Significance of Tibetan language: Helping them find the fault in their own stars

Ugyen Gyalpo

Ugyen Gyalpo

By Ugyen Gyalpo

NEW YORK, US, 15 June 2016

The dust is now settling where praises and insults, mockery and flattery, despair and hope, all collided in the stratosphere of the Internet following the coronation of Miss Tibet 2016. I chose to simply listen from the sidelines and watch, comprehend, and process the mindset of our people at all levels, from the bottom tiers of triviality to the top tiers of nuance and cliche.

A nation has attributable characteristics such as language, customs, traditions, ethnicity, and common territory. A nation has a collective population that shares those characteristics. A nation also has people who speak more than their native language or the language of the diaspora country or the colonized nation they were born into.

In the case of Tibetans in Tibet, apart from their native language, many speak Chinese under circumstances they were born and coerced into. But unlike in Tibet, where the Tibetan culture and languages are forced out under the barrel of a gun, Tibetans in diaspora are at risk, without any outside force, to lose their grip on their culture. And under the serenade of foreign influences, will face challenges to uphold the abrasion of our culture and language.

Apart from Tibetan language and the enforced erosion of the language due to the infectious cultural assimilation, Hindi and Nepali are the foreign languages most spoken, and then English, depending upon the percentage of the population who had the opportunity to learn English at any school or speak English naturally in the English-speaking country they were born to.

Deciphering the recent barrage of obliterated and entangled opinions, some stark, some progressive, and some very far leftist and dogmatic, I have come to a rational understanding and educated analysis that Tibetan language and its importance varies from person to person, group to group, depending upon the environment they grew up in and how good or how bad one is at speaking and comprehending the Tibetan language.

I have also noticed amongst Tibetans, who are very opinionated and well versed in English and highly qualified and who wryly harbour political ambitions and how Tibetan language has become, put a staggering “wall of obstruction” for them to climb up the ladder of Tibetan bureaucracy.

But before I make my point, lets recoil and unwind the forces of uproars and rage that brewed and simmer through the immaturities, irrelevance, and biased criticism that slipped through the roof of the tongue of social medias.

The culmination of such a suppressed debate had to find a face and medium for eruption, and it did so by default ever so unintentionally, when taunted “Toromoros” or “Tiblish” personified in flesh, with beauty only skin deep, took the crown of Miss Tibet and graced the media by superfluously poor Tibetan and stumblingly promised, she would bring pride to Tibet and humbly work as an ambassador to promote goodwill and cause of Tibet, and also improve upon her Tibetan language.

As Tibetans are known to turn the fountain of criticism upon themselves, there was no dearth of disenchantment, when the world of Tibetan social media exploded with distaste into dissecting the essence of Tibetaness and how or when should language play a role in defining one as Tibetan.

I personally think Tibetan language is the ultimate factor that gives us a unique identity, and separates us from not being Chinese, Nepalese, or American. I truly believe that our language is not only requisite but paramount for serving or representing Tibet and its cause at any forum. It’s like the backbone of our civilization, without which nothing like our culture and religion can be transmitted and brought back alive.

It’s a fair argument, when someone feels looked down upon and scorned for their inability, and in most cases at their use of broken Tibetan to express their points. I am totally against such acts, but again, I can’t distance myself from the compelling reality of the significance of our language and how imperative it is for someone to be eloquent enough in their native language, at-least to be dreaming of climbing the ladder of Tibetan politics.

But it is ironic, that the same people who despised the candidate Lukar Jam, who spoke impeccable Tibetan and who possessed a forthright vision and innovative substance, hacked him down, implying that he didn’t speak English at all and therefore, would not make a good representation for Tibet. It’s a fair argument, and English being the universal language of diplomacy, I had distanced myself from the candidate of my choice. Although, I supported his Independence call for Tibet. That being said, I would not dream of accepting a leader even on the capacity of a Chitue, who did not have a good command of their own native language, period!

Spoken and written English is commonplace and universal, and everyone and everywhere potentially masters it these days. Even older Tibetans who arrived in the US some fifteen years ago, never having seen the light of a classroom, are able to communicate in broken English.

But then the problem arises such as the debate above, when extremely capable and ambitious leaders are born and are obstructed from their political ambition in the world of Tibetan political hierarchy because of their own limitation and the failed understanding of our native language, something they cry and complain on being judged on rather than on their content and substance of their initiative, but on the medium they choose (English) to steer their message.

Our society is not bereft of double standards and rampant opaque hypocrisy. As in this instance, the very people who think Tibetan language is insignificant, and that you can advance your thoughts without it, were adamant in supporting Lukar even though his English was almost to the level of an illiterate. But his vision and forthrightness was unparalleled and he was a man of the future and Tibetans were half baked for his ideologies — but that is another story that does not concern me anymore!

One can look at great world leaders, such as Angela Merkel from Germany, the Japanese PM, and many other leaders, who only speak their own language and yet are able to effectively make a difference by subscribing to interpreters. And that is totally fine. But to egregiously tread on self-denial and moor on the island of egotistical disbelief and blame people for their shortcomings is irrational and childlike crankiness.

The apparent language shaming and ridicule is for real, and I have seen it happen first hand. Even though I went to CST Darjeeling, my Tibetan, if I have to rate it from 1-10 (10 being highest), I would have to give myself south of 4. “Toromo”, the lingo for language shaming, especially targeted towards Tibetans from northeast India (mainly Darjeeling), and “Tiblish”, the broken Tibetan spoken by children born in the West, are epithets for ridicule that need to be discouraged.

To be judged every time and scrutinized on obstructing scale is demoralizing for many, who are filled with guilt at first of not knowing their language and second on being at constant self-denial on not being Tibetan enough and not making that effort to improve their Tibetan language.

Let’s not forget that people in Tibet risk their lives every day, to preserve their language in the face of imminent death and torture. They uphold their language and culture amidst enforced cultural reforms that promise to systematically wipe out Tibetan languages in the schools, to be replaced by Chinese mandarin. And here we are, at the heels of all this obliteration, debating about whether or not, our language should be the detrimental factor in defining one as a Tibetan. Give me a break!

While there are a few who like to bring any metrics to bring about an equilibrium and get the pendulum swinging by sounding off, Tibetan language is insignificant as long as a person upholds and incorporates Buddhist values into their lives. Let’s not forget that “Tibetan” is a race, and more than the genomes and the DNA, the only thing that separates us and makes us unique is our beautiful language and culture. Let’s not compromise on that too. We have already compromised enough!


About the author

Ugyen Gyalpo lives in Woodside, New York, and works as an insurance agent for United Health Group, New York.

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