I was born in Amdo Rebkong, Tibet. I choose the phrase “I was born…” on purpose in contrast to “I’m from Tibet’ or “I’m from Qinghai province” because the former provides a specific location and meaning of my historical background for the readers. Saying “I’m from Qinghai province” emphasizes the Chinese political demarcation that can dominate discourse on Tibetans’ birthplace and origin, especially amongst young Tibetans inside Tibet. If a young Tibetan from Tibet is being asked about their birthplace and origin in Tibet, they will likely say that they are from Qinghai (青海), Sichuan (四川), Gansu (甘肃) or Yunnan (云南). I would say that this is still quite pervasive amongst young Tibetans from Amdo and Kham. However, it doesn’t mean that they’re not aware of Tibetan history and their cultural background when referring to their birthplace and origin. Colonial education and integration have been shaping their mentality implicitly. I think we sometimes need to pay close attention to these seemingly trivial details about Tibet.
Having said that, when approaching the concept of Tibet, we are in the conversation with someone’s—this could be collective too—experience, memory, and imagination of Tibet. In exile, there are Tibetans who have never been to Tibet but their idea of it is communicated, narrated, and constructed through their imaginations. Unlike them, I left Tibet for India after finishing middle school and have lived in various countries since then. The geography, the community, and the Tibetans I grew up with are always present in my memory. But my memory of my country itself is almost two decades old despite my regular interactions with my family, relatives and friends inside Tibet. I sometimes call it a distant memory, for my memory of Tibet has many gaps and silences. Alongside the imagination and the memory, the experience of living inside Tibet or the recent experience of leaving Tibet behind is another aspect when approaching Tibet.
I often notice the discourse of authority and authenticity amongst the language of imagination, memory, and experience in Tibetan communities in exile. The latter—those who have living experience of Tibet—think that Tibet should be understood merely through experience. In other words, those who have the experience believe that they have greater authority and more authentic views of Tibet. I regard this attitude as both problematic and simplistic. Maybe sometimes, our imagination is as powerful as the experience of knowing Tibet. We therefore shouldn’t put one understanding above another. Rather, imagination, memory, and experience are all great vehicles in approaching Tibet. The more vehicles we have, the better— the more diverse— understanding we can have about Tibet.
Tibet also means many things to us. The meaning and scope of Tibet encompass the historical Tibet, the cultural Tibet, the political Tibet and so on. The historical Tibet could be the constitution of the three regions (ཆོལ་ཁ་གསུམ)—I strongly discourage Tibetans to use the term ‘province’—of Tibet including Utsang, Kham, and Amdo. That said, many Tibetan historical texts refer Tibet to its upper part as the three rings of Ngari, the middle part as four horns of Utsang and the lower part as the six ranges of Dokham. The cultural Tibet could include the Himalayan regions—beyond Tibet— where communities still use classical Tibetan, share Tibetan artistic traditions, and practice Tibetan Bon and Buddhist rituals. The political Tibet is a particular administrative unit of the contemporary People’s Republic of China, the Tibet Autonomous Region legitimized by Chinese government. Thus, I don’t think there is a definite demarcation of Tibet because we can look at it from geographical and linguistic aspect as well. My point is that the meaning of Tibet is diverse and rich in its multiplicity, constituted in different times and spaces—we thus shouldn’t reduce it to a single meaning. I think amongst the diverse meanings of Tibet, we are also able to find the flexibility and freedom in narrating Tibetan discourse at large.
Language is another major component of diversity. As many of us understand and celebrate, the Tibetan communities inside and outside Tibet are linguistically diverse—we shouldn’t insist and pretend that every Tibetan speaks Tibetan language. There are young Tibetans who only speak Chinese—my nephew is one of them and their population is on the rise—unfortunately. In the West, we can easily notice young Tibetans speaking just English or other foreign languages despite their Tibetan cultural background. That said, Tibetans who only speak Tibetan have less exposure to other cultures and knowledge unlike their multilingual counterparts. Furthermore, Tibetan dialectical communities are much more diverse than the language groups if carefully researched. Simply put, because of the reality of linguistic diversity that Tibetans experience and encounter under various circumstances, Tibetans have different perspectives and expectations towards Tibetan politics, identity, culture, and its future. I think we should embrace the beauty and quality of linguistic diversity instead of politicizing it—our Tibetan language preservation attitude should be liberal, open, and inclusive.
In Tibetan exile communities, regional identity is discouraged, marginalized, and often arrested. For instance, in our exile schools, we are not taught regional history, culture, festivals, and such. Rather, the idea of oneness—one Tibetan history, one Tibetan culture, one Tibetan language—including political views is systematically celebrated and promoted in every institute of Tibetan society. I think the whole issue of the current political polarization amongst Tibetans in exile is largely associated with the lack of acknowledgement and respecting diverse political views. Therefore, under the umbrella of mainstream political hegemony, regional identity and different political views exist in a liminal space.
I believe the internal political fractions and divisions sprout and spread out when the language of diversity is entirely removed from the political landscape. Therefore, the dilemma, ambiguity, and conflict amongst Tibetans when choosing a political stand—either Rangzen or Middleway—are the product of the complete lack of diverse political views. That said, I suggest, moving forward, we should have the courage, openness, and vision to embrace the language of diversity for Tibet and its future. Whether one is a scholar working on Tibet or a politician or activist fighting for Tibet cause or an ordinary Tibetan loving Tibet, diversity is the most prominent vehicle to understand Tibet, its richness and versatility.