Every year I take a two-month break from Tibet and go stay with my parents, brother, his girlfriend and my sister at their houses in India. Our two house compound is perched on the side of a hill, the Kangra Valley spilled out at it’s feet and stretching out into the horizon. The snowy Dauladhar range towers to the East. Wildlife in the form of macaque and Langurs peek into windows and prowl in the gardens, Himalayan birds flutter and sing, croak and twitter, and inside, the less wild animals, dogs ranging from St Bernards to Chiwawas occupy the choice spots in the living room. The main house is the one where I grew up. As an adult I get to relax, complain and strategize for the upcoming year.
Norzin, my six year old, started her count down as the trip approached. During the few times that I left the plateau in the year, I parked my children with my in-laws, and consequently my two daughters had not descended into the world below for the past ten months. Norzin had memories of a school, monkeys, and lots of dogs from her pervious winters in the Himalayas. She was excited to escape the cold, to see trees again and touch the flowers (NORZIN DON’T PLUCK!!) that bloomed even in the winter. For two-year-old Baby D, she was just excited that she was included in the car as we set off. For once she was on the inside waving goodbye to the outside.
Initially I was supposed to have a series of meetings with KPMG an audit firm in Hong Kong. The meetings got postponed and I found myself left with tickets from HK to Delhi. My husband Yidam and I decided to make a little family holiday out of it. He would take us to HK, we would go to Disneyland and the children and I would continue to India while he returned to Tibet. We were excited about how excited the children would be by Disneyland.
“No, no, no, pleaseeee” This was Baby D. She was terrified of the rides, the crowds, the big bubbly Mickey Mouse and even the smiley Princess Belle. She even refused to sit in the rented stroller. From the 3D Donald Duck to the Lion King show, it was all too loud, too quick and too pushy. She spent much of the day her face buried in her father’s chest.
Norzin was a little pensive and reserved.
“Ama, is the princess real?”
“Ummm, what do you mean real? It’s a real person.” How do I answer this?
“But where does she sleep at night? How come they’re all here – together? Is that elephant real? Is the castle real? Why does it look like paper then? How come there are so many children? Why does the princess like that girl better than she likes me? Why is Cinderella ugly? Can we go to India now?”
Yidam had his own set of questions, it being his first time to Disneyland as well.
“Why are there adults without kids here? Don’t you think that’s a bit strange?” he muttered as we waited in line behind a group of Chinese Mainlanders in their forties. Below us, a car whizzed by on tracks as a Chinese man in his twenties sat behind the wheel squealing. Yidam scoffed,
“Why would a grown up ever want to do that? I mean we drive real cars. What’s the fun of that if you don’t have a kid to enjoy it with?”
“I went to Disney land as a teenager…” I admit.
“But these are adults and they are pushing in lines and fighting with children over rides! They should not allow them! Kids should be able to go first in line!”
I sigh and shrug. He does have a point. Standing in line for half an hour with a two year old and six year old is even more tedious when you see that half the line is made up of adults without kids. Sizing up the group in front of me I silently agreed that it was a bit strange; a tall Chinese woman in her fifties in loud flower prints fought so hard to scrunch herself ahead of us that I didn’t have the energy to fight back. Her front teeth were black and her hair was a short messy crop. Carrying a grocery bag as a purse, she stood with purpose and conviction as if she were at a train station, waiting to fight for a seat on an actual train with a real destination.
Then there were the Aussies with their golden little girls, blond hair, blue eyes and princess dresses. Norzin stopped to stare at them. To her they were like little angels, princesses just like Cinderella. Back at the hotel at night, Norzin stared in the mirror and began attacking her short home cut hair with a brush. ‘AMA!!” she demanded, “WHY am I so red?” finally she flopped on the bed and after some contemplation ended, “I need to have a princess dress. Everyone had one! I don’t want to wear pants anymore. I look like a boy” Elbows on her knees, hands cradling her chin, she looked at me with wide, serious eyes. So we bought her Princess Elsa’s dress and Norzin was conformed to the norms of Disneyland.
