yet I demand cultural genocide [in Tibet] to be stopped.
- Allow Tibetans to be Tibetan, yet in a free country I still talk English.
- In a free country my father is still demanding me to be more Tibetan
- Bhoe Keh gyab kukpa, speak Tibetan stupid.
- How can I fight for the right of Tibet yet I can’t even speak Tibetan? Right dad?
- I want this relationship to workout. And we even talked about it before
- Before and after mom died and before you got [re]married.
- But I guess like now your whole new family’s like all Tibetan, pure Tibetan, and there are more Tibetans living in this area. And it makes you feel more strong about something or more strong about being Tibetan.
- And then you’ve got like me, who could barely speak Tibetan innit, and you start to get ashamed of me. And it saddens you cause you think that I’m more something else. And less Tibetan. And you start getting angry at this fact and like try to shout at me and start getting violent.
- C’mon dad, I mean you married a Japanese woman yeah, and you married in London and had me here, so like what did you think I would be? I mean I’m growing up in London with hardly any Tibetans man. I try my best to be apart of Tibet of the Tibetan community and things that you wanted me to be. Nothings ever good enough for you, or you just don’t appreciate it.
- Cut me some slack man. Please.
Pema’s Tibetan Dad:
- Right now I enter the house. Khando [Pema’s half sister who’s full Tibetan] just walked in. And she looked back and smiled. And that made me very happy, at the same time made me sad.
- It reminds me of Choelsang [Pema’s Japanese mother], who is a wonderful person of mine, and who is not here. That, if I loved Choelsang, in other words, I’m saying, how can it be, that I don’t love you?
- its-i-its, there is no way. You are in my heart. I-i-in other words, you are in my heart.
- So when you, when you and I argue, it makes me [distant] and cynical and say negative words. That is because, that is because I care and I want you to improve that means.
- So what I was saying is, you sort it out.
- If you cannot speak Tibetan, it is you, your fault only.
- And you have to learn to adjust and think again.
On line 10, Pema responds to her frustrations with her Tibetan father’s unrealistic pure Tibetan expectations with “C’mon dad, I mean you married a Japanese woman yeah, and you married in London and had me here, so like what did you think I would be?” In the same sentence, she makes it known that she grew up in London “with hardly any Tibetans,” yet she tried her best “to be apart of Tibet, of the Tibetan community and things that [he] wanted [her] to be.” However, she concludes, “nothings ever good enough for you, or you just don’t appreciate it.” Although her father makes it clear on lines 13 and 14 that his frustrations with her lack of Tibetaness is not about his love but follows up with “If you cannot speak Tibetan, it is you, your fault only” on line 17.
When discussing the politics of spoken Tibetan with Tibetan friends who are politically active from mixed and non-mixed backgrounds who’ve spent the major part of their lives in the west, they often express feelings of discouragement. Often times when they are organizing in the community regarding Tibet work, they often complain of how they always encounter Tibetans usually of a certain age tell them sometimes gently and other times in a hostile manner, how shameful it is that they don’t speak Tibetan. This, as they express, often times leaves them feeling frustrated, disempowered, and discouraged. Another friend, Tenzin, who grew up in Canada in a predominantly white town, told me once that she preferred not to even speak Tibetan in front of other Tibetans, not because she is ashamed but because she is afraid of “messing up” and incorrectly pronouncing certain words with an accent that would reveal her incompetence as a Tibetan. What’s surprising here is the fact that most of these friends of mine, including Tenzin, cannot not speak Tibetan, they speak Tibetan mixed with English; they just don’t speak the idea of the “pure” Tibetan.
Hill, who’s linguistic ethnography looks at an ethnic Mexicano community describes Mexicano elders who engage in testing or judging the purity of spoken Mexicano by younger Mexicanos as using purism rhetoric as “a toll of dominance” (1985:734). Her findings reveal that these challenges, which she calls “linguistic terrorism,” create fears and insecurities that actually discourage, rather than encourage, the use of Mexicano (735). I find similar fears being expressed by Tibetan youth, such as my friends, who decide not to speak Tibetan because they would invite purist rhetoric that challenge their Tibetan identity. In addition, the purist rhetoric tend to further the belief that Tibetans, such as my friends, don’t actually speak Tibetan when in reality, they do. For example, in Pema’s father’s monologue, he tells her it’s her own fault for not knowing how to speak Tibetan, however, as shown in line 4, she actually does.
