Transcribed Tape One prior to writing the book. Discussion with Erche Namu Yang on why she wants to tell her story.
Before I came to America, all of my impressions of this country were from movies and television. I found out very soon that the America in the movies is not the real America. Not at all. A friend picked me up at the San Francisco airport and drove me into the city. I stayed with her in an apartment near Golden Gate Park. Having lived in both Shanghai and Beijing, I found America to be so quiet. There were no large crowds on the street during the day. Even in Union Square, the numbers of people were small compared with what I had experienced in China.
But the thing that struck me most about America was the way that people are all strangers to each other. Even people who live in the same building or on the same block don't know each other, don't speak to each other. Everyone here seems to be a stranger to everyone else. Nobody knows his neighbor. You walk down the street or walk through the park and people don't look into each other's eyes, don't say hello, don't smile. Everyone looks at the ground or at the sky or at the buildings. And yet they live side by side. The Mosuo are such a friendly people and we always greet our neighbors and even strangers. I found that the isolation of Americans from each other not only disturbed me. It frightened me. It took me many months to get accustomed to this coldness of Americans toward each other.
When I wanted to go for walks at night and see the city, I was told that part of the city was dangerous! This, too, surprised me. I was unprepared for it. My friends said that at night they went to clubs and bars to meet other friends and to dance and drink. Among the Mosuo we met and danced outside. So this, too, was new to me. I don't drink alcohol. I never have. I learned to make wine for young men, but never tasted it myself. Few Mosuo women like the taste of alcohol. So I went to some bars and clubs with my friends. But my English at that time was almost nonexistent. I knew how to order tea in English. I remember the first time I ordered tea in a club, the bartender said to me, almost in a shout, "If you want to drink tea, why do you come here?" I had no answer. But my impression of Americans as unfriendly was reinforced by his question.
Because of my poor English I had a lot of trouble shopping. One morning I walked to a market to buy some cooking oil. It was my first time in an American supermarket. I was confused totally by the labels because most of them didn't seem to tell me what was inside. I found the section of the store that sold dish washing liquid. I bought a large plastic bottle of it, paid for it and brought it home and then tried to boil it for cooking. It did, after all, look like cooking oil. I could tell by the way it bubbled in the wok that it was not oil. I solved my problem by carrying a large dictionary with me to the supermarket from that day on.
After I moved to San Jose, I liked to go to Valley Fair shopping mall on the weekends. I didn't have any money to buy things, but as on my first trip away from home, I liked to just sit and watch the people spend their money. It was strange and entertaining and educational. People did not greet each other. There were thousands and thousands of strangers walking back and forth in the mall without anyone greeting anyone else or even smiling. I sat on a bench for hours without anyone ever smiling at me. I watched people buying things and I was struck by the fact that everyone was well dressed and seemed to have everything they could possibly need and yet they bought and bought. When stores had sales they were always filled with shoppers spending lots of money. It was almost like a religion. People bought anything and everything. They carried large packages to their cars and drove away. In the next weeks I would sometimes see the same people doing the same thing again. I just couldn't figure it out. At night I thought about this and all I could conclude was that America is a very strange and complicated place for a Mosuo girl.
Of course I wanted to meet some men my own age here. I wanted to date but had no idea how to meet someone. Eventually I met a young man in a park near the home where I worked as a babysitter. He was jogging and stopped to talk to me. Our conversation was carried on awkwardly since I was still learning English and could only speak in simple sentences. He told me he was a lawyer, he was single and he wanted to know if I would have dinner with him -- that night! I told him I did and gave him my address.
That evening I dressed in my most beautiful dress. He came to get me and was wearing jeans and a tee shirt. As you can imagine, I felt a bit strange and out of place for the rest of the evening.
Once I left the Mosuo people I had been warned about young men taking advantage of the openness of my people with regard to the ritual of courtship and sex. For that reason I had remained celibate while living among the Chinese. And before I came to America I was warned again and again about both the looseness and the casualness of Americans in sexual practices and about the diseases transmitted here. Among the Mosuo we had no sexually transmitted diseases. So, for me, even a kiss might be dangerous and I was determined to have no physical contact with an American. I did expect, however, to have fun on a date.
Well, we had dinner -- a beautiful dinner. We went for a drive around the valley and then he brought me home. He walked me to the door and then, as we said goodbye, leaned forward to kiss me. As he did I turned, opened the door, said goodbye and went inside.
I watched out the window as he returned to his car and simply sat in it for several minutes. Then, after about five minutes he came to the door again and knocked softly. When I answered he smile and said, "Namu, would you mind paying for half the dinner?" That was my introduction to dating in America. I must confess, however, that things over the years did improve. They had to.
I wanted romance at that time. I needed it. I missed it badly. But I found during that first date and several times later that there is very little that is romantic in American dating. I had been spoiled by the Mosuo boys. They would sing and dance and recite poetry. They would play the guitar or the violin and pour out their heart. And, in the end, if your own heart was moved, you shared a wonderful romantic evening with them.
But here, I found that too often young men want to buy you dinner and then have sex. It was like a commercial exchange -- almost like shopping. This is not romantic, this is mundane, and this is, I think, all wrong. Again and again I wanted to ask American men, "Where is your heart. Dinner, dancing and fucking? Is that it?"
But I found many Americans mistook that for romance. It was sad. I had never been in such a beautiful country before as this one. I had never heard so many beautiful love songs before as I heard in this country. But the songs here seemed to be a substitute for the real thing. Among the Mosuo the songs enhance romance, are part of it. Here they are separate and they are sold on cd's at the malls where nobody smiles and says hello.
But don't get me wrong. I love America! I have become an American citizen. I will live my life here. I will meet a romantic young man some day and marry. I know it. And we will have many children and sing love songs to each other. I will tell my children stories of my own childhood, tell them of my mother and my grandmother and of all the strong brave women of my people. And I will be happy.
But the dream that is dearest to my heart is this one. Some day I want to return to the hills where I grew up, where I tended the horses and the yaks. I want to build a small temple there. I want to put the names of my mother and my grandmother over the entrance to the temple. And when the Mosuo people are all gone and those beautiful hills of my Shangri-la are populated only by outsiders and tourists, I want people to visit that small temple and to see those sweet names and to remember, just for a moment, who we were, how we lived and loved and what the world has lost.
