Learning Tibetan on Lhakar: Episode Two (and a Meeting for Rangzen)

Above is the second installment of our video series in Dharamsala, including a peek into a meeting of the world’s leading Rangzen warriors battling for Tibetan Independence. If you haven’t seen the video for the song featured in our series, please check it out. “30 Alphabets” by Kalsang Tenzin is a song from Tibet encouraging us to learn the alphabet and never forget our language.

In addition to our classes this week, Rinchen and I also attended a conference dedicated to Rangzen. Leading advocates, activists, writers, journalists and representatives of the Tibetan Parliament gathered at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives last Wednesday, to discuss Rangzen as a viable goal for the Tibetan struggle . It was an inspiring scene to see many of my own heroes discussing Tibet’s future, hashing out ideas and keeping focused on the big picture, amidst the great turmoil and repression in Tibet today.

The second week of classes flew by. Each day got a little bit harder, a little bit easier. Rinchen and I continued our classes down at the library and seem to be making progress! Once I started to recognize letters, shapes and sounds on my own it became really exciting for me to add this to my existing knowledge of alphabets. Last week, I also came across this amazing blog run by a Tibetan in London that was so  incredibly helpful for me to practice strokes in my handwriting and memorize what letters correspond to what words and images, expanding my Tibetan vocabulary! After hours of practicing writing, pronunciation and lots and lots of homemade flashcard work I actually felt like I was getting the hang of this thing. Then my teacher promptly sent a reality check to whatever part of my brain absorbs new languages and sent my confidence straight down that overflowing-Dhasa-monsoon-swelled-up storm drain, the one that I see overflowing with  raw sewage, overflow running right down the road taking my confidence with it.

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In the second week, the novelty starts to wear off that you’re learning this big new thing. The honeymoon phase is over and all of a sudden you’re sitting terrified in a classroom afraid the teacher is going to make you recite your Ya-tas, Ra-tas, La-tas all on your lonesome in front of the entire class. We recite after her all together as a group, which has gotten quite large. So large in fact, it’s hard to make out what sound we are supposed to be re-creating after our teacher makes it herself. Every other word is an indistinguishable blur I’m playing “My best guess” attempting to understand slowly what the rest of the class seems to follow with so much more ease than me. I’m starting from the bottom up and when I say that…I’m not even kidding.

I was having flashbacks to 8th grade algebra, sweatin’ bullets in my seat with white knuckles, praying that the teacher didn’t call me up to solve a problem on the board. I hadn’t been in a classroom in a while so for some reason sitting in front of a whiteboard again conjured up all sorts of memories. I remembered one of the funniest books I’ve ever read by David Sedaris, “Me Talk Pretty One Day” recalling his experience learning French in Paris at 41. Our experiences were not the same, but terror of language classes seems to be universal.