Although there is a lot of love and pain in both Pema and her father’s monologues, somehow her father’s response to Pema on line 17 seems to ignore her subjectivities as mixed with Japanese, born in London, and raised in an environment without many Tibetans around as reasons that play a large role in why Pema cannot speak Tibetan in the way her father envisions pure spoken Tibetan. Contrary to Pema’s father’s response, it isn’t Pema’s fault for being born racially mixed and raised in a western environment. These were circumstances that were beyond her control. However, I am not suggesting it is her fathers fault either. Reasons for why Pema’s father decided to shift to London alone when he was in his 20s—where there were barely any Tibetans in the early 80s—has much to do with the lack of opportunities for Tibetans as refugees at that time in India and Nepal, and further, the Chinese invasion of Tibet has everything to do with why Tibetans became refugees in the first place. It is important to acknowledge the circumstances that dictated both Pema and her father’s subjectivities that were, in some ways, beyond their control.
At the end of her video, Pema leverages words that express her identity. One of them reads “British Tibetan.” When I first saw this video in 2007, I remember being surprised at seeing the words “British” and “Tibetan” together because it was the first time I heard a Tibetan call themselves “British Tibetan,” she was also the only British Tibetan I knew back then. In Ana Celia Zentella’s ethnographic look at young children in a bilingual Puerto Rican community in New York, she writes, “[c]hanging definitions of Puerto Rican identity among those who were born and/or raised in the US was a product of their concrete reality. As they grew up in an English-dominant nation that belittled their bilingualism, children’s networks spoke more English than Spanish and children became less proficient in Spanish than English” (1997:54). Since Pema, as a racially mixed Tibetan speaking English interspersed with Tibetan, cannot quite fit the ideal Tibetan image, she decides to play with that image by juxtaposing an image of herself in traditional (Utsang) Tibetan clothes set against the backdrop of Tibet while also mixing that image with the images of herself wearing jeans and hoodie against a London backdrop, both of which express her identity. She instead declares she’s “British Tibetan” in the end, deciding to define herself instead of letting others define her and echoing Zentella’s emphasis that she is a “product of [her] concrete reality.” Contrary to conservative Tibetans that are against racial and linguistic mixture, Pema’s redefinition of her own identity as a British Tibetan embraces her Tibetan identity along with acknowledging her upbringing in London.
In scaling a Tibetan child’s proximity to meeting the pure Tibetan marker, it would be unfair to judge a Tibetan child from Dharamsala against a Tibetan child living a nomadic existence in Amdo-Bora. It would also be unfair to judge a Tibetan child from Boston against a Tibetan child in Dharamsala on how they do on their proximity to this pure Tibetan ideal. These comparisons don’t consider the complexities that shape those children’s lives and the environments in which they are raised. A Tibetan child living in the thriving Tibetan community of Dharamsala, India for example, may experience a mixed environment with their Indian neighbors and engage in the Indian culture (cuisine) and pop-culture (Bollywood), they however live in a thriving Tibetan hub where the Tibetan culture and language is considered the norm (Chen 2012). Unlike a Tibetan child growing up in a Tibetan community in Dharamsala or Lhasa, a Tibetan child growing up in Boulder, Colorado, for example, does not have the same everyday access to a lived Tibetan culture and language.
As Das argues—whose ethnography focuses on the Tamil community in Montreal—in “Between Convergence and Divergence” (2008), “Diaspora children and youth, who are seen as the sole inheritance of a dispersed Sri Lankan Tamil nation, are thus encouraged to study literary Tamil and to maintain its [linguistic] purity through their vernacular speech. These community leaders hope that the ancientness and purity of the Tamil language can be preserved until the homeland of Tamil Eelam is reclaimed.” (14). Similar to Das’s Tamil parents, Tibetan parents, also motivated by the need to “preserve until the homeland is […] reclaimed,” try to meet the challenges of raising “Tibetan” children in a western environment by exposing them to other Tibetans when space and time allows. These kids get to interact with other Tibetans during the occasional meeting for communal celebrations and the weekly Sunday school sessions. These spaces offer Tibetan children the chance to engage in speaking and hearing Tibetans from other Tibetan children and adults. However, Tibetan children in the west, for the most part, spend major parts of their time socializing in the larger western environment where spoken English (or any other European languages) is the norm. The fact that Tibetan children born and raised in the west spend their lives socializing in complete western environments is partly the reason for why Tibetan children (racially mixed and not) in the west may engage more in linguistic mixing than a child in Lhasa or Dharamsala.