July 8, 1998
Writing Namu's autobiography. Manuscript, edits, revisions.
Chapter One Proposal: Rough Draft 6 with comments and corrections. March, 2000.
My entry into the world was loud.
Mama cannot remember the date of my birth nor can she recall the month or the season or the year. The only thing she remembers is my endless crying. “From the moment you were born,” she tells me, “you were a troublesome child.”
[LARRY, I’M NOT SURE ABOUT THE EMPHASIS HERE – SEE, IF WE BEGIN WITH ‘MY MOTHER DOES NOT REMEMBER WHEN I WAS BORN, ETC.’ WE ANNOUNCE THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP. THE ABOVE PASSAGE PLACES EMPHASIS ON NAMU HERSELF AND WHAT A PAIN IN THE BUTT SHE WAS AND NO DOUBT WILL BE (which of course reflects two valid approaches to Namu’s psychology!) I also think THE MOTHER should SAY: ‘From the moment you were born,’ she tells me with a worried smile, ‘you were trouble.’ - TROUBLE is stronger and hints at future conflicts and resentment, as well as Namu’s unusual destiny.] I TEND TO THINK ‘MY MOTHER DOES NOT REMEMBER WHEN I WAS BORN’ IS MORE DRAMATIC AND PUTS US RIGHT IN THE STORY – MOTHERS ALWAYS REMEMBER THEIR CHILDREN’S BIRTH, OR ARE SUPPOSED TO. ON THE OTHER HAND ALMOST EVERYONE COMES INTO THE WORLD CRYING.
When I PRESS HER for details about my birth, Mama [x only] says I was born shortly before dawn
Our neighbor Dujema remembers more. She TOOK CARE OF my mother that night. She wiped the sweat and tears from Mama’s face and tried to comfort her. Mama’s labor lasted two nights and a day. IT SEEMED ENDLESS.
Dujema could not understand why my birth was such a difficult one. She knelt on the blanket on the floor where Mama was lying and moaning in pain. She ran her hands over Mama’s swollen belly to SOOTHE her and to make sure I was in the proper position. She ADDED SOME WOOD TO THE HEARTH AND LOOKED AT MAMA’S FACE GLOWING BRIGHT ORANGE FROM THE PAIN OF PROTRACTED CHILDBIRTH AND THE HEAT OF THE OPEN FIRE. SHE whispered, “This is your third child, Latso. It is supposed to be easier than before. I know there is good reason for this difficulty.”
After a while she concluded, “ IT is going to be a boy this time. A big boy. That has to be why there is so much pain.”
‘ALL IS WELL, THEN.’ MOTHER ANSWERED, SMILING THROUGH THE PAIN.
At last, after the second crowing of the rooster, Dujema saw me emerge. She placed her hands gently around my head and shoulders and pulled me kicking and screaming into this world.
Dujema washed me in a small bowl of water beside her on the floor and examined me by the light from the fireplace. Then she gave mY mother the bad news. “It’s a girl, Latso,” she announced.
“Another girl.” MY MOTHER REPEATED, HER voice was full of disappointment.
Mother TELLS ME she believed I caused her so much suffering because she wanted a boy. [I took and away] I must have sensed this and felt unwelcome to this world and so resisted being born.
Our people customarily favor daughters. After all, girls inherit the family house and property. They cook the food and grow and harvest the crops in the fields. They tend the animals. They become head of the family and pass the family name to their children. Because of this, our land is even known as the country of the daughters.
Yet every family needs sons, too. Males tend the yaks in the mountains and males alone can travel with the horse caravans to trade with the distant places in the outside world. Males also journey to Tibet to study the holy Buddhist scriptures and become lamas. Without our lamas we, the Mosuo, could never name our children nor could we cure our sick or send the souls of our deceased to the ancestral paradise.
With two daughters already, Mama needed a son. Instead, she had me.
My mother’s household was unlike all the others in our village. She enjoyed no large extended family. We had no aunts or uncles living with us in the house. Because of this Dujema, our neighbor, had to assist in my birth rather than one of Mama’s sisters.
We were a small household because when my mother was still a girl she had broken with (NO NEED FOR RIGID, CUSTOM IMPLIES OBLIGATORY – ALSO RIGID CUSTOM SOUNDS DICTATORIAL) Mosuo custom. WE, THE MOSUO MUST LIVE IN THE HOUSE OF OUR MOTHERS. BUT MAMA ran away from her mother and her village.
She was curious and restless and she wanted to see the outside world – the world beyond our valley where the horse caravans traveled. WELL, SHE LEFT GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE BUT SHE DID NOT GO VERY FAR BEYOND OUR VALLEY. SHE STOPPED ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAINS, AND FELL IN LOVE, AND SET UP HOUSE IN THE MAN’S VILLAGE. BESIDES, MOTHER COULD NOT BEAR THE HUMILIATION OF RETURNING TO GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE AND FACING HER WRATH.
ABOUT A YEAR AFTER MOTHER RAN AWAY FROM GRANDMOTHER, my oldest sister Zhema was born. [LARRY, DID YOU NOT LIKE THE ORIGINAL STORY ABOUT THE MAN BRINGING BACK THE TIBETAN WOMAN? I LIKED THAT A LOT – COULD WE TRY TO KEEP IT? I LIKE THIS PASSAGE AS WELL, BUT I THINK THE STORY OF NAMU’S MOTHER WAITING AND WAITING FOR THE MAN TO COME HOME FROM HIS TRIPS AND ONE DAY, IT’S THE TIBETAN WOMAN WHO APPEARS AT THE DOOR INSTEAD IS REALLY INTERESTING. ALSO IT SHOWS SOMETHING ABOUT THE WAY MOSUO MEN AND WOMEN RELATE – BECAUSE LATSO BECOMES FRIENDS WITH THE WOMAN. THEN I ALSO LIKE THE FACT THAT THE SECOND LOVER IS BASICALLY JUST USED UP FOR LATSO TO GET PREGNANT – REMEMBER LATSO HAS ONE MAIN MOTIVATION IN HER LIFE; TO ‘GROW A LARGE FAMILY’ TO SHOW OFF TO HER OWN MOTHER, AND PROVE THAT SHE COULD MAKE IT ON HER OWN. BUT MAYBE YOU PUT THAT STORY IN THE OTHER CHAPTER] BUT Soon after Zhema had learned to walk, Mama fell in love with another man and gave birth another daughter, Djujelema. After that she fell in love with a third man, Zhemi. He traveled with the horse caravans to Tibet and other far away places. He was tall and handsome and had a wide smile and black eyes that flashed when he sang love songs. She fell in love with him the moment she saw him. He was the great love of her life.
