Unweaving the Tapestry of Identity: A Tibetan-American on “Being Yourself”

Everyone knows the extremely popular, cliché phrase; from being on a pillow at Target to something your loved ones advise you with: 

“Be yourself.”  

Summer 2023 was big for me. I just graduated college and I was traveling to India for the first time, by myself, to participate in a Summer Tibetan Study Program at the College of Higher Tibetan Studies in Dharamsala. The decision to travel to India after graduating was dear to me as I am a Tibetan-American and both of my parents had grown up in exile in India. There, I would learn a lot about life, cultures, and philosophy but also have many moments of self-reflection and introspection.  

Before my travels, my family had told me to pack lightly and specifically advised that “India is not the place to slay.” To provide some background to this advice, I love fashion and dressing up. I guess you could say… that I love to “slay.” My style and outward appearance are important factors in my self-expression. I use clothes, hair, and makeup to express myself, how I’m feeling, and basically, who I am.  

Growing up, my family emphasized the importance of staying mindful, not only of myself and the space I occupy but also of those around me. Understanding their advice, I agreed that this trip was not the appropriate setting for “slaying,” considering the humble and spiritual culture of India and the Tibetan communities I was visiting. So, I packed light and almost all of my clothes were oversized and neutral.  

While there, I felt as if I embodied the rawest form of myself. This realization surprised me, as one could argue that the rawest form of myself could also be one where I am freely expressing myself through my style. But I have come to find that fashion, hair, and makeup can very much distract from the reality of who I am and what I am truly about.  

Without my “extra” appearance speaking for me, my personality and social skills were front and center. And when reflecting, it didn’t feel as though I muted any aspect of myself. I still was acting the same as I did in America. If anything, the friends I made during this program, got to know- not to be cliché here – the real me. No distractions, no judgments, just me. Thinking back to before this trip, I used my appearance as a means to prove myself. Having graduated college and being a little older and wiser, I am growing out of this need to distinguish myself and instead just having that quiet confidence of knowing who I am. 

The “Unapologetic Self” 

Tibetan prayer flags represent peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom, aligning with the Tibetan Buddhist ideal of putting others before oneself.

One could make the judgment that we in the West, even Tibetans in the West, can sometimes be stubborn and aggressive in our tendencies, often making us rigid and inflexible to accommodate others. My Tibetan upbringing taught me to be humble, to speak and act mindfully, and to be conscious of myself as well as others. Even at the Tibetan college, their motto was “others before self.” 

Being born and raised in America, it is ingrained in our culture to stand our ground, speak our truth, and “be our unapologetic selves.” I always had trouble with this sentiment growing up.  

The idea of “being our unapologetic selves” is appealing. At its core, it makes sense because you want to be comfortable in your skin and be able to embody your true self. Upon reflection, I’ve found the Western understanding and interpretations of this phrase to be a bit rigid and egocentric. In the West, this quote is often understood as “Don’t change who you are for other people” and “Claim your space.” The varied usage and understanding of this phrase give rise to many meanings and are heavily contingent upon the context. In certain situations, embracing one’s true self can be a positive and empowering force, while in others, it may contribute to negative outcomes and justify self-indulgent behavior. 

However, in any situation, it’s important to understand the people involved and assess the environment you are in. For instance, if you are a naturally loud and aggressive person and you are working with others on a project, it is important to be conscious of the space you take up. Being able to invite others into the space is important so the project can be truly collaborative and open to all.  

My decision to change my style to accommodate the culture in India was my way of being mindful of the reason I was there and the environment I was in. The program was centered around learning about Tibetan Buddhism, its philosophy, and Tibetan culture. Through my assessment of the environment, what I was doing, who I was with, and my role within it all, it didn’t feel respectful or appropriate to “slay” or rather, be myself unapologetically.  

While there, I occasionally grappled with a sense of incompleteness and insecurity. I struggled with the limitations of the image I was presenting, that there’s more to me than meets the eye. However, as the program continued, I realized that my core self remained intact. In fact, this experience seemed like the ultimate test of embracing who I was rather than what I was presenting.  

Oftentimes, what we present can be misleading or distracting from the reality of who we are. This thought sparked questions: Can you be yourself whilst also being mindful? And is there a way to balance the conflicting and contradicting notions of the East and the West?  

“When in Rome, do as Romans do.” 

