“Nga Bhoepa Yin (I am a Tibetan),” tore through me as the Starbucks barista at the counter asked my name. “Wangmo,” I said. He picked up a marker and the black ink seeped into a ‘Wangmo’ on the cup.
Looking over the name that sounds uncommon, yet not entirely alien, he said, “I also know one Assamese person who looks just like you. You might know her.”
I walked past the counter and in the mirror, I could see a Mongolian-featured face with slightly smaller eyes than the eyes I saw two minutes ago. The nose bridge in the mirrored reflection wasn’t as straight and defined as the barista’s.
In a country that does not natively belong to me, I have found a home. A home built of the Tibetan community and its culture, held together by the pillars of the Central Tibetan Administration. Though I have been labeled a refugee since birth, I never experienced what it meant to be a refugee. How can I be a refugee in the country where my parents and I were born? It is our home. Regardless of any room that I entered and the family members I talked to, my facial structure had always meant Wangmo – my name.
My nationality had never been a part of my appearance. Until it suddenly was.
In 2018, when I passed my Tibetan high school and joined Delhi University, I did not shift from one culture to another because shifting applies some degree of control when it comes to the pace. I coasted along with my identity. Delhi University’s admission process was different for us as opposed to other students. I was provided with accommodation in an air-conditioned room along with my school friends, and placed in our course of preference according to our academic performance and grades.
I was confused. The Delhi University I had heard of has thousands of students applying every year, and the very process of securing admission is a challenge.
A man standing at the doorway said, “You guys are lucky. My daughter is applying to DU, and she is out there knocking on every college door in this scorching summer heat.”
When he said, ‘you guys’ he didn’t mean me and my friends sitting inside that room, he meant the entire Tibetan community applying to Delhi University. “Whatever,” I thought and was glad that the ‘you guys’ he referred to was having it the easy way. I was happy to be ‘otherised’ and treated differently.
Also read: Majnu Ka Tila: Delhi’s Own ‘Mini Tibet’
I joined Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, where I was the only Tibetan student. In the span of a few months, I made a couple of friends, Ankita* and Mohini*, who kept on repeating their love for Chinese food to me every day. They called it our ‘shared interest’.
I don’t remember ever telling them what continental dishes I preferred. I tagged along with them at times, and when I came home, I kept on wondering why we would eat the same chowmein every time in the college canteen. It took me a year to realise I never hated that college chowmein but the detailed assumptions Ankita and Mohini made off my face.
A year later, COVID-19 boomed. News of Northeastern students being bullied as a threat to the virus was all over my social media feeds. I remember during the initial days of the pandemic when wearing a mask was not mandated. My eldest sister told me not to wear a mask as “people will assume that you have corona”. I had to either protect myself from the virus or the people. At that moment, I couldn’t figure out what was more threatening.
COVID-19 is an episode meant to go away with time, but I was too naive to think the same of the unasked for assumptions that have defined me for years.
In the 22 years of my existence, I never had to tell my story – my face, followed by my name, does it for me.
Dorjee Wangmo is a journalism student at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. She harbours interest in writing and photography.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty