The Unseen Homeland: Construction of Tibet in the Diaspora | Interview with Pema Choedon

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In 1950, China started the annexation of Tibet, claiming it had always been part of China despite Tibet’s claim to be an autonomous region.  Following brutal suppression by the Chinese, on 31 March 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and political and spiritual leader of Tibet, was forced to escape to India. He began a permanent exile in Dharmasala, India, where he established a democratically based Tibetan Government in Exile. Over 100,000 Tibetans still live in exile. The following is an interview with Pema Choedon, a Tibetan born and educated in India.

How do you understand your identity as Tibetan?

My father was Tibetan and escaped from Tibet in 1960, but my identity has been affected by my schooling in India and my close contact with my relatives and the Tibetan community at large.  I was born in India, and after some years at school in Kathmandu, Nepal, I was educated in the Tibetan Homes School located in Mussoorie, a former British “hill station”, in the Himalayan foothills north of New Delhi.  The school was one of many run by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), formerly known as the Tibetan Government in Exile.  At school I realized that there is a history behind my father’s escape to India – before that I had a very vague idea. I also learnt Tibetan properly, as previously I had spoken mainly Nepali and English. I was the only pupil in my school who was not used to speaking proper Tibetan.

Being a Tibetan in India means being stateless.  This has had a huge impact on my life, although at the beginning I did not think about it. Later I had to go every year to where I was registered, to confirm that I was still in India, and going abroad was very difficult. I am from India, but I cannot say that I am an Indian citizen.  Being Tibetan in India is being stateless, and I think this condition inspires me and other Tibetans to struggle for the freedom of Tibet.

How did you receive an education? 

The Tibetan school in Mussoorie was overall a good school, and it gave us a basis for further studies. There I developed an ambition to become an academic. The medium of instruction in the school was English and Tibetan, and our books were generally in English, probably due to the policy of Indian board exams, which Tibetan students have to appear on a yearly basis. We also had to study Hindi. Many of the pupils, myself included, had individual sponsors in the West. In my case, my sponsors were a couple as well as one of their friends, all three living in Munich in Germany, and I shall always remain deeply grateful to them for their support, and for making me more aware of the world outside India.

After leaving school, I studied for some years at Delhi University, obtaining my BA in English Literature, and later I was fortunate to be accepted as a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi where I took my MA, again in English Literature. I then took an MPhil at that university, changing my field to Inner Asian Studies and writing a dissertation on the Tibetan diaspora in Nepal.  This turned my interest towards further research on the Tibetan diaspora.

What is the topic of your PhD dissertation?  Why did you choose that particular topic?

The Tibetan diaspora, which has now existed in India for 60 years, and now scattering around the world, is a vast field but relatively little has been written about it. I thought that being a Tibetan in exile it would be a good thing to write about my own community and thereby hopefully contribute something to it.

In your opinion, what should be the collective priority of the Tibetan diasporic community?

I think the overarching aim is simple, although it may seem unobtainable at present: it is to obtain our independence, as we are always living in another people’s country and I think many Tibetans in exile feel a sort of void in their lives, not having their own country.

But what is the more pragmatic goal?

We should be open-minded about the changes that happen in our culture and in the world of which we are a part, and be free to express whatever we feel, and always help each other, as our diaspora community is not large.

The diaspora community has a Constitution based on democratic ideals. Is it being successfully implemented?

On the surface level, in general, one can say that the CTA functions well and has broad support in the diaspora community, and of course compared to conditions inside Tibet there is great freedom: we can speak up, speak against the government. However, our democracy has two dimensions, you have the right to free expression, there are certain restrictions as to what you can say, especially regarding policies endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  Contesting such policies is taken as being against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community as a whole. The Dalai Lama himself, however, says that even the Buddha should be questioned, which is, he points out, why Buddhism is successful. I feel that Tibetans however has failed to put into practice what he preaches. Democracy has different implication in our community from what democracy is in international terms, as some topics, especially those having a symbolic meaning cannot be openly discussed or questioned. I feel this is a limitation to our practice of democracy.

Is there a generation gap in the exile community?  If so, in what respects?

In terms of how you remember or imagine your country, there is a difference. I think older people, as well as the first generation born in India, have a vivid, romantic view of what it was to live in Tibet before 1959.

However, the younger generation have a different experience – our Tibet is far away, something in the past, and nevertheless on that are we are supposed to construct our identity. Since we live in other countries, each having its dominant culture, we ‘Tibetans’ have to make an effort to maintain our identity, for example by singing Tibetan songs, wearing Tibetan dress, speaking in Tibetan, showing the Tibetan flag and so on. All these are symbolic cultural elements, so important for us and believed to constitute ‘authentic’ Tibetan culture, but they require a conscious effort and are most visible on special occasions, such as the Tibetan New Year.

The Dalai Lama will pass away. How will Tibetans cope?

I think Tibetans will undergo a collective depression because for us Tibetans he is everything ­– both a Buddha and our spiritual and political leader (although he has retired from politics, the Tibetan Government in exile still seeks his guidance). However, after he is gone, his writings and recorded speeches will bind the Tibetans together and will still have a great impact on the Tibetan people. Perhaps the 17th Karmapa, a younger but very high-status lama, may be consulted when it comes to finding a new incarnation of the Dalai Lama, just as the Dalai Lama was involved in finding the present Karmapa. Who knows whether the CTA might seek his guidance in the search of new reincarnation? The Dalai Lama had said that his next reincarnation depends on whether his people need him or not, but one thing is certain: the Tibetan Government in exile will search for his reincarnation.

