High Peaks Pure Earth presents the second part of “Baba Baoma” by Tsering Döndrup, translated by Christopher Peacock. Don’t miss the introduction to the story as well as Part One which we published a few days ago. Part Three – the final part – will be published on November 25.
“Baba Baoma” By Tsering Döndrup
Translated by Christopher Peacock
One unexpected torment for me was that every morning when I was fast asleep dreaming pleasant dreams my grandparents would wake me up, neither gently nor forcefully, and take me off to school. There weren’t so many cars on the roads back then as there are now, and though there were almost no traffic accidents, there was a different kind of danger: the abundance of wild mongrels that multiplied by the day. Incidences of these dogs ambushing children and women walking by themselves were a frequent occurrence. I’d seen such incidents myself. One day, a reddish dog that was trotting along not far away from me and Granddad suddenly ran right at this girl who was walking alone, then with one leap it pinned her to the ground. In reality, these weren’t “ambushes,” but straight up law-flouting attacks on people’s lives. Fortunately, Granddad ran over shouting and yelling, and the beast let the girl go before it’d had the chance to harm her. Due to this menace, it was imperative that all the primary school kids like me got picked up and dropped off by an adult.
Early in the morning, I grabbed my heavy school bag, still only half awake, and Grandma dragged me off to school. The first day I arrived at school, the other kids gathered around my grandma and gawped in wonder as though they were looking at a pre-historic savage. More specifically, it was my grandma’s braids they were amazed by. It didn’t stop there: some of them were quite openly whispering among themselves and even mocking her out loud. To be honest, at that time, there weren’t really many people who still had traditional braids like my grandma, just like there weren’t many people who dyed their hair blonde back then, so it’s no wonder they were taken aback. But this made me so unbearably embarrassed that I begged for my granddad to be the one to take me to school from then on. Much to my surprise, however, the kids were also amazed by Granddad, and they laughed at him too. When I think about it, what amazed them was his copper-coloured ladle-like pate. These events stung deeply and threw me into contemplation. It’s incredible – don’t they have a single old person in their families? And if they do, don’t they have a single bald one, like Granddad? Either way, I had to make Grandma and Granddad wear hats when they came to get me, I thought. Unfortunately, the hats they owned were ancient, beaten up, dirty old things, so they were liable to have an even worse effect. I was worrying myself sick about this, and then I had a sudden flash of inspiration: for next to nothing, I could make them a couple of fetching hats myself! Moreover, I was sure they’d both be moved and overjoyed by this unexpected gift. They were always giving me a few yuan or some sweets, but I’d never given them a single thing. So, when they weren’t watching, I set right to making them a pair of new hats, and before you knew it they were on their heads. Their reaction, however, came as a surprise. They stared at each other’s heads, mouths wide open, and exclaimed, virtually in unison, “Oh dear! A bad omen! A terrible taboo!” They both removed the hats from their heads and tossed them straight in the fire, anguished expressions etched on their faces. My grandma even had tears in her eyes.
I was completely stunned and had no idea what to do. There was a little shop not far from our house, and they always had some empty cardboard boxes piled outside their front door. I’d taken a clean one and used it to fashion two cone-shaped hats. Turns out those cardboard hats reminded them of the pointy paper ones they had to wear in the terrifying days of the Cultural Revolution, when, in the parlance of the time, they were “attacked ‘til they couldn’t stand and the stink filled the air.”
Us kids who’d come from nomad areas didn’t know a word of Chinese, and it was miserable, like being a deaf person in a chattering crowd, or, as the nomads say, like being a fox in the fog. And so, without any prior agreement, the six of us in the class who didn’t know any Chinese sat two to a table so we could speak Tibetan to each other. But for some reason, about a month later the young, pimply Chinese woman who taught our class was suddenly replaced by a new teacher who was about my dad’s age. This teacher was clearly experienced and knew exactly what he was doing: he split up all the kids who didn’t speak Chinese and made us share desks with the Chinese students.
