High Peaks Pure Earth presents a short story from Tibet in English translation called “I Wasn’t Born Out of the Ground” by Dawa Drakpa. The short story was published online in December 2021 and was the winner of the “Gangchenjong” Short Story Contest in Ngaba, Amdo in eastern Tibet. Our thanks go to Thinlay Gyatso for submitting the English translation for publication.
Unfortunately it’s not possible to find the original post from Tibet anymore. Despite winning the literary contest and being liked and shared on WeChat, the short story appears to have been scrubbed. The short story was however re-posted on the exile Tibetan language website Khabdha on December 8, 2021. Although it’s hard to know the reason for the short story being taken offline, it may have something to do with the term used for the red dog in Tibetan (རྒྱ་དམར་) Even though this word only means red in the story, it can also mean “Red Chinese” in modern terms and would therefore be flagged as “sensitive”.
Please enjoy this charming short story, told through the eyes of an unnamed and innocent young boy trying to make sense of the world and his life. Please scroll to the bottom to read a translation note and short bio of the translator.
“I Wasn’t Born Out of the Ground”
By Dawa Drakpa
Translation by Thinlay Gyatso
The dark cloud in the south looked to me like the language teacher with his hand raised in anger to slap someone. I didn’t say it to the other students though, some of whom said it looked like an old yak, while others said it resembled a stallion. Drawn to the dark cloud in the sky, we crowded at the school gate and didn’t notice how the language teacher had come just behind us. “Little devils, don’t you see it’s going to rain! Go home quickly,” the language teacher shouted in a forceful voice. The students crowded at the school gate dispersed in every direction like a flock of birds hit by a stone. Scared to the core, I also leapt the length of a good rope. Then, having calmed down a bit, I walked like a duck. I didn’t know whether the language teacher saw me but for me, that was the best way to show an attitude towards him.
On the way home, carrying sorrow and annoyance bigger than my age, I didn’t notice I was close to my home. Suddenly, a dog jumped on me from behind. I thought it must have been the red stray dog that had been running around. All my body hair instantly stood on end. As though my legs were filled up with molten lead, they refused to take one step forward. But, fortunately, in the next instant, what flashed in my view was not the red dog but Dangkarma, the white-chested dog of Uncle Gya Gya’s family.
Uncle Gya Gya’s family were our neighbors and Dangkarma and I were well used to each other. I also loved and treated Dangkarma as our own guard dog. When I left for school in the mornings, Dangkarma and her two puppies would follow me. My schoolmates teased me that they were my three tails.
When I led my three tails to school, I often wondered about the red puppy. How could a black-furred dog give birth to a red-furred puppy? I was baffled. A few days earlier, I had asked Uncle Gya Gya about my bewilderment. Without having to think, he said the puppy must have taken after his Apa.
“Then, who is the puppy’s Apa?” I asked, still confused.
“How would I know!” Uncle Gya Gya shook his head.
As soon as Uncle Gya Gya said that a few days earlier, I thought the red puppy was also an orphan like myself who didn’t know who his Apa was. I had particular sympathy for the red puppy.
When I got to our courtyard, the delicious smell of meat filled my nostrils. I thought the smell must have originated from Uncle Gya Gya’s courtyard but when I got inside the house, I learned I had guessed wrong. Our medium aluminium pot was on the stove with steam puffing out through its lid. The irresistible smell of meat became even more delicious. In my experience, my Ama would never put that aluminium pot on the stove except to boil meat.
“Do we have an important guest coming tonight?”
Another experience of mine was that Ama would never boil meat except when we had an important guest. So I thought we were perhaps going to have an important guest like Uncle Rigzin or Aunt Pema.
“Do your homework. Do your homework,” said Ama without answering my question. Whether or not I had homework, Ama always told me to do it. So, I also always pretended to do my homework whether or not I had it. I took out a notebook and pen from my schoolbag and pretended but I couldn’t write a word on the notebook. It was as though today’s homework was deliberately created by the language teacher to cause me trouble. I remembered the piercing slap he had administered on my face in the morning. I firmly believed that I had been wrongly accused. The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to do homework. Even though I actually wanted to write the homework, today’s homework was not something that I could easily write.
While I pretended, as usual, to be doing homework in front of Ama even though I couldn’t find anything to write about, my younger brother, from behind Ama, signaled with hand and mouth to play horsebreaking with him. As Ama stood between us, there was no way we could play horsebreaking. With a mouth gesture towards Ama, I signaled we couldn’t play. After a while, the crisp bell sound of Ama’s phone ringtone went off. With haste, she went outside. In her absence, my brother ran to me and whispered that we could play horsebreaking. In fear of Ama returning inside shortly, I said we shouldn’t because Ama would scold us.
