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Chungyalpa has a knack for finding what people have in common

July 23, 2019 By Käri Knutson
Photo: Tia Nelson, Dekila Chungyalpa and Preston Cole

Loka Initiative Director Dekila Chungyalpa (center) speaks with conservationist Tia Nelson (left) and Preston D. Cole, Secretary of the Wisconsin DNR at a symposium that brought faith leaders and environmentalists together. Photo by Michael Conway for the Center for Healthy Minds

If you’re from Wisconsin, cheese curds are considered a birthright. We claim our state’s to be the best (true) and look forward to introducing them to anyone visiting America’s Dairyland.

When Dekila Chungyalpa bit into them for the first time, they didn’t just taste delicious. They tasted like home.

“I can make cheese-fried rice with this,” she thought.

While not the same, cheese curds reminded her enough of the comfort food she ate while growing up in Sikkim, in the Himalayan Mountains of northeast India.

“I’m very grateful for the pro-dairy culture here,” she says. “It’s also something my people love.”

Chungyalpa has a knack for finding what people have in common. Maybe that’s surprising considering how much of her life she’s felt different. She’s half Bhutia, half Indian. She came to New York when she was 15.

“I never felt I was enough of anything. I wasn’t Bhutia enough. I wasn’t western enough. I wasn’t Buddhist enough. I wasn’t scientist enough.”

Never being enough, always being different: This was her narrative.

“It took me all the way into my 30s to realize that was actually my greatest strength,” she says. “I straddled all these different worlds. That allowed me to speak to every person I met and have a connection.”

It was still difficult. She used to give herself pep talks in the bathroom mirror before meetings.

“You can do this,” she’d say.

And she had to.

“If I didn’t speak up in some of those spaces, no one else was going to represent women or people of color or indigenous communities. That realization drove me,” she says. “At some point being a troublemaker became a title I really came to love.”

The narrative changed. And while she’s still good at finding what people have in common, she believes in doing so while also celebrating differences. Fried cheese curds in Wisconsin. Cheese-fried rice in the Himalayas.

“Complexity is wonderful. Don’t let go of any bit of your own complexity,” she says. “What makes you feel different is actually what connects you to everybody.”