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Flying the Tibetan Flag: Identity at Deerfield
Topjor Tsultrim '18 Contributing Writer
January 24, 2018

I am Tibetan-American. It is an incredibly large part of my identity. My grandparents were forced to flee the military occupation of their hometown during the Communist Chinese invasion of 1949. They fled to refugee camps in India, where my parents were born. My parents moved to Queens, where I was born. I am also Deerfield’s first Tibetan student in its 221-year history. This past fall, Deerfield Academy’s Board of Trustees refused to fly the flag of my country in the dining hall.

This journey to put up the Tibetan flag in the dining hall, which has spanned all four years of my Deerfield experience, began amongst the very first breaths of my freshman year. As my family and I sat around a sit-down table during a pre-Becket brunch in the grandiose, Harry Potter-esque dining hall with its high, vaulted ceilings, festooned with lavish chandeliers and ancient oak tables, my dad and I took particular notice of the array of flags suspended from the ceiling between two great columns. My eyes darted from Saudi Arabia to Singapore. Noticing my searching eyes, a teacher told me that the flags represented the different nationalities of Deerfield’s students, past and present. But there was no Tibet. My mind flooded with questions: I was a student, wasn’t I? Just like them? Are they saying my identity is invalid? How could I ever fit in here?

Credit: Amanda Cui

My dad and I locked eyes. In mine, he saw a mission. In his, I saw sagacious fear. He asked me to tread lightly, telling me to develop my education before I began to try to apply it. My new Head of School greeted us with the words of Invocation, welcoming us to this community. But I already felt isolated, and I had a mission.

I began my mission in earnest during my junior year. I spent free periods and otherwise languid Sunday afternoons in my advisor’s office discussing and strategizing. I outlined my goal: to walk into the first sit-down meal of my senior year with the Tibetan flag waving above me. We devised a strategy: to raise awareness and to craft a formal statement. I began by giving a Flag Presentation to the community where I talked about the literal meaning of the Tibetan flag and its vast historical and political significance. My Flag Presentation got people talking, but this was just the beginning.

Next, I moved on to research. From my aggregate experience between research papers for US History (<3 heise), literary analyses for English, and research reports for AP Seminar, I learned to feel at home between the book stacks of the library. But instead of Nat Turner’s Rebellion or the underlying economic impact of foreign food aid in Syria, I maneuvered through encyclopedias and databases to conduct research on the topic that matters most to me.

Finally, I began searching for relevant precedent. I saw that a Tibetan student at a peer boarding school had dealt with a similar issue. Through a local newspaper, I found that a Tibetan student at UMass Amherst petitioned to carry the flag at graduation. I acquired the current list of flags hanging in the dining hall — a list that included Macau, Taiwan, and the Sioux Nation. Armed with elucidating research and guiding precedent, I crafted a formal statement for the administration.

Late in the fall, I sat with a group of adults and presented my case orally. I sat on one side of the North Dining Room, gripping my outline and stat sheet like sword and shield to defend against the piercing gaze of the five adults lining the opposite side of the table. But as I began to speak, I realized the intimidating eyes of Dr. Curtis, Ms. Creagh, Ms. Young, Ms. Ellis, only held soft, genuine interest. I relaxed my grip on my 8.5” x 11” buckler and let it flutter down to the table. As a result of that meeting, my issue was raised to the Head of the Board of Trustees during the Fall Trustee Weekend, beside issues of combating racism and modifying class dress.

But, ultimately, my request to fly the Tibetan flag in the dining hall was rejected. I will eat the remainder of my meals at the Academy like I have eaten them for the past four years. I’ll enjoy my remaining shepherd’s pies and apple crisp without the flag of my country above me.

Officially, the school decided to only fly the flags of countries that the United States of America has “bilateral relationships” with. This allows the school to continue flying the flags of countries such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, despite the fact that neither the United Nations nor the US Department of State recognizes them as sovereign nations, while denying my request to fly the Tibetan flag.

This also means that some flags, like the Sioux Nation, will be coming down. This stance is perhaps to reinforce Deerfield’s position as an American boarding school with an international outlook, rather than a school like Hotchkiss, which, from what I understand, considers itself an international school based in the US. Perhaps as a result of that alignment, Hotchkiss flies the Tibetan flag, alongside the Quebecois flag and others, on the other end of their dining hall, in what they call the “Cultural Flag” section.

But despite the ostensible failure of my project, I couldn’t be prouder of the result of this effort. While it undoubtedly hurts to feel like my identity as being Tibetan is somehow lesser than my best friends’ identities of being American or Indonesian or Nigerian, the problem of the Tibetan flag has since evolved into a broader discussion of how the school recognizes identity.

What if we had both an Israeli and a Palestinian student? Whose flag would we fly? What if someone wanted the Confederate Flag? How do we choose how to validate identity? Although I will never see the flag of my country flying among those of my friends’, I believe that this project has left an indelible mark on my school’s conversation about identity and forced them to thoughtfully take a stance on salient international issues that concern our global student population.

Oh, and Facebook Message me or something if you want to challenge anything about how I called Tibet a country. New Dorm 201, swing through.