A few moments later, as I had guessed, we heard Ama was coming back while having a conversation with someone else. I thought Ama must have been having a conversation with either Uncle Rigzin or Aunt Pema. When she stepped inside, I learned that I had been wrong. The guest Ama had brought in was somebody I had never seen before. The way my brother, with sparkling eyes, looked at the face of the stranger as though he was searching for something showed clearly that he had also not seen this person before.
I suddenly realized that I had completely forgotten to pretend to write my homework. When I picked up the notebook and pen that had been tossed aside and was about to pretend again, Ama said, don’t write homework, go outside to play. These words were exactly what my brother and I wanted to hear but we were in disbelief and stole a glimpse of each other and looked at Ama’s face as though we were asking for confirmation. Ama again said, go, go. Go to play. We rushed to the courtyard, one faster than the other.
In the courtyard, my brother and I played horsebreaking. Horsebreaking was our favorite game. During the summer school holidays, we had been to our uncle’s summer camp where we had seen many amazing shows of horsebreaking by the youths on the nomadic pasture. Those shows mesmerized us, plus uncle spoilt us by taking us to graze on his horse. Life on the nomadic pasture was unforgettable but Ama always sent word for us to return because she needed help with some chores, cutting our sweet life on the pasture short.
So, back in the village, one of us pretended to be the horse while other the horsebreaker to play horsebreaking. There was no way to compare this game to riding a horse behind uncle but this game was fun. But, in general life, as my Ama’s hand was always raised and ready to slap, my brother and I had very few chances to play. Whenever we had a little chance to play, Ama always said, you are the older brother and how could you ride on your younger brother? So, I was always the horse and my brother was the rider. That evening, Ama must have been in deep conversation with that stranger because she never took a step outside. We didn’t have someone making the rules on us how to or how not to play the game. So, with the authority of an older brother, I made my brother play the horse for the whole evening. I was the rider doing the horsebreaking.
At some point, stretching his neck over the wall, Uncle Gya Gya was peeping into our courtyard. Even though we were not far apart, I could only see his dark face but not the black mole on his temple as it was about to get dark. I remembered the piercing the slap he had delivered across my face a few days earlier and I questioned whether I was again wrongly accused like the slap from the language teacher.
I was a kid who liked to think about things. Since Uncle Gya Gya had said that the red puppy must have taken after the father a few days before, I started to think about who the father of the red puppy could be. The following day, I found a reasonable answer to the question. Fortunately, with the logical reasoning I used for answering the question regarding the red puppy’s Apa, I found a reasonable answer to the question about who my Apa might have been. In the morning when I was on my way to school, I bumped into Uncle Gya Gya heading to the prayer wheel temple. I told my logical conclusions to Uncle Gya Gya with complete honesty.
“Uncle, your red puppy’s father could be the red stray dog in the township,” I said with confidence.
“Why?” Uncle Gya Gya didn’t seem to understand what I meant.
“Didn’t you say that the red puppy must have taken after his father? In our village, there is no other red-furred dog than the stray red dog, so he must be the father of the red puppy,” I told him my logical conclusion.
“That makes sense. The red stray dog might have been the father of the puppy,” Uncle Gya Gya said thoughtfully and praised me for being intelligent. I was very pleased to receive praise from Uncle Gya Gya.
With that, I told him my logical conclusion regarding who my father might have been, “So, there is no other person in our village with a mole on their temple than you. You might have been my father.” With my right hand rubbing the small mole on my temple, with my left hand, I pointed to the black mole on Uncle Gya Gya’s temple.
“What? You child of starvation*!” Uncle Gya Gya, without any hesitation, delivered a piercing slap across my face and quickly looked around with his triangular eyes set deep inside his head as if his loot was about to be exposed.
“You child of starvation! You… You… If you express such nonsense in the future, I… I will beat you to a pulp.” Uncle Gya Gya’s face turned red and then dark red. I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I stood there frozen like a stone pillar.
On the way to school that day, I longed for a father more than ever. I thought if I had had someone to call Apa, Uncle Gya Gya would not have slapped me like that without hesitation.