Zhemi is my father. [MAYBE USE ‘WAS’ BECAUSE ZHEMI DIED A FEW YEARS AGO]
Among my people this is how households are established. A woman does not have one lover or one husband. Men and women do not marry. Love, it is expected, comes and goes, like the seasons. A man or woman may fall in love with many partners during a lifetime and have children with several of them. There are many sons and daughters in one family. A mother may have many children and each of them may have a different father. None of the fathers live in the family household.
The children are raised by the women in a HOUSE and take the family name of their mother. They are raised side by side with cousins – the children of their mother’s sisters. The only men [x] who are permanent residents IN THE HOUSE are the brothers of the women. THUS, in place of ONE father we have MANY uncles. IN A WAY, WE ALSO HAVE MANY MOTHERS BECAUSE WE CALL OUR AUNTS LITTLE MOTHERS.
But there were no aunts and uncles to HELP Mama after my birth and my sisters were still toO young to carry on the necessary chores of the household . SO, Mama bound me to her back and carried me with her as she tended the animals and the crops and cared for my sisters.
From the moment I was born I cried constantly. I cried day and night, week after week. Mama could get no sleep and she became exhausted.
Mama could not understand why I always cried. She thought perhaps this was divine punishment for having run away from her mother. Now through me she was paying for her transgression.
She tried everything to quiet me. She sang the traditional songs of our people. She cradled me in her arms and walked along the shore of Lugu Lake trying to soothe me with prayers. She nursed me until she had no more milk. Still I cried. When she could not stand it any longer, she bundled me tightly into a white goat skin blanket (NO S) and placed me under the KANG, THE wooden platform where the family sat at night around the fire.
In her frustration, she ran into the courtyard and kicked THE ground and SHOUTED AT (?) the ANIMALS, AND IMPLORED THE heavens FOR HELP (TREES ARE SACRED IN MOSUO COSMOGONY, SO YOU WOULD NOT DARE KICK OR SHOUT AT TREES, IT WOULD BE LIKE SHOUTING AT THE MOUNTAINS). She paced around and around in the yard until she felt calm enough to retrieve me from the platform beside the fire.
One night when she left me CRYING alone for a few minutes UNDER THE KANG, and paced restlessly back and forth in the courtyard, I wriggled free of the goat skin and reached out to the bright embers that HAD fallen BETWEEN THE CRACKS OF THE KANG FROM under the stove. My LITTLE hand closed around a glowing coal, which seared my skin and stuck to the flesh. I screamed WITH ALL THE FORCE OF MY BABY LUNGS. Mama rushed back into the house and saw what I’d done. She covered the burned flesh with butter and wrapped my hand tightly and cursed herself for leaving me alone. To this day my mother cries when she sees the scar, still visible on my right hand.
AFTER A FEW WEEKS, WHEN my mother could no longer bear my crying, SHE DECIDED TO LOOK FOR HELP. She snipped off a corner of my clothing and set off with a tiny bouquet of artemisia to consult with Lama Ruhi.
The old lama welcomed her into his courtyard. She knelt and bowed three times to him, touching her forehead to the earth with each bow. She then placed the artemisia in his incense lamp, AND followed Lama Ruhi into the small chapel.
“Ape Lama, how is your health?” she asked. “How are your crops?” She held her hands together in the prayer position as she spoke to him.
“And how is your family?” he replied. “How is your mother? And your sisters and brothers?
“Thank you for asking, Ape, ” she said. “But the horse caravan has not arrived and we have no fresh news.”
“I have heard that this year there has been hail in Qiansuo,” he continued. “I am praying that your crops survive and you will have a good harvest.”
“Thank you for your concern, Ape. But I have not come because of my mother or sisters or brothers. I have not come because of my crops. I come to you because my third daughter cannot stop crying. I have enough with the noise of the pigs and goats and chickens and cows. I cannot sleep at night. I am exhausted. I am afraid I am going to loose all my hair. She CRIES AND CRIES. No matter what I do, SHE DOES NOT STOP. Please, Ape, help me.”
She handed him the snipping from my clothing. Lama Ruhi bent over her and took the cloth and brought it to his nose. He sniffed it and asked, “When was this child born? (?MISSING)”
“She was born before the rooster crowed the third time,” Mama told him.
Lama Ruhi nodded and then asked, “But what is her zodiacal sign?”
My mother frowned. “Perhaps it is the horse….”
Lama Ruhi laughed. “What do you mean ‘perhaps’? Don’t you know when your daughter was born?”
“She is about two months old. With four mouths to feed and the pigs and the chickens and horses to tend and without brothers or sisters to help me, I don’t even remember my own birthday!”
The old monk shook his head and sat down to chant from his prayer book. When he’d finished he sat silently for several minutes. Then he looked into my mother’s eyes with concern. “Latso, your third daughter has a very special destiny awaiting her. You must find a suitable name for her. Only that will solve your problem.”
“How shall I find the name?” Mama asked.
On the fifteenth day of the month, before the cock crows, you must take her to the crossroads in the center of the village and wait there. You must [X] ask the first person you meet to give her a name. Then she will stop crying.”
Mother thanked Lama Ruhi and hurried home, filled with new hope.
