Monday, October 25, 2010

The Question of Linguistic Autonomy for Tibetans

Some summers ago when I was in Lhasa, I noticed that the sun rose surprisingly late and daylight diffused quite a long while into the evening. This was because Beijing dictates that every one of its subjects from the outer reaches of East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia to the whole of the Tibetan plateau run on Beijing time. Even though Lhasa is as far away from Beijing as San Francisco is from Washington DC, the Tibetans in Lhasa must rise and sleep in harmonious lockstep with the Party chiefs at Zhongnanhai.

Not content with temporal conformity, Chinese leaders in Qinghai Province have now targeted linguistic autonomy. The Qinghai Provincial Government has issued orders that, by 2015, all lessons and textbooks in Tibetan schools should be in Chinese language instead of Tibetan. This will mean that Tibetan children growing up in the region (the historical Amdo region of Tibet famed for producing scholars and intellectuals) will be taught in Chinese instead of Tibetan. Tibetan students will have to learn history, science, social studies etc. in a second language instead of their native language. In fact, in most other parts of the Tibetan plateau, Chinese language instruction has already replaced Tibetan. This latest attempt to promote Chinese language at the expense of Tibetan has sparked the largest and most significant Tibetan protests since the seismic protests of 2008.

On Tuesday, October 19, over a thousand students from six different schools in Rebkong (called Tongren in Chinese) marched in non-violent demonstration against the planned language change carrying a banner that read: “Equality of Peoples, Freedom of Language.” Over the following days, the protests spread to Chabcha and other areas of Qinghai, as well as to Minzu Daxue, the Minorities University in Beijing where four hundred students participated. Their banner read,  “Preserve Nationality Language and Expand National Education.”

These wide-ranging student protests come at the heels of a highly significant letter signed by at least 133 teachers from different schools and submitted to the Qinghai Provincial Government on October 15th. The letter was obtained and published by the popular Tibetan blog Khabdha. In the letter, submitted in both Tibetan and Chinese, the teachers wrote, “The plan of leaving one’s language aside and prioritizing another’s language, teaching all classes except Tibetan language class in the Chinese language, is a dangerous one that violates the current Constitution of the People’s Republic of China; violates the Law of the PRC on Regional National Autonomy; violates the principle of pedagogy; and violates science-based development.”

The letter goes on to say, “If both the spoken and written language of a people die, then it is as if the entire population of that people has died and the people have been decimated.” The teachers referred to the 4th Article in the PRC Constitution: “All ethnic groups have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.” They were careful to note that their appeal is in lawful alignment with the Chinese Constitution as well as the PRC’s Law on Regional National Autonomy.

Policy makers from the Qinghai Provincial Government, as well as Beijing, should take a note from Newton and notice: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. They should also carefully note the deep-seated concern about language and culture apparent in these courageous appeals by the teachers and students. And then they should consider, at length, the fact dictated by common sense, and upheld by education experts: Children learn better in their mother tongue.

The medium of academic scholarship is language, as the medium of music is sound. Forcing students who grow up speaking Tibetan to study the concepts of science, social science and mathematics in a second language is to disadvantage them from the start: a handicap that will place certain stumbling blocks in their educational development.

Unlike the 2008 protests, which were attributed to social and economic causes as well as political ones, these protests and appeals are clearly in reaction to the education policies of the local Qinghai Government. If Chinese leaders want to give any impression to the Tibetans, and to their own growing number of politically-conscious middle class citizenry, that they care about the wishes of the Tibetan people, they should for once listen to the voice of the Tibetan people, and yes the voice of conscience, and at least allow the Tibetans this small zone of linguistic autonomy. 

Published on Huffington Post October 25, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


She is a quiet woman who uses her words sparingly;
For a long time words were all the possession she had.

When she was returned to her family,
She found she had lost all the old ways of loving.

Cradled into captivity, she is younger than her age;
Serrated by suffering, she is older than her youth.

