Who is a Pure Tibetan? Identity, Intergenerational History, and Trauma in Exile

I have decided to make this article which was published at the end of 2018 Book Tibetan Subjectivities on the Global Stage: Negotiating Dispossession public. Readers who wish to draw from this article for their own work, please source as follows:

Lokyitsang, Dawa. 2018. “Who is a Pure Tibetan? Identity, Intergenerational History, and Trauma in Exile,” in Tibetan Subjectivities on the Global Stage Negotiating Dispossession, edited by Shelly Bhoil and Enrique Galvan-Alvarez. Lexington Books. p195-212.

Who is a pure Tibetan? Who decides? According to scholars of Tibet, Tibetans are a collection of people who share overlapping cultural and religious histories and traditions from the geographic region of Tibet.[1]While certain groups in particular regions of central Tibet have historically identified as Bodpa (bod pa, Tibetan), according to the prominent Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya, the Chinese invasion of 1949 and continued colonization caused Tibetans in or from the eastern regions of Amdo (A-mdo) and Kham (Khams) to also begin calling themselves Bodpa.[2]Today, Tibetans of different backgrounds, living across the Tibetan plateau and in exile, collectively identify as Tibetans. 

How do Tibetans themselves conceptualize being Tibetan? Here, I explore this question through an ethnographic illustration of recent public discussions between Tibetans online, and the kinds of reactions these exchanges provoke. Their discussions were often about purity—what makes someone a pure Tibetan? Purity was needed, argued many, to preserve the Tibetan identity. For Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, preservation was a project that Tibetans collectively began after the Chinese invasion. Many saw purity as necessary to promote the project of cultural and identity preservation in colonized Tibet and exile-diaspora. Purity offered possibilities for survival and continuity of the culture. But what does this purity look like? And what are the consequences when certain members of the Tibetan collective feel they cannot fulfill such notions of Tibetan purity? 

I begin this essay by examining discussions on Facebook which took place in 2014 following a Voice of America (VOA) Tibetan segment interviewing Tibetans of mixed heritage. I consider this new media discourse, alongside intergenerational exile, as history. Through a historical exploration of purity conversations in the Tibetan exile community, recorded in ethnographies on Tibetan exiles or in public discussions spaces online, I reveal how contemporary discussions of purity are extensions of older conversations concerned with Tibetans’ fears of cultural extermination. To better situate such fears,I turn to academic theories of purity and deconstruct Tibetan notions of purity. I argue that Tibetan [conversations around] purity are not actually about purity. Instead, purity conversations reveal lived experiences of loss and trauma suffered by Tibetans who became refugees in exile following Tibet’s invasion. Purity thus became a vehicle through which the preservation of culture in exile was enacted, securing continuity of the Tibetan collective. [However, notions of purity that posits authenticity to be based only in the past, which I explore further in this chapter, narrow Tibetan avenues towards cultural continuity and futurity.] Instead, I [turn to insights on indigeneity and continuity by Indigenous Studies scholars and] propose an approach that conceptualizes Tibetanness as “rooted and routed”.[3]  

Looking Tibetan

On March 24, 2014, VOA Tibetan posted a segment from their aired program titled “Mixed Parentage Tibetans and Tibetan Society” on its official website and Facebook page.[4]In the segment, Tibetans of mixed heritage living in the West were interviewed about the challenges and struggles of being racially mixed. The post on Facebook quickly generated much discussion in its comment section by both Tibetans and non-Tibetans. The subject that received most attention was mixing—whether linguistically, culturally, or genetically. A commenter named Tenzin had this to say: 

I totally disagree with mix[ed] parentage. I have valid reasons for my stan[ce]. I [am] really concern[ed] about this issue from long ago. Nevertheless I consider the Himalayan people from Ladakh to Arunachal as of Tibetan racial stock. If upcoming Tibetan generation [sic] feel that this new phenomena of mix[ed] parentage is acceptable then people like me resign from Tibetan social life in order [for the] surviv[al of] our racial identity because it is a part of our whole identity. And we are going to do it even at the cost of Tibetan unity because it is worth doing. [This] might sound like hindrance for Tibetan unity but I am sure it will be good for Tibetan unity in a real sense. I am well aware of the global changes. I am not talking out of narrow mindedness in my approach[,] rather out of concern for my racial identity and long term and sustainable Tibetan interest. I have given considerable amount [sic] of time and energy to this issue and I think Tibetan[s] need the holistic approach on it. Remember, westerniz[e] is not modernize. I believe in racial differences but I certainly, certainly don’t believe in racial supremacy. So I don’t think you can put me in the category of so called racist. BOD GYALLO.