From the first day I started at school my name was no longer Wanggyel but Wang Jie. It wasn’t just me. There was a girl called Drölma Tso who had to call herself Zhuo Macuo. Norbu Nyima became Nuori Nima, and Tendzin became Shan Zeng. At least that’s what we had to call ourselves in class. When Norbu Nyima, or rather Nuori Nima, got to middle school, he encountered many difficulties as a result of that name. When someone asked him “What’s your name?” he replied without hesitation, “Nuori Nima.” If the person he was talking to was a Chinese from Qinghai, they’d lose it right then and there and curse him with the foulest words possible, and sometimes they just punched him right in the face and the two of them would become embroiled in a life and death scrap.
Among all my classmates, Tendzin was my the one I was friendliest with. On his household registration permit his name was written in Chinese as 单增, “Danzeng.” The teacher told him that when the character 单 was used as a surname it had to be pronounced “Shan,” therefore his name was Shan Zeng, so that’s what everyone called him. After a while he got so used to it that if someone at home called him Tendzin he didn’t respond. His family thought his life essence had left his body, so they held numerous rituals to recall it, but none of them did any good. When he graduated from university he got married to a Chinese woman and disappeared off to the east somewhere and we lost contact after that.
Though nothing like that ever happened to me, I did have a classmate called 王杰 who caused me a lot of problems – or rather, to put it more accurately, his surname caused me a lot of problems. When the teacher called out “Wang Jie!” and I jumped out of my seat, he rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Ai yo, not 旺 (Wàng) Jie, 王 (Wáng) Jie!” As all my classmates burst into raucous laughter I sat back down, my face burning as though I’d done something terrible that I ought to be ashamed of. At first, asking me to distinguish between王 and 旺was like asking me to determine the gender of an ant. With much difficulty, I learned my Chinese ABCs: bo… po… mo… fo… When I got home I watched Chinese cartoons on TV, and gradually I learned to tell the difference between 王 and 旺.
One time we had a lesson on that song 我爱北京天安门 (I love Beijing’s Tiananmen), and the first thing that came to mind was the jeep that was always parked outside our house. I really loved that car. It was for that reason that I was the first student in the whole class to learn how to write the two Chinese characters 北京. I got top marks, and that was the first time I earned the teacher’s praise. But the Beijing they were talking about in the song wasn’t a jeep, it was a city. It wasn’t just any old city, either, it was the capital of China, and that “Tiananmen” was the grand gate to the palace where the Chinese emperors of yore lived. The teacher told us that we must love it, and that in order to love it we first had to learn to read and write the characters. Our ability to do that would be determined by our scores on the test. A student with high marks was a good student. Such a student might go on to become a cadre or even a high official – some kind of talented individual, anyway. If you wanted to become a talented individual, you had to go all out and apply yourself from a young age. I still didn’t understand Chinese very well, but I got the gist of this speech from his expression and the spit he sprayed everywhere as he spoke. For that reason, I was overjoyed when I got high marks on the test, and as soon as I saw Granddad coming to pick me up, I told him all about it. Unfortunately, Granddad offered me no praise and didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. The second we got home I took out the exercise book in which the teacher had written that outstanding grade in red pen and told Grandma the wonderful news. Unfortunately, she, like Granddad, wasn’t bothered in the least. In fact, they’d both been irritable ever since we’d moved to the county seat, even more so after I’d made them wear those cardboard hats, since when the joyful expressions had completely vanished from their faces.
There had been a power outage lasting several days in the county seat and I had no way to watch my cartoons that afternoon. Grandma and Granddad busied themselves with their recitations, and since they still said nothing about the good grades that had been earned through endless hours of hardship, I felt completely fed up, disappointed, and angry at the both of them. I thought and thought about it, and everything about them – their greasy clothes, their wrinkled faces – morphed into a picture of the worst foulness, and I felt exceptionally hard done by to have two relatives such as them. I missed my family, my sister most of all. If I were at home right then, she’d be telling me old stories like “Sermo Tso and Ngülmo Tso” or maybe we’d be swapping riddles:
“You move ahead, I follow your tread. What am I?”