Her teacher said, when you are on the path you endure.
Her teacher said, now is another thing to be endured.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama: Redux

 So I was quite quite wrong. I had misread the first two lines and mistranslated the last. (To be fair to me, these poems, our Shakespeare’s sonnets, do lend themselves to rich and varied interpretation. But ok, perhaps not this one. I was basically just wrong.) This is the corrected effort. I feel that the “thousand” must echo the thousand arms and eyes of Avalokiteshvara so I prefer “thousand-armed” to “thousand-petaled.” Maybe this is not right. Also I don’t know if a ha.lo’i me.tok is a hollyhock flower. Where is a horticulturalist when you need one? I also ended up changing “chapel” to temple. I still have misgivings; the word lha.khang does not translate perfectly. Both “chapel” and “temple” have too many overtones seeping in from different cultures and ages. But needs must.

If the thousand-armed hollyhock flower
Leaves as material for offering,
Please take me, the young turquoise bee,
Into the temple as well.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama

I have been making stabs at reading this tiny book that I “borrowed” from my father’s bookcase: Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. It was first printed by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in 1981. K Dhondup translated. His short biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama is very good. There are 59 poems or songs- and of course I haven’t read all of them, but of the ones I have read, my favorite so far is this:

Stong.ldan. ha.lo’i. me.tog.
gyu.sbrang. nga.yang.
lha.khang. khrid.dang.*

K Dhondup translates this as:
If the blossoming hollyhock flower is leaving
As an offering to the altar,
Leave not the young turquoise bee behind:
“Take me with you,
To the altar.”

Ok first, the poem is lovely. Second, I think I am really just utterly charmed that the speaker is a bee. It’s unexpected. The speaker begins quite loftily with stong.ldan. ha.lo’i. me.tog. and reaffirms this with the honorific but the last line is almost petulant and definitely pleading. I am just… very taken with this.

Actually I tried my hand at translation because I didn’t think K Dhondup’s translation was entirely faithful and this is my effort, based of course on K Dhondup’s:
If the blossoming hollyhock flower
Follows the offerings to the altar,
Take me also, the young turquoise bee,
Into the chapel.

*This may be a feeble attempt at transliteration. Anyone is welcome to correct me!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Review: "THE GRASSLANDS" by Pema Tseden

On Saturday I watched a short film: The Grasslands by Pema Tseden. It is Pema Tseden’s student film, and Latse Contemporary Tibetan Library* in the West Village has a copy in their video archives.

Pema Tseden, or Wanma Caidan as the pinyin transliteration has it so awkwardly, is a talented Tibetan film maker who studied at the Beijing Film Academy and has made two feature films in recent years. I have seen both, The Silent Holy Stones and The Search, and they are both amazing and excellent… and I am deeply in love with The Search. So I was curious to see his student film, curious to see how his directorial vision has evolved, curious to see whether his master talent so clearly displayed in every frame of The Search is manifest in this his first creation.

And yes, yes, it is. The Grasslands is short, only about twenty minutes or so. The film opens with a simple frame: an old couple trekking across the empty grassland under a blue sky. They are Aku Tsendruk, a stubborn old man who just can’t bear any wrongs done to him, and his wife Ama Tsomo, an even older woman who is curled into herself with age and resignation, a passive bystander who is swept in the drift of the current churned up by her aggressive husband.

They are headed to the next nomadic settlement over, to confront three young men who have stolen Ama Tsomo’s yak. As they go on, we learn that the yak is a “liberated” yak; which means that Ama Tsomo had released this yak from slaughter and the yak was a free animal until its theft. So the thieves had compounded their crime which had become a wrong not just against morality but against dharma.

When Aku Tsendruk and Ama Tsomo reach their old friend Dorlo’s tent, his grown son Juga, a pipe smoking thick-set type with streaming highlander hair, is dispatched to fetch the three men. An elaborate ceremony of oaths follow and the film wraps with a small twist that manages to convince and satisfy without being either surprising or predictable. The director is talented like that.

After I watched the film, I felt that the film was not about Aku Tsendruk and Ama Tsomo, nor about the other people in the film so much as it is about a way of life- a way of life where you can take a man’s word when he swears, a way of life where people still “liberate” their prized yaks, a way of life where a radio is as close as the outside world gets to you. And it’s about the land that not only sustains but rather reinforces this way of life-the immense rolling plains and mountains that are inseparable from the people who live there.

It’s worth seeing. It’s very worth seeing. Ok it’s worth the trek to Latse. Need I say more?