Stretching his neck over the wall, Uncle Gya Gya looked around our courtyard. He then, with hand gestures, called my brother and I to the wall. Wearing a secretive facial expression, Uncle Gya Gya, in a low voice, asked who our guest was. My brother and I looked at each other and shook our heads to say that we didn’t know. Uncle Gya Gya said if we told him the truth, he would give us candy. He fished out a fistful of candy from his pocket. Looking at the candy in Uncle Gya Gya’s fist, my brother swallowed saliva. I also wanted to get his candy badly. While he was not paying attention to us, I winked at my brother and said it was Uncle Rigzin and my brother simultaneously said it was Aunt Pema, exposing our attempt to lie. Uncle Gya Gya knew we were lying. “You two children of starvation, if you don’t tell me the truth, I am not going to give you candy.” He put the candy back in his pocket. For the candy, my brother and I wanted to tell the truth but the guest was a stranger we had never seen before. How could we know who he was?
It got completely dark. My brother and I also stopped playing and went back inside. The stranger sat on the right side of the stove with a square wooden plate full of the delicious meat in front of him. The way he cleaned his mouth and hands with tissue paper suggested he had eaten enough meat already. Ama was leaning her head on his shoulder but, as soon as she saw us inside, she sat up straight. She then came to the left side of the stove with a serious look on her face. I saw her face turn red. I didn’t know why Ama’s face turned red like I had had no idea why Uncle Gya Gya’s face had turned red a few days earlier.
Turning towards my brother and I standing like stone pillars behind the door, she told us to sit beside our Apa. I didn’t believe my ears and looked at her face. She again said we should sit beside our Apa while motioning towards the stranger with her mouth. I looked around inside the room and there were only three of us, an Ama with two sons, and the unfamiliar guest. It then dawned on me that the father Ama meant was the stranger. It felt very unusual and awkward. I don’t know how to describe this awkward feeling. When I started to move towards the right side of the stove, my brother was already sitting beside the unfamiliar guest and showing off a few lumps of rock candy towards me. At this point, the stranger stretched his hand with some more rock candy towards me as well. Doubting if I was allowed to reach for the rock candy, I looked at Ama and she slightly nodded towards me, so I reached for the candy.
By the same logical reasoning in the case of the red puppy’s father, I couldn’t find anything in the face or on the body of the unfamiliar guest that suggested he was my father. When I was in deep thoughts of logical reasoning, my brother was busy calling him Apa and all his sentences started and ended with the word Apa. Was it because my brother called the unfamiliar guest Apa that he got more candy than I did? But I would not blame the unfamiliar guest as he gave me some candy too. The more important thing was that I got a father, something I should be happy about. However, I didn’t manage to call the unfamiliar guest Apa. It felt like something lacked in my voice box to produce the sound Apa.
Soon after dinner, as though she was rushed by some urgency, Ama told my brother and I to go to bed in the back room. Packing his candy from the unfamiliar guest, my brother disappeared into the back room. From the same spot, I once again studied the face of the unfamiliar guest but, like earlier, I didn’t find anything in the face or on the body of the unfamiliar guest that suggested he was my father. But I comforted myself by thinking that I might have taken after my mother instead of the father like the white-chested puppy of Dangkarma.
In bed, I was again consumed by thoughts bigger than my age. Now, my thoughts were not about the unfamiliar guest called Apa but what had happened earlier in the morning. I thought the smack delivered across my face by the language teacher was unjustified.
In the morning, the language teacher smacked me when he was returning graded homework from the previous day because the topic of the homework was “Apa” and I had handed him an empty page except for the title “Apa”.
I really didn’t know what to write about a father.
“Why didn’t you do your homework?” the language teacher fiercely asked.
“I don’t know what to write,” I said while scratching the back of my head.
“How come? You don’t know what to write about your own father?” The language teacher’s voice was even more fierce.
“I don’t have a father.” My voice was very low but the classroom was even quieter, making what I said audible for everyone.
“Rubbish! Then, were you born out of the ground? Bring it tomorrow,” the language teacher demanded as he didn’t want to waste any more time. A new lesson started. But after class, the students started to mock me for having been born out of the ground.
When I thought about what had happened in the morning, a surge of sadness out of nowhere overwhelmed me but the thought of having a father now dispelled the sadness. For this reason, I should thank the unfamiliar guest tonight. Sometime at around this point, I heard a noise from the main room. I listened to it closely. It turned out Ama and the unfamiliar guest were playing horsebreaking. Because it was pitch black and there was a wall between us, I couldn’t see anything but from the way Ama was panting heavily, I could tell Ama was playing the horse while the unfamiliar guest played the horsebreaker. I thought as tonight Ama also experienced playing the horse, she would know the rule of making me always be the horse was not fair and I felt optimistic that she would amend the rule in the future. After a while, the unfamiliar guest and Ama stopped the game. I also fell asleep and dreamt a dream. In my dream, the unfamiliar guest also had a small mole on his temple as though it was the proof that he was my father and, like my brother, I was also calling him Apa at every start and end of a sentence. With a huge pile of candy, the unfamiliar guest walked me to school and I was explaining to my schoolmates that I wasn’t born out of the ground but a mother’s womb.