On the fifteenth day of the month, shortly before sunrise, Mama wrapped me tightly in a blanket and carried me to the crossroads. When she arrived, it was still dark. She placed a goat skin in the middle of the road and [X] placed me on it [SHE WOULD NOT HAVE UNDRESSED HER BECAUSE IT WAS VERY COLD]. After that she prepared HER offeringS to the gods – butter lamps, a bowl of red rice, a slice of ham and a boiled chicken. [THESE OFFERINGS ARE NOT SPECIAL, THERE THE USUAL VERY GOOD OFFERINGS GIVEN WHEN IMPLORING THE GODS, ANCESTORS ARE NOT ALWAYS SO RICHLY PROVIDED FOR]
It was VERY cold that morning and Mama began to worry that no one would come out of their houses for a long time. What would happen to my sisters if they awakened and found she was gone? How long should she wait in the road? And what if I caught a cold? She took out her PRAYER beads and began to CHANT SOLFTY.
Then, in the darkness, she heard the tinkle of a lama’s bell approaching. She looked up and saw old Lama Gatusa. He was bent over, looking at the ground, walking to Lugu lake to gather water for his morning prayers.
“Ape Gatusa!” she called out. “Ape Gatusa! You are so early.” She bowed to him.
Lama Gatusa looked at my mother prostrate on the road and at her offerings and then at the crying child on the goat skin.
“Ape Gatusa,” she explained, “my third child cries too much. I went to see Lama Ruhi. He told me that today was a good day to name this child and to come to the crossroads and wait. I never imagined that my daughter’s luck would be so great that the first person we would meet would be a lama.. Please, could you give her a name?”
Lama Gatusa reached down and pulled my mother to a standing position. Then he picked me up from the goat skin and examined my face. “She is pretty as the moonlight,” he said. And then still holding me in his arms, he started to pray. When he was finished with his prayers, he turned to Mama and said quietly, “Her name is Erche Namu.”
In our language Erche means “treasure” and Namu means “princess.”
MY MOTHER NODDED HER APPROVAL AND SMILED: ‘MY TREASURED PRINCESSS’ SHE REPEATED SOFTLY TO HERSELF. BUT PERHAPS ALREADY SHE WAS THINKING, MY TROUBLESOME TREASURE.
Mama then followed Lama Gatusa to Lugu Lake. There, SHE washed my face with clear water. We believe that the morning lake water – before the birds drink from it – is the purest. THE LAMA WOULD NOT WASH THE BABY, THAT’S A WOMAN’S JOB.
When She had finished washing me, Mama THANKED BOWED TO LAMA GATUSA AND THANKED HIM WARMLY. She hurried home with her TreasureD Princess TO PREPARE BREAKFAST FOR HER OTHER DAUGHTERS (?).
Unfortunately, Lama Ruhi was wrong. Finding a name for me did not stop my crying. I CONTINUED CRYING, MY SCREAMS GROWING STRONGER AS THE DAYS WENT AND MY BODY GREW STRONGER FROM MY MOTHER’S MILK. My tears became legendary and word passed round the neighboring villages that Mama had given birth to a daughter who was supposed to be a son and [X] would never stop crying.
One morning, [X] Dujema came to our house with a dramatic proposal. She brought specially prepared barley cookies and asked Mama to sit down and talk with her. Mama brought her into the [X]). I was crying, of course, so Dujema picked me up and held ME, AND BEGAN TO PACE UP AND DOWN THE KITCHEN, SINGING TO ME SOFTLY AND BOUNCING ME IN HER ARMS. Mama placed Dujema’s cookies on the ancestral altar and then prepared butter tea for the two of them.
Dujema was tall and strong and very beautiful. She had many lovers and many more sought her favors regularly. She was Mama’s best friend and they spent [X] hours together each day, working in the fields, singing and chatting. [ They sang, Mama said, to keep their spirits high and to prevent them from feeling tired.] Most of the time they talked about growing and harvesting the crops, BUT OFTEN, THEY JUST talked about men. NOTE: I INVERTED THE [ SENTENCE].
WHEN, AT LAST, I HAD GROWN QUIET, DUJEMA SAT DOWN AT THE FIREPLACE AT THE PLACE RESERVED FOR HONORED GUESTS. Mama gathered her long skirt and sat down across from Dujema TO THE LEFTHANDSIDE OF THE FIRE, WHERE the mistress of the house CSUTOMARILY SITS. Before pouring tea for Dujema AND HERSELF, she poured several drops over the iron stove to honor the fire god Zabbala.
“Look at this loud little piggie,” Dujema said HOLDING ME UP IN THE LIGHT OF THE FIRE – “little piggie” was her nickname for me. “Little piggie,” she commanded me, “YOU MUST stop crying!” SO, OF COURSE, I BEGAN CRYING AGAIN. DUJEMA took out her breast and shut me up by nursing me.
“ (X) She’s not really such a bad one,” Dujema said to Mama. SHE PAUSED AND LOOKED SERIOUS. “LATSO, You are lucky. You have three girls now. I have only boys – two boys.”
Mama nodded her head politely, but found it difficult to believe she was lucky to possess a child like me – a girl who wanted to be a boy.
“Without girls,” Dujema continued, “who is going to help me work in the house and the fields when I get old?”
She paused AGAIN and sipped butter tea from her bowl. Mother ALSO TOOK A sipped OF tea, AND LOOKED AT ME NURSING HAPPILY FROM DUJEMA’S BREAST, THINKING WITH A PINCHED HEART THAT PERHAPS DUJEMA’S MILK WAS BETTER THAN HERS.
Then she stared into the fire for a long time and thought about what she wanted to say. “She DOES like you,” SHE SIGHED.
Dujema nodded her head in assent.
“You can take her [X],” Mama SAID, SIPPING SLOWLY FROM HER BOWL OF BUTTER TEA.
(X) Dujema stared down at me for A MOMENT. Then she looked up at Mama and said, “I WILL give you Tsili in exchange for this one. He is almost onE year old. He’s not much trouble any more. You know what people say, Latso. If we exchange our children, then the next time you become pregnant, you will have a son for sure.”
THUS Mama and Dujema agreed to exchange THEIR children – a daughter for a son.
