“Okay,” I say. “Now a hard question. Super hard.” They giggle at the made-up word. “How has”—I take my time enunciating each word—“learning English changed your thoughts or ideas about Tibet or the Tibetan language?”
They make me write it down. I underline each complex word and talk it through—hands rolling in a wheel for ‘change’, head tapped for ‘ideas’ or ‘thoughts’. They think. They know what I am saying now, that is not the problem. The problem is how do they convert all their complex feelings into stiff and flat English.
“For example,” I say, to fill the space, “I lived in India for eighteen years. Then I went to England for four. And I looked back on my country and saw it differently.” Now I pause, struggling to express my thoughts into simple English. I think of the division I felt with both England and India, of being two selves, of having to choose. But that wasn’t exactly transferable. Or appropriate. Super hard, indeed. “I saw my culture as different. Special. Unlike anything I could find in England.”
It is a pathetic attempt, but it seems to be enough. The bright moon faced monk beside me nods and then launches in. This is not about expressing proper English; there is an urgency to his words that goes beyond that, as if he is frustrated with the slowness of having all these ideas and having to express them in a foreign tongue. The urgency startles me. Often, in this class you can wear the badge of teacher and forget that it is you who is young, you who is still learning.
“In Japan, they believe not to learn new language. They believe it affect their culture. To learn… something says… to learn language is to learn ideas from that culture. And it can distort you. Change your culture. So they don’t believe in it.” He has got the point of my question so perfectly, worked to the dilemma so instinctively, that I am nodding. “I don’t believe that. I am Tibetan. I am… stay. Learning English, adds. It is not—genocide.”
I balk at the word, so complex and precise in this deep but not grammatically perfect expression. Genocide. The group around me, however, is intrigued, and Tibetan starts flying around, fast and quick. Soon, they are all nodding. Ah yes. Genocide. I feel I must rescue this word from whatever Tibetan meaning is being imposed on it. I write it down. Genocide. “Do you know what it means?” I ask. They nod. “To kill. To finish.” Yes, I say, but it is precise term. It is to try and kill lots of people, lots of the same kind of people. I am fresh from reading Arundhati Roy’s definitions of genocide. They nod wisely, as if the word fits in. No, I say, it’s a specific term. You use it for—
And it strikes me that they are right. That they are not talking about a human genocide, but a cultural one, the surrendering of all that one is to the other, the obliteration of all that one has come to become. And I find in that eager monk’s words the answer to my own question, the truth I have perhaps known but struggled to accept. You are an addition of your experiences, not a battle between them. You do not split, only multiply. What you have gained can never be lost. Only enriched.