Momos in Budapest
[Guestpost by Mila Tenzin Samdub]
There is a sign above the door with two flags on it: “Free Kurdistan Free Tibet Gyorsetterem”.
Budapest was to be my surrogate Lhasa. I had applied for a study-abroad program at Tibet University but at the last minute I was told I wasn’t accepted. Still wishing for an escape from my upstate New York College, I studied abroad instead in Budapest.
After much hesitation I step in. The gyorsetterem, or fast-food-eatery, is a small white-tiled room. Kurdish food is laid out on the steam trays. A stubbly Kurdish-looking man stands behind the food. Portraits of the Dalai Lama and the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan hang side by side. Along the opposite wall runs a mirror, and below it, a stainless-steel counter to eat at. I get a doner kebab and eat in silence. I ask no questions about the Tibetan part of the restaurant. I pay and I leave.
In Budapest some mornings when you step out onto the street you can smell the hatred on the air. Hungary’s political discourse is ultra-nationalistic and there is talk of racial purity everywhere: Hungary is for Hungarians goes the familiar refrain. As for Hungary’s minorities, the Roma who have lived there for centuries, the illustrious Jewish population, the more recent Turkish immigrants, they are destroying the country. As a brown person, I found this all very alienating. This was the first time I had experienced racism that was tinged with the threat of physical violence. It was certainly not omnipresent: my flat and my university were in the part of town which overflows with tourists, and concerns about racial purity tend to take a back seat when there is money to be made. Occasionally, however, I would be subjected to hostile skinhead stares, stares which were brimming with an anger I could not comprehend and which made me feel uncomfortable and out of place. If the circumstances were different, if I had been in a back alley, in a different part of town, and a few drinks had been had, the stares might easily have turned into punches.
A few weeks after my first visit, I go back to the Free Tibet Free Kurdistan. Hungarian food is heavy and stodgy and the food I cook for myself doesn’t cut it sometimes. I miss home and I’ve been craving momos. I want to bite into them when they’re a little bit too hot like I always do, the kho shooting out and burning my tongue. Delicate doughy wrapper, meat and onions inside: the classic. Momos dipped in changyu and sepen, with a nice warming soup on the side. Also: shabaley, shapta with tingmo, gyathuk, thenthuk, anything Tibetan, anything from home.
Hungarian national day was a cloudy day of intermittent rainshowers. In the morning we got an email from our university advising us not to venture outdoors. The far-right political party Jobbik was holding a rally on the street in front of our building. They were currently the second-biggest party in the country and were openly homophobic, racist, anti-semitic, anti-gypsy, anti-immigrant. The rally was an enormous crowd of young people, mostly men, dressed in black, brandishing the logo of the Arrow Cross, the World War Two Hungarian Nazi regime, and bobbing to heavy metal music. Despite the drizzle, the acrid smell of hate clung to every surface: the senses sometimes speak uncomfortable truths.
I get off the tram at Corvin-Negyed and walk down the narrow street to the restaurant. Again I hesitate at the door. This time there is a Tibetan man inside, a skinny guy with long ponytailed hair; I see him and he has seen me and he calls out to me, in English, to come in and eat something. He is the first Tibetan I’ve spoken to since I got here. I order momos, in English. He asks me where I’m from. I look up at him and, apologetically, in my awkward Tibetan, say: nga bhoepa yin, I am Tibetan.
He doesn’t understand me so I repeat myself. I know my accent is not that strong; it’s just that he was expecting me to speak in English and I replied in our own language. Then he understands me and his incomprehension turns to disbelief. He responds: Bhoepa dabo thongi mindu ah, But you don’t look Tibetan.
My favorite place in Budapest was the Chinese market. I would go regularly to this jumble of wholesale shops spread out in the entrails of a Soviet-era factory complex. This was the center of Budapest’s Chinese community and it was a welcome change from the stifling opulence of the old city where I spent most of my time. Here the food was good, the people were welcoming if you spoke Chinese, as I do, and although the people seemed always on edge—like Chinatowns everywhere, the place had a makeshift air of uncertain illegality—there was no threat of racist violence.
