Thoughts From the Diaspora: Miss Tibet and Language Loss

The recent 2016 Miss Tibet competition coronated another young woman in Dharamsala. As always, controversy abounded– but this time, over her lack of fluency in Tibetan. Many on Tibetan exile social media addressed the issue, offering nuanced opinions on the matter. Here are some of the more thoughtful perspectives:

2016 Miss Tibet’s broken Tibetan language is the new talk of the town, with right-wing conservative sector actively denouncing & shaming her. The crucial question is how to communicate the importance of Tibetan language, without imposing a narrow & exclusionary linguistic model of what it mean to be a ‘Tibetan’. Both inside Tibet & in diaspora, there are a sizable number of young Tibetans who aren’t conversant with spoken Tibetan. Therefore, it is important to create an accommodative space while at the same time promoting Tibetan language amongst young generations.

Some offered an insightful analysis of linguistics and the controversy over the show’s male creator and the standards by which the young women in the pageant are judged:

While I think it is important that we all make sincere efforts to speak our language, preserve it and teach it to our children, there seems to be a face of scary fundamentalism that has emerged from this debate, which assumes that the standard, “pure” ü-kye is ~the~ Tibetan we must all speak.

What these people seem to conveniently fail to realize/recognize is that every adult (20+ years old, let’s say) grew up under extremely diverse conditions, in various environments, with different linguistic demands on them. Some went to Indian boarding schools, some grew up in Switzerland/any other country without a Tibetan community, some grew up relatively close to the Tibetan community but their parents were lax in teaching them Tibetan, some children just did not want to speak the language because all their friends were not Tibetan and it was easier to use whatever common language was being used by their friends.

How can you expect a child to know the importance of preserving one’s language which is under threat of being wiped out by a colonial power? Even those who grew up/are growing up in TCV schools cannot speak “proper” Tibetan, despite being surrounded by Tibetan caretakers, teachers, students, etc.
By the time our children grow up to understand the importance of language and begin to make an effort to come back into the culture, they face nonconstructive criticism from people who are more interested in shaming them than in asking questions of our own community.

Where have the elders failed in transmitting language? And not just ü-kye, but local languages and dialects. How can we make these adults who cannot speak Tibetan realize what they are missing, in a way that does not isolate them, and help them learn the language better? How can we prevent the same phenomenon in the generations to come?

Language is an integral part of a people and their culture, and their preservation under threat, but we cannot move forward if we are stuck in promoting hatred of those who were left behind by mistakes not entirely their own.
While we should always try to improve when it comes to the Tibetan language (there’s so much to learn!), by reading and writing and interacting more in Tibetan (people with iPhones stand at an advantage here), we should also keep in mind that language and culture are not static. They do, and must, evolve with the conditions and environments that their bearers face. And in the Tibetan diasporic scenario, it means a constant exchange with every country and every language in the world, the biggest being Hindi, English and Chinese.

As far as the Miss Tibet Pageant itself is concerned, it is so prettily wrapped in the Tibetan word “མཛངས་མ་” (mzangs-ma) which could mean a wise, intelligent, virtuous and brave woman, but is ultimately selling the bodies of young women for entertainment and cashing in on their commodification. The tagline of “beauty with brains” sounds very nice but we do not get to witness the “brains” part (in the form of a short answer to a line of generic questions recycled again and again) until the last day of three, at the very end of the show, right before the coronation. How important is the “brains” part of Lobsang Wangyal’s show?
What might convince me of the pageant being truly about “empowering” women (by a man LOL) would be when a talented, intelligent and articulate woman (of any age) participates in the pageant without forcing her body to suit society’s standards of what is deemed a body worthy of participating in a beauty pageant.

In other words, a FAT, talented, intelligent and articulate Miss Tibet of any age will convince me that Miss Tibet pageant is truly about finding “བོད་ཀྱི་མཛངས་མ་” (bod kyi mzangs-ma).

A few also pointed out the irony of those supporting an institution inspired by the west:

I find it ironic that all the criticism against recent Miss Tibet winner for her Tibetan language proficiency focuses solely on her as a person and not the event of Miss Tibet as a whole. Frankly speaking, I find the whole event of Miss Tibet regressive for its organiser’s unprofessionalism, highly patronizing “I am empowering the poor women” kind of attitude and above all for its lack of any cultural creativity. We seriously don’t need to “copy-paste” what is anyhow considered regressive in west–its senseless and demeaning bikini-walks and talent show that except for Chupa has nothing what so ever Tibetan about it. The Tibetan word “Mdzangs ma” certainly has far more richer cultural connotation than the western objectifying idea of “beauty” (even though the idea of ideal Mdzangs ma can still be contested and problematized). We cannot simply be a uncritical consumer of regressive westernized beauty pageant (which doesn’t have any cultural spirit to it) and expect an end product that is “representative” of Tibetan culture, be it in language. I think we would all be better off, if we shift the debate from the person of Miss Tibet and her perceived cultural lackings to the institution of ‘Miss Tibet’ as a whole and its dearth of cultural creativity.

And others urged the exile public to be compassionate about the circumstances of those who grew up learning the language in countries far from their own and from the heart of exile Tibet.

Speaking Tibetan is imperative but language should not be the one aspect of our rich culture and tradition. It is misguided to use language as a litmus test to “judge” one’s core heritage pride or race identity.

We need to stop shaming and bashing heritage language learners who may have previously lacked the privilege, tools or the environment to practice.

It’s embarrassing and frustrating enough, if not already hurtful and confusing. There should not be more layers of hierarchy with brutal processes of marginalization and stigmatization. Let’s not fall into the white supremacist’s twisted narrative where language is an indicator of authenticity.

When one is willingly confronting to challenge their limitations to speak/read/write Tibetan, it is inspirational. That individual needs support and encouragement – and the entire community to be a teacher and a council.
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