Learning To Embrace My Nationality

Featured Artwork: Kalsang Tsultrim

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I remember my first day in primary school in Singapore. I was eight. I stood in front of the classroom, fingers clasped behind my back. I felt nervous. I felt exposed. My body language invited people in, invited judgment, invited people to form opinions about me without even knowing me. The teacher asked me to introduce myself. I said my name and where I was from. 

“Tibet?” she looked down at me and smiled. I nodded. “Hm, then you should sit with Kriti. She’s from Nepal. You girls are practically from the same country.” A girl waved at me from the middle of the classroom and I went to take my seat. The teacher continued, “Youdon is from Tibet. That’s in China. Kriti is from Nepal. Nepal is right below China.”

And that was how every introduction went for me. I was always Youdon from China. Sometimes, I would be Youdon from India and other times, Youdon from Nepal. I was never Youdon from Tibet. At a young age, I did not understand the complexities of the situation between Tibet and China. When I tried to say something, I would be shut off. Thus, I learned to shrug my shoulders and not correct others when they told me what nationality I should be. The best I would get is, “So, isn’t Tibet like part of China? Doesn’t that mean you’re Chinese? No, I don’t think you understand what I am talking about. No, you can’t be Tibetan. You’re Chinese.”

I learned from early on that people differ in opinions about politics. One thing they dislike talking about is its complex history. Unfortunately for me, my entire existence stems from being someone from a country that was occupied by a larger power for decades. Seeing first hand at how someone refuses to acknowledge me when I explain my name, I began to wonder how I would be perceived if I explain other complex parts about myself. My identity was starting to assimilate into a pool of millions of others whose struggles have been tossed aside simply because they did not fit into someone else’s political preferences. The ignorance of a society that was supposed to embrace people from different backgrounds led me to a difficult path of denying my roots. I started to introduce myself as “Youdon from Singapore.”

The small bubble of denial where I found a sort of uncomfortable comfort shielded me from confrontation and questioning from others. I have always been an introvert and thus hated being asked questions that required me to get out of my comfort zone. Being “Youdon from Singapore” benefited me in that way. However, I did not realize the psychological impact of the model that I had created in my head. 

When I was 13, I moved to India and attended an all Tibetan school. I discovered a whole new world in the four walls of the classroom I sat in for 6 hours a day. All my classmates loved Tibet, and being Tibetan. They talked highly of the country they came from and had the kind of patriotism you wouldn’t generally witness in young teenagers. They loved Tibetan music and would spend lunchtime singing and dancing. Talent shows would be organized all the time where different houses competed for a trophy in traditional dance. However, the most important thing for me, and something I have learned not to take for granted, was the instant acceptance they showered me with. 

My classmates did not question the fact that I referred to myself as “Youdon from Singapore”, or that my Tibetan was the equivalent of someone in kindergarten. They saw me as one of their own. I spent five years in this vibrant and loving community. The people there helped me in rebuilding my roots and discovering various aspects of my culture. I felt hopeful for the first time in such a long time about the future of the Tibetan community. They taught me not to be ashamed of who I am. I had to accept the struggles and the bitter truth as much as the beautiful culture and traditions of my country. The transition from being in denial to being in love changed me and contributed to my growth as a person and my decision to pursue journalism as a career path.

I was, and still am, set on shedding light on stories that have been swept under the rug and bringing forth the heartbreaking stories of people who have been ignored by society. 

I moved to Canada in 2017. By then, I had forgotten the difficulty in the process of introducing myself. I started applying for jobs and universities and found out that “Tibet” was never listed as a country, and that “Tibetan” was never a valid option for a language. I found out that people love putting others in boxes, and mine was “stateless.” Unlike the reaction I would have had in the past, this only motivated me to prove to both others and myself that I have a seat at the table. Even now as a twenty-year-old, I have to explain my nationality to every person I meet. However this time, I would go out of my way to make sure they knew about my country and heritage. I refused to be called anything else. My nationality is a symbol of perseverance, diligence, and patriotism.  I love being Tibetan and if that meant I had to endure the persistent name-calling and correct all the harmful stereotypes, I would do so gladly. 

When I was younger, I learned that if I talk about China’s occupation of Tibet, I should do so in whispers. The world is big, and politics isn’t a topic to be talked about by little girls like me. People love to write off children talking about serious topics, but that is how change is brought. Children are the future and I, for one, am making sure the child in me is heard loud and clear. I am Youdon Tenzin, and I am from Tibet.