Ka, Kha, Ga, Nga, Learning Tibetan on Lhakar: Episode One

Hopefully by the time I post this, it will still be Lhakar somewhere in the world. I’ve been struggling all day with power cuts and the sporadic internet of Incredible India so it’s nice to finally put this up. This week for Lhakar I wanted to give an update about what I’ve been up to in India and share a little bit about my first-ever venture in learning Tibetan language. This week we also introduce our newest contributor, Rinchen Dolma from Toronto, who is also studying Tibetan this summer and joins me in the video above! Also in the video, we feature one of my new favorite songs from Tibet, which is helping me to learn the alphabet.

Having grown up mostly outside the Tibetan community and having only one parent who spoke Tibetan, it was hard for me to establish any firm grasp of Tibetan language. Growing up, my Father was away most of the time running our family store in New York City and helping to run a Foundation for the monastery he was from. He spent most of the week in the city so my sisters and I grew up mostly surrounded by my Mother’s family who were Kalmyk. They had been in the States since the early 50s so they were already pretty assimilated to American culture. English was the dominant language at home. Tibetan language was not so much a part of our daily lives as it was a foreign language that I didn’t understand and prevented me from connecting with the Tibetan side of my family.

As a child, I learned early on what it felt like to be excluded from conversations, always on the outside of conversations between my father and his family or friends. Even when random Tibetans would pop into our store just to chat or say hi, there was always something about the lack of inclusion and sense of separateness that my sister described so well in her first post about what it feels like to be the “Other.”

Every time my Father would talk to my Aunts or Uncles or cousins, I would be standing there not knowing what to do or how to follow the conversation, always feeling somewhat like an outsider, sometimes feeling ashamed or annoyed, especially when I knew they were talking about me. It makes a good story now to tell and make jokes about getting angry with my father as a child or how my older cousins would encourage my 9 year old self to tell my dad “Kyakpa sa!” I mean, that’s still pretty funny. Over the years I’ve gotten over the phase of feeling shamed and out of sorts when people ask why I don’t speak any Tibetan. After a while I was kind of glad I had an experience so different from most of my friends who are around my age who had grown up with two Tibetan parents, or were raised in a community where Tibetan culture was dominant. Today I feel proud to be of mixed heritage and that I was raised around many languages.

My Grandmother helped raise my sisters and lived with us our entire childhood until her death. As a Kalmyk born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1928, she was exposed to several different cultures during the time of Stalin’s purges and the Second World War. My Grandmother spoke five languages: Kalmyk, Russian, Bulgarian, German and English. I guess that is the result of immigration, displacement and exile. Her family made it to the U.S. in the winter of 1951, the same year my Father was born in Tibet. I still remember bits and pieces of Kalmyk, Russian and Bulgarian, not because we were taught formally but because many of these words were used as a mixture of them all, but of course I wouldn’t realize this until I was older. I’m proud of that time with her and thes rest of my Mother’s family who helped to establish the very first Tibetan Buddhist temples in the West.

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As I went to my first Tibetan class I was a little nervous not knowing what it would be like. My friend Rinchen Dolma and I walked in, sweaty and hot from the run down the road to the library in order to make it to class on time. We were already five minutes late and the teacher was already at the board tapping away with a marker pointing to different letters of the alphabet having everyone repeat each one. We slid into our seats and tried to be as smooth and attentive as possible with our slick little entrance.

Our teacher was a nun in her early 50s tapping the white board asking the students to repeat after her, “KA. KHA. GA. NGA!” Then we would repeat “KA” over and over again for how ever long she would tap that board. I learned the alphabet this way. Partly out of interest, partly out of fear of keeping up to the pace of this funny, yet slightly menacing Ani-la who really liked picking up the pace.  She was a great teacher, always showing us what faces to make with what letters she was helping us to pronounce. She would have us copy the shapes of her face mimicking wherever she moved her tongue to whichever part of her mouth made “DZA!” Rolling our tongue or touching the top of our teeth or the inside of our palates, tongues sticking out.

I thought how hard this was going to be for me but also that it felt like an interesting moment – I realized sitting there in that classroom that my Father and Grandmother had been forced to learn new languages at my exact age. My Father had learned English in his late twenties just as he was about to go to America for the fist time in 1979 during the time of His Holiness’ first visit to the United States. He was really happy I had decided to stay and study Tibetan in India. Every time we talk on the phone he always asks me what new words I’ve learned. Next time I hope to answer him in Tibetan.