My Name is Tenzin, I Am Not Chinese
Luna de Buretel

Published in 2016, Tenzin Phunstok’s My Name is Tenzin, I Am Not Chinese is an autobiographical account of a young Tibetan student's experience going to college in Chennai. After growing up in India with his uncles separate from his mother and his Himalayan homeland, he chronicles his academic journey pursuing Political Science at MCC. The book offers an insight into Chennai's educational landscape while also illuminating Tenzin's consciousness of his Tibetan cultural heritage and a reflection on his identity, particular in being a refugee child. The casual and often comic nature of Phunstok’s prose offers his work a hopeful rather than heartbreaking tone, despite the emotional trauma from our author's uprooted childhood.

My Name is Tenzin, I Am Not Chinese begins in Mussoorie, where Tenzin says his life started at the age of nine years old. This was where Tenzin spent a dozen of his childhood years, in the Tibetan Homes School, after being forcibly separated from his mother. Tibetan Homes School served the purpose of accommodating orphan and Tibetan refugee children after China’s invasion of Tibet in 1959 that incited their loss of independence. His school life in Mussoorie ended in 2006 where he then ventured into a college world beyond north India. He speaks about April and early May with particular fondness as those were the months in which the results of the March board exams were released, with which the dream of college life became an exciting reality.

It is at this time that Tenzin realised that he had achieved the highest grade for the 12th standard board exam. His aggregate grade was 75%, which despite being a low “top of the school” score still put him at an advantage since it was the best of all of his peers. Tenzin is pleased to have achieved the best grade of his school, but had still hoped for a better score considering all of his hard work and prayers. He goes into detail about the long-winded and complex process that is college admissions in Chennai. The candidates have to submit forms for what they would like to study and where, and then they move as groups to make their cases at each different college in hopes of receiving a place. Tenzin begins his process without having done research, meaning when questioned about his first choice college by a general secretary he cannot give a satisfying answer. But this compels Tenzin to invest energy and effort into making sure to find the college and subject that suits him best.

After a gruelling process of form filling and bus rides in the summer heat, Tenzin narrows his options down to Madras Christian College for Political Science and Loyola College for English. Although his grades in both subjects were not extremely competitive, his drive and charm would help him receive a place in at least one of the courses. He makes clear that MCC is his first choice because of his overwhelming desire to pursue studies in Political Science. Eventually he receives admission from Loyola, but defers the fee payment to wait from a decision from MCC. MCC offers Tenzin a place to study History, but this must have been a clerical error and he is unsatisfied with the result. He decides to go speak to a head of admissions at the school and fight his case. Eventually his effort pays off, and he gets news of his entry into the MCC college community for the subject he wants. He pays the fees his uncle has sent over immediately and spends the night with friends on a roof of the housing building, gleefully contemplating the next few years in the academic world.

Our author proceeds to talk about his living situation throughout the next few years at MCC. His accomodations were primarily in Tambaram, a suburb of Chennai Metropolitan City, and one of the busiest towns in and around Chennai. The reason he does not live on campus is that he had not applied for college hall, primarily because these rooms were less comfortable and affordable. Tenzin’s first room was rented in a local politician’s house that he shared with his friends Tenzin Sonam and Ugyen. He stayed in this home for two years, and it helped his politics studies that the homeowner had been the Municipal Councillor of the DMK party. He felt the emotionality of the household especially when the councillor lost the election and the whole family was outside the home crying. He had a great time in this home, however, until the rent was increased and the student tenants were forced to find somewhere cheaper. His second room was not as pleasant and seemingly haunted (he was choked in his sleep by an entity.) Tenzin comes to the conclusion that a past resident might have died there. The third room was a single room in a house owned by elderly people.

During his stay in this home he recounts how he lost his scholarship for a failure to appear for an exam during his sophomore year and how he had become president of the TSAM (The Tibetan Students Association in Madras.) His new responsibilities meant he had found it difficult to complete the arrear papers necessary to achieve all the required credits for his course. He eventually moved to a new home when the final exams were almost over, into a TCV Room, where all of the students maintained an attitude of care and support for each others’ needs and wellbeing. The landlords were less understanding when Tenzin and other residents offered to let friends stay in their rooms. In 2012 Tenzin became president of TSAM a second time, and eventually he was told to move out of the home.

Tenzin then talks about some of his college professors who had an impact on him. He details his relationship with Dr. Subramanian Abbiah, who had been his local guardian for the six years of his college life, and had helped him tremendously to get his place at MCC. He also dealt with Tenzin’s administrative issues after the death of his uncle which had cause him to miss a few classes. He also talks about Professor Sridhar, his more serene lecturer; Dr. Ramesh Sundar, the caring head of department; Professor Prince, a “simple” and sympathetic professor; and Dr. Lawrence Prabhakaran, his guide for his final academic dissertation. After this chapter, Tenzin proceeds to outline some of the most important colleges in the city and what they are known for specialising in.

Tenzin goes through all of the friends he had in college and the natural process of making them in a college environment. He speaks about how necessary they are to many Tibetan students who hadn’t been raised with parents or in a supportive environment. Many of the friends he describes are international, and exposed him to new cultural sensibilities. Then he goes into depth about the parties, drunkenness, relationships and incidents that he dealt with in his college career. He notes how college is not just for passive appreciation of learning but also for fun and experimentation. He talks about how a debate with a peer turned into a physical brawl. About how the police caught his friends riding his bike without a licence. About how all of his college relationship were troublesome and caused him much grief from their instability. He questions the immaturity of his relationships, and why girls might have ended up not being interested in him, especially because their love had so often turned sour.

Tenzin then speaks about 2008, a monumental chapter in terms of the history of the Tibetan struggle. It marked the moment of the most globalized Tibetan protest ever to take place across the globe, to coincide with the Beijing Olympics being held in China. Tenzin made sure that the TSAM and his colleagues did not protest without permission from police officials. As head of the association he helped collect donations towards initiating a Students’ Mass Movement. Although the movement didn’t bring the Chinese to confront the Tibet issue, it allowed for Tenzin and his peers to become stronger and more determined activists. He later was a part of the Tibetan College Students’ Conference, which covered many issues of financial difficulty for the mass movement and which facilitated political decision making towards change.

This work was what allowed Tenzin to meet so many dignitaries, which for a student is rare and highly inspiring. The author’s consistent presence regarding the freedom struggle for his country was what allowed him to meet exceptional individuals who offered profound insight to his college self. He met the 14th Dalai Lama who wanted to see him in person when it was arranged that he would speak in Madras. He met India’s fearless defense minister: George Fernandes, at the first All India Tibetan College Student Mass Movement. He also met Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, former Tibetan prime minister revered for his intellect, and former Miss India Nafisa Ali who spoke for Tibet as an activist when invited by the TSAM, among others.

Tenzin closes his autobiographical journey of his college years with a reflection on his uncle, his true guardian whom he considered a father. He spoke about how his uncle wanted Tenzin to become a monk, and how his strict discipline allowed him to succeed academically. He speaks with fondness about his uncle’s generosity throughout his college life and his emotionality when the news broke of his death during one semester. He notes that he could never write about himself without mentioning his uncle, a caring and generous soul with a talent for fine arts and academia. He then ties his account together with a description of the present, primarily his last year in Chennai to do a Master of Philosophy at MCC. He speaks about how he married the woman he met on Facebook earlier on and his position as General Secretary of the NDPT (the National Democratic Party of Tibet.) His debut in electoral politics (for the Tibetan Parliamentary Election in Exile) was not a success (placing 33rd out of 40 candidates), and concludes that his priority is the fight for Tibet, no matter where he lies in his life’s journey.