Of Belonging and Identity among Tibetans

My thoughts after reading Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s “A Home in Tibet”

Bhuchung K. Tsering


In the post 1959-Tibetan society, belonging and identity play a critical role in shaping the psyche of the Tibetan people. For Tibetans of the pre-1959 generation, the sense of belonging is more dominant; they have memory of their lives in Tibet before the Chinese and are clear about where they belong.  For example, for Tibetans who had escaped out of Tibet in and after 1959, a critical reason for wanting to regain their homeland is because they “belong” there and would like to return, mentioned in Tibetan simply as, “Bod la lok.”

For the post-1959 generation of Tibetans, the sense of identity plays an equal if not greater role.  Those who have been born and brought up in Tibet are overwhelmed by the direct and indirect attempts to provide them with a “Chinese identity.”

Those of this generation in exile are constantly posed with the question of self-identity; what is our identity? Who am I? Do we belong to something? This sense is all pervasive among the younger generation of Tibetans; it does not matter whether they are stateless, refugees, or individuals who have acquired citizenship of other countries.  All acquired identities were subordinate to the dominant perception that “I am a Tibetan.”

These Tibetans nevertheless are undergoing the same experience of exploration of their own roots, both literally and psychologically.  They have found different ways of expressing their feelings; in the immediate post 1959 period direct political activism was the dominant approach. The young Tibetans are also taught to identify themselves with Tibet in all aspects of their upbringing. Among the first song and dance routine that a majority of Tibetans in exile learnt was one popularly referred to as “Sildan Gangri’ that begins like this: “Surrounded by cool snow mountains; is the pure land of Tibet.”

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s “A Home in Tibet” is, to me, an encapsulation of these two types of mindsets among Tibetans. Through her mother’s story she expands on the quest for belonging while her own story is that of searching for her identity.

In the prologue, Tsering Wangmo writes about her mother, “All of her exile life she waited to return home.  She spoke of exile as something that would be expunged over time.  When this is over, we can go home.”

But as she details, her mother passed away in a tragic road accident and was not able to fulfill her aspiration of returning to her homeland.

Therefore, Tsering Wangmo’s journey to what is essentially her mother’s homeland in Tibet (because she herself was born in exile) is both a search for her own roots as well as fulfilling the unfulfilled desire of her mother.

She explains it this way, “When I am with family and friends from Nangchen I see them through my mother’s eyes. They were part of her life and they were characters in the stories I heard from her.”

In what could be interpreted as referring to her own personal quest, in a section of the book that seems to have been written in a pensive mood, she says, “I have lived my life defined as a refugee in Nepal and India, a resident alien and immigrant in the United States. At last, I am a Tibetan in Tibet, a Khampa in Kham, albeit as a tourist in my occupied and tethered country.”

The quest for her own identity continues as she interacts with all her relatives (primarily her Aunt Tashi) and also learns to put her experience in exile in context, including the issue of her own name. She writes, “ I am a niece of the Dhompas. I have taken my mother’s father’s name.  I have never given the name any special consideration in exile, but while I am in Tibet people refer to me as the niece of the Dhompatsang, the family of the Dhompas…” She continues, “ I am of a lineage rooted in a specific location and culture.”

While in Tibet, her queries to Tenzin and Yungyang (two individuals with whom her family was connected) also seem to have engendered their own quests.  She gets varying responses to her question, “What do you mean when you say you are Tibetan?” Thereafter, Tsering Wangmo writes, “I wonder if Tenzin and Yungyang enter into discussions of identity when they are among their own families. They are where they have always been.  There are no outsiders here and so they burdened by definitions and obligations of belonging or not belonging to one location.  Perhaps identity will enter their thoughts in the future when ore of their young leave, and people who are not known to them come to stay on their land.”

The book’s dust jacket has a blurb that says, “A Home in Tibet is a daughter’s haunting tribute to a mother and a homeland. A story about the love between a mother and a daughter who only had each other as family and refuge, it gestures to the journeys made by those exiled from their lands.”

That is certainly so and the book is more than that, at least it is my interpretation of it. There are detailed description of life in Nangchen and Kyegu areas in eastern Tibet and how people are dealing with changing situations. One also gets a taste of the region’s tumultuous history. At the fundamental level, it is about belonging and identity.

An Australian education institute refers to the issue of belonging in the following way,  “Belonging’ is a difficult term to define, but it is something that people can readily feel emotionally. People have a strong urge to belong, but what happens when we are not allowed to belong? We have all experienced exclusion at some time in our lives.”

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s “A Home in Tibet” is a strong corroboration of such an experience by Tibetans.


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