Redefining The Bakhu—And The Great American Road Trip—Through Self-Portraiture : The Picture Show A photographer confronts the childhood discomfort she felt wearing traditional Mustangi clothing in public by traveling across the country and posing for portraits in them.
NPR logo Redefining The Bakhu—And The Great American Road Trip—Through Self-Portraiture

Redefining The Bakhu—And The Great American Road Trip—Through Self-Portraiture

U.S. Capitol (left) and the White House in Washington, D.C.: Our Greyhound bus arrived in D.C. early on a Monday morning. This was our first stop on the road trip. I felt particularly vulnerable wearing a bakhu when I saw Make America Great Again hats bobbing in the distance, but by the end of the day, I had forgotten I was wearing it. Tsering Bista hide caption

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U.S. Capitol (left) and the White House in Washington, D.C.: Our Greyhound bus arrived in D.C. early on a Monday morning. This was our first stop on the road trip. I felt particularly vulnerable wearing a bakhu when I saw Make America Great Again hats bobbing in the distance, but by the end of the day, I had forgotten I was wearing it.

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When I was growing up in the early 2000s in Jersey City, N.J., I was, for the most part, ashamed of my family's cultural heritage. I felt the heat of embarrassment when substitute teachers butchered my name during morning roll call and when my large, boisterous family piled into restaurants shouting at one another in foreign dialects. But my most vivid memories of my shame took place on a train.

Nat King Cole mural in Montgomery, Ala.: We were on our way to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice when Quinn's cousin spotted this mural dedicated to Montgomery-born jazz artist Nat King Cole. It was starting to drizzle, but we pulled over anyway and snapped this quick portrait. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Nat King Cole mural in Montgomery, Ala.: We were on our way to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice when Quinn's cousin spotted this mural dedicated to Montgomery-born jazz artist Nat King Cole. It was starting to drizzle, but we pulled over anyway and snapped this quick portrait.

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My family immigrated to the U.S. from Nepal. We didn't own a car, so when we attended Mustangi cultural gatherings in New York City, we would cross the Hudson River from Jersey City into Manhattan on the PATH train. My mom always forced me to wear a bakhu, the long Mustangi dress we reserve for special occasions like Tibetan New Year, prayer ceremonies and weddings. I would beg her to let me wear "normal clothes" on the train and then change into my floor-length bakhu, but she wouldn't budge.

Wearing this elaborate garb in a public space where everything is still and subject to examination — and in my impressionable young mind, harsh criticism — was absolutely mortifying. Being trapped under the train's bright fluorescent lights made me feel particularly exposed and out of place.

Diné College on the Navajo Reservation in Tsaile, Ariz.: When I met up with my friend Yangkey, a summer intern at the tribally controlled Diné College, she did something that I only have memories of my mom doing for me: She adjusted my bakhu, creased the folds and pinned the fabric in place. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Diné College on the Navajo Reservation in Tsaile, Ariz.: When I met up with my friend Yangkey, a summer intern at the tribally controlled Diné College, she did something that I only have memories of my mom doing for me: She adjusted my bakhu, creased the folds and pinned the fabric in place.

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Café Tibet in Berkeley, Calif.: When I stepped into Café Tibet for lunch, Samten, the owner, was also wearing a bakhu (or as Tibetans call it, a chupa). We spoke about her hopes for the next generation of Tibetan-Americans over a plate of beef momos. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Café Tibet in Berkeley, Calif.: When I stepped into Café Tibet for lunch, Samten, the owner, was also wearing a bakhu (or as Tibetans call it, a chupa). We spoke about her hopes for the next generation of Tibetan-Americans over a plate of beef momos.

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I eventually grew out of those feelings as I got older. I became more aware of my cultural identity, of the beauty and pain within the Mustangi diaspora, and of my people's complex relationship to the Tibetan plight. Though the people of Mustang are ethnically Tibetan, the region of Mustang is located in Nepal. So when China's violent occupation of Tibet began in 1950, Mustangis remained relatively unaffected because they happened to live on the opposite side of an arbitrary border. Even today, Mustangis in Mustang can exercise a fair amount of cultural and religious freedom while their Tibetan counterparts cannot. I can travel freely across borders and return to a place that my family calls "home" while many of my Tibetan friends cannot. That history is not lost on me.

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.: We walked across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in the eerie quiet of a Sunday afternoon in Selma. The bridge, named after a former grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, is recognized as a National Historic Landmark for its significance to the civil rights movement. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.: We walked across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in the eerie quiet of a Sunday afternoon in Selma. The bridge, named after a former grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, is recognized as a National Historic Landmark for its significance to the civil rights movement.

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That being said, I still felt uncomfortable wearing a bakhu in non-Mustangi spaces. So, I decided to finally confront the discomfort by wearing bakhus as I traveled across the U.S. with two friends. We drove, rode buses and took trains from Jersey City to Oakland, Calif. — two cities my family calls home. Along the way, I took a series of self-portraits.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home in Atlanta: Quinn and I took an hourlong tour of the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was born before we spent the night at her aunt's home in Montgomery. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home in Atlanta: Quinn and I took an hourlong tour of the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was born before we spent the night at her aunt's home in Montgomery.

