Tenzin Choden (+Video)
Tenzin Choden was born as a Tibetan refugee in a small town in India. When her family wins an immigration lottery, Choden buys a pair of black calf-high boots and begins her unexpected journey from India to Canada.
I was born in Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Bomdila is a beautiful, small town in the Himalayas. I grew up speaking Hindi, watching Bollywood movies, singing the Indian national anthem and believing India was my land. When I grew old enough to understand more complicated things, I learned that I was born a refugee in India. I actually belong in Tibet because my grandparents were among those Tibetans who, along with the Dalai Lama, fled to India from Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese invasion. My official documents describe me as “stateless.”
In Arunachal Pradesh, refugees cannot own houses, land or business licenses. My parents ran a small store where we sold clothes, bags and shoes. On top of the rent and utility bills, my parents also had to pay a local person for using his business license.
In 2011, my mom told us about a rumour that all Tibetan refugees living in Arunachal would be sent to Canada. We laughed and told her that it was impossible. It turned out to be partly true. Not “all” but 1000 Tibetans were going to Canada under the Tibetan Resettlement Project. This project stemmed from an appeal made by the Dalai Lama to the Canadian government. The only way to choose those 1000 Tibetans from the 8000 living in Arunachal, without bias, was through lucky draw. I didn’t expect to be lucky; I moved on with my life.
I was seventeen and in grade 12 at a boarding school for Tibetans, thousands of miles from Bomdila, when I received a call on the old-fashioned coin-operated dormitory phone. My parents had surprising news. All of us – my parents, my fourteen-year-old sister and I – were going to Canada.
The process took several years but, eventually, our departure date was set for April 2, 2015, and we started shopping for our journey. My sister and I had saved money that we had received as gifts from our relatives for Tibetan New Year. Of course, we needed shoes. A pair of black lace-up calf-high boots caught my eye. They had some metal on them, including a large skull on each side which made them edgy. I was not “edgy,” but since Canada was a big change, I was willing to experiment and make other changes, starting with my shoes. These boots are the perfect symbol for my life. They are made in one country, sold in another, and don’t know where they will go next.
As an inexperienced traveller, I chose these boots to wear to Canada. At every airport security check, I had to unlace and remove them because the metal skulls set off alarms. Then I had to put them on again and lace them up. It was funny for my family but trouble for me. Even today, those boots remind me of my dad laughing at the airport.
Finally, my stateless shoes and I stepped on the land of Canada. One day I was in one of the most crowded cities in the world, Delhi, and the next day I was in Calgary, where there was hardly anyone on the streets.
I get asked all the time, “Where are you from?” My sister and I visited Vancouver, and the ticket collector on the tourist trolley asked us the same question. We both replied, “Calgary!”
“No,” she said, “Where are you from?”
We realized that this meant “What’s your ethnic background?” or “Where were you born?” or “What’s your nationality?” My answer is that I live in Canada, I was born in India, my origins are in Tibet and – until I have completed the required three years as a Permanent Resident in Canada – my Citizenship remains Stateless.
TENZIN CHODEN is from Bomdila in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. She grew up as a Tibetan refugee in the contested region claimed by China as “southern Tibet.” She completed high school before moving in 2015 with her parents and younger sister to Calgary. She is a permanent resident and pursuing a degree in business administration at Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.