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Untitled Poem

This is just a draft. I read it at the Renaissance Poetry Reading organized by SFT at Shangrila Tibet Kitchen in Jackson Heights, but it needs more work and time.

Here the river fails to flow

Here the barley stalks of Shigatse sleep
With their ears opened and eyes lightly shut
With dreaming

Here the kelsang methok
Hold off their blooming,
Hold their flowering
Hostage until the
Time comes once
Again for flourishing

Here we wait
For the sky and
Earth to settle

Here we wait

Friday, May 28, 2010


This is a piece I wrote in October 2006. A friend of mine, Thupten, who was interning at Tibet Justice Center, asked me to submit a piece for their newsletter Trin-Gyi-Pho-Nya. He knew that I had just spent the summer in Tibet. I had a hard time thinking about what to write – I wasn’t sure that I would be able to write what they were probably hoping for. I ended up writing this. And of course they couldn’t use it. I have shared it with a couple of friends, and thought that I might share it here as well. Especially as I have not updated in a long while.

October 2006

I went on a lot of bus rides in Tibet. My first bus ride was along the Golok-Xiling route. It was an uncomfortable experience. The bus made a stop at 11 o’clock at a small Tibetan settlement along the road that looked exactly like the western town in High Noon. Dust, horses, leathery men, fat women, filthy restaurants, motorbikes. My friends said the bus would stop in the afternoon for lunch so I bought some plums and got back into my seat. Afternoon came and passed and the bus made no signs of stopping. I ate my plums and finally descended from the bus in late evening tired and hungry. Xiling, or as the Chinese call it, Xining, has no tourists. It is a small city bounded by mountains and looks like a small version of Beijing transplanted to Tibetan soil. But I didn’t mean to stay in Xiling; my destination was Labrang-a Tibetan town another long bus ride away.

              We started out early the next morning. The 6 hour bus ride took 9 hours because the bus kept breaking down. The driver and the conductor were both Tibetan. They stopped the bus outside Xiling and picked up about 10 passengers without tickets, all of them Tibetans. I learned later that most of them were from the town of Labrang. They sat on the floor or on the raised engine platform. Every so often, we would stop and the extra passengers would get off and be bundled into passing cars. We would then drive cheerfully past a checkpoint. Once we were safely past, the bus would wait at the roadside for the other passengers to get on board. The driver and the conductor were smuggling Tibetans between Xiling and Labrang. It wasn’t a political statement. At first I thought it simple kindness and then I saw the conductor collecting money from them-he was just making some extra money on the side. Did he take less than the ticketed amount, since no tickets were involved? I wanted him to have done so. He was a young man and acted as repairman for the bus as well. Because the bus kept breaking down, the Chinese tourists kept asking him, “When will we get there?” He was snappish to them and gave monosyllabic answers. When a Tibetan asked him the same question, he answered quite patiently. Was that a political statement? Later when he found out I was Tibetan and a tourist, he began pointing out places to me. We passed through Rebkong, small villages with large fields, green rolling pastures and barren mountains, and my entire being thrilled. The Chinese tourists on the bus did not know, and would not have cared, that this was the birthplace of Gedun Choephel.

              There is awe but no reverence. There is attention without respect. Monasteries have become museums. Chinese tour guides talk in loud voices and banish sacredness from these hallowed places of worship. Is there such a thing as sustainable tourism? Especially in such a place as Tibet where the factory line is staffed mostly with Chinese?

              Later I went on another bus from the Chinese city of Chengdu to Lithang through Dhartsedo, that ancient trading town on the old border. Everyone on the bus was Chinese. Most of them seemed to be going to Bathang for work. I immediately stood out because I didn’t speak Chinese. At a stop I asked the Tibetan woman guarding the public bathroom how much farther it was to Lithang. When I climbed into the bus, many of the other passengers looked at me in surprise and puzzlement. The middle aged man across the aisle, who had taken off his shirt as we left Chengdu and sat in a comfortable sheen of sweaty nudity-to be covered only as we began climbing mountain after mountain, began speaking to me in unintelligible Sichuanese. Who were all these people going off into places about which they knew nothing?

