This post is going to be the first in a series highlighting different narratives within the Tibetans of Mixed Heritage team in preparation for our upcoming conference in Dharamsala, India this October.
For those who don’t know me, my name is Dechen Kelden, I’m 26 years old, and I go by the pen name Young Turquoise Bee. My sister Kunsang is a co-founder of the Tibetans of Mixed Heritage project and I’ve been helping out with a few things here and there in preparation for the conference in India. This project was founded back in 2014 and serves as a global network of people who are of Tibetan parentage. We aim to provide a platform for members to explore and develop their identity as Tibetans of mixed heritage and serve as a launchpad for their engagement and contribution to the wider Tibetan community.
These days, I feel like I’m always talking about identity. My mother is Kalmyk (from the Oirat group of Western Mongolia) and my father is Tibetan from the Saga District in the region of Utsang. My mother’s family was amongst the first group of Kalmyks to immigrate to the United States in 1951 and my father escaped Tibet as a child in 1959 during the Chinese occupation. Long story short, my parents got married and opened a Tibetan store called Do Kham in New York City in 1988. My sisters, Kunsang, Khando and I grew up living in between New York and New Jersey constantly being asked the same question, “So, are you more Kalmyk or Tibetan?” My mom was always the first to inform us that according to her, we followed the mother’s side of the family, meaning that we were Kalmyk. Personally, I was so annoyed by this question. On any given day I would give you mad side eye if you had asked it.
I kept wondering why do they want me to choose? I would brush it off until the next time someone asked but it was only when I was older I could confidently say that I am neither one or the other, I am both.
I believe what makes me inherently Kalmyk and Tibetan is my upbringing. There is a historical, social and spiritual legacy that is passed down from parent to child. I have been trying to understand how this generational history has influenced who I am today.
Since I was a child my father would tell me that he thought I was a reincarnated Tibetan woman, specifically one who was formerly a momola (grandmother) and that he could tell from my mannerisms and the way I operate. Similarly on the Kalmyk side, my mother and grandmother’s friends would tell me that the way in which I cared for the family resembled the methods of my grandmother although she passed away when I was seven and I didn’t have much time to spend with her. Even as a child, my priorities did not resemble that of a child, but of an older caretaker of the family.
I was raised around my mother’s side of the family. Many of my cousins were half Kalmyk and half something else like Russian, German or Samoan, etc. I thought it was important for us to stay together and build a community that we could trust and defend each other in.
Growing up in New Jersey, I wanted to feel comfortable and a lot of the time I didn’t because I stood out like a sore thumb. I never thought that I was ugly but I knew that I was undesirable to the white students in the town that I grew up in. My mom, sisters and I always ended up making friends with people of color in the area who also felt this isolation. Our extended family included the Butlers, Powers, Kennedy and Terpin families who were Black and Puerto Rican. As a form of survival we provided a sense of community for each other. We just seemed to click and have common ideals when it came to politics or even something as simple as television shows and music. We had so many shared experiences and it felt natural to be together. They attended all of our family gatherings and still to this day I consider them to be a part of my family.
When I was in elementary school and middle school I don’t think my peers knew how to place me. All they knew was that I was a husky asian girl and they had no idea what Tibet or Mongolia was let alone Kalmykia. So my family took it upon ourselves to educate them. I followed in my sister’s footsteps by running a Students for a Free Tibet chapter throughout my middle school, high school and college years bringing my classmates to SFT conferences, organizing silent protests on March 10th, petitioning for the immediate release of political prisoners and hosting bake sales and dances to raise funds for the cause. In high school when my classmates started to learn something about Buddhism and Tibet from mainstream media I remember one boy making some kind of offensive comment about Tibet, following with the taunt “You can’t get mad at me because you’re Buddhist.”I literally slapped him across the face without a second thought. The urge to defend Tibet kicked in like a reflex. This inherent feeling of duty to defend my homelands has always been inside of me, even though I don’t speak either language, and at that point in my life I hadn’t set foot in those lands.
Sadly I never learned Tibetan or Kalmyk language as a child. In the process of cultural assimilation language is always one of the first things to go. I lived amongst the biggest population of Kalmyk Americans in the United States but everyone I interacted with on a regular basis spoke English. My grandmother spoke Kalmyk, Russian, Bulgarian and English because of the displacement she experienced during World War II and before she passed I was learning Kalmyk and Bulgarian from her but those lessons stopped after she died in April, 1998.
My father worked and lived in New York City running Do Kham during my entire childhood. I would see him from time to time when he would come home to New Jersey to visit. He made sure that we had a mini monastery in our home filled with Buddhist statues and every text you could imagine as, well as beautiful thangkas, which are hand painted depictions of Buddhist deities surrounded by silk appliqué, with a border made of silk brocade. These precious items were the essence and foundation of our home. Whenever he would come home I would be assigned a new Buddhist text to read. As a former monk of Nechung Monastery he put a heavy emphasis on living our lives as potential Bodhisattvas. Both of my parents instilled very strong morals in us to be of service to our community and help those in need.
Now as an adult I want nothing more than to learn Tibetan, Kalmyk and Russian (because a great deal of Kalmyk history books are written in Russian). I have been learning Tibetan through Esukhia’s Skype classes but it is very difficult for me and I get so emotional when I can’t pronounce something correctly. My accent is very American, and to those who know New Jersey, it’s very Jersey. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Jersey Shore, you’ll know what I mean. In short, I find myself having to unlearn the way I’ve been speaking my entire life in order to connect to my roots.
I would love the opportunity to visit Tibet one day. My father has told me many stories of his life in Tibet when he was a child, and right now I’m getting in the habit of recording his stories to have it within our family archive. Similarly, on the Kalmyk side I started a personal project called Kalmyk Legacy. I have been interviewing Kalmyk people all over the world and sharing their oral histories online. In 2013, I was invited to Kalmykia by Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Dilowa Khutuktu and the Shadjin Lama (head lama) of the Kalmyk people. During my time there I was able to interview historians at the Kalmyk Institute of Humanitarian Studies, professors of Kalmyk University and survivors of Stalin’s deportation of the Kalmyks to Siberia. I was welcomed with open arms and came to know the huge network of folks in Kalmykia dedicated to preserving our culture and history I hope to return soon.
I am very blessed to know people who have continually held space for me in deconstructing my identity.
It is the main reason why I was interested in helping to plan this conference. I want to see what it looks like to have an environment just for us, where we can talk freely about being mixed. Some of the topics we’re going to be discussing I know, that only we’ll be able to understand, and there’s something very special about that.
A lot of the time I know Tibetans of mixed heritage have been outcast because of their mixed identity. I want to say that being mixed also allows us to contribute to Tibetan society in a way that no one else can. Somehow my sister and I ended up acting as a bridge between Kalmyks and Tibetans because of our earned trust on both sides, from both communities A couple years ago we co-founded a group called the Kalmyk Youth Coalition and organized the first joint Losar and Tsagaan (Mongolian New Year) celebration with the Office of Tibet based in Washington, DC, celebrating our people’s friendship.
The sky’s the limit and I really hope to meet you at the conference this October and hear your story. We are hosting our first program in Dharamsala, October 9-13th. It’s open to Tibetans of mixed heritage ages 18 and up. Make sure to Register Here, we’ve just extended the deadline to July 21st!!
All my best,
Dechen, A.K.A. The Young Turquoise Bee