In the morning, Ama woke us up early. She told me to do my homework quickly while putting my schoolbag beside my pillow in the midst of breakfast preparation. Determined to call the unfamiliar guest Apa like my brother did, I quickly got up and went to the main room. In the main room, there was not even a shadow of the unfamiliar guest. I asked Ama where Apa had gone but she only told me to do my homework quickly without answering my question. I thought my Apa, like the fathers of all the other kids, must have gone to work. Asking no further questions, I did my homework. This morning I had no problem writing on the topic of “Apa”.
On the way to school, I met Uncle Gya Gya. An unsuitable smile on his sunburnt dark face, he asked the same question from the previous evening: “Who was the guest in your house?”
While he asked, Uncle Gya Gya reached into his pocket. I thought he might be reaching for candy in his pocket but, like the previous evening, I said I didn’t know who the guest was. It was not that I didn’t know but I didn’t want to tell the truth to Uncle Gya Gya on purpose. Now, like Uncle Gya Gya’s pocket, my pockets were also heavy with candy. I no longer wished to get candy from his pocket. No matter how persistently Uncle Gya Gya asked, I didn’t give him a single piece of true information. I didn’t even respond to his questions that much. For me, this was the best way to show him an unhappy face. As he couldn’t extract a word from my mouth, he headed to the prayer wheel temple. Dangkarma and her two puppies tailing Uncle Gya Gya followed me. Upon seeing the red puppy, I genuinely felt sympathy for him. Usually, each time I felt sympathy for the red puppy, I resented my own fate as well but this morning I realized, for the first time, that my fate was different from that of the red puppy.
Upon arrival in school, I looked at the timetable pasted on the wall. Luck was on my side. Language class was first. I fantasized about pleasant images of the language teacher praising my writing and the classmates applauding. This morning the normally annoying school bell was so slow to sound as though its feet were tethered to a boulder. The essay titled “Apa” on the table, I waited for the bell sound to begin class. It felt like I had completely changed into another person in one night. But there was a new student in our class this morning. All the students crowded around the new girl with fickle interest and nobody seemed to pay attention to me. Motioning towards me with their mouths, some students were saying something to her. Were they saying that I had been born out of the ground?
After a long wait, the usual screeching sound of the bell sounded beautiful to my ears today. The language teacher also arrived on time. Putting the textbook on the edge of the table, he surveyed the whole class. As he didn’t find any empty seats, he turned to me and asked whether I had done the homework. I had been waiting for that question. I immediately responded that I had done the homework and handed the notebook on my desk to the teacher. He read my essay while slightly nodding his head. Wearing a very satisfactory look, I looked around at all the students but all the students winked and looked at the newly joined girl with fickle interest. Nobody saw me. At this point, the language teacher, without warning, like the previous morning, smacked me in the face with a loud clapping sound. The sound of the smack brought the noisy classroom to a pin-drop silence. All the eyes of my classmates naturally turned towards me. Holding my cheek in one palm, with a humbled look in my eyes, I looked at the face of the teacher.
“Horsebreaking game? Rubbish! Are your parents children? How can you write such a thing in an essay?”
Was it because I wrote about the horsebreaking game Ama and the unfamiliar guest had played last night? I didn’t know what I had done wrong but like yesterday, the language teacher wore a fierce look on his face. The laughter from the students in the classroom roared like a dam burst. In the midst of roaring laughter, I saw the newly arrived female classmate. I still hadn’t learned her name. Her unfamiliar eyes looked at me as though they were asking if I had really been born out of the ground.
* Child/Children of Starvation is an attempt at finding an equivalent to the Tibetan word མུག་ཕྲུག which is a widely used term for children and adolescents in Amdo. It’s so widely used that it no longer sounds offensive. It may carry an implication of being stunted as hunger was a big part of everyday life not so long ago.
Thinlay Gyatso was born and raised in Amdo with a monastic education. He fled to India in the early 2000s to pursue a more modern education. He has worked as a reporter, researcher, translator and writer. Now, he lives in Scotland.