While Tenzin’s views are not representative of all exile Tibetans, they reflect the sentiments of Tibetans who are against mixing. Tenzin bases the purity of Tibetanness in terms of race; pure Tibetans did not racially mix. Instead, Tenzin cites racial mixing as promoting a “hindrance for Tibetan unity.” While some commenters cited cultural degradation as a reason to avoid genetic mixing, others recognized existing populations of mixed Tibetans, arguing that such comments were promoting disharmony and discrimination amongst Tibetans. The discussion generated so much heat that the site administrator began deleting comments that were deemed too inflammatory. 

Following this post, Tibetan friends of both mixed and non-mixed backgrounds expressed to me in private conversations how racist they thought some of these views were. Sonam, an activist (name changed), who is of mixed Tibetan heritage, told me how she was not surprised by some of these purist comments. For Sonam this was nothing new; she explained that similar comments were made to her throughout her childhood by other Tibetans. Surprised, I asked how she handles her grassroots political activism work, which requires her to work alongside Tibetans who hold purist views. Sonam said that she no longer entertained such comments, that she was “over it,” because she knows who she is. 

In a private Facebook messenger conversation with Dhondup (name changed), also of mixed heritage, he wrote, “I’ve become increasingly disillusioned about the ‘Tibetan cause’ in general over exactly this [purist sentiments] matter.” Although Sonam and Dhondup expressed no surprise at such purist sentiments coming from other Tibetans, I could sense their feelings of hurt. For Dhondup, these purist conversations—which dictate politics of belonging that exclude Tibetans who look like him—were enough for him to distance himself from the “Tibetan cause.” While comments like Tenzin’s, which argues against racial mixing, reveal the pure Tibetan ideal—racially pure—such discussions are not limited to just looks. According to this purist ideal, a pure Tibetan is also required to speak Tibetan in a pure way too. 

Speaking Tibetan

In 2011, my friends Pema (Padma) Yoko, Tsering Lama, and I uploaded a video on YouTube titled “Shopping in Little Tibet,” to the Lhakar Diaries blog.[5]The video shows the three of us speaking English while exploring Tibetan businesses in Jackson Heights, New York. The purpose of the video was to encourage Tibetan and non-Tibetan viewers to shop at Tibetan businesses in New York. While Pema Yoko is of Tibetan and Japanese heritage, Tsering Lama and I are of non-mixed Tibetan parentage. Soon after we uploaded the video on YouTube, we received the following comments:

456inthemix: Now speak Tibetan than it will be perfect!

Nemo Ramone: Speak in Tibetan! My aku said why you guys speaking in English when both of you are Tibetan!!

As can be seen, commenters Nemo and 456inthemix tell us to “speak Tibetan.” While the VOA post generated comments that rejected racial mixing, comments on our YouTube video criticized our choice to use English when speaking. This suggests that purity must be retained not only in the way Tibetans look but also in the way we speak

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.[6]In the video, they have the following dialogue:

Pema Yoko:

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

Boekhe 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 work out. 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 a part of Tibet, of the Tibetan community and things that you wanted me to be. Nothing’s 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 is full Tibetan and much younger] 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?

It’s, there is no way. You are in my heart. 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.

Near the end of Pema’s monologue, she 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 a part of Tibet, of the Tibetan community and things that [he] wanted [her] to be.” However, she concludes, “nothing’s ever good enough for you, or you just don’t appreciate it,” followed by, “Cut me some slack man. Please.” In her father’s response, he clarifies that his frustrations with Pema’s lack of spoken Tibetan is not about his love. Rather, he asks she take his critiques as encouragements towards improving, “I care and I want you to improve, that means.” Yet, his comments seem to ignore the circumstances that Pema outlines in explaining that her lack of proficiency in Tibetan is not solely her fault.  

