High Peaks Pure Earth presents the third and final part of “Baba Baoma” by Tsering Döndrup, translated by Christopher Peacock. Please go back to read the introduction to the story as well as Parts One and Two. Thank you for reading!
“Baba Baoma” By Tsering Döndrup
Translated by Christopher Peacock
The kind of joyless job where you have to go to an unfamiliar place to deal with unfamiliar folks just in order to scratch out a living is what the politicians call “serving the people.” But the place where I went to serve the people wasn’t unfamiliar at all, in fact it was Tsezhung township, the place where I rode calves and plucked flowers when I was a kid. I think this might have had something to do with the fact that my dad had pull with the then head of Tsezhung township. I served as the secretary of the township government, a job that had no connection whatsoever to my specialty of law.
The moment I arrived in Tsezhung township I felt a wave of affection and wanted to look round the whole place, as though I had finally finished my long wandering abroad and come back to home sweet home. The old crumbling earthen enclosures had disappeared and had been replaced by breeze block walls, and the apartments and offices of the township government had turned into multistory buildings made of reinforced concrete. Most striking was the primary school my sister had attended – the students had doubled in number and the traditional decorations painted atop each of those multistory, reinforced concrete buildings made them rich with ethnic flavour. In terms of their height, their quality, and anything else you care to mention, they were no different from the township government buildings.
The smooth and even pitch-black highway that stretched from the county seat crossed over the streets and extended as far as the eye could see. On either side of the roads there were endless rows of two-storied buildings. The upper floors were all apartments, and the street-level units were all pork butchers, Muslim restaurants, grocers, mahjong parlours, pool halls, motorcycle repair shops, and so on. As I later learned, these buildings had originally been made with a mix of private and public funds for nomad families who had been made to abandon their livestock and grasslands, but after a while the nomad families sold or rented them off to the Chinese and the Hui Muslims and moved to the outskirts of the county seat. When I found myself at the banks of the Tsechu, I saw that the river had become noticeably smaller. The nomad tents and the sheep and yaks of days gone by were nowhere to be seen; instead, the grasslands and the riverbanks were covered in plastic trash. I shuddered inside.
Not only were the apartments of the township government quite swanky, there was also a very clean canteen for the cadres and the staff where they cooked delicious food on an electric stove. In sum, the first impression I had of the place was “change.” In fact, I thought, if this didn’t count as “the world being turned on its head,” then what did?
“Ah, ta ma de, such rapid development, such big changes! Just ten years ago the only fuel we had in this place was yak crap.” That’s what I said at dinner that night, in a mix of Tibetan and Chinese, and all the locals burst out laughing at me.
Just like my Chinese colleagues, I was sitting there with my mouth hanging open wondering what was so funny when the middle-aged Tibetan woman who cooked the food said, “Good lord, what a state! That’s how it is these days. My dear, it’s called dung, not ‘yak crap.’”
Yes, of course I knew it was called dung – it was on the tip of my tongue! But it seems to be human nature for people to make themselves feel better by picking up on the slightest mistakes of others. From that point on my local coworkers referred to me as “yak crap” behind my back, and I in turn looked down on them for their poor Chinese. I was determined to give one of them a nickname like “Muttman Jr.,” but I couldn’t think up a good one, and eventually I forgot about it. Anyway, I took a special trip to the Museum of Traditional Nomadic Culture in the county seat so that I wouldn’t make that sort of mistake again, an issue that became especially urgent after I found out my job responsibilities were tied up with the lives and work of the nomads. Though the place was full of stuff I’d seen before, I couldn’t remember the names of anything. Even more regrettably, I couldn’t read a single one of the exhibit labels that listed the names because they were all in Tibetan.
One time, the township head said that the township People’s Congress was due to meet soon, and he asked me to prepare a summary of the year’s projects as well as a plan for the year to come.
Ta ma de. To me that was harder than writing a history of the world. Darkness fell on me the moment he said it.
Noticing my gobsmacked expression, the township head laughed. “No need to be so scared. Just take a quick look at the data from last year and change the numbers.” He opened up a binder and without having to look for long he retrieved a file and placed it in my hands. Darkness fell on me again. Why, you ask? Because the file was entirely in Tibetan. My voice quavering, I replied despondently, “But… I… I don’t know Tibetan.”
