Way Back Home: Pema Choedon's Story

How a refugee girl from a tiny mountain village went on to win the world's most controversial beauty pageant and inspire her community.

Posted by Rohaan Goswami on September 20th, 2017

Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

Prologue

The lone security guard and a (collared) stray puppy at JNU's Convention Center reluctantly snap out of their respective afternoon siestas to make sense of the reason for such an interruption. It is a Saturday, after all, the guard explains with a yawn, almost to the dog (who nods approvingly and goes back to sleep).

Pema Choedon displays her student ID and explains to him the reason for the visit. She is dressed in a Chupa, the traditional Tibetan dress, despite the simmering Delhi heat. "I always wear a Chupa while being interviewed. Representing my culture is a full-time job," she laughs as she explains its significance (the guard in the background looks suspiciously at us and our cameras while checking with his superior over the phone to see if we can be cleared). As Pema waits on him patiently while petting the half-asleep puppy and chatting with us about our journey, one can't help but notice how humble and graceful she is.

As soon as our permissions are in place and before anybody has the chance to intervene, Pema thanks the guard, heaves up two nearby chairs in a flash, heads straight out to the open atrium and lays it down for us.

"You are my guests. Isn't that what you would do for me?"she states with a matter-of-fact smile when we protest.

Guest.

Ironically, it was a word with which she, and her fellow people-in-exile, shared a long history.

Waking Up To The Mountains

Not many people know this but when I was born, I was declared a boy by mistake. I had a rare disorder called Temporary Ambiguous Genitalia in which one's genitals do not initially have the typical appearance of either sex but reconcile into their proper form a few hours post birth. I technically "transformed into a girl" after a while and was normal thereafter. I like to think that I chose to be a woman, and not a man. And that can't be without purpose.

On 29th September, 1991, the tiny mountain village of Rinchenpong in West Sikkim was blessed with a baby girl. Named Pema, which means Lotus in Tibetan, she had an extremely humble childhood. She grew up in a farm, waking up to the Himalayas everyday. Her father was a first-generation Tibetan refugee while her mother was Bhutanese. Pema was one of seven siblings, and they spent most of their time either squabbling or playing in the lush green meadows, far from even the most basic modern amenities of the time.

Summers were pleasant and on any typical day, she would head out with her sisters in whichever direction her eyes pleased - exploring the terrain with its secret waterfalls and serene, untarnished beauty and helping with the livestock; returning home before dusk. Winters were freezing cold and the family would huddle together under home-sewn blankets, narrating folktales.

Pema self-admittedly recalls that she felt completely normal as a child and had absolutely no idea about being a "refugee" or the plight of her community.

Humble beginnings: Pema in her childhood.

Even though they were a considerably large family, her father, being a very generous man, adopted two more kids as his own (one of whom, unfortunately, died very young). He taught his children the value of compassion and the importance of taking a stand for what is right, no matter the odds - something that Pema would imbibe and make the cornerstone of her ideals later in life.

However, as fate would have it, Pema's father passed away while she was very young.

I was at the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Darjeeling, playing with my sisters, when news arrived of my father's death. I was too young to comprehend what was going on. All I remember is my mother's quiet, stoic face during the ride back home.

Soon after, Pema was sent to a boarding school in Kathmandu, Nepal along with her elder sister. Marking the end of her carefree, blissful life in Sikkim and the beginning of her journey of self-discovery - moving from place to place and culture to culture while trying to piece together her own heritage.

The little girl from the mountains had veered into uncharted territory.

Alien

As refugees living in exile, we are constantly trying to fit into whichever society we currently live in. Respect for human diversity comes naturally to us.

The first few years of boarding school in Kathmandu were difficult for Pema. Not used to living with so many people from different backgrounds, she had trouble blending in. Also, Pema realized, for the first time in her life, that there was something amiss about her background. The grim reality of Tibetans-in-exile walked into her world like an unannounced guest. The more she learned about her homeland, the more culturally alienated she felt from the rest of her peers, most of whom were either Nepalese, Bhutanese or Indian.

During a casual conversation with some of my schoolmates, it suddenly dawned on me that I was born in the wrong country. I was supposed to be living in Tibet, my apparent home. But here I was in Nepal, freshly shipped from India, speaking about a country I had never been to.

Pema (center) self-admittedly relates to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre
due to a life spent in boarding schools.

Against the backdrop of her ethnic awakening, life at school chugged along just fine.

Once, there was a competition at school where we had to represent a culture of our choice by dressing up in its traditional clothes and speaking about it on stage. Everybody chose to represent their roots. Since I knew very little about Tibet and had never been there, I wore a Kashmiri kurti that I possessed, rote-learned everything that I could about Kashmir overnight (which for me, ironically, was far more alien a subject at the time than Tibet) and gritted up for my stage debut. I was a little girl who just wanted to belong somewhere and talk about it with pride. However, as heartfelt as my act aspired to be, I was rudely interrupted by the teachers for cultural misappropriation. That day, standing on that stage and looking at the jeering audience through a vision clouded by tears, I learnt two important lessons: [laughs] 1. "Kashmiri kurtis" have nothing to do with Kashmir. They are just manufactured using cotton grown in the valley. 2. Cultural representation is serious business.