When discussing the politics of spoken Tibetan, politically active friends who were born and/or raised in the West from mixed or non-mixed background frequently expressed feelings of discouragement. When involved with Tibetan community organization, they often complain of encountering senior members of the community who tell them sometimes gently, and other times in a hostile manner, how shameful it is that they do not speak pure Tibetan. These encounters, they report, often leave them feeling frustrated, disempowered, and discouraged. Lhamo (name changed), a Tibetan friend who was born and raised in a predominantly white town in Canada, told me once that she even preferred not to speak Tibetan in front of other Tibetans. She explained that she did this not because she was ashamed, but because she is afraid of “messing up” when speaking Tibetan. According to Lhamo, she saw herself as incapable of speaking good Tibetan because she mixed it with English and pronounced certain Tibetan words with an accent that sounded too Canadian and foreign. 

Jane Hill’s work in linguistic ethnography examines how Mexicano elders engage in testing or judging the language purity of younger Mexicanos by using purism rhetoric as “a toll of dominance”.[7]Hill finds that these sorts of behaviors are “linguistic terrorism,” creating fears and insecurities that conversely discourage, rather than encourage, the use of Mexicano language.[8]I find similar fears being expressed by Tibetan youth. Linguistic terrorism caused Tibetans such as Lhamo to forgo speaking Tibetan in public because she believed her spoken Tibetan would invite criticism from purist advocates who either knowingly or unknowingly challenged Lhamo’s approaches to her Tibetanness. 

Being Tibetan

At the end of her video, Pema leverages phrases that express her identity. One of these reads “British Tibetan.” When I first saw this video in 2007, I remember being surprised at seeing the words “British” and “Tibetan” together because the Tibetan community was only beginning to grow in London and it was the first time I heard a Tibetan call herself as “British Tibetan.” Back then, she was also the only British Tibetan I knew. 

In Ana Celia Zentella’s ethnographic look at young children in a bilingual Puerto Rican community in New York, she writes, “changing 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”.[9]Pema, a racially mixed Tibetan who speaks English interspersed with Tibetan, cannot quite fit the ideal Tibetan image that her father proposes. She plays with that image by presenting herself, in one instance, wearing traditional (Dbus-gtsang) Tibetan clothes against a backdrop which depicts the Tibetan landscape with prayer flags and a yak. She also presents herself wearing jeans and hoodie against a backdrop depicting the streets of London. Both images express her identity. At the end, Pema declares she is “British Tibetan,” choosing to define herself instead of letting others define her, thus, echoing Zentella’s emphasis that she is a “product of [her] concrete reality.” Contrary to the purist advocates who are against racial and linguistic mixing, Pema’s redefinition of her identity as a British Tibetan allows her to embrace her Tibetan identity and history without compromising her personal history in London. 

As Sonaia Neela Das explores in her ethnography “Between Convergence and Divergence”,[10]which focuses on the Tamil community in Montreal, “Diaspora children and youth, who are seen as the sole inheritance of a dispersed Sri Lankan Tamil nation, are […] 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.”.[11]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 Tibetan spaces offer children the chance to engage in speaking the Tibetan language and to hear it spoken by other members of their community. 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 another European language) is the norm. The fact that Tibetan children born and/or raised in the West spend their lives socializing in complete western environments is partly the reason why Tibetan children (racially mixed or not) in the West may engage more in linguistic mixing than a child in, say, Lhasa or Dharamsala, where Tibetan children interact in a bilingual social world and where Tibetan can be heard and spoken outside the home. 

Despite having been raised in predominately Western spaces, in the video Pema says that she tries her best “to be a part of Tibet, of the Tibetan community and things that you wanted me to be.” For her, effort in being part of the Tibetan community can be reflected in her choice to remain active in campaign work for the Tibetan political movement. For other young Tibetans, mixed or not, born and/or raised in the West, their efforts to engage with their Tibetanness take on multiple modes. For example, artists like MC Rebel choose to articulate their Tibetanness by rapping about Tibetan history in English.[12]Others enact their Tibetanness through political advocacy during the yearly “lobby for Tibet” event in Washington D.C. – a gathering of Tibetan Americans who lobby their state representatives in the Senate and Congress to advocate on behalf of Tibet by supporting certain bills and proposals beneficial to the Tibetan collective. Some take yearly or seasonal trips to Dharamsala to learn written and spoken Tibetan at Tibetan institutions in order to learn more about their Tibetanness. These are but some examples of how Tibetan youth in the West try to engage, as well as meet the challenges of, being Tibetan. Purity advocates ignore such efforts, focusing on the need for the preservation of Tibetan purity to ensure continuity. Why such disconnect? To get a better understanding, I turn to intergenerational history. 