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French Quarter Food Mart in New Orleans: The owner of this market, a Palestinian-American with a thick Southern accent, came outside while we were admiring the mural. "They're opening condos all around here, and I've got the only mart in this neighborhood. I'm gonna make millions within a few years," he said. I asked what he planned on doing with the money. "Find someone to spend it with." Tsering Bista hide caption

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French Quarter Food Mart in New Orleans: The owner of this market, a Palestinian-American with a thick Southern accent, came outside while we were admiring the mural. "They're opening condos all around here, and I've got the only mart in this neighborhood. I'm gonna make millions within a few years," he said. I asked what he planned on doing with the money. "Find someone to spend it with."

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This post-grad summer adventure was also a rite of passage for us, our first attempt at the Great American Road Trip. But not every cross-country experience is like a Jack Kerouac novel, especially if you're a woman of color.

Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va.: Footage from the 2017 Charlottesville rally — white supremacists marching with tiki torches and the echoes of their deafening chants — is seared into my mind. So when we visited the park that they gathered in, I was surprised by the quiet. The statue was still up, surrounded by safety fences and "No Trespassing" signs. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va.: Footage from the 2017 Charlottesville rally — white supremacists marching with tiki torches and the echoes of their deafening chants — is seared into my mind. So when we visited the park that they gathered in, I was surprised by the quiet. The statue was still up, surrounded by safety fences and "No Trespassing" signs.

Tsering Bista

At the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Nogales, Ariz.: I visited the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., with my friend Sam, a Cuban-American, shortly after reading the heartbreaking ProPublica report on forced migrant family separation. Tsering Bista hide caption

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At the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Nogales, Ariz.: I visited the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., with my friend Sam, a Cuban-American, shortly after reading the heartbreaking ProPublica report on forced migrant family separation.

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There were reminders of America's existing injustices everywhere. I felt the weight of history as I sat in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., with my friend Quinn, a black American woman. It was the same park where white supremacists gathered in 2017 in a harrowing display of hatred. I felt it when I visited the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., with my friend Sam, a Cuban-American, shortly after reading the heartbreaking ProPublica report on forced migrant family separation. Most of the locations we visited were picked in an effort to better understand ourselves and our places within the political and cultural history of this country.

Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.: In 1942, this thoroughbred racetrack became the largest and longest-occupied Japanese internment camp in the U.S. The single physical marker of that history is a small plaque on the grounds of the track. When we visited, they were setting up for the 626 Night Market, one of the largest Asian-centric night markets in the country. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.: In 1942, this thoroughbred racetrack became the largest and longest-occupied Japanese internment camp in the U.S. The single physical marker of that history is a small plaque on the grounds of the track. When we visited, they were setting up for the 626 Night Market, one of the largest Asian-centric night markets in the country.

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Our monthlong trip through the South and up the coast of California was a slow and steady one, and so I thought it best to shoot this series on film. I carried a Mamiya C330 and a tripod so I could set up the composition and lighting, then had a friend push the shutter.

I also carried with me the spirit of three other projects: My Identity by the Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso; Roaming by American artist Carrie Mae Weems; and the South Asian American Digital Archives Road Trips Project.

Prada Marfa in Marfa, Texas: Prada Marfa is a re-creation of a Prada store, except you can't buy anything because the doors are nonfunctional and there's no one inside. We drove to this art installation, created by artists Elmgreen and Dragset, after spending the night in nearby Marfa. It's a blip in the expanse of West Texas. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Prada Marfa in Marfa, Texas: Prada Marfa is a re-creation of a Prada store, except you can't buy anything because the doors are nonfunctional and there's no one inside. We drove to this art installation, created by artists Elmgreen and Dragset, after spending the night in nearby Marfa. It's a blip in the expanse of West Texas.

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The intense unease that I had once felt while wearing a bakhu as a child disappeared almost as soon as the trip began. I forgot I was wearing one by the end of the first day. To my surprise, I only got a handful of verbal reactions during the entire journey. And most of the interactions were brief and pleasant. In Charlottesville, an elderly bodega owner from Iraq asked me in broken English: "Where your people are from?" I told him, he nodded, then continued to ring up my purchases. In Nashville, Tenn., a young girl told me she really liked my dress.

Hollywood sign in Los Angeles: My friend Isabela, who grew up in Los Angeles, knew just the place where we could get a straight shot of the Hollywood sign. We waded through passing cars to capture this image about a half-hour before my train left for Oakland. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Hollywood sign in Los Angeles: My friend Isabela, who grew up in Los Angeles, knew just the place where we could get a straight shot of the Hollywood sign. We waded through passing cars to capture this image about a half-hour before my train left for Oakland.

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Mendocino coast in California: Before I left Oakland to go back to Jersey City, my aunt Soni and I drove to the Mendocino coast for a weekend. It had been a wonderfully exhausting few weeks of backpacking with friends, and I was so glad to be in the comfort of family again. Tsering Bista hide caption

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Mendocino coast in California: Before I left Oakland to go back to Jersey City, my aunt Soni and I drove to the Mendocino coast for a weekend. It had been a wonderfully exhausting few weeks of backpacking with friends, and I was so glad to be in the comfort of family again.

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Looking back at it now, it's almost funny to think about how much insecurity I had projected onto this article of clothing. I imagine the generations of Mustangi women born before me who wore their bakhus with confidence and pride; I imagine my mom, holding the hand of her embarrassed daughter on the train, wearing her bakhu with boldness and grace; and now I see myself, in these portraits, a young Mustangi-American woman with a deeper understanding of the historied beauty of the bakhu and the person wrapped in it.

Tsering Bista is a video producer and photographer based in New York City.