Joy, Erin, and Tatiana: to my Cambridge girls who nurtured me


Cambridge City Hall


The three tiers of my integration into the ‘America’ of Cambridge, MA. The three black women (among many) in my life who became influential in my development as a person.

When I think of Joy, I think of her smile. She was warm. I don’t remember exactly how we met. But I remember it was in 5th grade. I had been introduced by the homeroom teacher as the new student who had just moved to Cambridge with her family from India. Days, weeks, or who knows maybe months had passed, but in between those days, Joy and I had several classroom exchanges. And each time we interacted, she was gentle and warm, perhaps sensing my new-kid awkwardness anxieties. From what I remember, she was well-liked by most of my classmates particularly cause of her warmth. But she was also spunky and cute. Her not-to-be-taken-for-granted attitude won her many fans, I was one of them. I had a friend crush on Joy from afar. But it wasn’t till Erin moved from King Open to Peabody that Joy and I became closer.

I don’t remember how it started, but I remember Erin being introduced to the rest of us in class as the new transfer student from King Open. Instantly, she was a hit. She was open, talkative, and kind. Within days, her and Joy were inseparable. Somehow, one day, Erin suddenly began talking to me and she never stopped. I don’t know how, but all of a sudden it was Erin, Joy and me. Hanging out everyday. The three of us were doing homework either at Joys’ or Erins’ while BET and MTV blasted from the television in the back. This was when mid-90s hip hop scene was blowing up. In these jam sessions, Joy and Erin introduced me to rap, hip-hop, r&b and dancehall. But it was through dancing that we connected the most. All three of us were obsessed with dancing. Joy belonged to the dance group Jamnastics, and they would perform at different venues around Cambridge. She was always teaching us new dance moves because we were fast learners. It was actually through Joy I discovered the world of hip hop dancing (I joined Jamnastics later). Dancing has brought me joy since the beginning of time, and it was Joy who first introduced me to the dance scene in Cambridge. Now I am forever a fan of hip hop and dancehall thanks to Joy and Erin.

It was a friendship that began at a summer tennis camp at thirteen at MIT (from which I was kicked out for calling a Chinese counselor a bitch). We became thick as thieves and sneaked out to basement parties in Boston during High School. Tatiana was there when I got into my first fist fight at Rindge (Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School). She threw down when I was attacked by two racist white chicks who had fought me the previous day on the basis of my race. Joy heard about it later and went after the same girls. Although Erin wasn’t at the same High School, somehow she had also heard. She called me up to find out if I was ok, and was satisfied with Joy’s retaliation. I had not told either about the incident, but there they were, all three, making sure they had my back. I remember thinking how lucky I was to have such friendships.

Tatiana was nurturing, accepting, and patient, even when I was being a narcissistic teenager. She accepted me for all that I was and encouraged me to be more. But what we connected on most was our sense of humor. We loved finding humor in everything and our favorite thing to do together was laughing. In Tatiana, I found my twin. She and I could read each others mind like no other. We always knew we were on the same page. No explanations needed. Just love.

Joy, Erin, and Tatiana
These three girls, now women, were influential in the ways in which I related to the world that was Cambridge. A microscopic spec of what the United States hoped it was (a fading image now in Trump America where the increasing wealth gap shapes the contours of a neighborhood). The Cambridge of mid-90s to early 2000s was multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-lingual, but it was also highly racial. To my 10-yr-old Dharamsala sensibilities, I hadn’t a clue. But these three were there, each step of the way. Teaching me and helping me navigate a highly racialized world. I realize now that they had subtly been teaching me about race, racism, class, gender, and ways of belonging all along. In return, I taught them about Tibet. Anytime anyone mistook me for Chinese in front of them, they’d correct the other that I am Tibetan not Chinese. My understanding, knowledge, and praxis surrounding race, class, and gender in America has highly been influenced by each of them. These early introductions would encourage a life-time of learning from and understanding Black history and the history of movements in the United States. And I’ve learned over time, how crucial these lessons have been in shaping my understanding of racialized developments for Tibetans in China-Colonized Tibet, and the trials and tribulations of revolutionary movements more broadly when imagining sovereign Tibetan futures.

My childhood social landscape was filled with black and white children, with a handful of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese students. As a Tibetan, I couldn’t figure out where I belonged. But for Joy, Erin, and Tatiana, it was easy. I belonged with them. And through their nurturing friendships a multi-racial Cambridge steeped in black history and culture became home.

I’m forgetful with dates and don’t remember anyone’s birth dates, but I remember Joy’s thanks to her family-filled cook-out birthday invites. Her birthday is on the 4th of July, the date that marks the “birth” of (the settler state) America. I’m still trying to figure out whether that’s just a coincidence. Whenever and where-ever “Independence” day is marked on the 4th of July, I think about and celebrate Joy.