“How to say ‘coat’ in Tibetan” I googled with my phone brightness turned all the way down. The results were few, and the frustration quickly turned to shame that I had forgotten in the first place, so I just sat quietly in my grandmother’s company, gesturing that I liked her new coat.
Tibetan is a dying language. Our claim to fame is that Ewoks from George Lucas’ Star Wars spoke a version of Tibetan, with some scenes even depicting perfectly understandable sentences. Well, to those who understand Tibetan in the first place.
Roughly just six million people worldwide speak the language today, and while that sounds like a lot, compare it to the 85 million who speak Italian, or the 15 million who are adept at Swahili. One of those six million humans is my grandmother. Having fled Tibet in the 50s, she eventually landed in Australia some thirty years ago, and we've always been close. She's a strong, kind, arguably stubborn person who I know well. And yet, some time ago, we stopped being able to get to know each other.
I can’t quite pinpoint when exactly I stopped being able to speak Tibetan. My siblings and I were born in Australia, and my family made an effort to speak English from when we were infants. Once we started school, our grasp of Tibetan narrowed. Now, at 26, I can’t recall the last phrase I strung together or a conversation I understood in its entirety, and it’s been well over fifteen years since I attended a lesson. But I always thought I had time.
Sometimes I forget that these lessons were even once such a big part of my life. Every Thursday evening and Saturday morning were spent engaging in the same dance with my mum: feigning ill, intentionally sleeping in, sparking tantrums. I probably put more effort into trying to get out of going than I did actually studying. I hated being there, and I resented my mum for 'making' us attend. After all, learning Tibetan isn’t easy. And, in my young, half-baked thinking, I figured I would get to it. Eventually, my mother caved and let us stop attending. Maybe she believed we'd get to it, too.
But alas, like with most things you mean to get around to, life gets in the way. Priorities shift, the months turn to years and before you know it, you’re left wondering how your grandma’s day was over actually hearing about it.
Every now and then, I find myself recoiling at the recollection of a moment I push to the furthest corners of my mind. It's a memory of the first time I saw my grandma break down, after pleading with us grandkids to take our language lessons more seriously.
Nothing like your grandma crying to make you feel like the worst human on Earth.
In not so many words, she explained that as someone who has been forced to run from her roots, passing on traditions was all she could hope to do in the pursuit of preservation. Of course, as a pre-teen who was just trying to make it through year five, I couldn't quite grasp what that really meant at the time. Did the entire fate of a culture lie in my adolescent hands? No. But it’s also just not that simple.
The effort to re-learn Tibetan was never going to be straightforward — and it's definitely not like riding a bike. It also wasn't going to yield any practical advantage. It’s not a common language or even one that’s very accessible, it won’t help me in my work, with my friends, or even keep my resume looking sharp.
The deeply shitty reality of it, is that there’s not a lot of opportunities out there for Tibetans who don’t speak any other language. And so adapting becomes a matter of survival. I know my mother didn’t stop pushing the language on me as a means of stripping me of all cultural roots. From her perspective, she was enabling me to live a life as unalienated as possible from the world I was growing up in — one where I already made up half of the BIPOC population of my entire grade. But what happens to the native languages that are of no use to the western world? Other than Star Wars, misguided tattoos, and novelty cushions in Byron Bay, I didn't see my language in use.
In fact, I feel strange even referring to it as my language.
For Tash, 24, a similar confusion sits with her around owning her language. “I remember a friend made a joke about how I pronounced a word,” she recalls. “I responded with a reminder that English wasn’t my first language and she just laughed, as if it was a ridiculous idea. But it’s true, I may be fluent in English but it was not the initial language I learned. And who is to say which of these languages is my ‘first’?”
Claim over language. I was taught Tibetan and English in tandem, spoke both at home, and even exclusively with my grandparents, as a kid. There are still the odd words that come to mind in Tibetan before English — things like 'blanket', 'cold', 'sleep' — today, and when I stutter over my words or struggle to articulate a thought, it can feel like my brain is still torn.
I am not ashamed of where I come from. But I can’t say I’ve always felt this way. And I know that Tibetan culture has some clout in the Western world. Russell Brand is friends with the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere vouches for us and Brad Pitt was a golden-haired smokeshow in Seven Years in Tibet, but I’m not under any illusion that this is nothing more than an allowance of the space we occupy.
And while racism and discrimination have always been, and continue to be, rampant, it’s taken me a while to reconcile with the other side of it all. The icky objectification of culture, as Rayna, 27, puts it.
“I tried so hard, for so long, to hide the fact that I was different from my friends,” she tells me. “There is so much trauma from trying to manically shed any inkling of non-Western culture.”
“So when those same friends, years later, wonder why I don't speak my mother tongue, I can't help but want to fly into a fit of rage... somewhere along the way, I guess my difference became interesting.”
Giving up on a first language is not an active decision, though, as Tash affirms. “I never wanted to not speak Cantonese, I just really, really wanted to speak English, the same way my friends were,” she says.
Particularly in our formative years, lingering between two worlds feels less possible than we know it to be when we're adults. And the result is uncomfortably ricocheting between the cultures, one inevitably giving way to the other. By not tightly gripping onto our language, we inadvertently let it go, convincing ourselves that culture in itself is an infallible resource we can tap into whenever we please. But it’s not. I don’t know how much time I have left with my grandmother, I don’t know what’s going to happen to Tibet in the next few years, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin my journey to preserve the little that I still keep.
As Rayna admits, the loss of language as second-generation immigrants can so often lead to feelings of resentment against our parents, our teachers. “I know I put up a fight,” she said. “I grew up in White Suburbia, of course I wasn’t going to be eager to learn a language none of my friends had to when I was already trying to just be like everyone else.”
“My parents worked to the bone to provide a life for me, and I am endlessly grateful for everything they’ve taught me. But in all of their assimilating, I can’t help but resent them for not pushing my heritage on me more. I know they just wanted me to be happy, and at a young age, that meant fitting in. But what comes from that is a sense of displacement that I’ll never really shake,” she says. “Now I’m just a confused adult, aimlessly searching for some kind of anchor.”
Though she's conceded that she'll never be as fluent as she was when she was seven, Tash is learning Cantonese again, with the hopes that it helps to heal some of the disconnect she feels with her parents. “I can't say it's sticking, but the act of trying itself feels healing.”
We talk about living in multicultural societies, but as a person, to be multicultural, comes with its discomforts. I have regrets, resentments, and a lot of confusion around my upbringing, and even about how I live today.
On an optimistic note, though, I take a lot of solace in knowing I’m not the only one in this position. So many second generations —or third or fourth for that matter — experience a similar conundrum. The emotional complexity that comes with it all can be overwhelming. On the one hand, we’re rewarded for our lack of culture, in insidious ways that we may not even realise are reinforcing our acclimatisation. On the other hand, no matter how much we try to tether ourselves back to our culture, the ties may never quite meet up. But it’s a process.
And in the end, there’s no one to blame. We all live our lives the way that makes sense for us. I suppose the takeaway is that it’s never too late to accept your culture, your roots or to get reacquainted with it all. And there are more ways to communicate than with our words.