So Disneyland wasn’t so successful after all. We had a terrified two-year-old and a suspicious six year-old. On the other hand, the drive up from the plains of Jammu to the Himalayan foothills was a thrill for the girls. Norzin dove into the arms of my older sister Sonam who had come to pick us up. Clad in a leather jacket with two dogs on her heels, she was the epitome of cool to Norzin.
As we drove up, the children oohed at the large colorful trucks, the dusty trees and the occasional flower on the roadside. Baby D, smiled and pointed to a buffalo, “Go go” she said happily, the baby word for yaks. At a roadside Dhaba, we stopped to eat a late lunch. A little monkey was chained up to a tree with a box as his shelter. Norzin and Baby D approached the monkey with Sonam and together they fed it. Baby D wasn’t terrified but thrilled and for the first time Norzin didn’t ask, “is it real?” A stray dog sashayed up wagging its tail for a few scarps as well. Norzin and Baby D squealed in delight. Monkeys and dogs and buffalos – this was right up their alley. And so our two-month stay at my childhood home has begun.
“Sure, why not?” I answer casually, not looking up from my computer.
Yidam shrugs but doesn’t comment. I have a reputation for avoiding local gatherings and festivities. One day I actually sat down and made myself dig deep within ‘me’ to find out why.
‘Insecurity’, that was it! I triumphantly concluded. Having grown up as a product of two cultures, fitting in and belonging has always been a source of self-consciousness. A load that I picked up as a child, and has since been molded and intertwined into who I am today. My new year’s resolution was to open the closet and face my skeletons. My nephews wedding presented itself as my first challenge.
I clenched my hands nervously as I crossed the cold dark Labrang streets. The sun was making a lazy appearance typical of winter. It would be awhile before its rays hit the sidewalks on this January morning. The air was sharp and smelled of coal. We were visiting the young couple’s apartment where family assembled to congratulate them on their new unity of a lifetime. We climbed the dirty cement steps up to the apartment and there my fears took over. Yidam was swept away by a group of men looking to make wedding arrangements. A wave of cousins carried Norzin away and cooing in-laws snatched Baby D up. I stood awkwardly and finally dove for a seat near the window and sat staring at the scene laid out in front of me. A boy with a sweatshirt with the words ‘FUCK’ splashed across his back kept weeding in and out of the crowd. Here these swear words might as well have fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes, they were reduced to mere meaningless English letters.
The apartment slowly swelled with people as more and more relatives trickled in. As I settled into the scene around me, I realized that the room was split into two distinct crowds. There was the town crowd who effortlessly dominated the scene. They were mostly from the bride’s side. Then there were the nomads who were largely my husband’s family. They were glued to their seats, eyes wide, sweating in their large sheep skin robes and taking in the scene around them, fish out of the water.
“How is it so goddamn hot and there isn’t even a stove in sight. One has to move mountains just to get outside for a breath of fresh air!” they grumbled. I wasn’t the only one out of place here.
“Come on, we’re going now” Yidam said two hours later, and I quickly stood up and followed him out of the apartment. Out in the parking lot there was a confusing commotion of people and cars. Yidam was driving a borrowed Lincoln so having the second best car (the best car had to be white, draped with flowers and set aside for the bride and groom) he offered to drive his sister and her husband, the parents of the groom. He motioned for me to slip in as well. Norzin fell into the trunk of the car.
“Ama, did you see that car? It’s sooooo beautiful!” she mused at the dainty car that would leave last in the procession. The bride and groom only arrived once guest and family were all seated.
“What’s wrong?” Yidam asked his brother-in-law, a man in his early forties, slightly pudgy though handsome. There was nothing special about his attire today and he kept shifting in his seat and glancing around. Once in a while he would roll down the window and start shouting at someone in the street.
“I don’t like this.” He mumbled. “Why couldn’t they get married in the village? At least I would know what to do. I feel so stupid, I don’t know where to step next, and I’m the father of the groom today.”
Yidam chuckled as he eased the car out of the parking lot. Yidam’s sister, seated next to me, mumbled, “It’s what young people want these days.”
“I mean I don’t even know what’s going on. I’m nervous! I swear by Labrang Monastery! Did you see the ridiculous pictures they took the other day?”
