Identity, A Relative Language

Identity is an historically entangled thread, difficult to unravel when thinking through its complexity. Most people assume that they have their own identities, be they religious, cultural, or political. Simply put, the identity of a person is constructed from the characteristics that distinguish them from others.  But is it, truly? Is identity something separate, distinctive and independent? Can I have a separate and distinct identity from others, including Tibetans? If I share a sense of mutual identity with Tibetans, then is that my identity? I think these are some of the basic questions that often challenge the aspect of singularity and plurality when talking about identity.

That being said, I’m a Tibetan who speaks three languages and four dialectics. I was born in Amdo, Tibet, an occupied territory of China, situated on the roof of the world. When I was young, I escaped Tibet, crossing the Himalayas on foot, into India. Since then I have lived in Norway, the USA, and Canada, and my life has expanded; so has my Tibetan identity. Over the last two decades, I have studied at various institutions and interacted with people from different backgrounds. The global experience, knowledge, and education that I have accumulated along my journey has also shaped my identity.

I often tweak my identity when mingling with different Tibetan communities because of their different linguistic, geographical, and cultural backgrounds. These days, the Tibetan communities inside and outside of Tibet are linguistically diverse, though often classified into four major groups. Amongst them, there are Tibetans who only speak Chinese; Tibetans who solely speak English; Tibetan who speak just Tibetan; and Tibetans who speak mixed languages. The latter group often face complex problems in any of the languages they use. I therefore regularly need to think about how I perform my identity when observing these four language groups.

Because I have a strong connection with the Tibetan communities mentioned above, I often feel that my identity is situational, meaning that I change or mold my identities according to the particular Tibetan community or the individual that I interact with. When I talk to my relatives and friends in Tibet, for instance, my wife often notices a different performative identity because I use a communication style, expression, and language that my wife is not familiar with in our daily lives in the West. Generally speaking, I also subconsciously try to be more Tibetan with Tibetans and more Inji with non-Tibetans in various social settings.

The more I think about my global and Tibetan experience that pervasively run through the way I speak, the way I act, and the way I understand myself and the world, the deeper I think about the Buddhist aspect of no self. I am aware of the prominent debates upon the meaning and the application of no-self in various Buddhist schools, but here, I refer to the meaning of non-existence of independent self. I think my personal identity is situational and dependent upon the cultural context, the history, the religion, the language and the people that I interact with in different times and spaces.

That said, I would say that my identity doesn’t hold independent existence, but rather is always situational when analyzed carefully. Do I have an identity? I think that depends upon who is asking and for what reason. I also think that I don’t have much authority or control over my own identity because my identity is social; in fact, I wouldn’t have an identity at all if I lived in total social isolation.

In light of this, COVID-19 is an interesting situation through which I can reflect upon my own identity and my relations with the world outside. After staying at home for almost seven weeks, I sometimes feel that the importance of my own identity wanes and weakens the more I practice social distancing and self-isolating, meaning my identity is heavily dependent upon the other things outside of my physical and mental body. Ultimately, I also understand that the discourse of my identity is often implicitly shaped and regulated by the current concerns of my country, my culture, and my politics. My identity is sometimes an ambiguous, entangled, and relative language.

4 thoughts on “Identity, A Relative Language

  1. In the midst of a pandemic, half of the world is locked and mother nature is so kind, so gracious that it is enriching itself within. And taught us how interdependent are we to each other with mother nature. Hence everything thing has its own identity say it living beings and non-living existences. We are not too late to take care of each other (living beings and non-living existence) for a better world. Just my thought. It’s always fascinating and delightful to read and listen from you. Thank you.

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  2. Dear Mr. Rekjong, Tusen Tak! Enjoyed the reflections on identity and its lack of solidity. I did wonder if you are writing and answering yourself in the comments section. Is that, too, a comment on identity? Not all identity is passively imposed by our context/s. Some of it comes from choosing our heroes and actively deciding what patterns we will build upon in life. We might hitch our hopes upon a star, so to speak. And of course difficult as it may be we can change our societies for the better. Or so I think.

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    1. Hi Dan, thanks for your comment. That DT is not me, looks like someone from India since there’re many DTs across Tibetan communities but I assure you, not as many as Tenzins. As you noticed, it is quite strange to see the comment coming from my namesake. There is a saying in Tibetan: “It causes laugh and joy when seeing two identical people, but it leads to dispute [for yak owners] when encountering two identical yaks.” hahhaa I think from larger perspective, our identity has something to do with the concept of modern nation state. Looking forward to chatting with you more in the future!

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