Norzin at the Monastery

Agu Gyamtso, Norzin’s Uncle

My Deyang wet her pants again. “Look, Ama,” she said pointing to a wet streak down her leg and a small puddle on the floor. I buried my face in my hands.


“I am not cleaning that! You clean it yourself.” Now I sounded like the three-year-old.


“I can’t clean it, my hands will get dirty.”

“Well what about my hands? Why didn’t you tell me you needed to go?”

“I saw the momos and then I forgot.”


I gave myself a moment to get it together while Baby D waited patiently.


One night a storm hit the village hard with howling winds that shattered glass and slammed gates. The next morning the temperature had fallen overnight to minus 15 degrees Celsius. Stepping out of the house was like stepping into a giant freezer. The hundred meters walk down the hill burned my face and glued my nostrils shut. Real winter had arrived. I spent my evenings with Baby D (Deyang), as my husband Yidam came and went between visits to neighboring towns. Norzin had been packed off to live in Labrang Monastery for three weeks with her uncle. The morning of her departure she nudged me awake at dawn to help her pack.

“Norzin, there’s no way you’ll be able to wear a dress. It’s really cold!”

“But at night,” she insisted.

“It’s not like our house, it’s much colder at Aku’s,” I said pulling out the dresses and replacing them with thermals and sweat pants. Our home is an oasis in a desert of ice. I no longer have to go through the morning ordeal of frozen water in kettles, rock hard toothpaste and blue toes. For the past year we’ve been living in a well-insulated house where we can casually enjoy a shower even in the depth of winter.


Children are quick to forget hardships and fast to overcome them as well. I wanted Norzin to go live in the monastery, take classes and shadow her uncle. The next three years would be the only time in her life where she could mingle freely in the world of monks, play with the young ones, learn from the older ones and get a glimpse of monastery life. Before now, she was too young to be a companion to my brother-in-law and in a couple of years she would be too old. In any case, with her tutor gone, I felt I was being shadowed by a whirlwind; I needed to do something with her.


My husband handed her over to his brother who promised he would allow only an hour a day to visit her grandmother and aunts. She would otherwise be kept close to him. He would help us discipline her. Norzin giggled at this. She and Aku were friends. Though she loved to risk it she knew she had to be careful of his temper and the paddle he kept hanging on the door. She would topple over his head while he sat reading, and he would chase her around the yard with the paddle. The first day she called twice. I could hear Aku bustling in the background preparing dinner while Norzin babbled; she’d been struck by the paddle once already.


“Right Aku?” she called out.

“Well, it was your fault, you didn’t listen,” he answered.

“Yes,” she mumbled before changing the subject. “And did you know that Aku wears a dress to bed?” she shouted into the phone laughing, making sure to let Aku hear. Monks wear what is called a “mayok,” a thick red petticoat under their robes in the winter. They usually sleep in their mayoks and Norzin found this incredibly amusing. “And this house is so cold! And the beds are damp!”


All monks have a heated kang—a long table or platform that runs down the middle of the room—to sleep on in winter. The heat from the earthen bed is damp and the beds usually don’t have mattresses. Norzin was being reacquainted with a way of life she had left only a few years ago, to her it was but a faint memory from the distant past.


A young monk of about fourteen, Dakpa, shared the courtyard residence with Aku. When Aku was busy with his monastic duties Norzin went to classes at another monk’s house. When her classes were over she would recruit Dakpa as her companion.


“I’ll teach you English if you take me to the supermarket,” she proposed.


“I don’t want to learn English.”

“Fine. Then I’ll split whatever I buy at the supermarket with you.”

“What if I don’t like what you buy?”

“Ok. Then we can choose together AND I’ll split it with you. Humph! You are a little devil!”


“What did you call me?”

Dakpa always caved and Norzin got her way but it didn’t come without some negotiation.


The second day Norzin didn’t call me and finally at eight in the evening I called her. She said she was being good and was busy.


“Busy with what?”


“OMG Ama, I am working so hard!”


“Oh really! On what?”

“I’m studying Tibetan, writing my journal and teaching English.”

“Is it cold?”

“It’s fine.”

“Are you eating well?”

“Yup – all healthy – no junk!” She knew the answers I was searching for but it was true that with Aku she was having better home cooked meals than she would with me. Indeed, ten years ago, when I first arrived and started working on the plateau, it was his house rather than any of Yidam’s sisters that I visited when I longed for a hot meal and the comforting bustle of home life.


Whenever I called after that Norzin was always busy. She loves to be surrounded by people and the close nit community of the monastery was ideal. Monks came to visit and she got to show off her English skills and ask them for stories. In the meantime, Baby D turned to me every evening, “Is Acha coming tomorrow?”

“No, Baby D. She’s at the monastery.”

Baby D gave a broad smile, scrunched up her face in excitement and with a final confirmation asked, “Not at all before we leave for India?”


“Nope. Not at all.”

With that, she’d pad off to rummage through Acha Norzin’s things. This was the opportunity of a lifetime!

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