At this point in her story, a new, crucial character appeared out of the blue. Her paternal aunt, a veteran doctor at the Tibetan Medical and Astro-Science Institute (Men-tsee-khang) in Dehradun, was alarmed to find out that her niece was vastly ignorant of the rich heritage of Tibet. An extremely wise and headstrong woman, she believed that as a community in exile which was fighting for its rightful place in the world, ignorance was its greatest enemy - it was a direct precursor to apathy. She wanted Pema to study the Tibetan language and culture.

Like Hagrid to Pema's Harry, her paternal aunt rescued her from Kathmandu and shifted her to Tibetan Homes School (THS), Mussoorie.

The Con Artist

Truth be told, when Pema moved to THS, Mussoorie along with her elder sister, she wasn't sure if she'd be able fit in with the people who were supposed to be of her kin.

When my aunt found me in Kathmandu, I spoke primarily in Nepali and my behaviour was completely Nepalese (not that either of us had anything against it, but I had absolutely no idea about what it means to be a Tibetan). Although I knew that I was culturally different from my friends in Nepal, I also didn't know if i'd be able to fit in with my fellow Tibetans in the new school. I felt like a con artist; constantly picking up new identities from different cultures.

Initially, Pema was a rebellious loner in her new school. Most of her classmates had tried and failed at initiating friendship while the rest weren't sure if they should approach the brooding new girl who was always buried in a book. However, Pema developed a notoriety for frequently breaking school rules and publicly challenging some of the more archaic practices in the system.

Pema had a precocious clarity about her academics. In standard 11, she carved the letters L-S-R on her wooden desk and ran her fingers over it every morning. It was her way of physically touching the dream of studying in a top college someday. Her methods to achieve that dream, however, were different to say the least. She never turned in any homework and had an utter disregard for the curriculum. Instead, she found other ways to demonstrate her merit, such as finishing the entire syllabus ahead of the teacher's schedule (much to his dilemma on the subsequent disciplinary action to be taken). This subversive attitude gained her a certain reputation among her peers. THS was an extremely strict boarding school and the rules were even more stringent for the senior girls' section. The hostel superintendent (called Pah la, meaning "father" in Tibetan, by the students. Teachers and staff were looked up to as foster parents) had developed an especially strong discontentment towards Pema.

However, when the results for the academic year were out, Pema stunned everyone by scoring the highest (much to the dismay of her beloved superintendent). By then, she had also managed to break out of her shell and finally make friends.

Soon, she started filling out forms and taking tests for college admissions. One unassuming day, she received an email about the status of her application at a certain institution. The logo on top was exactly what she had engraved on that rickety wooden desk. She had been accepted into the B.A. in English Literature program at Lady Shri Ram College for Women (LSR).

So there she was. A troublemaker of modest means, trading the mountains for a metropolis. With the promise of a better life and a dream to give something back to her community.

The Capital Affair

The first effect of my transition from Tibetan Homes School in Mussoorie to LSR in Delhi was a huge culture shock. The city can be intimidating for newcomers, irrespective of where they are from. It's not like I had never been to Delhi before, but I quickly learnt that it is one thing to just pass through the place and quite another to actually stay in it.

Although Pema was born in India and had spent a majority of her childhood in the country, she realized that, in her own words, she "had never felt like an Indian" until her big move to Delhi. It was her first time living in a city of any kind, let alone in one as huge as the capital. She was amazed, and a little unnerved, by the demographics of the place. The whirlpool of people, cultures, ideologies, politics, food, music, history and architecture of the city swept her off her feet and took her a while to wrap her head around. To add to her woes, she barely understood Hindi. Delhi just seemed like a big bully to her untrained senses.

However, with time and like every other first-time-skeptic, she eventually fell in love with the city. "I picked up Hindi from Bollywood films, you know," she tells us with a chuckle.

Needless to say, her love affair with Delhi was not without heartbreaks. Like most of her peers from the North-Eastern states, she experienced incidents of ethnic marginalization.

I have been called a chowmein-wala, among other profanities. However, I understand that India is a multi-lingual / multi-cultural nation and not everybody is equally accepting of everyone else. I pesonally practice absolute compassion and I am proud to have friends from every corner of the country.

In 2012, Pema joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to pursue her masters in English Literature. There, she joined the Tibetan Forum and routinely organized and participated in candle light vigils, street plays, workshops and petition filings. She considers political activism an important and fundamental duty of every Tibetan.