After I explain my not-quite-Tibetan appearance (“nge ama gyakar re, my mother is Indian”), we chat for a while (he is from Bylakuppe in south India; the restaurant is owned by his acha and her husband, a Kurdish man who she met at a refugee camp in Hungary, both away at the moment; they serve Tibetan food on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Kurdish food the rest of the week); then I get my plate of momos. I look at them suspiciously. They are enormous, thick-skinned, microwaved. He has slathered them in Kurdish doner kebab toppings: cabbage, lettuce, peppers, onions, pickles (pickles!), yoghurt, chili sauce. No changyu in sight.
I enjoyed walking around Budapest in aimless circles, looking half-interestedly at the grand buildings around me, remnants from a glorious past, when Budapest was the center of the Austro-Hugarian Empire and the Hungarians were a mighty people. They always looked slightly unreal, these buildings designed to intimidate and renovated to reassure; these buildings said a lot about the residents of this city. As the Hungarian novelist Imre Kertesz puts it: “The old burdens of Hungary, her dishonesty and her propensity to repress things, are thriving more than ever… Nothing has been worked through; everything is painted over with pretty colors. Budapest is a city without a memory.” Kertesz’s pretty colors made me think of the pretty colors with which the Chinese government paints everything in Tibet, in Lhasa, in Shigatse, in “Shangri-la” (where even the name is a painting-over). In exile we tell ourselves that we are keeping alive the memory that has been painted over inside Tibet. But our memory, like all memories, is a painted memory, only in a different set of colors.
Bhoepa dabo thongi mindu ah. Long after I leave the little restaurant these words echo in my head. I walk down empty neighborhood streets and past ghostly churches turning these words over in my mouth, absorbing their peculiar flavor—that drawn out “ah”, so typically Tibetan, at once meek and accusatory, and I find I have unconsciously retraced my steps and am once again in front of the Free Kurdistan Free Tibet. From the darkness I look into the warmth of the little shop. Then I move on. When I get back to my flat I write to my friend Kunsang about the encounter. She tells me not to be so oversensitive, that I’ve spent too much time in liberal American circles; Tibetans are blunt and racist; he didn’t mean it in a malevolent way. In a way I guess she is right: Tibetans are blunt and racist and he didn’t mean it in a malevolent way.
Meanwhile in India where I grew up, Narendra Modi wins an historic majority in the national elections. I am surprised at the number of people on my facebook who respond jubilantly to the news. This is the same man, after all, who presided over the massacre in Gujarat, who thinks India should be a Hindu nation.
The next and last time I visit the restaurant I go with my friend Shoumik. This time the acha and her Kurdish husband are in the back. Bylakuppe guy calls them out when we enter. It’s the Tibetan, he declares by way of introduction. I see a familiar expression of disbelief on the acha’s face. Staring at Shoumik, who is Indian, the Kurdish husband says with a laugh: “have you ever seen such a black Tibetan?” The momos, when we get them, are still covered with those Kurdish toppings.
Racism comes in many flavors, I realize after my spring spent in Budapest. There’s skinhead racism but there’s also the racism I experienced at the Kurdish-Tibetan restaurant. This other sort of racism: it’s not usually violent, it’s not malevolent, it’s friendly, even, though suspicious of what it doesn’t recognize; it tells itself that it is keeping alive something very delicate, very fragile, something in danger of being wiped out. And then I realize: that’s exactly what the Hungarian skinheads are telling themselves, that they are faced with an onslaught of Jews and gypsies who are destroying their culture. There’s an odd homology here: Hungary for Hungarians, Tibet for Tibetans.
Bylakuppe guy, acha, the Kurdish husband: like me they are victims of a hateful political climate. Their everyday life is a struggle against the increasingly xenophobic policies of the Hungarian state. No wonder they thought I didn’t look Tibetan enough. Yet at the same time they are conflicted, upholding an ideal of Tibetanness whose impossibility they embody. Their own child will, like me, never look Tibetan enough. Every Tuesday and Thursday they cook and serve something that will never be Tibetan enough—momos topped with cabbage, lettuce, peppers, onions, pickles, yoghurt and chili sauce.