The Tibetan Study Program I attended was directed by program leader, Geshe Tenzin Damchoe. The title “Geshe” is the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. Interestingly, he would often quote, “When in Rome, do as Romans do,” to us throughout the program. 

The Tibetan-Buddhist philosophy often preaches the importance of compassion and compassion stems from awareness, both of yourself and others. I asked Geshe Damchoe if he could elaborate a little on his perspective of “When in Rome, do as Romans do.” 

“As the Buddha and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama always tell us, we have to be practical and realistic, right? [If] I only do what I want to do, then that’s not [always] appropriate, not only for me but for others [as well].” 

In essence, “When in Rome, do as Romans do,” his advice to that was to be sensitive to the sentiments of the community one is in. His intent for us was to interpret the phrase as being mindful and aware of our actions. We were guests at the college and in India, so it was important for us to accommodate the existing culture.  

When in Rome, do as Romans do” does not mean that we have to forget our own culture. It’s not life-changing,” he clarified.  

Just as I felt the need to change the way I dressed; it didn’t imply a complete transformation of my identity. I was still me, just in a different environment, under different circumstances where it didn’t feel appropriate to assert that side of myself. 

Geshe Damchoe’s understanding of the phrase “be yourself” was, “[As the] Buddha said, you are your own master of yourself.” 

He went on to separate the phrase into two categories: self-care and self-image.  

“Self-care is not about getting angry or harming others, [it’s about] being true to yourself and being kind to others, treating others well. Self-image is more like giving too much importance to oneself. So, what others will think, what others will [say], then this self-image can turn into a self-centered attitude. Then, it will be more harmful for yourself and others.”  

In other words, while we should be aware and conscious of others, it’s also important to feel comfortable in our skin and love who we are.  

“When you deal with self-image, we’re not saying that one shouldn’t self-cherish. Of course, we should self-cherish. If you don’t [show] love to yourself, how will [you] love others? …one should love oneself, but that doesn’t mean that we should think only about [ourselves],” Geshe Damchoe explained. 

The difference in his understanding of the phrase, “be yourself,” showed a completely different outlook and prioritization. In the Tibetan-Buddhist lens, the self is understood as interdependent with others. There is no emphasis on one individual.  

He added to the sentiment, “We are all interdependent. My happiness depends upon others… [Both] happiness and unhappiness depend[s] upon other people.” 

This concept is universal; humans are social animals. As we’ve come to understand through the pandemic, we need other people and social interaction. It’s vital for our well-being and fulfillment.  

Adapting to life in India presented a stark contrast to the comfortable lifestyle I was accustomed to in the United States. From the way we washed our clothes to the food we ate. Even in our mannerisms and thought processes. The cultural differences were evident, as expected in any foreign country. I’ve come to believe that refusing to embrace and accommodate such diverse ways of life dismisses the locals and their culture as they understand it.  

Just as a weaver crafts intricate patterns, our identities are woven from our diverse experiences; unraveling layers to reveal the core elements that define us, both individually and as part of humanity’s shared tapestry.

Reflecting on my experiences through the lens of a first-generation Tibetan-American, I observed a distinct cultural dynamic. In the United States, we are ingrained from a young age with the notion that asserting oneself reflects one’s confidence and identity and prevents being taken advantage of. The failure to speak up can lead to labels of being quiet, shy, or apathetic. This perspective, however, contrasted with the values I was simultaneously learning at home—Tibetan principles of compassion, humility, and mindfulness, emphasizing the importance of thinking before speaking and acting with intention. Both teachings are valid and helpful, but their application depends significantly on the context. I’ve come to realize the importance of flexibility and adaptability in navigating different environments and interacting with diverse individuals. As humans, we are in a constant state of evolution, and adapting and being receptive to change is essential. 

“We have a gift. Unlike the other sentient beings, we have wisdom,” Geshe Damchoe added. 

This led me to my final realization; the phrasing of the quote, “Be yourself,” implies one true self. Humans are multi-dimensional; we are complex creatures that can embody, enjoy, understand, and adapt to many things. Being mindful and aware are extensions of being ourselves. We have the emotional capacity and intelligence to assess situations and understand what is appropriate. And that, oftentimes, is just common sense.  

So, yes, be yourself but more importantly, be mindful. 

Zenden was a fellow in the 2023 Story Gathering Sandbox, a program that gave four young writers the opportunity to publish an article for our news outlet, Voices.

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