Tibetans Explain What ‘Suck My Tongue’ Means. It’s Not What You Think.

TRADITION “It seems that many people, forced into an environment of e-connections, have completely forgotten what human connection means.”

The viral video showing the Dalai Lama asking a kid to “suck” his tongue —and the subsequent public outrage— has led to hundreds of Tibetans to come out and tell the world: It’s not what it sounds like. 

Over the weekend, an edited video of a Feb. 28 interaction between the 87-year-old spiritual leader and an Indian boy went viral, leaving many of the 6.7 million Tibetans across the world in distress and shock over the way their language and culture were misinterpreted. 

Tibetans told VICE World News that the meaning of this common expression used to tease and teach children is completely lost in cultural interpretation and its English translation. The correct phrase in Tibetan for this joke is “Che le sa”, which roughly translates to “Eat my tongue.” English is the Dalai Lama’s second language and Indian news outlets have previously reported that the leader speaks in broken English at public events. 

In 2000, the Dalai Lama was quoted by The Indian Express as saying that he started to learn English at the age of 48. “Broken English helps me communicate better and creates laughter when I make mistakes,” he is quoted as saying. 

In a Youtube videoJigme Ugen, a second-generation Tibetan refugee living in the U.S., explains how this display of affection was born out of a game played between the Tibetan elderly and children. Kids who go up to their grandfather, for instance, are asked to kiss their grandfather’s forehead, touch their noses and kiss them.

“Then [the grandfather] says that I’ve given you everything so the only thing left is for you to eat my tongue,” Ugen said. “The child probably never gets the candy or money but gets a beautiful lesson about life, love and family.” 

“It seems that many people in these turbulent times being forced into an environment where we’re meeting people virtually and making e-connections, have completely forgotten what human connection means,” Ugen added in the video. 

Tsering Kyi, a U.S.-based Tibetan journalist, told VICE World News that in Tibetan culture sticking out the tongue is a “sign of respect or agreement” which goes back to the legend around a cruel 9th century king, Lang Dharma, who had a black tongue.

“Since then, people have shown their tongue as a way of saying that they are not like Lang Dharma,” she said. 

“It’s a sign of blessing,” she added. “When a kid wants to hug an elderly man, the old man complies, and then gives a kiss as a grandfather or a father would, and plays with the kid.”

Kaysang, who goes by one name and is a Tibetan feminist educator in India, told VICE World News that “suck my tongue” in Tibetan is also a game for the elders to deter cheeky kids from pestering them. 

“The word ‘suck’ in the Tibetan language is ‘jhip’, and this is not a word that is sexualised in our culture,” she said. 

Kaysang works on the prevention of child sexual abuse in the Tibetan and Himalayan communities and said that it’s “distressing” to see an innocent expression in their culture being equated with act of pedophilia. 

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