This time I chuckled. I had quite enjoyed going through the album that the young couple had compiled. Heavily made up, they posed together in front of different backdrops alternating between grasslands and castles. They were dressed sometimes in Tibetan traditional attire and other times in frilly princess dresses and waistcoats with ties. I had to admit that they made a handsome couple. Norzin was very impressed by the castle backdrops and frilly clothes.
“It took them the whole day and we had to wait and wait. If you ask me, for a woman I understand, but it just makes a man look silly spending time and money and dressing up like a little girl!”
“You know that you have to make a speech and go and offer shots to all the tables.” Yidam said, chuckling.
His brother in law head shot towards him, “You’re joking! Stop making me so nervous!”
Traditional weddings will vary in tradition from village to village, though on the whole they are very different from town ones. What they do have in common is that once the families have reached an agreement on dowry and the stars of the prospective bride and groom are matched, the wedding itself is about fun and games dosed with complacency and humor. There is no religious ceremony, but it is a time for an entire village to come together, help each other in preparations and collectively celebrate.
The first visit is by the middleman who arrives at the groom’s house with saddle bags laden with large rolls of brocade and the bride’s jewelry bought for the occasion. The dowry is actually a contribution both the bride and groom’s family. The brocades are unrolled and the dowry jewels examined, and a date is agreed on for the father of the bride and men from her mother’s side who will escort her over to the groom’s house on horse. Young men from the bride’s village follow them, also on horseback and dressed in their finest robes. As they approach the village, they are to be met by the groom, mounted on a white horse. The groom gallops around his bride three times with the men from her side in pursuit. He will have to offer sweets and small cash if they manage to stop him. Then he gallops ahead into the village and the beating of hoofs alert the villagers of the approaching bridal party.
That night the bride sits by the stove in the center of the room, politely refusing to eat too much and putting on a show of modesty and humility. The women hover around her urging her to eat more. The men seat themselves on the kang. The entire village is invited and the singing competition begins. Men from surrounding villages have heard of the approaching wedding date and have prepared for days, sometimes weeks, the songs they will sing. Some are congratulatory; others tease the father-in-laws of the bride and groom. Ironically, in Yidam’s village, they don’t sing love songs, which are considered private and to be sung only during courting.
That night the neighboring villagers perch themselves on the roof around the skylight looking over the biggest family room. They have a thread with wool tied at its end, which they lower through the skylight and into the midst of the party below. A battle of songs ensues and if the party below looses, they have to tie a bottle of alcohol and send it up the skylight. If the wedding is that of an affluent family, the singers on the roof are relentless. They have practiced hard and will try and squeeze the family of as much alcohol as possible. On such occasions, the battle can continue until the early hours of the morning. The entire village is crowded in the house below eating and laughing, entertained by the singers and their wit. As a teenager, Yidam saw his older brother betrothed in this way. Not being such a great singer, he still hung around the skylight at other people’s weddings helping to count, sort and pour the alcohol that they won.
The next day the bride has to wake up at dawn and go fetch water. The women from her prospective husband’s family accompany her and examine how she unloads the water vessel, fills it, and loads it on her back. They will gossip about this later and god forbid if she trips, falls or spills water. Later that morning, women from the entire village surround the matchmaker who is usually a family friend and present throughout the festivities. They chase him and wrestle him to the ground. He is a ball of dust and earth by the time they are finished with him.
That morning, the bride returns to her village with her family. The groom’s relatives load the brides’ family horses with large chunks of meat as parting gifts. The father of the bride himself has come with saddlebags laden with small cash, candies and dried fruit. The women from the groom’s family surround the parting horses and tease the brides’ family, ”Your daughter is joining our village. How do you want us to treat her?” The father has to dig into his saddle bags and throw out candy. The women chase them out of the village with verbal challenges that he will respond to with candy and cash, strewn on the road, that the women and children will chase each other playfully to collect.
The next few days are the bride’s final days with her family. She visits relatives and relatives visit her. It is her time to say goodbye to her loved ones. A few days later she departs for her husband’s family, this time forever and with little ceremony.