In “Transidiomatic practices,” Marco Jacquemet examines ethnic minority groups that move into multicultural and urban-global spaces.[13]In a place such as London, English language and culture has a dominant reign. Within such spaces, argues Jacquemet, ethnic groups become threatened at the realization of becoming a minority:

[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. 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.[14]

While migration for Tibetans from India and Nepal to the west means that they were becoming “deterritorialized,” this shift from the East to the West, however, is not the first time Tibetans have faced the effects of deterritorialization. As previously mentioned, the Chinese invasion forced large numbers of Tibetans to become refugees as a collective in Nepal and India. Tibetans built refugee communities in the host nations of Nepal and India not just in response to having become ethnic minorities in Tibet but due to the loss of their homeland to foreign invasion. As refugees, they faced precarious conditions, some of which were harsh enough to cause many deaths in the early days of exile. 

In response to the destabilizing conditions of having become refugees, Tibetans reconstituted life and community through the construction of refugee settlements and schools. The land for such settlements was given by the Indian and Nepali governments. John F. Avedon details this construction period in his book In Exile from the Land of Snows.[15]Avedon records an incident in the 1970s regarding an individual named Tempa (Bstan-pa) who escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet with his parents in the 1960s. Following the deaths of Tempa’s mother and sister soon after their arrival in India, Tempa’s father places him in a Tibetan boarding school to ensure his safety. Tempa reunited with his father when he became an adult following his high school graduation, in South India, at a refugee settlement which his father had helped build. At this settlement, Tempa says he was not the only young graduate rejoining his family, but there were others too like him. They enjoyed wearing bellbottoms and listening and dancing to the Beatles.[16]However, the adoption of such sensibilities was seen as negative by the older generation because these new habits and tastes ignited their fears of cultural extinction. 

Tempa remembers being reprimanded by his father, and other elders, for adopting foreign sensibilities. The generation of Tempa’s father had been born and raised into adulthood in Tibet; many of had married and started families too in Tibet. No one had anticipated the Chinese invasion; no one had anticipated becoming refugees. When Tempa was placed in a boarding school to secure his survival, his father joined other recently arrived Tibetan refugees, many of whom were parents, to begin working together to build refugee settlements—counteracting the precarious conditions of refugee camps. By the time the generation of Tempa’s father began building refugee settlements in South India, they had already experienced the traumatic losses of their homeland, family and everything they had. Many in exile were forced to start over with nothing. All of these experiences, including having to live as refugees in a new country, provoked fears of further loss. While the Chinese destroyed Tibetan institutions in Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his administration used the concept of culture preservation to reestablish Tibetan institutions and communities in exile.[17]Culture preservation became a conceptual avenue through which Tibetans actualized projects of cultural continuity and thus peoplehood. For refugees of the generation of Tempa’s father, the experience of the losses endured following China’s invasion generated fears of cultural extinction in exile—a destruction that was continuing to take place inside Tibet under Chinese militarization. 

Tempa seems to have acknowledged the immense loss his father’s generation had experienced because he remembers choosing to stay quiet while his father scolded him. For the older generation, returning to Tibet was only a matter of time. Culture preservation had to be initiated to allow them to resume their lives upon return to Tibet—a return many assumed would be soon. Though Tempa chooses to stay quiet out of respect in response to his father’s fears over cultural contamination, Tempa makes clear that his increasing passion for and involvement in Tibetan politics in later years was due to his strong identification with being Tibetan. Tempa did not see his adoption of foreign sensibilities as a deterrent to his overall commitment to Tibetan politics, a commitment he saw as being intimately tied to his Tibetanness.   

