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Tiptoeing through the Tibetan language

Tibetan monastery in Southern India

Anna's Tibetan monastery in Southern India

I am living and working in a Tibetan monastery in Southern India. The immediate area around me was given to the Tibetan refugees by the Indian Government more than fifty years ago and is now populated by many Tibetan villages, or ‘camps’. I am living among the Tibetans and picking up their language; I can hold an entire conversation as long as it includes the following: Hello, Goodbye, Where are you going? How are you? Are you happy? and What is this? From my perspective these seem to be the most useful words and phrases. The last question, however, is of limited use as I generally cannot understand the reply.

Today I stopped to give a lift to an old Tibetan man from the Old People’s Home near Second Camp to meet his friends in First Camp. Clasping his Mala beads in one hand he waved me down on my scooter and asked in Tibetan ‘Where are you going?’. Having guessed that we were both heading in the same direction I offered him a ride. He chatted happily in Tibetan as we headed along the road between the fields towards our destination and I used another useful phrase that I have learnt – ‘I don’t understand’.

So I am picking my way pigeon-toed through the language and discovering the poetry that can exist in everyday speech. English, as with many European languages, divides and labels things; this is a green pepper, this is spinach, this is cabbage, this is a mouse, this is a rat. Tibetan seems not to worry too much about the exact details, and descriptions are more general. Green vegetables are quite simply green vegetables, and rats and mice are the same, just different sizes.

Kitchen staff at the monastery

Explore the language further and you find that thunder is the roar of the dragon, the Himalayas are the Snow Mountain and when you greet someone with hello you are wishing them success in their life. Goodbye is just as heart felt as you tell someone to go carefully or to stay carefully, depending on which of you is leaving and which is staying.

There is much emphasis on health and happiness, and the greeting ‘Are you happy?’ refers more to your internal well being than whether you are laughing at that moment. There is also a need to know where you are, as if locating you in their spatial image of the world sets their mind at peace, knowing that you are safe and well. When someone greets you on phone they do not ask ‘How are you?’, but rather ‘Where are you?’. Be prepared for the follow up question of ‘and what are you doing there?’ if you are somewhere they don’t expect you to be. They are placing their world into some kind of order, and that includes finding a place in it where you are safe; then they can relax and be happy.

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