              There were other differences, perhaps minute to others but insurmountable to me. Tibetans, when they travel, slide their windows open so the warm sun and the cold air fall upon their faces. The Chinese tourists shy away from the wind and zip up their jackets to their chins. But they shy away from the sun also-the young women prop up umbrellas inside the bus to keep their skin fair and untanned. Tibet is a place of scorching sun and savage wind. I wondered why, if the Tibetan wind and the sun bothered them so much, they were there. But of course I knew really.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ancient Art in a Modern City: An Exhibition of Contemporary Tibetan Art

Ancient Art in a Modern City: An Exhibition of Contemporary Tibetan Art in Manhattan

So I have been meaning to write about the Kyigudo earthquake but I am going to have to do that another time. Because I don’t have the time or energy tonight to write coherently about something so awful and important and I don’t want to reduce it or diminish it, not that anything can of course, by putting up a crap post about it.

 So instead this post is about a small exhibition that was launched in Manhattan on Tuesday, April 20. The exhibition, called Ancient Art in a Modern City: An Exhibition of Contemporary Tibetan Art, is exhibited at the International Center in New York on 23rd Street near 5th Avenue as part of New York Immigrant Week. The artists displayed are Rabkar Wangchuk, Tenzin Phakmo, Sodhon, Thupten N Chakrishar, Jamyang Dorjee Chakrishar, Selhatso, Lobsang Choephel, Chungpo Tsering and Tenzin Menzin.

The opening on Tuesday featured a discussion with some of the artists whose works were displayed. A friend was going and so I dragged my feet and went along because sometimes you feel guilty about passing up “culture” and also there might be food. The discussion had just begun when we entered the room and there were two empty seats up front which we took. This was a mistake, as it quickly became clear when Sodhon la, one of the featured artists, said he would like an interpreter and Thupten Nyima’s eyes scanned the audience and homed in on me. I didn’t mind, actually, as long as I didn’t have to translate iffy words like “illusion” or “beauty”. If this meant I now had to pay attention to what the speakers were saying, so much the better. 

Sodhon la, Rabkar Wangchuk and Thupten Nyima spoke about their work. Tenzin Rigdol, a talented and successful artist who helped curate this show (although perhaps this show was not curated so much as …er… heaped together) later joined the conversation. It was actually very interesting and very cool, listening to these contemporary artists talk about their paintings, their background and the influences that shape their work.

It seems to me that, both for the artist and the audience, contemporary Tibetan art is defined not so much by what it is as by what it is not - it is not traditional thangka painting; it is not religious art. So paradoxically this means that thangka art has enormous influence over contemporary Tibetan artists. Whether they are informed and inspired by thangka painting or they are stifled and challenged by it, thangka art’s influence on contemporary Tibetan artists manifests clearly either on the artist’s canvas (such as Rabkar’s Passion or Sodhon’s Frivolity of Life) or in the artist’s conversation (such as Tenzin Rigdol’s remarks).

As far as the exhibits were concerned, Chungpo’s Untitled, the mani khorlo and the bell, is a serene and peaceful painting and Thupten Nyima’s digital art West Side Highway, with the deities cruising in the sky in an open convertible, is striking. 

My favorites were Selhatso’s Behind the Shoeba Mask (pictured to the left) and Tenzin Phakmo’s My Land? #3. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bhuchung La of ICT Writes About Space

Bhuchung Tsering la of International Campaign for Tibet maintains a blog pretty diligently. More diligently for sure than other people I know, like me. Here are Bhuchung la's thoughts on whether Tibetan should be spaced or not, and on Tibetan language reform:

Bhuchung la on Tibetan language reform debate and

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Very recently I went to Bhutan to visit a friend. I was already in India and from there it’s a hop (although an expensive hop) on Druk Air. Druk Air is the only airline flying in and out of Paro International Airport so what they charge you pay. So I paid and I sat in my window seat and there was this legend (below). 