Following the construction period of the 1970s and 1980s, in which Tempa grew from a traumatized child into a politically active adult, the 1990s were a period of prosperity. Others from Tempa’s generation had begun populating the settlements with families, allowing Tibetans to reproduce society and community successfully by the 1990s. Keila Diehl records this period in her ethnography Echoes from Dharamsala.[18]Similar to Tempa, the adoption of foreign sensibilities by Tibetan youth born and/or raised in India and gsar ’jor pa (gsar ‘byor pa) who were born and raised in a Chinese-colonized Tibet provoked fears of cultural extinction for Tibetan elders in Dharamsala, India. The elders in Diehl’s ethnography were the same generation as Tempa’s father, and by the 1990s they had become grandparents. Many in Dharamsala were unsettled by the adoption of Chinese sensibilities in music and fashion by gsar’jor pa. They interpreted their linguistic abilities in Chinese and their musical taste to be representative of the success of Chinese assimilation policies in Tibet. Similarly, elders saw the adoption of rock music by the Yak Band—who were represented in the book as stand-ins for Tibetan youth born and/or raised in India—as negating efforts towards culture preservation. Despite efforts from both groups who chose to express their Tibetanness through Tibetan lyrics set to musical styles of rock and roll and Chinese pop music, elders became more concerned with the musical styles rather than the lyrical content, because they deemed such styles as being foreign. Any sensibilities considered foreign were being interpreted by the older generation as contaminants, deterring the project of culture preservation. For many, preservation was a project being conceptualized through the framework of developments taking place inside Tibet. While they saw Chinese colonial policies inside Tibet as forceful interventions that sought to transform Tibetans into Chinese subjects, they saw the adoption of foreign sensibilities by exile Tibetans as voluntary. It was the voluntary aspect of such adoptions that they critiqued most as obstacles for the project of cultural preservation. 

Such anxieties over culture preservation against prospects of cultural annihilation in the host nation still dominate in exile as Timm Lau’s ethnography shows in “Tibetan Fears and Indian foes”.[19]According to Lau, adoption of any foreign sensibility has been 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”.[20]Such themes of fear surrounding cultural extinction traveled with Tibetans when many shifted to the West in large numbers for the first time by the mid-1990s. In Emily Yeh and Kunga Lama’s “Hip-Hop Gangsta or Most Deserving of Victims?,” they uncover similar anxieties between the young and old in San Francisco, CA, during the early 2000s regarding different Tibetan reactions to the adoption of hip-hop culture by the youth.[21]While hip-hop was becoming mainstream in the United States, it was foreign to Tibetan parents who were born and/or raised as refugees in India or Nepal. Self-described Tibetan rappers rapped in English at community events about their marginalized racialized experiences in which they were coded as Asian-American immigrants, refugee Tibetans, and survivor-victims of the Chinese invasion. And yet, Tibetan parents could make little sense of this chosen American medium through which their children enact their experiences of being Tibetan. Many rapped in English about the strength they found in being Tibetan despite experiencing different forms of marginalization. Yet Yeh and Lama record elders’ disdain over the youth’s choice to adopt black masculinities, as popularized by hip-hop, rather than Tibetan ones. Overall, they conclude that elders viewed their children’s adoption of hip-hop sensibilities as dilution of the Tibetan culture, and thus, as threat to the overall project of culture preservation.

When we view the current manifestation of purity conversation regarding Tibetans who are racially mixed or speak Tibetan mixed with other languages alongside its previous manifestations, it becomes clear that this current version draws from older notions embedded in Tibetan discourses surrounding culture preservation. In the 1970s, Tempa’s taste in bellbottoms and the Beatles provoked fears of cultural erosion in Tempa’s father and those from the generation of Tempa’s father. In the 1990s, it was the adoption of musical styles from rock and roll and Chinese pop that stoked such fears from the same generation of elders, now grandparents. In the 2000s, it was the adoption of hip-hop music by children that provoked fears from parents who were of Tempa’s generation. Now, in the era of social media where racially mixed Tibetans or Tibetans who mix Tibetan with other languages are more visible, such mixing provokes the same old purity conversation, reigniting old fears. While purity conversations remain the same, what is new, however, is the growing visibility of racially mixed Tibetans both in the diaspora and inside Tibet. Like many before them, racially mixed Tibetans that I interviewed enacted their Tibetanness through personal mediums—whether in familial engagements, political activism, community engagement, cultural revival activities, or simply identifying themselves as Tibetan—despite misrecognition from purist advocates. 

Culture Preservation

Based on the intergenerational history of Tibetans and purity politics in exile over the decades, we learn that Tibetan notions of purity have emerged in relation to the real and lived experience of cultural extermination that Tibetans had faced during China’s invasion of Tibet, followed by the large number of deaths in the exiled community. Although different notions of purity may have existed in Tibet prior to China’s invasion, the post-invasion collective approach to purity by Tibetans from differing regions and backgrounds makes this current version new. It claims that Tibetan cultural purity has existed prior to the Chinese invasion and contamination. Thus, current conversations regarding purity have resulted from real Tibetan experience with China’s physical and cultural destruction of Tibet during and following the Chinese invasion. Notions of purity should, therefore, be historically situated and contextualized. Purity conversations reveal that they are not only about negotiating the politics of communal belonging. Instead they shed light on the persistence of traumatic historical memories, and how such memories continue to (re)produce the Tibetan refugee community in diaspora. Doing the work of historicizing purity helps to contextualize why older generations of Tibetans born and raised in a free Tibet reacted in the way they did to Tempa and his generation’s embrace of foreign taste in India during the 1970s. 