“You have to write it in Chinese,” the township head responded distractedly. “The new secretary is Chinese and he doesn’t know Tibetan. Plus most of the grassroots-level cadres these days have had some schooling and they understand a bit of Chinese.”
“But… the file is in Tibetan, and I can’t read it either, so…”
“Oh right right. Go see Rapten. He can read Tibetan and he’ll give you the gist of it.”
Rapten was the township government’s driver and he must have been about five or six years older than me. When I’d first arrived a few months before, I came in his car, and I’d since ridden it a few more times when going to and from the county seat. He was a man who loved to gab, and he loved even more to use Tibetan proverbs. On the road our main topic of conversation was usually cars: Baomas (BMWs), Benchis (Benzes), Fengtians (Toyotas). He also loved to sing Tibetan songs. From the looks of it, he was a happy man who was completely satisfied with everything in life. We had many similar preferences, but one thing on which we differed was that he liked traditional Tibetan folksongs and dunglen guitar songs, whereas I liked modern Tibetan music. He said that a few years ago there were young women all around the township, and back then you never felt bored even when you had no electricity in your apartment. But now, even though there were TVs in every house and mahjong parlours on every street, all the girls had gone off to the county seat, and there was no way to pass the days anymore. Feeling slightly dejected, he said, “Eh – if you take a bitch out the dogs won’t bite, if you take a girl out the day’s alright. How true!”
Rapten and I pored over the file for an age, communicating in a mix of broken Chinese and broken Tibetan, but the things he said like “annual livestock attrition rate” and “relative proportion of female bovines” were simply a language from another planet. At my wit’s end, I decided to swallow my pride and admit to the township head that I couldn’t do the job.
The township head looked disappointed, but in the end, he said, “It’s not your fault. Look, these days the school’s classrooms, dormitories, food, desks, chairs – it’s all even better than what we have at the township government, but when they finish primary school, most of the kids still can’t read Tibetan well. It’s not your fault, you learned Chinese from when you were young. Ok ok, I’ll just have to write it myself.”
I went to the county seat and begged my dad to get me a transfer to a department where I wouldn’t need to speak, read, or write Tibetan, but my dad said that working at the grassroots level was a prerequisite for getting promoted to a leadership role so I had to put up with it, at least for two or three years, then we’d see if we could land me a better position before he retired. And then, as though something had just occurred to him, he said, “You should take advantage of this opportunity while you’re still at the grassroots level to see if you can learn to speak proper Tibetan.”
Whenever I was with Rapten I tried my best to speak Tibetan, to ask him the meanings of all the proverbs he used, and to memorize them. He also helped me realize a long-held aspiration: learning to drive. I asked him all sorts of questions about local customs and things and in short, he became my teacher. He once told me that when men and women were kissing and fornicating on TV we should be ashamed in front of our mothers but not our fathers, and for women it was the other way round.
“Oh I see, that’s how it is.” Thinking that I’d learned some kind of folk custom, I repeated this to my sister. Her face went bright red and she was paralyzed with embarrassment. My sister told my mum about it, my mum had a good chuckle and told my dad, my dad had a good chuckle and told his friend, and his friend had a good chuckle and spread it round the whole county. Ta ma de, the end result, as I’m sure you know, was me getting ridiculed and taunted both by people I knew and people I didn’t.
A long highlands winter finally passed and a belated spring finally arrived. At the same time, crowds of Chinese and Hui Muslims gathered in Tsezhung to pick and to buy caterpillar fungus, and the place became a hive of activity. Out of curiosity I went among them too to find out what it was all about, and I discovered that if you bought one piece of caterpillar fungus here and went to sell it in the county seat you made one yuan in profit. I thought I should at least give it a try, so I spent the month’s wages I’d just got on caterpillar fungus, went to the county seat, sold it, and that was indeed the case.
