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Tenzin Thargay'18

Tenzin Thargay '18

Through his pursuit of a dual degree in Chinese and Political Science, Tenzin Dawa Thargay has been exposed to many thought-provoking issues that have changed his views on the world and international relations. Tenzin discusses his background as a first-generation Tibetan-American and shares his thoughts on the humanistic and political aspect of his education and what he plans to do after graduation.


Why did you first decide to pursue a Chinese major? What led you to double major in Chinese and Political Science?

Coming into UMass Amherst, I never actually knew that I would pursue a Chinese major! Freshman fall, I enrolled in my first ever Chinese course and I took two semesters of it. Chinese 126 and 247 with a great teacher, Yi Feng. Initially, I had only thought about pursuing a minor. That all changed the summer of my Freshman year. In the summer of 2015, I was fortunate enough to receive the Kathryn Davis Fellowship for Peace from Middlebury College to attend their Chinese Summer Language School. The Fellowship is awarded to 100 students who want to use their language learning for the sake of peace. As a first-generation Tibetan-American, there has been a lot of trauma for Tibetans escaping Tibet from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, including my grandparents. So, my personal motivation for learning Mandarin has been to understand how the Chinese perceive Tibet and Tibetans and to facilitate mutual dialogue. Of course, another important factor to learn Chinese is China’s growing importance in the international system. As China becomes a more powerful player in global affairs, it will be increasingly important to understand how the Chinese perceive the United States.

Upon finishing my intensive eight-week program at Middlebury—I learned one year of Mandarin in the span of eight weeks!— I was able to place into Chinese 426 UMass. When I met with Professor Schneider, program director for the East Asian Literatures and Cultures program, he explained that I had finished the core requirements and he encouraged me to continue through and make it a second major alongside my primary major, Political Science. So, I kind of “fell” into the major and then because I took additional courses, I had enough credits to pursue the dual degree.

Before I came to UMass, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. During the spring semester of my junior year, I realized this dream by studying abroad in Taipei, Taiwan at National Taiwan University’s International Chinese Language Program (ICLP). My time at ICLP was made possible by the generosity of the Honors College’s International Scholars Program and the David L. Boren Scholarship. Attending one of the original intensive Mandarin programs in the world, I spent 20 hours each week in classrooms, capped at four students, speaking Mandarin. Because Taiwan uses traditional characters, I steeped myself the culture by adopting traditional characters as well.

To answer the second question, my primary major is Political Science and I have always been interested in international relations and Chinese foreign policy. Obviously a part of the interest stems from being Tibetan. Not only that, but because China is such an important player in international relations. In addition to the Chinese courses I took at UMass, I also took a “China in the International System” with Professor Kerry Ratigan at Amherst College through the Five College Consortium. I realized that that was a really potent combination to study political science and to focus a lot on China and Chinese language.

How do you see language and cultural studies as different from political science? How are they similar?

I am a big believer in dialogue in terms of facilitating conflict resolution. Particularly in my political science classes, we frequently talk about conflict resolution and one needs to have dialogue for that to happen. In order to have effective dialogue, or to simply have dialogue at all—you really need language. A language to work with and then a common language that you can use to talk. In that respect, language and cultural studies are so integral to crafting effective policy and understanding other people’s and culture’s way of understanding the world. That is the kind of education that HFA has provided me through the Chinese major. In the summer of 2016, I was able to use my UMass education to intern at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom. There I supported the office in covering the East-Asia Pacific team and used my Chinese language skills to do research. In a place like the State Department, mastery of a secondary or tertiary language is both considered necessary and normal. My time at State showed just how well language and cultural studies pair with political science.

How has your background and/or family history influenced your studies?

As a first-generation Tibetan-American, my grandparents left Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army came to Tibet. My people have seen a lot of trauma and there’s also definitely negative stereotypes about China, to an extent. But again, when I was studying Chinese language a really important quote came to mind by Nelson Mandela: “If you can talk to a man in a language he knows, you speak to his mind. But if you talk to a man in his own language, you talk to his heart.” The point being that, language has given me so much insight into how Chinese people think and perceive Tibet, international relations, and much more. In studying international relations, I believe it’s integral to study languages and engage with different cultures.

How do your current studies engage you politically? How do your current studies engage you humanistically?

The humanities courses that I have taken at UMass Amherst and the other colleges have given me such a profound and rich understanding of different cultures and their histories, as well. Through these courses, I was engaged in the interplay between people, language, culture, and politics. They are all very interdependent. Something I value is this concept of interdependence in Buddhism. This concept suggests that every phenomenon is somehow connected together. And that is the beauty of an interdisciplinary course of study. For me, studying political science and Chinese really complement each other. They have given me more dimensions and lenses to understand and see the world.

Looking ahead, where do you hope your studies will take you after graduation?

I hope to pursue a career in energy policy as I have developed a passion for energy politics. For me, energy is so interdisciplinary because it impacts every aspect of our lives; economically, personally, socially, and so much more. In political science, I have been studying energy policy and politics and when I was studying abroad in Taiwan, I was able to do some field research on energy policy there. Now it has become the topic of my honors senior thesis. My honors senior thesis examines how and why Japan has shifted its interpretation of the term, energy security, and in particular, its nuclear energy policy. As I conducted research in Taiwan and met with Taiwanese scholars to talk about energy, I realized that Japan and the Fukushima nuclear disaster were turning points for Northeast Asian energy security and nuclear energy policies. I would not have been able to do that without an HFA education - without the Chinese Department. Studying Chinese and political science has given me a unique experience that has opened my window to different perspectives and made me continuously reflect on our society today.