High Peaks Pure Earth presents the first part of “Baba Baoma” by Tsering Döndrup, translated by Christopher Peacock. Don’t miss his introduction to the story which we published last week. Parts Two and Three will be published on November 21 and 25 respectively so please come back then!
“Baba Baoma” By Tsering Döndrup
Translated by Christopher Peacock
Hey readers, how’s it going? My name’s Baba Baoma. Well, Baba Baoma’s not my real name – it’s Wanggyel. I was always getting asked what my surname was by my Chinese classmates, teachers, and friends, so I asked Dad what my surname was, and he said we didn’t have one. Once, out of curiosity, he asked my granddad if we had a surname, and Granddad said, “We’re the Drushangchak clan, of course we have a name! But like the saying goes, even though the rainbow’s pretty you can’t wear it on your back, and even though our ancestors’ past was glorious it’s no good in the present. So what’s the point in bringing all that up now?” He also told us that his family used to be rich, so during the Cultural Revolution he got a paper hat stuck on his head and went through countless struggle sessions.
I could barely even get my tongue around the surname Granddad mentioned, let alone find a way to pronounce it in Chinese, so I just gave up and said my surname was 王 and my first name was 杰. On my ID card, however, they wrote 旺, so some people thought I was a liar. Like my Chinese ex-girlfriend, for example. As she put it, “How can you believe someone who won’t even say what his surname is?” Whatever, ta ma de Baba Baoma. Of all the nicknames the locals gave me, that was the most popular, the most offensive, and the most hurtful. Those bastards love giving people nicknames. My older sister, who speaks both Chinese and Tibetan, said this was likely to do with the fact that so many Tibetans have the same name. But the way I see it, it’s because they’re uncultured and uncouth. This is one of the reasons I can’t stand them, as well as one of the many reasons I sometimes feel ashamed of being Tibetan. I’m not against all things Tibetan, though. Tibetan songs, for example – I love ‘em. I can’t understand most of the lyrics and I don’t know what they’re about, but the melodies and the beautiful voices get me every time. That said, this penchant of mine has also got me in trouble on occasion. Once, I played a Tibetan song to my sister through the phone and asked her to explain what it was about in Chinese. She got really embarrassed and tried to avoid the question. Ta ma de. Turns out it was a love song. After that, I got another nickname from the locals: Bardowa. I didn’t know what Bardowa meant, and when I asked my sister, she said, “It’s a wandering consciousness that has lost its present physical form but hasn’t yet found its next physical form. In Chinese it’s 阴魂.” When I looked up 阴魂 on Baidu, ta ma de, turns out it was some kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. The locals are very big on their superstition. This is another reason I don’t like them, as well as one of the many reasons I sometimes feel ashamed of being Tibetan. Far worse than that one was Baba Baoma, a term that doesn’t just apply to me now, but to all Tibetans like me who went to Chinese school. “That one’s a Baba Baoma, too” they’re always saying. Surely, all young people like me must unite in opposition against this unbearable trend!
When I was five or six, my dad was the secretary of the Tsezhung township Party Committee, and the only car in the whole township – an army-green 北京 jeep provided by the government – was parked outside my family’s home, and the car keys that hung on the wall of our house were unmistakable proof of the fact that my father was the highest official in the entire township. But my dad didn’t seem all that content with this status. I can still remember clear as day how, every time he rode that jeep back from a meeting at the county seat, he’d heave a deep sigh and say, “It’s tough not knowing any Chinese!” As I later learned, my dad was – relatively speaking – an honest man, good at his job, and well connected with the masses, but, like the majority of cadres who’d graduated from Tibetan schools back then, his Chinese wasn’t very good. Even worse, after he graduated from junior middle school, his family was labelled “bad elements” and he wasn’t assigned a job, so he had to go back to the grasslands and work as a shepherd for a few years. He was only recruited as a cadre after the end of the Cultural Revolution, by which time his Chinese pronunciation had deteriorated even further, meaning that he couldn’t join the sub-county cadre reserves. And it was really something when the newly arrived secretary of the County Party Committee, a Han Chinese from the east who didn’t understand a word of Tibetan, decreed that all township officials had to make their reports at meetings in Chinese. When my dad, sweating bullets, his head swimming, and talking like he had a mouthful of marbles, started making his report on the township’s affairs in a mix of local Chinese dialects, sounding like a cross between a Linxia fur trader and a Xunhua caterpillar fungus picker, everyone in the room burst out laughing. The new secretary basically didn’t catch a word of it and flew into a rage, declaring that adjustments would have to be made.