Well well! Turns out that this trading business is as easy as that! If that’s how it is, if I got into some free and easy business enterprise instead of doing this headache-inducing work with all its fawning on your superiors and its ta ma de relative proportion of female bovines and all that other mumbo-jumbo, not only would I be self-sufficent, who knows, before too long I might even be able to buy myself a decent car.
I went back home, borrowed a good chunk of change from my mother, and carried on with my caterpillar fungus business. I was absorbed in it body and soul, so much so that even my dreams were of caterpillar fungus and piles of cash and expensive cars. In the end I spent all the money I had on caterpillar fungus, but when I went to the county seat, the price of the stuff had dropped by half overnight.
According to Rapten the driver, this was likely the result of my failure to do my recitations and incense offerings. He taught me a chant that was very difficult to get my tongue around. It wasn’t just hard to say – I didn’t understand a word of it, either, so I asked my sister. At this point, my sister was a teacher at an ordinary middle school. She’d got married and wasn’t living with my parents anymore.
“Oh dear, how pitiful! What a stupid thing to think that the Dharma is a way to get rich! That ‘superstition’ you’re always going on about – that’s exactly what this is. Looks like you’re really beyond saving now,” my sister said, shaking her head in disappointment.
“Well, what’s the Dharma then?” I asked, baffled, and similarly disappointed.
“Me explaining it would be like ‘the layman giving the lama’s sermon and the monk singing the layman’s song,’ but since it looks like you Bardowas really are foxes in the fog, I don’t have much choice but to teach you a thing or two: ‘Commit no evil deeds, practice virtue perfectly, and achieve complete discipline over your mind – these are the teachings of the Buddha.’ And another: ‘If your thoughts are pure then the earth and the path will be pure. If your thoughts are evil then the earth and the path, too, will be evil. Since all depends on the mind, you must strive towards purity of thought.’” After reciting the words, she explained their meanings in Chinese.
“I’m not sure if I’ve committed any ‘evil deeds,’ and I can’t think if I’ve done wrong to others, either.”
“Yes, I believe that you’re a good person. The main problem is… eh, there’s no need to go into all that.”
“But what’s the use of all this Dharma practice if it won’t make me rich?”
“Good lord, Three Jewels! This is what I meant when I said you’re beyond saving. It’s like pouring water on a stone. There’s no need to talk about all this, and there’s no point in getting so worried about losing a bit of money. Haven’t you heard the phrase ‘wealth is like a dewdrop on a blade of grass’?” As she spoke, she took out her bank card and handed it to me, along with her PIN.
Just as my dad said would happen, I didn’t have to wait long – relatively speaking – before landing a position as the deputy head of the township, and it was around this same time that Dad retired.
One day not long after taking up my post, the township head went off to a meeting at the county seat, and since the secretary didn’t know any Tibetan, I got stuck with an unavoidable task. There had been an ongoing dispute between two nomad groups over pasture lands which, a few days previously, had suddenly grown serious and erupted into violence. It was my job to settle the dispute, or at the very least to prevent the situation from getting any worse for the time being. As we were driving to the place, Rapten the driver said, “Everyone knows the reason for it. The young guys these days only need their motuos (motorbikes), they don’t care about grazing pastures. The main problem is that a few crooked old men from the two clans have been blowing wind up the lads’ wings, getting them all riled up. What you need to do is gather up the old men and say, ‘You should be putting stones on the young lads’ wings, not blowing wind up them.’”
Normally I found doing reports on the situation of the nomads to be very tiresome. I even found it daunting, mainly because of all the unintelligible proverbs they used. For that reason, the best thing to do was start speaking before they could get a word out. At the meeting I first outlined the situation as I understood it and provided some advice, and then I said, “Therefore, it is imperative that you old folks blow wind up the young lads’ wings and not put stones on them.” “Oh yes we understand,” they said. “If that’s what the authorities say, then we’ve got some ideas.” They went their separate ways, and the next day a bloody conflict even more serious than the last broke out. When two senior officials arrived to broker a peace, the nomads laid the blame for the incident squarely at my door. “If you had love for the masses, you would have said ‘You must put stones on the young lads’ wings and not blow wind up them,’ but yesterday you said ‘You must blow wind up the young lads’ wings and not put stones on them.’ So how could we just sit around and do nothing? We’ve reported the matter to the government and the Party Committee over and again, but you’ve done nothing, then yesterday you came here to have a dig at us, and now here we are in this mess. The township government and Party Committee must bear 100% of the responsibility for this incident.”