Sometimes it’s the small things that get you- like “Please fasten your seatbelt” written in your mother’s tongue or “Gyeltsen’s Carrier” written on the side of a cargo truck or “Sonam’s General Store” on the doorway of a convenience shop.
Wouldn’t it be a good and beautiful thing one day to fly Tibetan Airlines and to go to the airplane toilet and see “Flush” written in Tibetan? 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


I have been reading Jamaica Kincaid's "A Small Place". Jamaica Kincaid, who was actually one of my instructors, now mostly gardens, I believe. If she keeps writing, I think she will win a Nobel. "A Small Place" is a thin book, anorexic almost. But my god, it's powerful. It's utterly gorgeous language, simple and all-encompassing in the way that a blue sky is simple and all-encompassing, and the savage ferocity with which Jamaica attacks her English colonizers is something to behold. Here is a nugget of gold:

"The Antigua that I knew, the Antigua in which I grew up, is not the Antigua you, a tourist, would see now. That Antigua no longer exists. That Antigua no longer exists partly for the usual reason, the passing of time, and partly because the bad-minded people who used to rule over it, the English, no longer do so. (But the English have become such a pitiful lot these days, with hardly any idea what to do with themselves now that they no longer have one quarter of the earth's human population bowing and scraping before them. They don't seem to know that this business was all wrong and they should, at least, be wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their bad deeds, for no natural disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did. Actual death might have been better. And so all this fuss over empire-what went wrong here, what went wrong there-always makes me quite crazy, for I can say to them what went wrong: they should never have left their home, their precious England, a place they loved so much, a place they had to leave but could never forget. And so everywhere they went they turned it into England; and everybody they met they turned English. But no place could ever really be England, and nobody who did not look exactly like them would ever be English, so you can imagine the destruction of people and land that came from that." Pg 23-24

It's as if she takes this whole event of invasion and occupation and colonization of this small island nation of Antigua and she strips away the varnish and the paint and she shows you what it was actually like and it's so simple and so ugly. And that's what colonization is: it's so simple and so ugly and so 19th century that people think it just doesn't exist anymore. Or people do know that it exists and it's Kitty Genovese all over again - being stabbed to death in broad daylight while whole bunch of cowardly people look through their beautiful curtained windows.

So anyway I have had "A Small Place" on my mind these last few days, perhaps partly because I am in Dharamsala right now, which is a small place in its own special way.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Rangzen Shonu

A friend of mine, Tenzin Tsetan, is launching a fan site for Rangzen Shonu, basically the best music band in the history of Tibet. I was lucky enough to get to write the following introduction:

Rangzen Shonu is a Tibetan rock band that burst on to the exile music scene in the late 1980s, firmly establishing the genre of Tibetan rock and forever changing the landscape of Tibetan music. As one of the first Tibetan rock bands, Rangzen Shonu’s signature sound of soulful song and meaningful lyrics accompanied only by the acoustic and electric guitar captured the hearts and minds of Tibetans in Tibet and in exile. The release in 1987 of their self-produced album titled Rangzen Shonu albums marked a historic moment in the nascent Tibetan music industry.

Rangzen Shonu’s three members were Tenzin Choesang, Norbu Choephel and Paljor. Their songwriter was Professor Ngawang Jinpa. The songs are folk-like in simplicity and sound, evocative of the old songs of the highlands, and yet nuanced and complex in meaning and melody, full of poetry and passion. These absolutely beautiful songs are infused with the spirit of freedom and resistance and resonate powerfully with Tibetans of all generations even today. Their song “We Tibetan Nomads”, one of the most popular Tibetan songs of all time, can be said to function as an unofficial Tibetan national anthem.

Although Rangzen Shonu has now been disbanded for many years, Tibetan music lovers honor and remember their immeasurable contribution to Tibetan music.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

BREATHING SPACE: How Word Separation Can Save the Tibetan Language (3)

Tendor, an activist and a musician, who first started advocating word separation in written Tibetan a year ago, has been writing with word separation at his bilingual blog Although “aerated” Tibetan script may look startling at first, this minor change has the capacity to turn the chore of reading into a pleasure.

I believe that a study by the Tibetan Department of Education or a similar institution should formally assess the merits of word separation. A top-down implementation of an aerated writing system in the Tibetan schools, starting with the elementary classes and moving up to the higher grades, can bring about the immediate revival and long-term survival of the Tibetan language. Imagine if ten years from now, Tibetan students can read Tibetan with the same ease with which they can speak it, and children crave and nag for Tibetan language comic books! Such a future is certainly possible if we adopt word separation today, making the same leap that almost all other literate cultures have already made.

If this top-down implementation sounds too radical at this time, it might be more realistic to urge a bottom-up initiative that can gradually spread among the Tibetan public. To this end, I ask bloggers and writers in and outside Tibet to experiment with aerated script, to add space between words.