“Everyone knows that one. It’s cattle hooves.”
“A spiral horn on top of thousands of black dots. What am I?”
“A dog sleeping on a pile of sheep droppings.”
“A hundred yaks with one halter. What am I?”
“One yak with a hundred halters. What am I?”
“My shoulder blade is rimmed with metal, my belly is stuffed with grass, my heart is a stone. What am I?”
“If you can’t get it you have to name a family from the community.”
“The driver’s family.”
“It’s a flint.”
I’d yawn several times in a row, then my sister would rub my head and sing me a lullaby. “Bedtime for you, little brother. ‘Time for bed now, time to sleep, and we’ll get you that horse, the horse’ll get a saddle…’” I started crying. I really missed my sister.
It was the weekend. The next day my dad drove over in the car, bringing my mum and sister with him, and I finally got some praise for my good grades. I also took the opportunity to ask him to get new hats for Grandma and Granddad. To my delight, my parents were very moved and they said what a thoughtful and decent boy I was. Not only was I lavished with even higher praise than before, they went straight out to buy the new hats for them, and no longer did I have to be so anxious and embarrassed every time they came to pick me up and drop me off.
My desk-mate at school was a boy from eastern China who loved to prattle away. He especially liked to go on and on about his family and his parents – their jobs, what they ate, what they wore, what they said, what they did – in the process showing off his family’s status and revealing his contempt for everyone else. He said that he came from a big city where there were countless tall buildings that touched the sky, there were planes and trains and cars of all shapes and sizes, more than there were birds and insects and pikas and moles around these parts. Every New Year he and his family took the train back home, and on the train there were beds and restaurants and toilets – anything you could think of, they had it. His dad bought Tibetan mastiffs then sold them back east in China. He didn’t need to buy the mongrels we saw all around the streets and there was no one to sell them to anyway, and it was said that they ended up on the family dinner table. The lad considered it a magnificent thing that his dad’s dog-selling business required minimal capital and reaped huge profits, and even more magnificent that they could eat dog meat for free. Later on I gave him a nickname: 狗老板的儿子 (Muttman Jr.), and everyone said I was a clever little thing. Maybe being good at coming up with nicknames had something to do with being Tibetan. Anyway, from that time on, Muttman Jr. had it in for me, and we didn’t mix much. But one day, he saw my dad drop me off at school in our little car, and once he found out my dad was the secretary of the township Party Committee, he started displaying a noticeable respect for me. Even when I did some bad stuff he’d say it was fine or good and then he kept inviting me over to his house for dinner – or for dog meat, I should say. Never mind going over to their house, the moment I heard the words “dog meat” a vision appeared before me of a withered old dog’s head, its teeth clenched in a snarl, and I was both terrified and disgusted. I came up with every excuse in the book to get out of going.
After the long, freezing winter passed and the long, eye-watering spring winds had finally died down, the snow on the mountain peaks and the ice at the riverbanks began to melt, tips of grass poked up through the earth, the weather gradually got warmer, and I was finally able to take off that padded Chinese jacket I hadn’t changed out of all winter. At that time, I surprised even myself by discovering that I could now pretty much understand Chinese, and sometimes when I wasn’t thinking I even spoke to my grandparents in Chinese, leaving them very nonplussed. It was around this time that I started calling Granddad “Yeye” and Grandma “Nainai”; my dad became “Baba,” my mum “Mama” and my sister “Jiejie.” Dad liked it, at least. He started calling me “Erzi.” He was delighted that I knew Chinese now and he showered me with praise. Sometimes, when I was speaking some clumsy Tibetan, Dad would start bragging, treating it as a point of pride: “My erzi doesn’t really speak Tibetan, he only knows Chinese!”
The whole school was preparing for a festival called 六·一, which I guessed was the June 1st Children’s Day festival they used to celebrate at my sister’s school. Back then, the children, all wreathed in smiles of joy, came down to the banks of the Tsechu River where the globeflowers were still waiting to bloom, and they sang, danced, ran races, played tug-of-war, and splashed about in the water. Kids like me who hadn’t yet reached school age went along to join in the fun and get our share of the sweets. I can still picture that scene: the birds and the insects up in the sky, chirping away, flying about and showing off their skills, having a grand old time – just like the kids down on the grass.