“Haha! You’re just stirring up trouble on purpose. Yes that’s what Deputy Wanggyel said, but obviously he just misspoke. Everyone knows that Comrade Wanggyel went to a Chinese school when he was young and that his Tibetan is no good. Now look at yourselves, using that as an excuse to exacerbate the problem. If you lot aren’t afraid to jump in the water, why should I be afraid to stand on the riverbank and watch you do it?” When the township head said this, not holding back any of his anger and irritation, the nomads finally fell silent. But the news of this incident immediately spread around the county, and “Haha did you hear what the Bardowas did” became the joke du jour over people’s teas and beers. The higher-ups handed me a demotion and at the same time I was transferred to the county seat. Baba was both furious and disappointed. He said that if he hadn’t retired not only would I have kept my post, I might have even got promoted, but now there was nothing he could do and everything was finished. He sighed repeatedly, and you could see his hair was already going gray.
There were both Chinese and Tibetans in my new department, as well as an ever-increasing amount of what the nomads called Bardowas – people like me who were neither Chinese nor Tibetan. At this job, we were constantly filling out all these forms in order to pass the bosses’ appraisals, just like you had to face all those exams at school to get your hands on that diploma. But fortunately, not speaking a word of Tibetan wasn’t a problem in this department, and there was even less use for reading and writing it.
I was finally able to realize that ambition I had harbored since I was a kid: to buy a car that belonged to me alone. After Baba retired, he said, “Erzi has always liked cars ever since he was little. Lots of people are buying their own cars these days, so I think it’s about time our family got one too.”
Mum was in complete agreement. “You’re right. The boy doesn’t gamble, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke – it seems only right we should get him a car.”
And so we spent a good chunk of money – relatively speaking – on a decent mid-range vehicle. I was delirious with joy. All day long I’d have a girl in the car, tearing around with no destination in mind, the speakers turned up and the songs blasting out: “Fly, Just fly, If you don’t fly your life will be over…” But before long everyone else started buying cars, each one better than the last, and pretty soon the car had gone from being a tool that gets you from point A to point B to being a way to show off your wealth and power, and my car was pretty much relegated to the lowest rank. Even more unfortunately, by that time my baba was long since retired and had no income apart from his monthly stipend, meaning we didn’t have the means to buy a better one.
The work at my department involved the endless and tedious filling out of various forms, and all the conversations were about which high official had embezzled the most public funds, whose family had bought a Fengtian, whose family had bought a Baoma, what the monthly salary for such-and-such kind of position was, what kind of life insurance payout you got, and so on. One time someone told a story about an elderly official from the county who contracted diabetes and died shortly after. They gave his family 41 months of wages – a total payout of over 500,000 yuan – and his son-in-law had then gone straight out and bought a Baoma. Everyone was drooling at the thought.
“Ta ma de, if that’s the case, when my baba dies I’ll have the money to buy a Baoma too!” When I let these careless words slip out, everyone stopped moving and stared at me with their mouths open, stunned into a momentary silence, and then the room exploded with laughter. From then on people called me Baba Baoma. When my baba heard about it he was thrown into despair. “Three Jewels!” he cried, “How awful, how horrible…”
Gradually, my local coworkers at the office started calling me Baba Baoma right to my face and asking me things like: When are you going to buy a Baoma? Put bluntly, what they were really saying was: When’s your dad going to die? If I got angry, they’d say, “Ah ho, this Baba Baoma can’t even take a joke!” and the piss-taking would get even worse. Seriously, they were always bantering about each other’s wives, calling them butt-ugly and stuff, basically making jokes of the kind that I didn’t dare listen to, let alone repeat. Some of them even made the jokes into side-splitting ditties or doggerel verses then spread them about. The nomads were especially fond of and skilled at these things, and not even the local cadres were a match for them. But I was never able to get on board with this custom.