LARRY, I REPHRASED THIS SLIGHTLY TO CONVEY THE IMPRESSION THAT LATSO IN FACT KNEW WHAT DUJEMA WANTED WHEN SHE CAME INTO THE HOUSE: THAT SHE WAS GOING TO SUGGEST EXCHANGING CHILDREN. ALSO, I’VE CHANGED THINGS A LITTLE SO IT LOOKS AS THOUGH THIS SORT OF THING IS QUITE NATURAL FOR THE MOSUO – WHICH IT IS.
UNFORTUNATELY, I began crying again soon after I arrived at Dujema’s house. I cried so loud and so long that Dujema’s mother SPENT THE NIGHT walkING around with her hands over hear ears to block out my cries. My cries, in fact, were so loud that Mama said she could hear me [faintly –TAKE OFF?] THROUGH THE WALLS OF OUR LOG HOUSE all night long.
After fifteen days and fourteen sleepless nights, Dujema’s mother concluded that she had made a bad bargain. “Give her back!” she commanded. “If she continues crying like this, the whole house will break apart and fall down.”
So Dujema returned me to my Mama and took back Tsili. She felt a bit guilty, however, and so each afternoon, she came to our house and nursed me in order to give Mama some peace.
One year later, a woman from a neighboring village came to our village looking for a daughter. She had only sons in her family. AND SHE HAD HEARD THAT (?) [Word circulated that] my mother had grown weak and thin from trying to feed her crying daughter. This POOR woman had tried for many years to have DAUGHTERS, but she bore only sons. She came to our house with offerings of tea, ham, chicken, eggs and barley cookies. She departed with me.
BUT THIS DEAL WAS EVEN SHORTER LIVED THAN THE ONE MY MOTHER HAD STRUCK WITH DUJEMA. I remained with this new family for two days. On the third day, just after the cock crowed, THE WOMAN brought me back to Mama. “This baby will not stop crying. We have had no sleep since I brought her home. We’ve tried everything,” she said, RUBBING HER EYES RED AND SWOLLEN FROM FATIGUE. “To have no daughter at all is far better than to have a girl who will not stop crying.”
And so Mama was stuck with me again.
The following spring, my aunt Yufang ARRIVED FROM MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE IN Qiansuo, two days walk from our village. SHE appeared in our courtyard with her five your old son, Ache. She asked Mama if she would exchange a son for a daughter and again Mama agreed.
Aunt Yufang BUNDLED ME UP IN WARM CLOTHES AND WE STARTED ON THE LONG WALK BACK to QiansuO. AS SOON AS WE REACHED THE EDGE OF THE VILLAGE, I began [I TOOK OFF PROTESTING] PULLING ON HER HAND AND, WHEN AUNT YUFANG TRIED TO CARRY ME, I screamED and kickED and scratchED. When WE WERE only half a days walk from Mama’s house, AUNT YUFANG GAVE UP AND turned around. SHE returned me to my mother and took in exchange my older sister Djujelama.
AFTER THIS, I became known as the girl who was given away and given back three times. Yet there was something fortuitous in this final exchange. AS OUR CUSTOM HAS IT, THE NEXT BABY MOTHER GAVE BIRTH TO WAS A BOY. BUT THAT WAS NOT ALL, I was fascinated by my ADOPTED brother ACHE AND AS SOON AS HE CAME TO LIVE WITH US, I STOPPED CRYING. [X] OF COURSE, Mama was VERY happy NOW. SHE WAS at peace for the first time since the night I was born. Her troublesome treasure was no longer troublesome: I HAD BECOME A NORMAL CHILD.
FOR THE STRANGE THING IS (?), I never cried again.
And why did I NEVER CRY AGAIN, AND WHY DID I cry so much in the first place? Who can say for sure? Perhaps I shed a lifetime of tears in my first three years because there would be no time for crying during the long journey that lay ahead of me.
Chapter One, Draft 7: [April 11, 2000. 3PM]
A Troublesome Treasure
Mama cannot remember the date of my birth. She says she does not recall the month or the season or even the year. All she remembers, she tells me, is my ceaseless crying. "From the moment you were born," she says, "you were trouble."
When I press her for details she attempts to summon up more memories but in the end simply says that I was born shortly after dawn.
Our neighbor Dujema remembers more. It was early in the winter, she says, and the mountains were already white. But Mama did not feel the cold nor did she hear the stillness in the snow-covered fields. She was aware only of her own suffering. Her labor lasted a day and two nights. During those long hours, Dujema knelt on the grass mat on the floor, beside Mama.
She wiped Mama's face, varnished with tears and sweat and shining like amber in the halo of the fireplace, and soothed her brow. She ran her hands over Mama's tight belly, to calm her, but also to make sure that I was in the proper position. When the pain became unbearable, Dujema put a dried up corn cob in Mama's mouth and instructed her to bite on it. When Mama was still at last, she added wood to the fireplace and stared into the bright flames, and the same frightening thought again came to her. "This is her third child. It should be much easier. How must it end?'
Before long Mama groaned again and held her belly. And Dujema placed a reassuring hand over Mama's trembling fingers, and said softly, "There is a reason why you're having so much pain, Latso. It's going to be a boy this time. A big boy. Yes, that must be it."
Mama opened her eyes wider and tried to force a smile as she responded, "Then this is worth the pain, Dujema, isn’t it? All is well."
Near the end of the second night, as the rooster called for the sun to rise, Mama groaned and gave another big push and Dujema cried: "That's it, Latso! I see the head!"
She laughed with relief, "It's a big head. A big boy's head!" And she received me, wrapping her hands gently about my head and shoulders as she pulled me kicking and screaming into the narrow ray of dawn filtering through the opening in the roof, above the hearth.
"Is he alright?" Mama asked anxiously. She wanted to see me, and tried
lifting herself on her elbows. But she was too weak. She fell back exhausted and closed her eyes, leaving Dujema to examine me more closely by the warmth of the fire.
Dujema smiled a little sadly. "Yes, the baby is alright, " she said, covering me with a blanket, and turning to silence my curious sisters who had crawled out of bed, awakened by Mama's groans. They were now giggling and pushing against each other, and trying to lift a corner of the blanket to get a better look at their newborn brother.
