Claiming Identity

“Stateless Refugee” are the words Namkhang Tsamchoe must circle when filling out the visa that allows her to attend college in the United States.  As her eyes wander past the options of India and China, she is reminded of a feeling that she had her entire life, the feeling of not being able to identify with the country she calls home.

“ I don’t know what to say, its kind of a dilemma. I am not Chinese or Indian, so it’s really confusing,” she says. “I pick Stateless Refugee if that is an option or I pick India because I have never been to China.”

Tibet is the country Namkhang calls home, but, it has been under Chinese rule since Chinese troops invaded in 1959. That same year the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who is both Tibet’s spiritual leader and head of state, was forced to flee to India, where he currently resides.

At the age of five Namkhang (or Nams as I call her) also made the illegal journey out of Tibet and into India. “It was in March of 1998. I was small, and I don’t remember much. Our favorite yak was sold to honor our journey. I traveled with my auntie, uncle and cousin. We had to walk during the night sleep during the day. It was cold,” she recalls.

Understanding the importance of their daughter getting an education and not wanting to raise her in the increasingly hostile and oppressive environment of Tibet, Nams’s parents made the decision to send her to a Tibetan boarding school (run by the Dalai Lama’s sister) in India. It was at this school that Nams first heard the Dalai Lama speak on one of his visits to the school, and she fell in love with his inspiring words.

At the age of five Nams began the process of making a foreign land into a temporary home, a process that she has had to repeat many times since. Upon completing primary school, she then moved on to another prestigious Indian boarding school, and in the tenth grade moved to England in order to attend an International Baccalaureate school. Finally, her education led her to Sarah Lawrence, where she is my roommate.

At first glance, Nams’ life is not any different from other American students who are leaving home for the first time. She takes classes in science and math, goes to lunch with friends, studies in the library, and on long weekend’s escapes to Queens to visit family.

Nams has a contagious smile, and she says hi to me and every other friend with great excitement every time I see her walking through campus. She is hardworking, yet always willing to go on a new adventure. In the beginning of the school year my roommates and I decided to go to one of the girl’s soccer games. Getting to the game required a car, so I offered to drive.

“You can drive?” Nams said with wide eyes.

“Yes of course,” I replied.

As we all were getting into the car, I heard Nams’s short squeaky giggle, “I’m scared,” she whispered. A little ways into the drive I glanced back and noticed that her hands were gripping the sides of her seat and the expression on her face looked more like she was riding a roller coaster rather than on a leisurely drive to Manhattan.

“Why are you so scared?” I asked her.

“Women don’t drive in India,” she replied.

When I asked her if it was hard to leave her parents and go to boarding school when she was five, she said, “Not really, I had my other sister and brother at the school in Tibet with me. But I was homesick at first, then I became more independent.” While my other roommates could go on for days about the comforts of home that they miss. Nams is different; she is completely self-sustaining and introverted speaking little of missing her home or parents.

All Nams remembers of her home in Tibet is that there were mountains and a river. Yet she strongly identifies with Tibetan culture. It wasn’t until I had known her for over a month that I found out that she had lived in India most her life. She takes great pride in telling people about Tibet, but at the same time she feels it is hard to explain her identity. “As a student I have the responsibility to speak about Tibet, to promote awareness.”

One night Nams asked me and my other roommate if we wanted to try on the Tibetan attire she had brought with her from home. She showed us where to tie the long pink and green skirts and how to fold the embroidered collars. We laughed as we felt silly walking around in the unfamiliar outfits and she smiled, proud to show her culture to us.

The Dalai Lama has established a successful government in exile with the Harvard scholar Lobsang Sangay serving as the prime minister. At the age of 78, the Dalai Lama knows he will not be able to lead the Tibetan people forever, but he believes that they will find the strength within themselves to stand up for their rights against the brutal Chinese regime. Nams seems to be a perfect example of a Tibetan who has taken the responsibility upon herself to be an ambassador of these rights. She describes the environment in Tibet as very violent. “There is no freedom of thoughts. You can’t have a picture of the Dali Lama. If I stayed back I would not know Tibetan because school would be in Chinese.”

Having to flee Tibet has forced her family to spread out across continents and countries. Five years after sending Nams to India, her parents followed and now live in a Tibetan community in the South. Nams visits them on summer holidays. She has not seen her grandparents since leaving Tibet, nor is it likely she will ever see them again because she has publicly supported the free Tibet movement. If she were to return to Tibet, she would run the risk of being arrested by the Chinese government.Yet despite these hardships Nams feels it is her duty to follow the Dalai Lama and stand up for Tibetan freedom. She truly believes the country will attain Independence. “I believe in his holiness the Dali Lama. For me I really want Tibet to be an Independent country because we were once an independent country. I would wait decades for complete independence.” She has an unfaltering belief in a home she may never be able to return to, an identity she may never be able to claim.

Nams is a girl who lives simply and purely. While my desk is cluttered with books, pictures of home and random papers, hers is usually perfectly clean. The only thing that hangs on her wall is a small piece of yellow cloth with a quote from the Dalai Lama that reads, “We have become long on quantity, but short on quality. These are times of fast foods but slow digestion. Tall man but short character. Steep profits but shallow relationships. It’s a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.”

Despite having to move countries and cultures throughout her life without ever really being able to settle, Nams still believes in something deeper. She has an unfailing hope for a bright future for Tibet as well as herself. Where Namkhang Tsamchoe fits into that future is unclear. When I asked her what she wants to be when she is older, “I don’t know. I don’t think a lot about the future, I just move on with time.”

1 Comment

  • Reply November 26, 2013


    You have an inspiring life journey!

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