Pema in a protest rally.

To spare his children from the horrors he had witnessed in his early life, Pema's father had locked away the true history of his family and had never mentioned a word of it. It was his way of ushering a new beginning, choosing hope over despair. However, sensing that the time was right, Pema's aunt finally decided to share with her niece a personal account of the unspeakable atrocities they had survived during the great exodus.

During the Chinese incursion of Tibet in 1959, my father was 26 years old and his sister (my aunt) was 13. The only information they received was that the army was coming to get them and they only had a few hours to escape death. My father also had another younger sister who was pregnant at the time. While crossing over the rough mountain border, she slipped and fell down a cliff, leading to serious injuries on her head and causing the baby to die in her womb.

While at college, Pema was also introduced to the ideology of feminism and realized how important the fight for equal rights was for every woman (and man). While researching on the subject, she realized that she could fuse it with the issues of Tibetan women-in-exile and help drive a new movement of Tibetan feminism to empower them. However, she also knew that the it would be a treacherously uphill battle since Tibetan women themselves are extremely conservative about their traditions and any progressive idea is labelled as a "Western influence" and even considered treason.

Suddenly, she felt like her life had a purpose. She only wished for an opportunity to lead by example.

500 kms away, in a bustling mountain town nicknamed "Little Lhasa", the universe conspired to provide her with exactly such an opportunity.

A Crown In Exile

On an ordinary day in the summer of 2015, a friend of Pema's showed her an online advertisement for the 13th Miss Tibet beauty pageant to be held at McLeod Ganj in June. Pema recognized the opportunity as soon as she saw it. It took her five seconds to decide that she was going to participate.

I have always been a fitness enthusiast and I believe in celebrating the human body. I have absolutely no prejudices about wearing a bikini. However, I wasn't sure if I'd ever make the mark because this was a well-known pageant and I was a research student, not a model. I just filled up the form in 30 minutes and forgot about it upon submission.

The brainchild of Lobsang Wangyal, a charismatic photojournalist who calls himself "a small-town impresario", the three-day long global competition has been termed the world's most controversial beauty pageant. It has drawn criticism on grounds of disrespecting Tibetan culture for its swimwear round as well as more personal charges of nepotism. However, the allegations against his project notwithstanding, Lobsang believes that Tibetan women are like women everywhere and that they need a contemporary platform to showcase the full range of their beauty and abilities at par with the rest of the world. He is considered an icon in Tibetan exile popular culture and tirelessly organizes several other events and runs media entities under Lobsang Wangyal Productions.

Pema soon received a call from the organizers congratulating her on her selection and with an invitation to come down for processing and orientation.

During my year, there were only 3 participants. I know that it seems like an absurdly poor turnout, but the point is, at least there were 3 participants, you know? It takes so much courage to do something like this as a Tibetan girl. So I believe the number should be celebrated, no matter how small.

When Pema arrived in McLeod Ganj a week before the event, news of the annual extravaganza had already spread on the streets. The serene Himalayan town houses the Central Tibetan Administration (headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile) and is home to thousands of Tibetan monks, scholars and expatriates.

Not an ordinary swimwear shoot.

After a grueling schedule of workshops the stage was finally set for the main event at the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamshala. The contest had seven rounds: Swimsuit (Day One), Speech and Talent (Day Two), Self-introduction, Evening Wear, Traditional Wear and Q/A (Day Three). Both of Pema's competitors were models - Lobsang Kyizom, a journalism student from Kathmandu, and Tsering Dolma, a nursing student from Pokhra. As the only contestant without any professional modelling experience, the odds were against Pema. However, she had a different weapon in her arsenal - years of academic research on the subject of Tibetan women's freedom of expression and the long-nurtured will to set an example.

I spoke about my ideas of empowering Tibetan women to prove to the world that we "refugees" were as strong, progressive and talented as anybody else. It was a risk, yes, but I think the audience understood and loved it.

On the night of the grand finale on 7th June, 2015 as the judges tallied their scores, Pema had a weird deja vu. She realized that every event in her life had inconspicuously directed her to be at that exact spot in that very moment. Her father's otherworldly kindness and early death, the uprooting of her carefree childhood in exchange for a life in foreign boarding schools and hostels, her efforts and helplessness at seeking her true cultural identity by adjusting to the different ones she was exposed to, her first time on stage in a "Kashmiri kurta", the hostel superintendent who unintentionally brought out the best in her, her political baptism in Delhi - everything seemed like divine breadcrumbs in hindsight.

Needless to say, it took Pema a while to comprehend the chain of events that led from the winner of the Miss Tibet 2015 title being announced to the crown being placed on her head amidst the deafening applause from the crowd. Everything was a surreal blur.

"An elderly lady from the audience came up to me after the event and said something that meant more to me than the crown - 'Every revolution needs someone like you. Someone who is brave and embraces change.'"

