Diaspora Dreaming

Michael Vatikiotis
Apr 1st, 2014

Identity: renewal, preservation and decay


Of all the ways that human beings interact and organize as nations, the most ingenious are to be observed among Diasporas.  Identity is greatly shaped by proximity, so when geography vanishes as a driver, what is left apart from the memory of association and shared values? A culture can survive exposed to the elements of dispersal, but usually not for long. 

The basic elements of culture such as language and tradition are soon diluted by consociation with host cultures. They live on as memories, slowly fading into the background.  In modern melting pot societies like the United States or Australia sizable Asian and European diasporas head towards the same vortex of homogenizing pluralism that swallowed indigenous or African immigrants generations earlier.

I belong to the Greek Diaspora. It's a sizable one, with almost as many Greeks living outside of the country as there are in Greece.  Greeks are well organized in most of their host communities. There are churches to sustain the Greek Orthodox faith, and support through church-related activity, baptisms, marriages and funerals.  Families are far flung but stay connected – I have family in Europe, the Middle East, Canada, and at one time even in Latin America and Africa.  I am the sole representative in Asia.  More than anything else, the Greek Orthodox faith - even for the non-practicing Greek, offers a lifeline to Diaspora identity.

I lost my Diaspora moorings early in life. My parents moved from the small mid-western town in the US where we had access to a Greek community to London, which although more cosmopolitan in theory, was not at the time (this was the 1970s) a paragon of pluralism. There were opportunities later in life. I made regular visits to Greece visiting extended family; I could have associated more with Greeks and learnt the language - none of this would have been too challenging, but there was no real pull to do so. I see myself as fitting the overall pattern of Diaspora decay.

I came to live in Asia where the most remarkable of all Diasporas, and certainly the most successful when measured in terms of wealth, is perhaps the overseas Chinese community.  But their success is driven by contradictory factors. The Chinese have distinguished themselves in their host societies by both being different and assimilating.  The more successful they have become, the more they identify with the societies and nations they now belong to. In some societies like Indonesia, Chinese identity is also closely associated with the Christian faith, which has nothing to do with China. There simply is no upside for defining themselves as part of greater China.  The overseas Chinese are a Diaspora in decay.

But there are exceptions to the decay of Diaspora identity, and they tend to be defined by the strict observance of boundaries, often defined by faith, and enforced through the prevention of effective co-mingling and intermarriage in their host communities. In extreme cases, such as the Jews before the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, and Tibetans today, there are structures and institutions that govern their Diasporas and ensure cultural as well as racial conformity. 

They become virtual nations, suspended over a wide area. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, the Jews organized around a determined effort to build a homeland, which later became by their sheer force of effort and organization, the state of Israel. Quite remarkably, the majority of people who came to settle in this land had no specific ancestry there. And by doing so, they created a new and far less successful diaspora, the Palestinians who now dream of a right to return to their land.  I can speak of these clashing diaspora narratives because my family has both Jewish and Palestinian, as well as Greek antecedents.

However none of this quite prepared me for the Tibetans. For although a smallish diaspora by global standards – fewer than 200,000 worldwide - their epic struggle to preserve cultural and religious identity over a period spanning almost six decades is a testament to how faith and leadership can nurture strong collective bonds long after they have been exposed to the elements that normally promote decay.

There are more than six million Tibetans in Tibet, a vast expanse of upland plateau grasslands and mountains that hugs the northern Himalayas and gently falls towards the interior of China. Tibetans speak their own language and follow their own version of the Buddhist religion; they claim to be a unique civilization with influences teaching east towards Mongolia and West along the Himalayas into Nepal and the ancient mountain kingdoms of Sikkim, Laddakh and Bhutan then up towards Central Asia. Two years ago, an International Conference on the Tibetan Civilization and Nomadic Peoples of Eurasia was held in Kiev!

Tibet was lazily absorbed by China as the Communist Party consolidated its power. It wasn't until the late 1950s that central rule was firmly imposed, and met fierce resistance from the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, fled in 1959 and settled in India in the foothills of the Himalayas, less than a thousand kilometers from the borders of Tibet.

What has evolved over the last half century is a uniquely successful Diaspora entity.  Tibetans overseas – they characterize themselves as in exile - are represented by a 45 member parliament that sits in Dharamsala, the sleepy Indian hill town where the Dalai Lama settled; their children receive language and religious instruction; and they can all expect to meet in person the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader – which is more than can be said at this point for the six million Tibetans living across the Chinese border. 

Identity can trigger powerful emotional reactions because, perhaps like other collective expressions of joy, being able to identify gives meaning to our lives outside the ego. You can sense the power of identity when speaking with Tibetans.  After all, since 2009 130 of them have burned themselves to death, mostly inside Tibet, in the name of their people.



Michael Vatikiotis
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016


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