Dujema smacked her lips impatiently, and shouted to my older sister to hurry and fetch the scissors from the sewing basket. Then, she stood, her knees tender and
creaking from the long hours she had spent kneeling on the floor. She reached into the fireplace and picked out a piece of kindling to light the artemisia, the holy bush we burn in offering to the gods.
After such a long labor, there was no time to waste in separating me from my mother. While the smoke of the burning bush filled the house, purifying every corner and crack, and slowly drifted upwards to the opening in the roof, Dujema hurriedly ladled warm water into a blue rimmed enamel basin. She assured herself that the water was neither too warm nor too cold, and quickly passed the sewing scissors through the artemisia smoke. She cut the umbilical cord and then dipped me into the warm water as she chanted above my screams: 'All is well, all is fortunate. The room is cleansed. The baby is well. The water is pure. All is in harmony.'
When I was clean and dried, Dujema anointed my forehead with a little pad of yak milk butter. She placed a cloth diaper between my legs before bundling me up in the traditional square of cotton cloth and tied a tiny red and green cotton belt across my belly.
And at last, she handed me over to my sleepy mother so that I could suckle. And only then did she give Mama the bad news.
"It's a girl, Latso," she said. "Another girl."
Mama opened her eyes. "A girl?" she asked in disbelief, hoping she'd misunderstood. Dujema looked down at her with pity and nodded. My sisters started giggling again.
After so many years, Dujema says that she still remembers my mother's sad red eyes and weary face, as though it all happened only days ago. She says that my birth caused my mother so much suffering because Mama had wanted a boy so badly. She says I resisted being born so as not to disappoint my mother.
My mother's disappointment at my birth was unusual among our people. For unlike the Chinese, Mosuo people usually favor daughters. Girls, after all, inherit the family house and property. They maintain and manage and rule the household. They plant and harvest the crops in the fields and cook the food. They become head of the family and pass the family name to their children. Because of this, the Chinese call our Mosuo
country the Kingdom of Daughters.
But we Mosuo also treasure our sons. It is men who herd the yaks in the
mountains and men who travel with the horse caravans to trade with the distant places in the outside world. It is men also who make the long journey to Lhasa to study the holy Buddhist scriptures and become lamas. Without our lamas we could not cure the sick or send the souls of the departed to our ancestral paradise.
My mother's single-minded desire for a boy was unusual and urgent because our family was unlike any other in our village. We enjoyed no large extended household. We had no aunts or uncles living with us. We did not even have relatives leaving nearby. That was why Dujema, our neighbor, had to assist in my birth rather than one of Mama's sisters.
And that was why, already blessed with two daughters, Mama so wished for a
In fact, our family was unlike the others because of Mama's defiance of Mosuo custom years earlier. According to our tradition, Mosuo families should never divide and go their separate ways . Daughters and sons are not supposed to set up their own households but are instead to remain with their mother and other maternal relatives for their entire life. Ideally, all Mosuo should die in the house where they were born, the
house of their mothers and grandmothers. At the very least, they should live in the maternal village.
But when Mama was still a young girl, she ran away from her mother and her
village. She says now that she was just curious and restless, that she only wanted to see the outside world -- the world beyond our valley where the horse caravans traveled.
So she left the house of her grandmothers and followed the path of the horse caravans. But she did not go very far. She stopped in Zuosuo, only two days walk away on the other side of the mountains. There she quickly lost her heart to a young man and soon abandoned the dreams that had beckoned from beyond the tall mountains and the deep river valleys.
When her belly became round as the full moon, she decided to set up her own
household in his village.
When I ask Mama why she chose such a hard life for herself and why she did
not simply return to grandmother's house in Qiansuo, she says that she could not bear the humiliation of going home with unfulfilled dreams. I know that she also feared the wrath of her mother.
At any rate, some months after Mama settled in Zuosuo, my oldest sister Zhema was born. Then, not long after Zhema began to walk, Mama fell in love with another man and soon gave birth to another daughter, Djujelema. After that she fell in love with a third man, Zhemi. His home was in Qiansuo, where my grandmother lived, and he traveled with the horse caravan to Tibet and other far away places. He was tall and handsome and had a wide smile and black eyes that flashed when he sang love songs. Mama told me she fell in love with him the moment she saw him. He was the great love of her life.
Zhemi was my father.
Among my people this is how households are established. Women and men do not marry - for love is like the seasons. It comes and goes. A Mosuo woman may have many lovers during her lifetime and she may have many children. Yet each of them will perhaps have a different father, and none of the fathers will live with his children. Mosuo children are raised in their mother's house and take the family name of their maternal ancestors. They grow up side by side with their cousins --the children of their mother's sisters. The only men who are permanent residents in the house are the brothers of the women. Thus, in place of one father, Mosuo children have many uncles. In a way, we also have many mothers because we call our aunts "Azhama," which means "little mothers".
When I was born, my father was away at his own mother's house in Qiansuo. And since there were no sisters or aunts or uncles at home, there was no one to help Mama: no one to cook, or chop the firewood, or kill and clean a chicken for dinner, or hold her newborn baby. My sisters were still too young to do anything but the lightest chores. So, when Mama had eaten enough of the traditional meal of eggs and chicken soup and corn gruel given to new mothers and which Dujema prepared for her, and when she
was strong enough to stand up, she bound me to her back. Then, with my two sisters trailing behind her long skirt, she carried me with her everywhere she went as she cooked and cleaned and tended the chickens and the pigs.
I soon proved to be an uncommon burden. From the moment I was born, I cried almost constantly. I cried all day and often through the night as well, week after week. Mama could not understand why I never stopped crying. She tried everything to quiet me. She sang the traditional lullabies. She cradled me in her arms and walked along the
shore of Lugu Lake to soothe me with prayers. She nursed me until her breasts emptied.
Eventually, Mama began to suspect that my crying was divine retribution for her having run away from her family. So, a few weeks after my birth, she decided to seek divine help. She snipped off a corner of my clothing and set off with a large bunch of wild artemisia to consult with Lama Ruhi.