Decade after decade, this same fear resurfaces. Yet, each time, it is conceived as new. During the 1990s it was the Yak-Band and gsar ’jor pa that provoking such fears of cultural contamination among Tibetans. In the 2000s, it was youth who enjoyed performing hip-hop. Now it is those Tibetans who are either racially mixed, or mix Tibetan with other languages, in the West. With each new generation of youth, the fear resurfaces. This fear seems to heighten when Tibetans engage new frontiers of exile. For instance, the group of Tibetans that Yeh and Lama engaged with were part of a growing number of Tibetans who had begun moving to the United States from India and Nepal starting in the 1990s. Many of the youth Yeh and Lama engaged with were children born in India or Nepal who were being raised in the United States. Parents of these youth in California were born either in Tibet or South Asia but had been raised to adulthood, married off, and began family lives in Tibetan communities in South Asia. Because these parents had been born and/or raised in Tibetan enclaves in Nepal or India, their sensibilities reflected those select countries; sensibilities that were different from their children, who were being raised in the United States. Their different sensibility, was thus, being seen as foreign. This rings true for Tempa’s father who had been born and raised in Tibet before the invasion. As such, his cultural sensibilities, which were shaped by his personal development in Tibet, diverged from those of his son. This divergence of Tibetan cultural life between generations is what causes fears of cultural degradation. As a result, decade after decade, old fears of cultural degradation experienced during China’s invasion and occupation resurface every time Tibetans move into new frontiers of exile. In the current moment, purity conversations are resurfacing again due to the growing visibility of Tibetans who are racially mixed and/or mix spoken Tibetan with other language in the West—a new diaspora space for Tibetan exiles. Such changing conditions of exile are acknowledged in different ethnographies I have cited; however, those changing conditions are barely historicized together. This is one of the reasons why purity conversations, I argue, resurface decade after decade as new

Theorizing Purity

Although it is essential to approach Tibetan concepts of purity historically, as cases from different decades demonstrate, purity politics narrow, rather than broaden, the politics of belonging for Tibetans of diverse backgrounds. Purity politics positions Tibetans who mix and/or are mixed in a polarizing framework that views them as becoming something else, something not Tibetan. But what does a pure Tibetan look or sound like? According to purity advocates, a pure Tibetan is neither genetically mixed nor mixes Tibetan with any other languages. As previously mentioned, the Tibetan vernacular has always been mixed, even the Tibetan alphabet is acknowledged by Tibetan history as having been adopted from the Indian alphabet following Tibet’s adoption of Buddhism from India. The Tibetan language is also diverse, with dialectal differences based on regions and villages that have changed over time. According to Tibetan religious history from prior centuries, Mongolians were not only prominent in our history, but they were also recorded as having settled in different parts of Tibet and intermarried with Tibetans. Neither genetically pure Tibetan, nor a pure version of any spoken Tibetan dialect exists. Rather, Tibetans have always had a heterogeneous culture that acknowledges hybridity—a notion acknowledged in the Tibetan origin story that suggests Tibetans were the result of the copulation between a compassionate monkey and a lustful rock ogress (Gyatso 1989). Hybridity also makes room for recognizing Tibetan histories as diverse, continuous, and moving. Prominent scholars of modernity such as Bruno Latour have argued against the notion of purity as nothing but fictitious constructs of modernity.[22]However, Tibetans do not need to turn to other philosophical traditions to know this fact. The logic of impermanence in Buddhism argues against the existence of purity in the physical world. Instead, purity is conceptualized as a goal that can be achieved outside the physical world through spiritual enlightenment. 