Written Tibetan can remain hallowed and privileged, or it can be accessible and popular. Since the time of Emperor Songtsen Gampo, it has been written Tibetan, bod-yig, that has bound the three provinces together, bod-yig that has preserved the intrinsic unity of the Tibetan people through imperial fragmentation and governmental dissolution. Bod-yig, Sambhota’s legacy to all Tibetans, has saved us time and again. Now it’s time for us to save this legacy. Future generations will thank us for allowing our words to breathe and to live.

How Word Separation Can Save the Tibetan Language (2)

When Thonmi Sambhota, the outstanding innovator of the Tibetan script, single-handedly devised the Tibetan writing system in the 7th century (and among other innovations introduced the dot between syllables), there were considerations which no longer hold true now: at that time, parchment or paper was scarce and expensive. Printing was done laboriously from woodblocks and dense continuous script fit more words onto the woodblock and more content on the page. These considerations are irrelevant today thanks to advanced printing technology.

Let’s not forget that in the early days the script was not meant for mass consumption but rather seen as an elite privilege that one needed years of laborious training to master. After all, most writing systems in the world were developed not for mass consumption, but for the administration of empire and for governance. In fact for the greater part of the written word’s six thousand-year history, the different writing systems have required the presence of scribes who trained for long years to be proficient in reading and writing them. In Tibet, of course, the spread and diffusion of Buddhism has meant that the Tibetan writing system became the ultimate tool to preserve and transmit the teachings through the culture of the great monasteries. Within the monastic curriculum itself, years could be devoted to instill reading and writing proficiency in the young student.

Today, with the public school system – with the medium of study often Chinese or English – taking precedence over the monastic model, we no longer have the luxury of a long training period. And the Tibetan writing system is already complicated enough without the handicap of a script that may look beautiful but might well suffocate itself. The variations in spelling are mostly unpronounced, and words are often said differently from the way they are written. If space between words can be as an inhaler to the asthmatic, and revive Tibetan literacy for future generations, what might be the costs of whitespace?

A legitimate concern is that the unparalleled canon of Tibetan literature will be inaccessible to future readers accustomed to reading separated words. However, a few hours’ practice should allow scholars who will be fluent readers to access old manuscripts. Word separation will be crucial not only to beginning readers parsing lines, it will be an aid for scholars engaged in reference reading by facilitating swift silent reading and an expanded field of vision. As an interesting aside, it will also simplify the creation of a computer spell-check program and translation program for Tibetan.

I know this proposition will upset and outrage many Tibetans, because we have always been resistant to change – and we have been writing this way for centuries. But remember that traditionally scripture was written in stanzas so that readers always knew where to pause even without space. Most writers writing in Tibetan today do so in prose. The young reader slogs through, stumbling ever so often. Even the learned scholar trips every once in a while.

All things being equal, where words are spaced and comprehension is easier, more people will pick up a book. My brother Tendor and I have been informally testing the merits of word separation on a number of Tibetans, making them read two copies of the exact same text, one containing continuous script and the other containing separated script. Without exception, every one of the surveyed Tibetans found it easier to read and comprehend the separated script. We hope to continue the survey online and make it available to all interested participants.

BREATHING SPACE: How Word Separation Can Save the Tibetan Language (1)

The Tibetan language, like an asthma patient in a dust storm, is gasping for breath. Although Tibetan children born and raised in locations as geographically disparate as Lhasa, Dharamsala or New York may grow up speaking Tibetan as a first language, they’ll almost certainly write it as a second. As long as Tibet remains a colony of China, this will not change. For Tibetan students inside Tibet, the language of professional success is now Chinese. For Tibetan students outside, it’s English. Disadvantaged by the system, Tibetan is inevitably neglected.

For the fate of Tibetan as a spoken language, the result of this neglect is so far minimal: as the language of home and hearth, it surrounds us in infancy and we grow up speaking Tibetan as our mother tongue. For Tibetan as a writing system, however, the result of this neglect is devastating: Tibetans of our generation do almost all of our reading and writing in a foreign language and almost none in Tibetan.

When young Tibetans trained outside the monastic system – who constitute the majority – cannot write a decent letter in Tibetan or read a sentence without tripping over at least three words, we have a crisis at hand. What’s to be done?