One thing I was even prouder of than my dad’s status was that jeep that was always parked outside our house, which I thought of as our private property. And in fact, we used that car for anything and everything we liked, just like a nomad family would use a yak, or a farming family would use a donkey. In the process of toying around with the jeep, my dad taught himself to drive. Even though he had a driver, he would often drive himself, taking our whole family on trips to another township to drop in on some family or other, and sometimes we went to the monasteries of Kumbum and Labrang to pay our respects. It goes without saying that later, when I was going to school, he used this car to drop me off and pick me up. Sometimes, however, other officials from the township got my father’s permission to use the car too, which was proof of the fact that it was not, after all, my family’s private property, and so I became helplessly overcome by the desire to have my own car, one that I could drive myself. This wasn’t just because the jeep signaled our family’s distinct status, it was because I loved cars from the bottom of my heart.
But cars are a double-edged sword: they’re also dangerous instruments. Once when we were driving somewhere we came to a blind bend on a mountain road and another jeep going in the opposite direction suddenly burst round the corner. Dad swerved hard to the right and the car scraped into the cliff face, pretty much ruining one side of it. An even more serious incident occurred one day when my parents were out. I opened the door of the jeep, clambered into the driver’s side, then grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and turned the ignition key with my right. With my left foot I pressed down on the clutch and with my right I stood on the throttle, and the car suddenly began to wail and struggle. In a panic, I pressed the throttle even harder, and before I knew it, the car had leapt forward and crashed into the front door. It wasn’t the end of the world, banging into the front door, but when I think about it, the scary thing was that my sister happened to be outside washing her hair right by the doorway and I damn near crushed her into the wall. People instantly came rushing over from nearby. They love to make a big deal of everything, those people, no matter what it is. “Oh no, oh no! Three Jewels!” they cried, shaking their heads and sticking out their tongues, “He was a hair’s breadth away from flattening the little lass!” My sister wasn’t in fact hurt in the least, but she was scared out of her wits and stood there shaking and crying, while I sat in the car dumbfounded. Just then my father popped up from who knows where and dragged me out of the car. He gave me such a beating I was barely able to get some mushy tsampa down my gullet. From then on, I was singled out as a dangerous little trickster, and I never saw the keys to the car hanging on the wall of my house ever again.
The row of six red-tiled buildings located in a dilapidated earthen-walled compound by the banks of the Tsechu River housed the Tsezhung township government and Party Committee. The rows of buildings either side of it, likewise surrounded by dilapidated earthen walls, were the Tsezhung township veterinary and public health clinics. The health clinic was where my mum worked. My sister’s primary school, the credit co-op, and a few shops were just across the road, each surrounded by their own earthen walls. This was, in short, a little prairie town that hadn’t changed one bit in its mere thirty-odd years of existence. Sometimes the yaks and sheep that belonged to the nomad families in the area would wander into the streets and courtyards of the town. Some of the dzos and yaks, hankering after a bit of salt, spent all day licking at the pee stains left on the walls by the town’s residents, carving out channels at their bases.
The biggest and newest tent among the nomad families that lived outside the town belonged to a family I often visited. A few days before, the man from that family had fixed empty saddles to the backs of one yak and one dzo and roped them together. He himself rode his horse as he led them down along the Tsechu, and the next day he returned with two poles of equal length and thickness, bound to which were a pile of tent pegs also of equal length and thickness. His family was already in the possession of a great deal of yak wool fabric, and on top of that, the previous spring they had suddenly called in a big group of women to help make even more. They brushed the coarse yak hair into log shapes, then planted two thick poles the size of a grown man’s calf in the ground; on one they fastened a wooden spindle, and on the other they fastened a yak-horn spindle that they’d borrowed from some other family. A woman squatted on the ground operating the spindle, constantly swapping the hand that was pulling and the hand that was loose, and another stood, spinning out the thread. When they were twenty to thirty arm spans in length, she joined them into two strands and then rolled them up into basketball-sized balls of wool. After these balls had been woven into fabric, they were fashioned into this huge tent. One morning, they were burning incense and blowing the conch, and when I ran over, curious to see what was going on, I found them pitching their new tent. After it was erected, they laid on a great feast: sweets, fried pastries, fruit, drotü (a delicious cake made from flour, butter, curds, sugar, and mini sweet potatoes). Most people brought bolts of cloth and silk, as well as butter and cheese, and some of their relatives and close friends brought little yak calves with five-colored ribbons the thickness of two fingers fastened on their ears. Everyone ate, drank, celebrated, and had a great time.
