Saturday 13 August 2011
Growing up in a school where Mongolians formed the majority of the student population, I never felt any different from my friends save for the Nepali classes where my accent seemed to be the major source of amusement for the teacher. He had fun taunting me by reading my answers out loud in class and ridiculing them. Things, however, changed once I entered university. It was rare to come across another familiar, friendly face. Here, people weren’t so warm. Perhaps, they weren’t used to seeing people of a different race. Perhaps, English speakers put them off. Whatever the reason I still dread thinking about my first few months of college. The gazes and the whispers that followed me around pissed me. The fact that my Nepali sucked didn’t help either. It was tough trying to communicate with others and even tougher trying to convince them I was no different from them. Yes, my name might not have been the easiest thing to pronounce and my looks may not have blended with them but just like them I was born and brought up in this country. Like them I was a regular student whose happiness lay in small things like the professor being absent. Sadly, that didn’t come across in my broken Nepali.
I am a third generation Tibetan living in Nepal as a refugee. Refugee I say because even though Nepal is the only home I know, I feel like I am taking refuge here. My last name reads Gurung owing to my paternal grandfather but I have never felt any connection to him or the name he has bestowed upon me. Having spent my entire life in a Tibetan community I am more in touch with my Tibetan roots and its culture. I feel safe here not having to put on earphones to shut racial comments made by insensitive people for whom this type of hurtful teasing seems to make their day. You step out and it’s a completely different zone. Conductors mocking your accent, shopkeepers laughing while you try to bargain in the best Nepali you can are some of the things which get to you. But nothing is worse than being called ’ey Bhote’. I know Tibet is referred to as ’Bhot’ and Tibetans are known as ’Bhote’ in Nepali but the way it is said, it demeans the word. I am sure people from Terai feel the same way when they are called ’Madhesis’ and ’Dhotis’- a feeling of being cast as outcast and pariahs.
It is sad to know that the government isn’t doing its best to provide a safer haven for the refugees. In 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, when peaceful protests were being carried out in Kathmandu, Nepalese police harassed and beat up the protestors like they had committed some sort of inhumane crime. Elsewhere, Tibetans were allowed to conduct protest rallies albeit peacefully. More importantly, it was encouraging to see how people from different corners of the world joined hands with Tibetans to fight the injustice going on in Tibet. My mother like many other Tibetans was deeply saddened by the happenings in Tibet after the March 2008 Uprising there. Civilians were picked up randomly, tortured and forced to drink their own urine in prisons. She made it a point to join every protest that was happening in the valley. Everyday she would lie to us telling she had some chores to attend to and in the evenings we would get a call saying that she had been imprisoned again. During the time of the protests, ironically enough, I was in the midst of studying Human Rights in college. In class we had just finished discussing Freedom of Expression when I learnt about cops arresting and questioning people wearing Free Tibet T-shirts, jumpers and caps. I further learnt that it was just people of Tibetan descent or those who the police determined had features that were decidedly ’Tibetan’ that were being questioned. When did they get the authority to decide what one wears is appropriate or not? And then I realized that freedom of expression was a right accorded to those who were considered to be legitimate citizens, based solely on their facial features, only.
With no right to move or assemble freely, no freedom of expression and education it seems the condition of Tibetan refugees is only deteriorating. No wonder, most of them have already started leaving for greener pastures abroad. my Tibetan friends and I often talk about the situation and we question ourselves about where exactly is it that we belong? We were born here, have lived our entire lives, the disconnect we feel is palpable. the fact that many of us can’t speak Nepali fluently doesn’t help either. No matter how hard we try, our heavily accented Nepali will always reveal our identity. I know many people who have hidden their identity for the fear of being treated unequally and this is not the case with Tibetans only. One of my friends’s hid his identity throughout college as he was a Bhutanese refugee. Sad, huh! Having to hide one’s true identity just because you know others will look down on you.
I don’t know what the next generation of Nepali-Tibetans face. Will they ever be deemed equal to all other Nepali citizens or will they forever be looked upon as a burden to the country?
Tsering Dolker works and lives in Kathmandu, Nepal. This article was previously published in www.wavemag.com.np