The old lama shooed away the chickens and the piglets, as Mama stepped through the wooden porch and into his courtyard. She undid her headdress and loosened her long black hair and bowed three times to the holy man, each time touching her forehead to the cold earth. Once she was done with the customary formalities, she picked up her long head scarf and her bundle of artemisia and followed Lama Ruhi across the yard, and into
another interior court enclosed on two sides by women's bedrooms and at the far end, a little chapel.
Mama piled her artemisia into the large clay burner adjacent the chapel and Lama Ruhi struck a match. When the twigs began crackling and the scented smoke rose into the sky, Lama Ruhi led Mama up some stairs and into the chapel where incense smoke perfumed the air and the tiny flames dancing in butter lamps illuminated the portraits of the Buddhas smiling with serene benevolence from the altar. Again, Mama placed her scarf on the floor and bowed, this time to the Buddhas. Lama Ruhi sat on a large red cushion and Mama respectfully knelt in front of him, joining her hands in a gesture of prayer.
"Uncle Lama, how is your health?" she asked. "How are your fields?
"And how is your family in Qiansuo?" he replied, smiling down at her. "Have you any news from your mother? And your sisters and brothers?"
"Thank you for asking, Apé, " she said. "But the horse caravan has not arrived and we have no fresh news."
"There was hail in Qiansuo this summer," he told her. "Did your family enjoy a good harvest?"
"Thank you for your concern, Apé. But I have not come because of my mother or sisters or brothers. I have not come because of the crops. I come to you because my third daughter will not stop crying. I have enough with the noise of the pigs and goats and chickens and cows. I cannot sleep at night. I am so tired. I am afraid I'm going to loose all my hair. She cries and cries. No matter what I do she will not stop.”
Mama unclasped her hands and reached under her belt for the snipping from my clothing. 'Please, Apé, help me," she pleaded as she handed him the little piece of cloth.
Lama Ruhi leaned over and took the cloth from her and brought it to his nose. He sniffed it and asked, "When was this child born?"
Mama hesitated. "She was born before the rooster crowed the third time".
"Yes, but what is her zodiacal sign?"
Mama frowned. "Perhaps it's the horse…."
Lama Ruhi laughed. "What do you mean 'perhaps'? Don't you know when your daughter was born?"
Mama lowered her eyes. "Maybe she's already two months old. With four mouths to feed and the pigs and the chickens and horses to tend and without brothers or sisters to help me, I don't even remember my own birthday!"
The old monk shook his head, and without saying a word, half-closed his eyes and began chanting from his prayer book in a deep low voice. When he had finished, he opened his eyes and gazed calmly into my mother's face. "Latso, your third daughter has a very special destiny awaiting her. To solve your problem, you must find a suitable name for her."
"But how shall I find this name?" Mama asked eagerly, at once relieved to hear that there was a solution and anxious to find it as quickly as possible. "Will you give her a name, Apé?"
"On the fifteenth day of the month, before the cock crows, you must take her to the crossroads in the center of the village and wait there. You must ask the first person you meet to give her a name. Then, her crying will cease."
Mama hurried home, brimming with new hope.
On the fifteenth day of that month, well before sunrise, Mama wrapped me tightly in a blanket and carried me to the crossroads. She spread a goat skin in the middle of the road and placed me on it.
Fortunately, I was still too sleepy to begin my daily crying, and did not hinder her as she lit the butter lamps and prepared her offerings to the gods -- a bowl of red rice, a slice of ham and a whole boiled chicken.
It was very cold that morning and when she was done with laying out the offerings, Mama began to worry that no one would dare to venture outside before the sun came up. And what if no one came at all? Would this baby cry for ever? And what would her small daughters do if they awakened and found she was gone? And what if the baby caught a cold?
She took out her prayer beads and began to chant softly.
The tinkle of a lama's bell in the nearby darkness soon answered her concerns. Mama squinted towards the dark shape moving slowly towards her along the road, and smiled. It was old Lama Gatusa. He was walking very slowly, bent over his wooden cane, his eyes fixed on the ground. He was on his way to the lake to collect water for the morning prayers.
"Apé Lama! You are so early." She called out as she bowed.
The dear old man looked at my mother prostrate on the hard cold road and at her offerings and at the whimpering child on the goat skin.
"What is the matter with this child?" he asked.
"Uncle Lama," Mama replied, raising her forehead from the ground, "this is my third daughter. She cries too much. I went to see Lama Ruhi. Apé Lama told me that today was a good day to name this child and to come to the crossroads and wait. I never imagined that my daughter's luck would be so great that the first person we would meet would be a lama. Please, Apé, could you give her a name?"
Lama Gatusa bent a little further toward the ground and reached out to my mother to invite her to stand.. Then, he asked Mama to pick me up from the goat skin so that he could examine my face.
"She is pretty as the moonlight," he said, his dark, weathered face suddenly brightened by an affectionate smile . He handed his cane to Mama and took me into his arms somewhat shakily and began to pray. When he was finished, he gave me back to Mama and said quietly, "Her name is Erche Namu." Then he leaned on his cane, and without another word resumed his slow walk towards the lake.
Mama nodded her appreciation: in our language Erche means "treasure" and Namu" means "princess." At that moment, I was both awake and quiet and she was impressed by the apparent magic of my name.
"My Treasured Princess," she repeated softly to herself, bouncing me tenderly
in her arms and holding back her own impatient steps as she took off after the old Lama.
The night was still perfectly quiet when Mama and Lama Gatusa reached the shore of Lugu Lake. But the moon was fading. The golden glow of the approaching dawn shown faintly in the darkness beyond the tall jagged mountains. We, the Mosuo, believe that the early morning lake water --before the birds drink from it -- is the purest and this is why the water is used for the prayers. Mama and Lama Gatusa had arrived just in time,
for the birds wake with the sun.
Mama hitched up her long skirt and stepped into the lake. Following the lama's instructions she dipped her right hand into the pure -- and very cold -- water of our mother lake and scooped up just enough to wash my face. She then lifted me above her head, nearer the sky, and while I screamed with all my might, she presented me to our great mother goddess, the mountain Gamu.
Her Treasured Princess thus blessed by our divine mothers, Mama went home
to prepare breakfast for her other two daughters.