“The flowers are blooming outside and it’s the happiest time of year,” I thought to myself, and I missed my parents, my sister, and even more so the green grass and the flowers and the birds and the insects.
Unfortunately, the Children’s Day celebrations at my primary school in the county seat weren’t like the ones at my sister’s primary school in Tsezhung township. Instead of going out to the grasslands, we went out to what Granddad called “the barren ruins” – the schoolyard, where all the singing and dancing was held. The most grandiose of all the activities was the one in which a group of kids, myself included, red neckerchiefs tied around our necks, stood before the flag of the Young Pioneers with our hands raised in salute and recited the Pioneers’ Oath in Chinese: “Beneath the Flag of the Pioneers I hereby do swear: I love the Chinese Communist Party, I love the motherland, I love the masses. I will study hard, I will train hard, and I will be prepared to give my all for the cause of Communism.” After that, we sang the Anthem of the Pioneers as loud as we could: “We are the heirs of Communism…”
From that point on I felt I stood out from the others, or at the very least that I was superior to all of my classmates who were unable to join the Young Pioneers. And something else happened that gave me even more reason to feel happy and proud: Dad got an official position at the sub-county level and my family moved to the county seat and took Grandma and Granddad back home. As I found out later, my dad’s imperfect Chinese pronunciation wasn’t the only reason he hadn’t got that position before now – it was mainly because he didn’t have any pull. Nevertheless, Dad decreed that, in order to improve my Chinese even further, everyone had to speak Chinese at home and everyone had to call me Wang Jie, not Wanggyel. Sadly, since they – like me at first – couldn’t tell the difference between 王 and 旺, I corrected them just like my teacher did me (“It’s not Wáng it’s Wàng!”) and they became both timid and overawed in my presence.
At some point, I became just like my classmate Muttman Jr.: at school I liked to talk about the brilliance of my family (and primarily myself) and at home I liked to talk about the brilliance of my school (and primarily myself). I especially loved to make fun of and find fault with my sister’s Chinese pronunciation. On the day that I graduated from junior middle school and she graduated from senior middle school, she lost her temper with me. “Not counting my crappy English, I speak two languages. Not counting your crappy English, you speak one. They say that speaking another language is like having another brain. So isn’t it clear which of us is really the clever one?”
This made me mad. “What’s the point in studying a useless language? Don’t you know you’re wasting your life?” I snapped back at her, and that’s when my mum cut in with a fierce rebuke, delivered in Tibetan. “Where are your manners? How can you talk to your sister like that? You’re turning into someone who only thinks of himself, truth be told! Little devils like you learn a bit of Chinese and all of a sudden you look down on the language of your own people! What a sorry state of affairs.”
When I looked to my dad, normally so full of praise for my Chinese abilities, hoping for some support, he just stood there with a face like thunder looking as though he was pondering some very important matter, and he didn’t say a word in my defence.
From then on they spoke to each other in Tibetan, leaving me all by myself. At least that’s how I thought of it. A few days later, my sister left for the city to start university. She sent me messages brimming with affection – sometimes in Chinese, sometimes in English – going on about how she missed me and Mum and Dad and home and so on, but I was completely unmoved because I simply saw it as her showing off her language skills. To be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten about her completely, just like I’d forgotten about my grandparents so much so that when they later passed away while I was at university myself, I didn’t feel sad in the slightest. By contrast, one thing I could never forget was that 北京 we had parked outside our house when I was a kid. My dad now had a car that was twice the price of the 北京, but even though the family was sometimes allowed to use it, the fact that it wasn’t usually parked in our yard gave me the feeling that it wasn’t really our family’s private property. For that reason, it became my goal in life to one day own a car that belonged to me alone. This goal was realised not long after I graduated from university. At that time, a major change had taken place in the life of my family: the completion of a row of houses in a big yard that we owned, which averaged out to a two-room place per person.
