A n optimistic individual like the Dalai lama would say the globalised era creates an equal harmonious space for all cultures regardless of their power dynamics. However, the recent viral (edited) video of him flaunted Edward Said’s Otherness (west is normal and rest is Other) mentality is still deeply engrained in the minds of people from larger countries with colonial links. To foster a generation of students who can appreciate other cultures, universities offer a wide range of cultural curricula. Two concepts in cultural studies are taught more rigorously than the others: subjectivity and positionality. This is to accentuate that people with different subjectivities and associated with different positionings comprehend things differently. The Dalai Lama being an embodiment of Tibetan culture, one should at least offer him the common courtesy of viewing the non-edited video through the lens of Tibetan culture.
Up until the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet was a largely closed country behind the Himalayas with many unique cultural standards, some of which understandably look peculiar to people from other countries. That does not, however, prove them wrong or inappropriate. The Tibetan culture involving the tongue has a long history. Tibetan folklore recounts that when the first king of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo (127 BC), came to Yarlung, the cradle of Tibetan civilization, from Kongpo in the south, he met twelve yak herders. Since their regional vernacular was a barrier to communication Nyatri stuck out his tongue and touched his nose with it. The twelve herders said he must be special because being able to touch one’s nose with one’s own tongue is one of the thirty-two excellent signs of a Buddha. Consequently, they made him the first king of Tibet.
Perhaps since this very incident and, in any case, since time immemorial, sticking one’s tongue out is, in Tibetan culture, a sign of greeting, respect, admitting mistakes, and agreement. Generally, when Tibetans meet, they quickly extend their tongues to show respect. This usually happens when a student meets a teacher, or a commoner meets a community leader. Another legend speaks of how this is to show that they are not reincarnations of the 42nd emperor of Tibet called Lang Darma, who was reputed to have had a black tongue – like an ox — and was known for his cruelty towards Buddhists.
In general, Tibetans do not view the tongue either as unhygienic or as an erogenous zone. Indeed, it is considered extremely impolite to leave one’s bowl unlicked after a meal. For this reason, children are taught how to lick their bowls as an act of good manners when invited to meals by other families. Similarly, premastication is still the standard way of weaning babies in Tibet. Mother and grandmother are the most common people to wean the baby with their tongue, passing food directly from mouth to mouth, but it is not exclusive to them as one can see father, uncle, grandfather, and other family members also doing the job. Similarly, it is common to share a half-finished candy from one’s mouth with grandchildren. Grandparents often being the treasury of candies, children habitually gather around them, begging for sweets. Sometimes they get a new one, wrapped in fresh paper. Other times they will get a half-eaten candy from their grandparents’ mouth. Either way, it is invariably a most joyful gift. In poor, rural, Tibetan households, such as the one I grew up in, sweets are almost as rare as gold itself.
There are occasions when children, greedy for more, are scared off by their grandparents when they ask for more. This is done by the adult showing their tongue and saying da gni je leb zoe (ད་ངའི་ལྕེ་ལེབ་ཟོས།) ‘now eat my tongue’ – this in the sense of ‘I’ve got nothing left: if you want more, you’ll have to eat my tongue.’ As such, it is a common phrase used to reject children asking for gifts twice. The Dalai Lama, an 87-year-old Tibetan, just mistakenly translated this centuries old Tibetan phrase into English and said “now suck my tongue”. Anyone not fully bilingual will have experience of making common mistakes like this, let alone an 87-year-old, who never learned English formally. The most unfortunate misunderstanding was that the boy, being an Indian, did not have a clue about that the Dalai Lama was, in effect, telling him not to be greedy. Hence, he approaches to touch Dalai Lama’s tongue, but the Dalai Lama gives him a small nudge with laughter. You can see this if you watch the non-edited video. The actual tongue touching does not happen and, in fact, Tibetans don’t suck each other’s tongues at all. “Now eat my tongue” is simply a phrase we use to tease extra needy children as a way to tell them to ‘clear off, you’ve had enough already’.
Finally, it is important for one to know how the phrase “suck my tongue” translates into a Tibetan mind. The Tibetan phrase is either ngi je leb jip (ངའི་ལྕེ་ལེབ་འཇིབ།) or ngi je leb nu (ངའི་ལྕེ་ལེབ་ནུ།). Not only do neither of these phrases have any sexual connotations, but also, they are not commonly used phrases. Da gni je leb zoe (ད་ངའི་ལྕེ་ལེབ་ཟོས།) (now eat my tongue), on the other hand, is a common phrase, but no one takes it literally like the Indian boy did. An equivalent phrase one can find in American English is “eat my shorts”.
Ju Tenzin Choephel
Tenzin is a MPhil graduate in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies from the University of Oxford. He is also the founder of Loplao and co-founder of Tib Shelf. He has authored a Tibetan language textbook called The Manual of Authentic Tibetan. He is currently studying geography at the Univesity of Edinburgh.