Fortunately, I was eventually transferred to an office where there wasn’t a single local cadre. There, at least, there was no one who called me Baba Baoma to my face, nor was there anyone who went in for all that banter and merciless piss-taking. However, the place was enveloped in an intangible atmosphere of mutual suspicion, and the way that people fell silent whenever I approached, in particular, made me think of what my ex-girlfriend Zhang Qian had said: “If they are not of our race, their minds are different.” Having to always be careful about every little thing I did and said really was a form of torture. Basically, I was plagued by loneliness. Usually I had some friends among the other Bardowas or Baba Baomas, but this time, when they weren’t working they were all busy trying to graduate to ever higher ranks, so I didn’t have a single person to talk to. It was then that a sudden irrepressible desire to display my Tibetanness welled up within me. I remembered what Rapten the driver used to say about Tibetans and prayer beads. Yes, I thought, a Tibetan must have prayer beads, so not only did I buy myself an extravagant rosary made of ivory, I also bought three decorative coral beads to go with it. I put the beads around my neck, and the first thing I did was jump in the car and drive to my sister’s place to prove that I was a Tibetan, blasting that song on the way: “Panchen-la, Rinpoché…” But much to my surprise, my sister was shocked, and a little angry.
“Good lord! In a day and age when people won’t use skins and animal products to try and protect endangered wildlife like the elephant, here you are wearing ivory prayer beads! How shameful,” she said, deeply disappointed in me. This scene reminded me of all those years before when I’d made my grandparents wear those cardboard hats. I, too, was very disappointed. “I just wanted to prove I was a Tibetan,” I said.
“If you’re a Tibetan, shouldn’t you be more mindful about protecting wildlife than others?” She shook her head, neither crying nor laughing, and said, “The only thing you need to prove you’re a Tibetan is to be able to speak proper Tibetan. You don’t need to go putting prayer beads round your neck. And please, I’m begging you, if you are going to wear prayer beads, they definitely shouldn’t be ivory ones.”
“Ta ma de,” I muttered to myself as I was heading back to the shop where I bought the beads. This was the biggest store dealing in ethnic clothing and accessories in the Tsezhung county seat, and their specialty was genuine gold and silver and fake turquoise and coral. The Hui Muslim owner wouldn’t give me a refund, but he said I could exchange it. I’d been planning to get Xiangxiang a present for a while, so I exchanged the ivory prayer beads for a gold necklace. Xiangxiang was Jangchup Drölma’s Chinese nickname. Like me, she went to Chinese school when she was young, so she was also, as the locals said, a Bardowa – or a Baba Baoma. One small difference between us was that Jangchup Drölma, or rather Xiangxiang, could only understand a little Tibetan and pretty much couldn’t speak a word of it. Apart from that, there wasn’t much difference between our mindsets and our habits, and there couldn’t have been a more natural girlfriend for me. She was much prettier than my ex Zhang Qian, and she had an even fairer complexion and softer skin. The one problem was that Xiangxiang and I were technically related: our mothers’ mothers’ mothers were sisters. I knew this because when my baba was still working, Xiangxiang’s family members were often over at my house and they were always talking about how we were related. According to the marriage laws, once you’d passed the third generation, it was legal. For the Han and the Chinese Muslims, intermarriage among maternal relatives was in fact commonplace, as long as there was no connection on the father’s side. But I was well aware that it was not at all permissible in a nomad area like Tsezhung. Therefore, Xiangxiang and I kept our relationship under close wraps – we would, for example, travel all the way to Mazhung County, 100 kilometres from the Tzeshung county seat, just to get a hotel room. Though it goes without saying that the whole of Tzeshung would be in an uproar if our secret came out, we weren’t afraid of it affecting our livelihoods or anything. But if our families found out, it definitely wouldn’t be good for us. Yet paper can’t contain fire, as they say, and at some point our secret spread across the whole county.
Damn, this was a ta ma de worthy of the name. At that moment I remembered one of the proverbs I’d learned from Rapten the driver: “Once you’re at the riverbank you can’t pull the horse away.”