Yidam’s brother-in-law had married his first son in such a fashion. His second son went to school and is now a government-employed teacher. His is a love marriage; he met and courted his girlfriend, a town girl, and the two of them decided on a modern town wedding.
When we arrived at the wedding banquet, the guests were already seated. Fireworks were set off to announce the arrival of the bride and groom’s immediate families. Baby D covered her ears with her hands and buried her head into her aunt’s robes. We were led to occupy seats at the front of the banquet.
“This is stupid” Norzin kept mumbling. “I have no seat. I’m too old to sit on your lap”. For the next few days, she scowled at anyone who asked about the wedding, grumbling, “I had no seat!”. Finding a seat was a bit of a commotion as wedding crashers were rife. The food was bountiful, Chinese style endless variety of chicken, duck and stir-fried vegetables. I enjoyed the menu though the nomads nibbled at the chicken and took reserved, suspicious bites at the vegetables. For them a banquet without large meaty dumplings, piles of boiled meat and hot steaming bowls of noodle soup is not a banquet.
A stage was prepared at the front of the hall from which local young and hip Tibetan singers sang catchy, modern songs. Once everyone was seated, the bride and groom made their entrance, introduced by an announcer who directed them to present white scarves to their parents. There was a confusion and a scuffle for white scarves as grandfathers, assuming they were the head of the family, stood up to receive scarves that were meant for the fathers. An embarrassed fumble for more scarves ensued before the elders sat down a little self-conscious and red in the face. For the next hour, the couple had to visit each table and offer a shot of alcohol to their guests. Once they had made the entire round, the fathers of the bride and groom had to make their rounds, offering a few words and a shot of alcohol. Yidam quickly came to the rescue of his brother-in-law whispering to him who was who. He grabbed his robe sleeve that was dragging on the floor and made sure he had his chance at a speech and wasn’t just quietly tagging along with the father of the bride.
“That table is all of your son’s classmates.” Yidam whispered. “You pour the alcohol and make a short speech”.
The father of the groom awkwardly cleared his throat. He probably had never said anything sugary in his life. “So you all came” Grunt “Come to the after party, in the apartment building in the vegetable sellers’ yard. Behind the tomato seller there is a door, open it, and go up to the second floor.” He ended with another grunt and a forced grin. He repeated this same speech at each table.
“He could have said something a little deeper, more auspicious.” Yidam grumbled later. “This was a little embarrassing.”
“Give the poor guy a break. He was a fish out of water.” I was full of empathy. More people than meet the eye are a product or a causality of two cultures. My brother-in-law’s dilemma was not too different from my own.
At the end of the banquet women from the brides’ village couldn’t resist including a bit of tradition. They circled the groom’s father, playfully harassing him for taking away a beautiful girl from their village. He pulled out a 500 Yuan in notes.
“She’s worth far more than that!”, they teased. Finally he turned around and counted out 1000 Yuan.
“Ok, we will make an exception for you. Though the girls from our village are priceless” They then squeezed into a circle and among chairs thrown back and tables stacked with left overs, began to sing a high-pitched song suited to the openness of the plateau. The banquet hall echoed with the voice of another time and generation.
“Some wedding!” were my brother-in-laws words as we left the banquet.
“If you churn a pot of shit all you will get is stink and mess and crap all over the place” Boomed the voice on the other end of the phone. I suppressed a giggle, “I completely agree. Let’s leave that pot of shit alone”
My monk adviser didn’t seem to find it funny. The situation was actually not amusing at all, but then again life is a package deal of pros and cons. The price we pay for this package is the importance we assign to the ups and downs, and twists and turns of life. There are some things you just need to shrug off.
The hate letter appeared on a prominent Chinese social media site called Wechat. Strangely it was directed at an individual rather than Norlha as a whole. A picture of one of my managers was posted with a cross down the middle. An introduction ran where he was depicted as a cruel, money-grabbing individual. Among the faults listed was the incident of the two girls (see blog ‘An initiation into village politics’) who had gotten drunk during working hours and then belligerently jumped out the window of the guesthouse where they were working. Following the pleading of the Village Monastery Heads, Norlha had forgiven them. They were back at work but the dust has not settled on the incident. In many ways I was waiting to see how this would backfire. Nomads are conservative and many found the incident unacceptable and they were not happy with the way we resolved it. The wechat posting chastised not just Norlha and my manager but also the Village Monastery Heads for pleading the case of the culprits. Why my manager was personally blamed baffled me. It only meant that it was someone holding a personal grievance against him and manipulating these incidents to vent his anger. Needless to say, my manager was upset. He wanted retribution. He wanted the police involved. He wanted to dig out the person who had splashed this all over the local social media. I told him I would do whatever my advisor recommended, who happened to be his uncle, a monk and quite a wise one at that.