As previously mentioned, current conversations of purity in the Tibetan community have resulted from lived traumas of the older generation. Such traumas have led to collective efforts towards culture preservation, taking on a homogenous version of Tibetan culture with an aim to secure the future of Tibetans. Yet, the logic of purity demands that the project of culture preservation be enacted in a manner that keeps aspects of Tibetan culture pure. Under such circumstances, aspects of Tibetan traditions are forced to remain static and one-dimensional. This promotes the false notion that Tibetan cultural traditions were never diverse or subject to change. The purity politics in the current moment frames Tibetan cultural traditions prior to the Chinese invasion as pure and monolithic. Thus, culture preservation projects undertaken by Tibetans, following Tibet’s invasion, called for authentic recreation of traditions in exile as a preventative method against foreign culture contamination. Those who enact Tibetan subjectivities different from the prescribed notions are thus accused of mixing and of being inauthentic and impure. 

Tibetans have not been alone in gamut of debate on cultural purity. The genre of salvage anthropology, for example, has long been critiqued for promoting notions of authentic culture through its conceptualization of the term as an unmoving static category. Much of the scholarship generated by anthropologists on Tibetan culture between 1960 and 1980, for instance, followed the salvage anthropology model. For such anthropologists, the project of preserving classic kinship structures of Tibetan society or recording traditional nomadic way of life in the refugee camps of India and Nepal became important projects for preserving the authenticity of Tibetan cultural knowledge before it would become non-existent. They viewed the dilution of such authenticity as inevitable due to Chinese colonization inside Tibet and Tibetan adoption of foreign sensibilities in exile. This view promoted a notion of authentic Tibetan culture that existed only inside Tibet before it became colonized by China. As a result, some scholars of classic Tibetan culture interpreted cultural hybridity taking shape for Tibetans in exile or in colonized Tibet as inauthentic, and in the process, promoted the existence of cultural purity. 

However, such views have not gone unchallenged. For instance, such a view of purity, argues Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith, promotes “a belief that indigenous cultures cannot change, cannot recreate themselves and still claim to be indigenous. Nor can they be complicated, internally diverse or contradictory”.[23]Change is interpreted as contamination. That is why, decade after decade, Tibetan adoption of any foreign sensibilities are interpreted as impurities threatening Tibetan purity. On the one hand, purity advocates promote the false notion that authentic Tibetanness exists only in the past. According to this logic, Tibetans of the present who fail to re-enact Tibetanness from the past fail to enact authentic versions of their cultural identity. On the other, those who call themselves mixed or T+, which Lhadon Tethong translates as Tibetans of mixed heritage on her Facebook page, as a new identity marker publicly in response to Tibetans who call them not-full-blooded, also inadvertently ignore ongoing histories of Tibetan hybridity and end up promoting the existence of purity. Instead they too, like purity advocates, need to acknowledge the ongoing histories of Tibetan hybridity, an acknowledgement that proves the fallacy of the pure/impure dichotomy.

Rather than a view of Tibetan culture that is static, I propose a view from the Hawaiian scholar Stephanie Nohelani Teves, who writes “I think of tradition like indigeneity, rooted and routed, moving, evolving, and gesturing toward its past and its horizon”.[24]Such a view recognizes Tibetans and their cultural traditions and histories as fluid and moving. This depiction allows Tibetans of all backgrounds to be seen as subjects continuing to interact with changes, resulting from the Chinese invasion without being assumed to have compromised their Tibetanness. This way of conceptualizing Tibetanness moves away from centering the Chinese invasion as the beginning of the end. Instead, it centers Tibetanness as rooted and routed. It recognizes Tibetanness as always having been continuous, both before and after the Chinese invasion. This way, different enactments or performances of Tibetanness no longer have to cater to purity or impurity binaries. “All performances,” argues Teves, “contain both residual and emergent elements… if we see Native identity or indigeneity as containing both residual and emergent elements of ‘the Native,’ Nativeness is immediately made into something this is connected to the past as well as the future… [and is] no longer obsessed with being pure, authentic, or traditional”.[25]Under such circumstances, Tibetans enjoying The Beatles, rock and roll, Chinese pop, or American hip-hop, do not have to be thought of as having compromised their Tibetanness. Rather, for Tibetans singing in the style of rock and roll or hip-hop about their current circumstances can be thought of as enacting their Tibetanness—a performance that is both residual and emergent. This framing allows the focus of Tibetanness to shift away from mixing and towards the recognition of the diversity and dynamics of Tibetan cultures, histories, and identities. This way, contemporary performances of Tibetanness—through enactments as diverse as hip-hop or narrating shopping at Tibetan shops in New York in English—can be thought of as adding to the dynamic aspects of Tibetanness that continue to thrive and flourish. Rather than define Tibetan identity with narrowed terms dictated by the politics of purity, this approach embraces historical and contemporary multiplicities of Tibetan identities.