“I wish the incestuous pervert were dead…!” Even if I had died my parents couldn’t be any more miserable than they were now. Plucking up my courage, I said to them, “It’s even stipulated in the ‘Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China’ that marriage is allowed as long as it isn’t within three generations, so I’m not breaking the law. The Chinese and the Muslims even have marriages between maternal relatives as long as there’s no relation on the father’s side. And another thing – they do this sort of thing in Tibetan farming communities, as you well know. So there’s no need for you to act so shocked.” Out of nowhere, Baba slapped me in the face and lost his temper. “My god! This shameless pervert… this shameless dog is actually trying to justify it! The deviant has learned all the bad habits of the Chinese and the Muslims and none of their good ones.”
I retreated a couple of paces. “I’ve been over eighteen for a long time now, and according to the law, you have no right to interfere in my affairs, and you certainly don’t have the right to hit me!” I shouted, and for an instant my parents were even more shocked than before. After a minute everyone sank into gloom and sat there crying. Eventually, my father issued a long sigh and said, “Listen. Get this straight. If, from today on, you don’t stop seeing that girl, don’t even think of setting foot in this house again. You’ll be disowned. I’m not just saying it, I’m a man of my word, just like a jackal follows the tracks. I swear on the Three Jewels.” He was as angry and disappointed as the time I got demoted, and his shoulders sagged wearily.
Facing the gossip of society and the opposition of your family is no easy thing. I didn’t think that Xiangxiang would dare face up to it. Either way we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. We’d even stopped calling each other and texting on WeChat. I thought that that was the end of the matter, but unfortunately, not only was that not the end of it, things got even worse. As we were having lunch one day, Xiangxiang’s Mum barged right in and deposited a little baby in my lap before I even had the chance to react. “This is the product of your inbreeding.” She span around and marched out, also without giving me a chance to react.
We all sat for a while, stunned and confused. At some point the baby woke up and began to wail horribly, a sound more like the cries of some savage beast’s offspring than that of a human being. His cheeks started turning blue and it looked like he was about to pass out. “He must be hungry,” my mum said, and went straight out to buy a plastic baby bottle, but when she poked the bottle at him, the child twisted and turned its lips away and wouldn’t drink at all, and then he began to wail even more horribly than before. Baba sighed and said, “Let’s take him back to their place for now. We’ll talk it over and figure out what to do.”
Mum went to Xiangxiang’s house holding the baby to her breast, weeping.
A few days later Xiangxiang’s family brought the baby back again.
In the end it was decided that Xiangxiang’s family would take care of the baby until he stopped weaning, after which my family would take care of him. But a couple of months later Xiangxiang’s family reneged on the deal and brought the baby back. And so time passed with the baby, who still had no name other than “the inbreed,” being passed back and forth like a football.
The still silence of my family’s yard was only ever broken by the occasional wild animal cries of the inbreed – never by music, and never by laughter. And with the exception of Sundays, when my sister came over to wash our clothes, or when Baba’s brother’s family occasionally came over from the nomad area where they lived bringing some meat, butter, cheese, yoghurt, or milk, there pretty much wasn’t a word of conversation exchanged in the house, either.
I often looked into the inbreed’s expressionless, statue-like face and felt a profound regret for those early times when Xiangxiang and I had sometimes been lax with the contraception. And why didn’t Xiangxiang get an abortion when she still had the chance? Was she trying to torment me on purpose? Thinking about all this, I worked myself up into a rage. Anyway, as I thought about how this damn kid had ruined everything for me, I was filled with boundless misery and anger and felt like lifting him in the air and smashing him down on the ground. At other times I felt a profound and overwhelming compassion for the kid and I pressed him to my cheek, unable to hold back the tears.
Though the inbreed was almost at the age when he should be going off to nursery school, he still couldn’t stand on his own two feet, and the only word he could say was “Ba–– Ba–– .” One day when we were sitting there fretting about this, I heard something other than just “Ba–– Ba–– ”coming from the inbreed’s mouth. Overjoyed, I immediately called to my mum and dad. We kept encouraging the inbreed to say something again. Finally, he opened his mouth:
“Ba–– Ba–– Bao–– Ma––!”
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.