Into The Fray

On winning the coveted title, Pema wasted no time in making the most of the leverage she was blessed with. She wanted to inspire and help as many people as she could.

She started with her alma mater - Tibetan Homes School in Mussoorie. She conducted an extensive workshop with the girls (many of them orphans) and spoke to them about her journey and what life was like 'in the real world'.

Back To School - Pema conducting a workshop at THS.

Growing up in a farm, Pema always had an extremely soft corner for animals. Therefore, it came as no surprise when she donated a portion of the one lakh rupees in prize money that she received to Dharamshala Animal Rescue. She gave the rest of her money to the Phuntsok Choeling Monastery in Sikkim where she had once volunteered as a kid. She personally traveled to the place to oversee the renovation of classrooms for the resident monks, most of who couldn't believe that someone who now held a title such as hers would come all the way to their remote village for such a kind gesture.

Pema with the little monks in their new classroom at the Phuntsok Choeling Monastery - "The said that they couldn't remember the last time they were this happy."

2015 was also the year of the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal on 25th April. With a magnitude of 7.3 on the Richter scale, it left 8,857 people dead and 3.5 million homeless. While keeping tabs on the health and safety of her friends in Kathmandu, Pema made a shocking discovery. A bulk of the Tibetan refugees fleeing from China across the treacherous Himalayan border since 1959 had settled in Nepal as 'illegal' immigrants - they had no residency rights or identity cards. Since they were technically state-less, there was no record of their existence on official papers. As a result, Government rescue and international aid failed to reach these 'invisible Tibetans' in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Pema was overcome by the desire to raise awareness about the plight of such victims and help them directly. She decided to organize cultural events across India to raise funds for the Dolma Foundation, a non-profit organization working for the cause, and travel to ground-zero herself. It was a daunting mission due to serious safety and health risks, but Pema was undeterred. Unsurprisingly, she accomplished her lofty goal and made her way to Bridim, a village 3000 metres above sea level in Northern Nepal and one of the most severely affected Tibetan refugee settlements.

Ground Zero: Delivering hope and aid.

However, it was in that tiny village, in the epicenter of human despair, that she realized how powerful the idea of hope was - in the eyes of little children who came up to her and spoke of how they planned to rebuild the village "better than it had ever been".

Pema with homeless refugees in Bridim after offering them food and warm clothes.

Pema returned to Delhi a changed woman. Suddenly, there was no space in her life for the superfluous. After all, her fellow Tibetans in Nepal were rebuilding their lives with a blanket and two servings of hope.

When she flew to Manila, Philippines in October that year to represent Tibet in the Miss Global 2015 pageant, she was not the same timid girl that had stood on the podium of Miss Tibet only four months ago.

Pema at Miss Global 2015.

In some ways, she was the rebellious loner again - for what she missed in her lack of catwalk expertise she made up with her experience in walking barefoot among the rubble of life as a refugee.

The Long Road Home

Currently, Pema is a provisional PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University where she has collated all her research and insight into a dissertation on Tibetan Refugees in Nepal.

I want more young Tibetans to be academically inclined. I want the new generation to write books patching together the broken history of our homeland - as a way of making sure our descendants learn from our experiences and keep us alive in their collective memory long after we are gone.

Pema spends most of her time encouraging the Tibetan youth.

Pema aspires to lead a life of strength and courage, and has an image that is very different from the public perception of a "refugee girl". She admits that this is by conscious design, and not an accident. As a result of fate making her fill bigger shoes than she had expected to.

I wish to change the way Tibetan women in exile are perceived. I want to set an example in being fearlessly progressive while still upholding our ancient culture and wisdom.

The fearless new face of Tibetan women.

Currently, she is investing all of her energy into organizing TEDx Dharamshala, to be held later this year. The event has been themed Inspiring Possibilities.

One could argue that the same applies to her incredible life.

Epilogue

It is late in the afternoon as we wrap up the interview. Pema insists on walking us through the sprawling-green JNU campus while talking to us about some of her ideas for potential future projects. We settle for lunch at the eponymous Mamu's Dhaba near Freedom Square, run by Mohd Shahzad Ibrahimi who also holds a PhD in Urdu from the same university. While we wait for the aloo paranthas to be served, Pema picks up and cuddles the puppy that has followed us all the way from the Convention Center.

"You know," Pema starts saying as she pours it some water to drink, "someday when all of this is over and we arrive at a peaceful solution to our struggle, I want to just sit back and do nothing but play with a bunch of dogs all day. But right now..", she stops mid-sentence and sits still, a little lost.

"...representing your culture is a full-time job?" I offer with a smile.

"Yes," she looks up and smiles back, "and God I'm hungry."



In the end, we are all just trying to get home.

Photographs by ProjectOne, Miss Tibet, Miss Global and the Choedon family.

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