The solution lies in aiming for authenticity, without opposing hybridity. Hybridity and authenticity are not mutually exclusive, as some purists mistakenly think. A hybrid approach allows Tibetanness to be in conversation with change or what is new. Doing so allows Tibetan culture and identity to be seen as multiple and continuous, and in the process, discourages static notions. Such an approach also ensures the futurity of Tibetan identities because it allows room for changes that will continue to shape different subjectivities of Tibetans living in different lands and under different conditions as displaced or colonized people without assuming they have compromised their Tibetanness. 


  1. The name of all study participants are pseudonyms. 
  2. Stein, “La Civilisation Tibetaine.” 
  3. Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows.
  4. Teves, “Tradition and Performance,” 257. 
  5. VOA Tibetan Facebook Page, “Mixed Parentage Tibetans and Tibetan Soceity.” 
  6. Lhakardiaries, “Shopping in Little Tibet.” 
  7. Pema Yoko, “British Tibetan.” 
  8. Hill, “The Grammar of Consciousness and the Consciousness of Grammar,” 734. 
  9. Ibid, 735
  10. Zentella, Growing up Billingual, 54
  11. Das, “Between Convergence and Divergence.” 
  12. Ibid, 14.
  13. Tenzin Choephel, “March 10thProtest & Performance.”
  14. Jacquemet, “Transiomatic Practices.” 
  15. Ibid, 263
  16. Avedon, In Exile from the Land of Snows.
  17. Ibid, 100. 
  18. Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile.
  19. Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala.
  20. Lau, “Tibetan Fears and Indian Foes.” 
  21. Ibid, 87. 
  22. Yeh and Lama, “Hip-hop Gangsta or Most Deserving of Victims,” 809-29. 
  23. For more examples, see Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala; and Yeh, “Hip-hop Gangsta” 
  24. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern
  25. See Shakya, “Introduction.”
  26. Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, 266-67. 
  27. Teves, “Tradition and Performance,” 262. 
  28. Ibid, 261. 


Avedon, John. In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Since the Chinese Conquest. New York, New York: Perennial, 1998. 

Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. SanFrancisco, California: Harper Collins, 1991.

Das, Sonia Neela. “Between convergence and divergence: Reformatting language purism in the Montreal Tamil diasporas.” Arlington, Virginia:Journal of Linguistic Anthropology18, no. 1. 2008.

Diehl, Keila. Echoes from Dharamsala: Music in the Life of a Tibetan Refugee Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Hill, Jane H. “The Grammar of Consciousness and the Consciousness of Grammar.” Arlington, Virginia: American Ethnologist12, no. 4. 1985.

Jacquemet, Marco. “Transidiomatic Practices: Language and Power in the Age of Globalization.” Amsterdam, Netherlands: Language & Communication25, no. 3. 2005.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Lau, Timm. “Tibetan Fears and Indian Foes: Fears of Cultural Extinction and Antagonism as Discursive Strategy.” Toronto, Ontario: vis-à-vis: Explorations in Anthropology9, no. 1. 2009.

Lhakar Diaries. 2011. “Shopping in Little Tibet.” YouTube video. Posted [December 2011]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwwQm9aMYKY

Pema Yoko. 2014. “British Tibetan.” YouTube video. Posted [April 2014]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj0QJ80n0ww

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London, United Kingdom: Zed books, 1999.

Stein, Rolf Alfred. “La Civilisation Tibétaine (Paris, 1962).” London, United Kingdom: Engl.: Tibetan Civilization. London, 1972.

Tenzing Choephel. 2010. “March 10thProtest & Performance (Yes We Can, Free Tibet).” YouTube video. Posted [March 2010]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UArlUhs2I8w

Teves, Stephanie Nohelani. “Tradition and Performance.” Tucson, Arizona: Native Studies Keywords, 2015: 257.

VOA Tibetan Facebook page. 2014. “Mixed Parentage Tibetans and Tibetan Society.” Accessed November 29, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/voatibetan/posts/273740689459772

Yeh, Emily T., and Kunga T. Lama. “Hip-hop Gangsta or Most Deserving of Victims? Transnational migrant identities and the paradox of Tibetan racialization in the USA.” Thousand Oaks, California: Environment and Planning A38, no. 5, 2006.

Zentella, Ana Celia. Growing up Bilingual: Puerto Rican Children in New York. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 1997.