Oh yeah, that’s right – I want to tell you about something that happened while I was at university: the story of my relationship with a Chinese girl. These kinds of stories never really amount to much, but a boy’s first girlfriend in life is a big deal, isn’t it? At least it is for Chinese people. Her name was Zhang Qian (张倩) and we sat at the same desk in class. In my eyes, her figure, her eyes, her lips, her hair, her nose – everything about her was beautiful. Most of all, she also possessed what I considered to be the most important feature when it came to a woman: a fair complexion and soft skin. At least that’s how I felt at first. After about a year we fell for one another and became more than just classmates. From then on our relationship was in the open; we stayed in hotels together at the weekends, and even held hands and did a bit of groping under the desk during class. One time when I had a huge boner the professor seemed to notice that something odd was going on and he suddenly called on me. There was no way I could stand so I stayed sitting, pretending for a moment that I hadn’t heard, but then he called my name even louder. Left with no choice, I propelled myself up, sticking my butt out awkwardly. Seeing my unusual posture, my classmates started sniggering, and my face felt like it was on fire. Fortunately there’s no way they could have known I had a boner. At least that’s what I told myself.
When we were in our fourth year of university, she said she wanted us to tell our families about our relationship. Unfortunately, by this time, I’d come to realise that there were many aspects of her personality and her habits that I couldn’t stand. Most of all was the way she obsessed over every single penny that came in and out and the way she always suspected the worst in people, which to me was absolutely unbearable. And another thing – there was no way my family would accept the two of us as a couple. So why would I want to tell our families about the relationship when I was figuring out how to break up with her? But she was a very persistent type, and she told me that she’d already let her family know about us. Apparently they didn’t approve at all at first, but when she told them all about what a great guy I was, and in particular when she told them that my dad was a government official and that my family was well-off, they eventually relented and agreed to at least meet me once. I really didn’t want to meet them, but she put her foot down and I had no choice but to go. They bombarded me with one question after another, as though I were an eyewitness to some bizarre and rare event who had just fallen into the middle of a pack of reporters:
“I heard that your people’s land contains caterpillar fungus that nets a family two or three million yuan a year. Is that true?”
“I heard that even though you people have a lot of money you donate it all to the monasteries and the lamas. Is that true?”
“I heard that when you people get sick you don’t go see the doctor and just recite scriptures instead. Is that true?”
“I heard that you people don’t eat chicken or fish. Is that true?”
“I heard that you people don’t wash in your whole life. Is that true?”
“I heard that the day after your women give birth they have to go right back to work. Is that true?”
I was furious, but I summoned all my patience to calm myself down. I told them that all of these things were true, and I even pretended I couldn’t really understand or speak Chinese, prompting a flustered Zhang Qian to frantically deny that that was the case.
“Well if it’s not, then this boy isn’t as honest as you said.” This was her father’s final word on the matter, and it was my cue to leave.
I went back home in high spirits, most satisfied with the shrewdness of my performance and feeling like a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders. But Zhang Qian was no fool. “You did that on purpose,” she said to me. “How come you said before that your homeland was well-off, and didn’t you say that nomads were quick to adopt new things and that every few days they ride their motorbikes to the county seat to go for a wash? And I know why you were pretending you couldn’t speak Chinese as well – you’re trying to break up with me. ‘If they are not of our race, their minds are different.’ How true. If you want to break up with me, you have to pay a ‘compensation for lost youth.’”
This made me mad. “You weren’t a virgin, were you, so how much ‘compensation for lost youth’ did your last boyfriend give you, or the one before that?” When I said this she shrieked, then grabbed me and said she’d fight me tooth and nail on it. She continued to pick fights with me even after that. After Zhang Qian and I broke up I didn’t have a single friend left in my class, and I was in a miserable state the year I graduated from university.
 In the Qinghai dialect of Chinese, “I” is pronounced nuo. The phrase ri ni ma (日你妈) means “fuck your mother.”
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.
This post is also available in: English