Can you envisage a transition to a purely secular government?

No, the Dalai Lama will remain, even as a legendary figure, a point of reference, a means to promote political agendas.

Is there communication between Tibetans in exile and Tibetans inside Tibet?  Are the two communities growing apart?

I felt that it took a little time to become friends with Tibetans I have met from Tibet because they are not used to speaking openly, but once we are friends we know that we are all Tibetans. But there is a gap: Tibetans inside Tibet are influenced by Chinese way of living, just as Tibetans in the diaspora are influenced by India and the West.  Over time our communities may be diverging, but we belong to the same trunk of the Tibetan tree.  In the diaspora there are also differences according to the dominant culture, whether you live in India, USA, Canada, Europe and so on.

Have Tibetans established cultural, religious and political institutions in exile?

Tibetans are exploiting religion as “soft power”.  There are Tibetan religious centres in most countries in the West as well as in Southeast Asia, but they don’t proselytize. However, the CTA uses Tibetan symbolic culture to promote its goal internationally, to create awareness of Tibet.

Which is more important – religion or culture?

Oh, definitely culture. In my opinion, religion comes under culture, including language, food, dress and the way of behaviour, and, I would say, in general a compassionate view of the world. All Tibetans share this culture, including the Tibetan Muslim community, whose members were traditionally known in Tibet for their particularly high standard of spoken and written Tibetan. The Dalai Lama meets the Tibetan diasporic Muslim community in the same way that he meets people from the various schools or traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

What is the position of the Tibetan language in exile?

On arriving in India in 1959 and 1960, the refugees used their various dialects, but gradually the Central Tibetan dialect came to dominate.  From the 1980s and 90s onwards, the use of English also became widespread. However, gradually it was realized many young Tibetans cannot speak Tibetan properly, so now there is a revival of the use of the Tibetan language and there are ‘model schools’ that are completely Tibetan medium, run by the CTA. Tibetan TV uses Tibetan, while journals and newspapers use either English or Tibetan. English is widely used in social media, but also Tibetan on iPhone.

Why are Tibetans relatively highly profiled internationally?  Is it only due to the Dalai Lama? 

I think Tibetans have been regarded as coming from an idyllic Shangrila – and many Tibetans think so, too – although this version of Tibet has been thoroughly deconstructed by scholars.  Of course, the Dalai Lama, who has been in international media since 1959, is a charismatic figure not only due to what he says but also what he does, in particular after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.  His personal message of tolerance and non-violence attracts large audiences, but there are also many other important and well-known lamas – the Karmapa, the Sakya Trizin and others. The Dalai Lama is not the only influential person to spread Tibetan culture and religion.

Are there Tibetans who are well-known outside the sphere of Tibetan Buddhism?

Probably not. Maybe to some extent in literature, and a few academics such as Tsering Shakya and Dawa Norbu, or a writer like Jamyang Norbu. These days, there are also emergent young Tibetan women in politics and business like Bhutila Karpoche and Tenzin Saldon in Canada and USA respectively.

How do you view the future – for yourself and for the Tibetan exile community?

I want to be a scholar who can write about Tibetans and their evolving culture and traditions, and maybe look into their traditional rituals as well. I would like to visit Tibet, but I have no one to relate to there because all my relatives came to India in 1960.

As for the community, I would like it to be open-minded, not stuck in certain ideas according to what certain people think, but debating in a more humane way than suppressing dissent. I would like to see all sorts of ideas living side by side, discussing and negotiating rather than fighting. Tibetans should strive to be professional, well qualified, explore new and unknown fields, and become scientist, doctors, engineers, artists, writers, academics and entrepreneurs.

We should opt for Tibetan independence, not ‘autonomy’.  We should be aware that a constructed culture can be manipulated, but with independence we could move forward more effectively.  Culture and tradition changes always, but without a territory with boundaries you cannot deal effectively with other issues.

In my opinion, after Tibetan adopted the Middle Way Approach instead of complete independence, international support for Tibet has diminished considerably, and people who support Tibet do so because of our religion or culture, not because they wish to support our independence.  With the CTA already having abandoned our claim to independence, our friends throughout the world cannot support that when the Tibetans themselves do not seem to demand it. However, the idea of the nation-state is fundamental in the world today, and will remain so for a long time. So I feel adopting the complete independence will be more feasible in the long run than Middleway Approach that has no strong and clear-cut view as the former.

Is there something other diasporic communities can learn from the Tibetan exile community?

Yes – efficiency, for example. We are very efficient in our use of “soft power”, in creating awareness among millions of people internationally.  We are also efficient in running our schools in the diaspora, which makes the Tibetan diaspora excel. There is no corruption in the CTA, and funds are mainly spent on education.  This is, I think, an excellent example to learn from us Tibetans. We try to present a united front when it comes to the larger world and to have long-term goals in our international policy.


Pema Choedon is a Tibetan, born and educated in India. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Tartu where she is writing a thesis on the creation of cultural narratives in the Tibetan diaspora community in India.


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