Unfortunately, Lama Ruhi's prediction suffered from a delay. Finding a name for me, even such a beautiful name, did not stop my crying. In fact, it seemed that my screams became louder as the days went by and my body grew stronger from my mother's milk.
When Mama could not stand it any longer, she sometimes bundled me tightly into a goatskin blanket and placed me under the kang, the wooden platform where the family sits at night around the open fire. She then covered her ears and rushed into the courtyard and kicked at the ground and shouted at the animals. When she was done with her shouting, she paced back and forth until she felt calm enough to retrieve me from underneath the platform.
One night, when I was three or four months old and Mama had left me crying
alone under the kang, I managed to wriggle free of the goat skin and reached out to the bright embers that had fallen between the cracks from under the stove. My tiny fingers closed around a glowing coal, which immediately seared my skin and stuck to the flesh. I screamed with all the force my baby lungs allowed. Mama rushed back into the house but already my hand was horribly burned. To this day my mother's eyes fill with tears
when she sees the scar, still visible on my right hand.
My own tears, meanwhile, became legendary as word went round the neighboring villages that Mama had given birth to a daughter who was supposed to be a son and would never stop crying.
At the end of Spring, Dujema came to our house to visit. She had brought barley cookies and wanted Mama to sit with her near the fireplace and have some tea. As usual, I was crying. So while Mama placed Dujema's cookies on the ancestral altar and went to fetch the butter and the salt for the butter tea, Dujema took me in her arms and began to pace back and forth, singing to me softly and bouncing me over her shoulder.
Dujema was tall and strong and very beautiful. She had many lovers and many more sought her favors. She was Mama's best friend and they spent many hours together each day, toiling in the fields, singing and chatting. They sang to keep their spirits high and to avoid dwelling on how tired they became during the long day. Most of the time they talked about the weather and growing and tending and harvesting the crops – serious topics. But often they also savored stories of their children and the many men in their lives. And at those sweet moments laboring together under the sun they paused in their work and sighed or laughed like little girls. Or both. They were very close.
When I had at last grown quiet, Dujema sat down at the fireplace at the spot reserved for honored guests. Mama sat across from Dujema on the left hand side, where the mistress of the house customarily sits. Before pouring tea for Dujema and herself, she poured several drops over the hearth to honor the fire god Zabbala.
"Look at this loud little piggie," Dujema said holding me up in the glow of the fire -- "little piggie" was her nickname for me. "Little piggie," she commanded me, "you must stop crying!" I, of course, began crying again. Dujema took out her breast and shut me up by nursing me.
She joked with Mama, "She's not really such a bad one." Then, following a
thoughtful pause, she spoke in a more serious tone. "Latso, you are fortunate. With this Treasured Princess, you have three girls now. I have only boys -- two boys!"
Mama agreed politely, but perhaps she found it difficult to believe it was such good fortune to possess a girl who wanted to be a boy. Her Princess was truly a Troublesome Treasure.
"Without girls," Dujema continued, "who will give me grand-children? Besides, everyone knows that the wealth of a household is its women." She paused once more and sipped butter tea from her bowl.
Mother also took a sip of tea and watched me gurgling and nursing eagerly from Dujema's breast, wondering if perhaps Dujema's milk was sweeter and more nourishing than her own. Then she stared into the fire and remained silent while she thought about what she wanted to say.
"She likes you," Mama said slowly, so as not to betray her emotion.
Mama continued in the same thoughtful tone, "You can take her if you wish."
Dujema had expected no less. She gazed down at me happily nursing at her breast. Then, she looked up at Mama and said, "I will give you Tsili in exchange for this one. He's almost one year old. He's not much trouble any more. And you know what people say, Latso. If we exchange our children, the next time you become pregnant, you will have a son for sure."
Thus Mama and Dujema agreed to exchange children -- a daughter for a son.
I, unfortunately, appeared not to like this new arrangement for I resumed crying soon after I arrived at Dujema's house. And now, I cried so hard and so long that Dujema's mother spent the night pacing the floor with her hands over her ears. I cried so loud that Mama said she could hear me through the log walls of our house all night long.
After fourteen sleepless nights, Dujema's mother concluded that a bad bargain had been struck. "Give her back!" she commanded. "If she continues like this, the whole house will break apart and fall down."
So Dujema returned me to my Mama and took back Tsili. She felt a bit guilty, however, and each afternoon, she came to our house to nurse and play with me in order to give Mama some relief.
One year later, a woman from a neighboring village came to our house looking for a daughter. She came with offerings of tea, ham, chicken, eggs and barley cookies. And she departed with me.
But this bargain was even shorter lived than the one my mother had struck with Dujema. I remained with this new family for two days. On the third day, the woman brought me back to Mama. "This little girl has a terrible temper. We've had no sleep since I brought her home. We've tried everything," she said, rubbing her red swollen eyes. "Everything, I tell you! To have no daughter at all is far better than to have a girl who will not stop crying."
And so Mama was stuck with me again.
Then, when I was nearly three years old, my Aunt Yufang appeared in our courtyard with her five your old son, Ache. They had walked all the way from grandmother's house in Qiansuo to ask Mama if she would exchange a son for a daughter.
Again Mama agreed.
A few days later, Aunt Yufang bundled me up in warm clothes and we started on the long walk back to Qiansuo. But as soon as we reached the edge of the village, I began pulling on her hand and when Aunt Yufang attempted to carry me I screamed and kicked and scratched. When we were only half a days walk from Mama's house, Aunt Yufang gave up and turned around. She returned me to my mother and swapped me for my older sister Djujelama.
After this I became known as the girl who was given away and given back three times.
Yet there was something fortuitous in this final exchange. For I was fascinated by my adopted brother, Ache, and as soon as he came to live with us, I stopped crying.
Mama had peace for the first time since I was born and within a few weeks, she slowly began to appreciate her new life.
Who knows, perhaps it was then that she truly erased from her memory the painful details surrounding my birth. In any case, she was happier now. I had become a normal child.
Well, so it seemed. For the strange thing is, after I stopped crying, I never cried again. Perhaps because I had already shed a whole lifetime of tears in my first three years.