Friday, July 23, 2010

The Joy of Finding one's Roots in a Foreign Country

A year ago I went to meet the eminent Tibet historian Prof. Eliot Sperling, who teaches at the Indiana University in US, at a coffee shop in the streets of McleodGanj, Dharamsala. The meeting took place just a few days before I was to leave for the US to study English literature. During our conversation, I sought his views about my passion to study English literature in the US and whether I would find good professors who could teach me well enough, so that my goals to write well in English would one day bear fruit. His instant reaction was not very encouraging at the time – he advised me to read the Tibetan classics before plunging myself into the sea of English literature.

I found him a bit discouraging and annoying then. However, I didn’t realize that he was simply saying in his own way what His Holiness has been advising us to do for so many years –that along with modern education learn also the traditional education of Tibet, which is possible only through Tibetan language!

Being born and brought up in India, once a colony of Great Britain, English language has never been a problem for refugee Tibetan students like us. We have been used to speaking, reading and, at times, writing in English – in fact all our communication with our friends in far away corners of the world are done in English through emails. We are also used to watching American soap operas, movies, reality shows. However, it is an altogether a different experience living suddenly in the same country that produced all these entertainment shows. No matter how well versed you are in English language, speaking it with Americans in America is quite a challenging task for any one.

Apart from the minor problems a non-native English speaker faces while communicating in English, which can be dealt with easily as time progresses and one gains more exposure, the most severe and life changing crisis one faces is that you never feel at home speaking English in the US – you always miss your own language, which you can’t speak with any of the American people.

But like the Newtonian law, every crisis brings with it an equal opportunity, and the identity crisis of the sort that I went through in the US brought the greatest and the most enriching opportunity in my life – the realization of the fact that until and unless one is rooted deeply in one’s own culture and history, one is never going to gain the kind of self-confidence needed to achieve any goals in this life.

With this realization, I decided to visit Dharamsala during this summer break, so that I could spend some valuable time at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, reading Tibetan history and culture. Of course, when I was working in Dharamsala, I often visited the Library and borrowed books on Tibet, but all these books were in English and hence authored by western scholars of Tibet. All these efforts have been very helpful to me, as they have given me a rare understanding and insight of our history and culture.

Despite all these efforts, I have never cared to pick up a Tibetan classic and read it. I do know many classical authors from the West, but when it comes to our own writers, there is hardly any one whose work I am familiar with and whom I can recommend to my fellow Tibetan readers. Except, perhaps, for Gendun Choephel, there is hardly any one whose work I read and gained insight from!

I have always found exiled Tibetans (this includes myself) – especially intellectuals, be it a writer, poet, essayist, activist - searching for his or her identity. Their works might be brilliant, they might ever have found some recognition in our community, but I have always found something missing in them. I haven’t seen the joy and self-confidence that sparkles in the eyes of intellectuals from other free countries.

The root of this problem to me lies in the fact that we are not strongly rooted in our own culture and history – we never showed enough respect to our own history and culture, never cared to read the huge amount of Tibetan literature available in our midst. Without a solid foundation in our own history and culture, how could we expect to make a contribution to global culture and claim that Tibetan culture is worth preserving in the 21st century?

If we really care about our own country, if we wish to regain our freedom, the first basic step is for us to learn Tibetan well, and read the Tibetan authors, so that the real Tibetan in us is reawakened! Or else I believe we lose our moral right to condemn the Chinese of destroying our rich culture and identity back in our homeland Tibet!