To reiterate Pema’s frustrations, Tibetans of mixed and non-mixed backgrounds, despite growing up in a predominantly western environment, try their best “to be a part of Tibet of the Tibetan community and things that you [and the Tibetan community at large] wanted [us] to be.” For Pema, this can be seen with her choice to remain actively involved with the Tibetan community and its larger political movement. For other young Tibetans, mixed and non-mixed, born and/or raised in the west, their efforts to engage their Tibetan identity and culture take on multiple modes. While some engage through music, such as Chino and MC Rebel, others choose to engage politically through efforts such as “lobbying for Tibet” which takes place yearly. And others take yearly or seasonal trips to Dharamsala to learn Tibetan at programs designed specifically for their backgrounds at the Tibetan Children’s Village, Tibetan Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and the College for Higher Tibetan Studies Sarah. These are but some examples of how Tibetan youth in the west try to engage, as well as meet the challenges of, being Tibetan. However, the purity conversations by Tibetans tend to ignore these efforts; despite the silencing of these efforts, MC Rebel is hopeful when he raps, “Even in the face of assimilation, we will survive.”
As previously discussed, conversations regarding pure Tibetan identity have historically taken place when the Tibetan community at large is experiencing a transition, a change. In its current stage, these conversations are taking place in reaction to the political moment inside Tibet, globalized communications through technologies, and a rising number of Tibetans that may look or speak a little differently from the previous generation but are moved and motivated by Tibet in similar ways. I acknowledge that the current purity conversations by Tibetans are partly in reaction to traumas suffered under the historic and current weight of the Tibetan losses that began with China’s invasion. I agree with Childs and Barkin’s emphasis that these conversations “also represent the activism of a people who have historically been marginalized from the centers of power, challenging the hegemony of the Chinese and [host nation] government policies by promoting a media-based public culture intended to propagate their own ideologies, which are grounded in a discourse of subjugation and genocide” (2006:49). However, this does not excuse the divisive nature of purity politics in narrowing concepts of the Tibetan identity and identity expressions that divide the community through the dismissal of Tibetans of mixed language or blood.
Purity politics frames Tibetans that mix and/or are mixed in a polarizing framework that views them as becoming something else, something not Tibetan. According to Lau, this view of them is considered a “direct threat to Tibet, the Tibetan cause and the Tibetan nation as imagined in the diaspora. The consequences of this threat pertain to the basic distinction of being Tibetan as opposed to being non-Tibetan” (2009:87). Yet, experiences such as Pema’s, who speaks Tibetan mixed with English and is racially mixed, counters such fears or threats with her declaration of her Tibetan identity. The polarized framing of the Tibetan identity causes real pain that Sonam, Dhondup, Tenzin, Pema and her Tibetan father endure. Instead of the narrowed approach that purity politics proposes, I suggest we examine other groups that have faced similar experiences of invasion, genocide, and assimilation to understand how they have shaped and re-shaped their identities. Circe Sturm writes of the Cherokee (indigenous) Nation:
“Cherokee national identity is and always has been about how multiple forms of difference come together in socially and politically meaningful ways to constituted complex subjects. These differences of identity among Cherokees—whether they are defined in terms of blood, race, culture, or some other national substance—are not innate possessions, nor are they passing illusions. Instead, they reflect the meaningful interactions between groups of people struggling with themselves and others over access to power, including the rights of self-determination and self-definition that have long been promised to them.” (2002:209)
Rather than construct the current conversations on Tibetan identity with narrowed terms dictated by the politics of purity, an approach that embraces the multiplicities of how Tibetan identities can be enacted and communicated can ensure the continuity of the Tibetan identity. It also allows room for the complexities that shape the different subjectivities of Tibetans living in different lands under different conditions as displaced peoples shaped by the circumstances that began with China’s intrusion.
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