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Two of my younger brothers with our neighbor’s daughter play in front of the black yak-hair tents. Photo by Yu Lha

Two of my younger brothers with our neighbor’s daughter play in front of the black yak-hair tents. Photo by Yu Lha

  • Stories of a Tibetan Wild Child-Turned-Linguist

    My name is Yu Lha, and I am a linguist.

    I grew up in a village called Siyuewu, in the Sichuan province of western China. I am ethnically Tibetan, but my mother tongue is a lesser-known language called Khroskyabs. My community of around 500 people is semi-nomadic, which means we are both farmers and herders. We grow barley, wheat, and potatoes in the valley, and in the summer, we bring our yaks up to the mountain pastures to graze.

    In my village, most girls stay at home and do domestic work. We are expected to be sweet and obedient. However, from a young age, I always had an urge to fight these expectations. I was a bit of a wild child. I liked to boast and show off, which children are not supposed to do. When I felt that my elders were being too strict or overbearing, I would make my opinions known. If an adult said, “don’t do this,” I would do it. There was something fierce in me—a kind of independence, even defiance—that led me to where I am now.

    My desire to be unconstrained made me a social butterfly and ultimately led me to my love of language. As a child, I found conversation exciting. I loved to talk and to listen to others talk. Stories, tongue twisters, riddles, and idioms have always fascinated me. After I started learning English, expressions like “It’s raining cats and dogs” gave me so much joy. 

    Tibetan village of Siyuewu in western China
    We have mountains, rivers, and clouds. The yellow patches are barley and wheat that are ready for harvesting.
    Photo by Yu Lha

    I started school at eight years old. At that time, cars were few, so I would hitchhike to the boarding school that was thirty minutes away by car. Of the 300 students, half were Tibetan and half were Han Chinese, the ethnic majority of China.

    Adjusting to life at boarding school was brutal. I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, which was the language of instruction. To say the learning curve was steep is an understatement. Also, it was my first time living alone, and I had to learn to take care of myself. The school did not provide any food for the students. We had to cook for ourselves and bring all our food with us—rice, cooking oil, and potatoes. We even had to go to the nearby woods to collect firewood, then make a fire and cook our dinners individually. The only thing the school provided was hot black tea, so many of us would use it to cook our food, cutting down our cooking time. To this day, I can still taste that tea-flavored rice.

    I was a good student, so when I entered my teen years, I began to think about continuing my education. I saw my older cousins working long hours to prepare for the competitive college entrance exam by memorizing textbook after textbook. I knew didn’t want to do that.

    I had always imagined myself traveling, and I knew language would be my ticket out. So when I turned seventeen, I decided to go to a different province to study English. I enrolled in an English training program in Qinghai, which involved three days of travel by bus. At that time, it was uncommon to travel so far from home—especially as a girl. My family took me to our local fortune-teller for a consultation about my choice of school. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it must have been positive because otherwise my family would not have let me go. It also helped that the tuition was free and the school provided room and board. All I had to do was learn.

    Tibetan village of Siyuewu in western China
    The village consists of several hamlets that are sparsely located. The local stone-built houses represent the unique culture of Khroskyabs.
    Photo by Yu Lha

    I was so happy there. The teachers, all foreigners, were fun, and my classmates were from rural areas like me. It was so funny—even though we were all Tibetan, we wanted to practice our lessons so we used broken English to communicate! An anthropologist named Gerald Roche taught at the school. In addition to teaching us English, he trained us in research and documentation methods. As an assignment, we had to initiate cultural documentation projects in our respective communities. I researched the Khroskyabs language and documented oral traditions in my village, which led to the publication of my book, Warming Your Hands with Moonlight.

    Despite its 10,000 speakers, Khroskyabs was not officially recognized as a language until 2003. Although linguists call our language Khroskyabs, this is not how we refer to our language in our community. The word Khroskyabs is actually the name of a geographic area in Aba prefecture in northern Sichuan, which has come to stand for our community. As speakers, we call our language Rongskad, which means “the farmer’s dialect” or “the valley dialect.”

    We have faced considerable linguistic pressures over the years, and our number of speakers is rapidly declining. Mandarin is the language of instruction in schools, and fluency is required to succeed academically and professionally.

    Though we are Tibetan, we are not always acknowledged as such. Some Tibetans from other areas qualify our identity by calling us Rgyalrong Tibetans. Others reject it altogether, saying that we are Rgya ma bod (neither Chinese nor Tibetan) because of our distinctive language. These views have affected the way we see our own language and ourselves. Even Khroskyabs speakers tend to have a negative view of Khroskyabs and positive view of other forms of Tibetan.

    Tibetan village of Siyuewu in western China
    Ebi told me his stories about being a bear hunter when he was young. The storytelling went on for three hours.
    Photo courtesy of Yu Lha

    As I predicted, language was indeed my ticket abroad. I was accepted to a pre-university course in Bangladesh, which then led to a year at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong. I could have completed my undergraduate degree in Bangladesh, but I wanted to travel farther. Thanks to one of my English program teachers, Zoe Tribur—a former fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage—I was able to apply to college in the United States.

    I ended up at the University of Oregon, majoring in linguistics. Someone once told me that once I was fluent, I would begin to dream in English. I never thought it would happen, but it did! Now my dreams are a mix of English and Khroskyabs.

    I go back to my village every summer. I started the Khroskyabs Language Project to create resources, which could support efforts to revitalize the Khroskyabs language. Video and audio recording is critical since our language has no writing system. I hope to one day create a writing system for Khroskyabs speakers so we may sustain our language and culture.   

    I produced five short videos and uploaded them on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform, which allowed me to share oral traditions with our community as well as a wider online audience. Introducing Khroskyabs into the realm of social media counters perceptions of the language as outdated and obsolete. Instead, the videos establish that Khroskyabs is alive and very much relevant to the twenty-first century. So far, the response has been very positive.   

    This video project has also given me the opportunity to contribute to my culture. As Tibetans, we love to sing and dance. However, there are no songs in Khroskyabs so we usually sing in Amdo Tibetan. I translated the lyrics of this Tibetan toasting song (to deities, parents, guests, etc.) into Khroskyabs and then recorded my performance. When it was done, I teared up. I never imagined I would sing in my mother tongue.

    Video by Yu Lha

    Yu Lha works as a computational linguist at Apple. She holds a BA in linguistics from the University of Oregon.

    In 2019 we are celebrating the Smithsonian Year of Music, with 365 days of performances, exhibitions, and other music-related programming around the institution. Learn more at music.si.edu.


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