“I know you helped this woman’s daughter” my monk advisor continued, “I know how with helping, comes a certain affection for a person, so it put you in a vulnerable position. But it was very unprofessional of you to have forgiven her. It was a biased decision. This is a mistake that you made”
“I understand.” I mumbled.
“The person who wrote this is probably someone jealous of your manager. On many points he lied, but with the women, there is no argument. My advice is to examine his words but to leave the shit pot be. Do not stir it.”
There was a silence, then he continued, “If you had consulted me when the incident with the girls happened, I would have steered you away from forgiveness. I understand your compassion for them but this is for the benefit of the whole. Your responsibility for Norlha doesn’t afford you such forgiveness.”
“Yes, you are absolutely right” I mumbled. There was a grunt of approval from the other end of the phone. “Well, now it is too late to regret your decision.”
Was it wrong that I didn’t actually regret my decision? I hadn’t called my advisor about the girls, for I knew what the advice would have been and I knew I didn’t have it in my heart to follow his advice. The sufferings of a little girl somehow weighed heavier than the rules of Norlha. I guess I would have made for a weak king.
“I agree not to act on this hate posting but out of courtesy of my manager I decided to consult you. After all some of the accusations have nothing to do with him so I felt it my duty” I answer.
There was a sigh at the other end of the line, “Yes it is too bad for him. But if let’s say, you had a very expensive car, like the Lincoln that Gendun (a local flashy flaky businessman) drives. If it smashes into a tractor, the Lincoln will probably be more damaged than the tractor. We are like the Lincoln car deliberately smashing into a tractor if we fight the man who wrote this letter ”
I hung up the phone, closed my eyes and leaned against the wall. I thought of the forgiven girls. Had I been weak? How much harder it was to be mean than to be nice. Was that true for everyone? Certainly not for the person who had written the hate letter, but then again, even he hadn’t had the courage to reveal his identity. Would I ever make it as a leader? I had ended the conversation apologizing for my unfairness and promising never to let my personal feelings cloud the benefit of the whole. “This would be the last time” As soon as these final words escaped my mouth, I wanted to reach out, grab them and stuff them back in. Would I have the heart to turn away someone else in the future who needed a second chance? I had just promised to that and for me a promise is everything.
Outside the plateau has decided to give a new definition to the word “cold”. My nostrils stick together when I walk my dog in the mornings. My bones ache. Norzin my six-year-old who hates to be constricted by coats and gloves and hats, has decided to abandon the outdoors. She stays at home all day but not without having invited the neighborhood brood over. She is trying to make the best out of winter. For another little girl, a little girl who has a genetic muscular disorder and can’t jump and run with the others, this is the best time of the year. No one is running out into the hillside leaving her watching after them longingly. Until now, her only friend was a kitten, which too eventually grew up into a cat and left her. Now in winter, her newfound friendship with Norzin means she arrives on her mother’s back every morning to our house. Norzin makes sure that games are designed in a way that Little Lhamo has a fair chance. UNO is a favorite. When it is time to go to the bathroom Norzin pulls Lhamo up into a standing position and the two of them hobble off. Norzin helps Lhamo pull off her pants and drags her onto the toilet seat.
“You are way too heavy for me!” Norzin complains but she helps her again the next day and Lhamo shrugs off Norzin’s complaints.
As I watch the two of them together, I have no regrets on the decision I made on forgiving Lhamo’s mother. Life is often like a see-saw. Today Lhamo and her mother are on the high seat and my poor manager is on the low. And as I enter yet another new year, I continue to learn to maneuver with the little rules of life: Let the shit pot rest.