The root of the problem is quite simple: we cannot write Tibetan well because we almost never read Tibetan, and we almost never read Tibetan because it is so difficult to read it. And there’s one very simple way to immediately ease the difficulty of reading Tibetan: word separation. Adding a space between words so that we can see each word as an immediate discrete unit having visual meaning will simplify the daunting task of reading Tibetan script overnight.

In fact, this is what people throughout the world have been doing with other writing systems. Ancient Greek and Latin were written in scriptura continua, which is continuous script without spaces between words. Paul Saenger, the distinguished scholar of medieval writing practices, asserts that it was only at the end of the seventh century that Irish monks began to introduce spaces between words into medieval manuscripts, and it took several centuries for this practice to be adopted as standard. (Paul Saenger argues that it was this “aerated” script that led to the development of silent reading as we know it.) This space between words, also called whitespace, is now ubiquitous across many writing systems. Even Hindi, previously written in continuous Devanagari script (the base from which Thonmi Sambhota devised the Tibetan alphabet and writing system) is now spaced. Korea’s Hangul, previously continuous, is now generally spaced. Ethiopic, which like Tibetan uses the interpunct, the dot – although they double it, like so (:)- is increasingly written with a space between words.

Actually, writing Tibetan as we currently do, with the single dot to differentiate between syllables and no space between words, is a faithful representation of speech: after all in speech, we pause not between words but only at the end of a sentence. However, for the reader, that space – the visual equivalent of a pause – makes a world of difference: the whitespace allows words to be discrete, to have meaning that can be accessed visually as well as aurally. The eye can see quicker than the ear can hear and reading comprehension is consequently faster and simpler. Because Tibetan does not use word dividers, textual meaning is harder to access and the writing encourages the reader to read aloud rather than silently. In Space Between Words, Paul Saenger contends, “In general, graphic systems that eliminate or reduce the need for a cognitive process prior to lexical access facilitate the early adaptation of young readers to silent reading, while written languages that are more ambiguous necessitate the oral manipulation of phonetic components to construct words.” Tibetan of course falls into the latter category. He continues, “These latter writing systems require a longer training period, one that features oral reading and rote memorization and that continues, in some instances, even into adulthood.”


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa: Poetry Reading at the Rubin Museum of Art

There was a poetry reading at the Rubin Museum of Art today. Tsering Wangmo Dhompa read from Rules of the House, In the Absent Everyday and from her new book which is not out yet. I had the books and had read the poems, so hearing her read was like hearing a sweet old song that I haven’t heard in a while.

I feel like her poetry is more diasporic than exilic – which is perhaps another way of saying that it is more cultural than political- but it is so moving. It feels familiar and yet remarkable: she touches on familiar themes, ideas, and images but by remarking on them with her clear far-seeing eyes and gorgeous voices, she makes them remarkable. This is from Bardo, a poem to a dead uncle or as she calls him, “Uncle who is no more.” “You are dead, go into life, we pray.” How beautiful, how non-sentimental and fitting.

It is hard to pick a favorite but I particularly love this one.

Hill Station passages

Transparent, the town smeared itself around nightfall. House lights

attempted star life.

There were no rooms on Main Street. No roads bifurcating

from it.

A stranger’s town can make you shy. Dogs barked at our heels.

Avuncular and in their own way, marking every entry.

Here is someone else’s place of origin.

Dust in the morning – eager-eyed grit. Amber grass.

People spilled on to the streets like red ants driven out of hiding.

Light removed all images of the night. What was visible was

not recognizable.

The language is startling. The images are old images made completely new. The verbs she chooses, the way she sees and expresses ideas, makes all the difference in the first lines. “The town smeared itself around nightfall.” How surprising, and yet how true. This is what a town in a fog looks like at night, a smear against, around the dark. A lesser poet might have said “House lights looked like stars” or “House lights imitated stars”- Dhompa says, “House lights attempted star life.” When she says, “Here is someone else’s place of origin,” there is so much story there- both the speaker’s and that actual someone else’s. The only line I don’t like is the next one; I find the image of people spilling out like red ants jarring, incongruous, but the rest of the poem with its detached wisdom and small surprises (like “eager-eyed grit”) is perfect.