Kunsang: i felt that my argument was way more nuanced than “Tibetans are blunt and racist and that’s okay.”
I take back my argument
i took it back
but the reason why I stuck to it for so long is because it is so damn convincing
it is really difficult to tell people who have been through so much (we have it pretty shitty) to think in a different way
i mean the idea of national purity is kind of necessary
especially in exile
it is panic zone
Benedict Anderson famously called the nation an imagined community. But who gets to be a part of the community? And, conversely, who gets excluded from the community? In the Tibetan exile world, which I can speak of only haltingly and with little certitude, our self-identity as a nation, the continual reassessment of who belongs and who is excluded—for nations are not simply imagined but are imagining—is based somewhere other than here: it is based in Tibet, in the past and in the future. The Tibetan nation is for us either a glorious nation with a great past or it is the possibility of peace and human rights for future Tibetans. It does not exist in the present. This is what it means to be a displaced people, I suppose. But we forget these Tibets of the past and the future are constructed, idealised, mythologized; and the present—2014 in Dharamshala, Bylakuppe, Toronto, Budapest, etc.—can never match up to these utopias. The present, insofar as it exists, is messy. The borders that we draw around Tibetanness—imagined borders; the real borders, which were imaginary to start with, fell a long time ago—cannot capture the present, any present. We often imagine that Tibetans look a certain way, that they share the same religion, the same language (see dlo08’s “Speak Tibetan, Stupid”, without which this piece would have been impossible), the same foods, that they think a certain way. This is not true and it never was. At most it is an illusion that we keep alive so we have something to fight for.
Kunsang: we need something that keeps us all together
we need something to protect
so we have national purity
it is what Gandhi did
and then to come in and say “hey, stop valuing what you value the most” to a people who have nothing to value but their race
(we have no land. no citizenship. we are mostly poor. only thing to value is the Tibetan race)
that is kind of a difficult argument to accept
Kunsang, my dear friend; smart, brave, loud, brash, unashamed Kunsang; Kunsang, you who are Khampa and queer; Kunsang who grew up in Nepal and India and the US and learned to speak Korean just from watching TV; Kunsang, the girl who wears her chuba to class at college in upstate NY: why did someone like you, who so clearly embodies the impossibility of national purity, find this argument so difficult to accept? Why do you still struggle with it? Why are we all still struggling with it? Am I too not struggling with it right now, here, as I write this?
Back to Budapest and the Free Tibet Free Kurdistan gyorsetterem, for one last essay, a last attempt to understand. Here’s what happened: I had been hoping for—dreaming of, I should say—my Momola’s momos, delicate, uniform in shape and size, stuffed with meat and chutse in the Amdo style. But that was an impossible dream, like our dreams of Tibet in exile. My expectations were more realistic: restaurant-style meat and onion momos, laboured and uninspired, a little thick-skinned perhaps, the stuffing congealed into a hard lump, but still evocative of home. What I got was something unhoped for and unexpected, Tibetan momos with Kurdish toppings, a perversion. I was disgusted. And this disgust that I felt upon seeing the momos, a sense of disdain, a feeling that they done something wrong, that they had destroyed something pure, what was this disgust if not self-disgust? Those mixed-up momos were a self-portrait of mixed-up people; I didn’t want to admit it, but in that plate I saw something of myself and was repulsed by it.
An excess of expectation. It’s odd: the Tibetan momos with Kurdish toppings were actually quite tasty. The yoghurt, the crunchy onions, the sourness of the pickles: in the late spring warmth, the toppings were a refreshing counterpoint to the meat and dough of the momos. Yet I tasted also a bitter effluvium that came not so much from the food as from inside myself. I was still resentful that they didn’t taste of home: the senses sometimes speak uncomfortable truths.
Fewer expectations. It’s a struggle. I’m still digesting those momos. Many things if we are open to them, and sometimes even if we are not, come to us as problems. The momos in Budapest came to me thus. Each of us when faced with such a problem must give it the answer her life demands. An answer, then, for me, for this life: fewer expectations. Easier said than digested.