The kids from these nomad families were all good buddies of mine. At dusk, when smoke drifted slowly out the flaps of the nomad tents, filling the air like a bolt of azure gauze, most of the animals roaming the streets of the town returned to their pens – either voluntarily or led by their owners. Back then, I spent all day playing in the water down on the banks of the Tsechu with the kids from those nomad families. If we got hungry or thirsty, we’d run off to someone’s house and drink a cup of cold milk, or mix some tsampa into the milk and eat that, and as though we had to complete some task of great importance, we’d dash madly back to the river, where we rode around on the calves and played about in the mud. When our hands, feet, and faces were completely plastered with dirt, it was time to go home. When I think about it, that was probably the happiest time in my life – no worries, no responsibilities, no pressure, no strife. One day, when the waters of the Tsechu were really swollen, a girl – younger than me, both her cheeks bright red – got swept away by the river. While my mates stood there dumbfounded, I, with no hesitation at all, plunged into the Tsechu to save her. Just when the water got up to my navel, I slipped on a loose stone and fell backwards. Everything went black and a thundering sound roared in my ears. I thrashed about wildly, absolutely terrified, but I couldn’t reach the surface and just sank even further. Not only had I failed to save the girl, I was about to lose my own life, too – and it was right then that an adult came running over and rescued the both of us. Even though I hadn’t managed to save her, everyone praised me even more than the adult who actually had saved us, and the girl’s father presented me with a large bolt of pongee silk to make a shirt with, topped with a khata. I had become a little hero who put others above himself, the very model of virtue – a far cry from a few months before, when I was seen as a little trickster, and even a danger to others.
When I was about to walk through our front door – right by where the 北京 jeep was parked – I heard someone inside saying my name and talking about me. I loitered outside and eavesdropped out of curiosity, and I heard the voice of my dad. “Things’ll be hard if he can’t speak proper Chinese. And it’ll just get harder and harder, I reckon. Before long, it’ll likely be difficult to get a government job if you can’t speak and write Chinese. That’s why all the county leaders are sending their kids to Chinese schools – even Alak Drong has put his daughter in a Chinese school! Eh, seems to me we’ve made a big mistake sending our daughter to a Tibetan school, as well. But she’s already in her third year now, so what can we do? Well we can’t mess up the boy’s future, at any rate.”
“But there aren’t any Chinese schools around here. What choice do we have but to send him to a Tibetan one?” – This was my mum’s voice.
“We’ll have to send him to the county seat.”
“But even in the county seat there isn’t a Chinese boarding school. And even if there were, the boy’s too young to be off on his own.”
“We’ll have to rent a place in the county seat for the time being, and my parents can go look after Wanggyel. After a couple of years the two of us can transfer there as well.”
“Well then, we could wait until we get our transfers and enroll the boy in school then. There’s plenty of time, he’s still young.”
“The earlier you start learning another language the better, especially when it comes to proper pronunciation. We can’t delay.”
“It’ll be tough, going to a Chinese school when he doesn’t know a word of Chinese.”
“Everyone says if you send them to Chinese school when they’re young, they’ll be speaking the language like a Chinese person in under a year.”
Aha, so they were talking about sending me to school. They’d been discussing this for a while now, so I wasn’t happy, wasn’t sad, and certainly wasn’t surprised. What was unexpected, however, was the fact that they weren’t sending me to the township primary school where my sister went. Instead, they were going to separate me from the family and make me go off to the county seat. In the past, when my parents had gone off to do training courses and such, I’d gone to stay with my grandparents. They were both extremely fond of me and they gave me a lot more freedom than my parents, so having to stay with them was by no means a bad thing. As I thought about this, an image appeared before me of my granddad’s scarlet pate, my grandma’s ash-grey braids, and their perpetually smiling, cheerful faces, and I missed them both dearly.
Happily, it wasn’t long before dad put us all in the car and drove us to the county town. He found us a place to stay, got all the necessities, and, even more happily, he bought a little color TV, so now I could watch cartoons like the one I’d once seen on a previous trip to the county seat and had never forgotten about. Dad kept driving and we went to his younger brother’s place. He told my uncle that he should send his son to Chinese school like me, that way he’d have a future, too. But my uncle said, “The boy’s still young and I’ve got no plans to school him yet. And even if I do send him to school later on, it’ll be to a Tibetan one.” The two of them had a big fight after that, then my dad got really mad and stormed off, taking Grandma and Granddad with him, not even stopping to drink a cup of tea. I can still remember it clearly.
A few days later, when school started, they enrolled me at the Chinese primary school. They bought me a whole new set of Chinese clothes, we went to a barber and they had him cut my hair nice and short, and they even took me to a bathhouse where I got a good scrub. After that, they gave me a heap of instructions – study hard and obey the school rules, listen to my teacher and Grandma and Granddad – then they turned round and headed back to the township, my mother wiping tears from her eyes.
 Ta ma de (他妈的) is a Chinese swearword. Literally “his mother’s,” its meaning is similar to “fuck” or “fucking” in English.
Translator’s note: This story was written in Tibetan. It contains numerous loanwords from Chinese, rendered in Tibetan script, as well as Chinese characters and some terms in the Latin alphabet. Words in italics represent Chinese loans written out phonetically in Tibetan. Footnotes are the author’s from the original text.