ISSN 2768-4261 (Online)

A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities

ISSUE 1 YESHE JULY 2021

Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities is an open access, peer-reviewed annual journal that publishes academic articles, book reviews, and interviews related to Tibet, as well as poetry, prose, art, and fiction.


Nortse

Bound-Up Scenery (1), 1987, 4 Photographs

A Singer in Simple Clothing

Long Rinchen

(Translated from the Chinese by Brantley Collins)

 

Song of Solitude

A herder moves between sky and earth; the vast wilderness extends from under his feet all the way to the distant horizon. The herder raises a hand to his forehead and gazes into the distance. He sees to the edge of the wilderness, where mirages flow mightily like water, distorting everything. The mountain peaks, which used to be steadfast and firm in their height, are transformed into a kind of liquid, flowing within the mirage, moving and stopping, disappearing and reappearing. The herder feels the vast power of nature and feels his own insignificance. A loneliness as vast as the power of nature constantly assails his small self; he feels that he should find a safe place to hide away, in a tent next to a fire pit, or in the embrace of Mom’s fur-lined jacket smelling of sweat and milk. But all of this is a transient thought, apprehensible yet unattainable.

Because he’s a man now.

As I write these words down, I suddenly discover that this fictional herder is me.

I recall the fear that filled my heart as a child whenever another family’s sheepdog—a furiously barking Tibetan mastiff—ran toward me on my way to the pasture, and how similar that fear was to what I feel now—the loneliness in the heart of that herder.

I remember the first time I encountered a mastiff. It had slipped off its chain and was charging at me when my father hurried over and grabbed me as I was just about to flee, holding me firmly in place. I was immediately heartened by my father’s presence. When the mastiff was about ten steps away, it stopped. It kept barking and acting as if it were about to charge, but it got no closer. “Don’t run. Stop, and step forward to meet it when you must,” my father said. Later, those words became an experience to draw on in my life. They gave me a way of dealing with the wild dogs and wolves of the grasslands, and even helped me cope with some of life’s hardships—though later in life I deviated from my original path and left the grasslands entirely to seek a life in the city.

I remember when I had just started having my work published, a newspaper interviewed me and ran an article under the heading “A Nomadic Soul Perched in the City.” When I saw that title, I experienced a sharp pain, as though I’d been hit with a blunt instrument. I really felt the acuteness of that title, and I still do, even now. Back then, I’d written a poem that was included in an anthology. The lines were callow, yet they embody a feeling I still can’t dispel to this day:

 

A world difficult to articulate

Withered yellow grass covers the prairie

Stairs climbing away from me

Are an expanse of hazy memories

 

Out in the autumn wind

A wild bird prattles of the past

And in the twilight

A gamboling calf forgets to go home

Reminiscing, thus hazy and unbounded

Thus hazy and unbounded

Stopping at the stairway to look back

Like a lonely stray beast

Looking back at the vanished forest

 

I remember that in my youth I had a habit, when I was walking in the wind, of opening my mouth to let the wind blow into it. I would control my mouth by opening or closing it slightly, and at the same time I would loosen or tighten my cheeks and deftly wield my tongue, constantly extending or retracting it. In this way the wind would begin to sing in my mouth, and it became a melody that I could manipulate. At those times I would forget my loneliness for a moment and enter a state of intoxication. But still the loneliness would come bursting back, taking me completely by surprise as it stood there before me. Whenever that happened, I would cry out involuntarily, just like that fictional herder.

Now, facing that immense loneliness, the herder suddenly thinks of his father, long ago departed for the Western Paradise, and of those words he spoke—I was 19 when my father died; as he lay on his sickbed he said to me, “I still haven’t found a wife for you, I haven’t fulfilled my duties!” To this day, whenever I think of these words, I am immediately filled with sadness—he stops and looks around, seeing mirages surging like flowing water all about him, and he is completely submerged in liquid visions that he can see but can’t touch. He suddenly cries out, then cries out again, and takes several steps forward—“step forward to meet it when you must!”— his father’s words flash in his mind. In this way, his cries link together, and he slowly discovers that he is singing; a herder’s song wheels around the crown of his head, as if it were a goshawk. And he truly feels that he is no longer so lonely.

And so, every time he goes out to pasture, whenever he leaves the tent, whenever he walks out onto the grasslands, he starts to sing. And his singing, which begins as wordless babbling, slowly takes on simple phrases. These phrases are arbitrarily improvised based on things he sees, such as the appearance of a rainbow curving across the sky after a storm. “A colorful rainbow has pitched its tent!” he sings; or, at the height of summer, with the wildflowers blooming brilliantly in the meadow, “Mother Earth is wearing fresh flowers on her head!” Thus he sings. When he gets tired, he stops and speaks a little, saying to the rainbow, “So the white clouds are coming to your tent for a visit, eh?” And to Mother Earth he says, “Could it be that you are those barley-planting women come from the farm? And wearing so many flowers!”

Later I would incorporate such plot points into my fiction. I wrote a short story called “The Glorious Grasslands” in which the protagonist speaks to the clouds and even to a colony of ants. Those aren’t fictional details; they are a factual portrayal of my youth. I remember that after its publication, a critic I was unacquainted with wrote a review entitled “When Loneliness Becomes a Kind of Aesthetic.” When I first saw that title, I felt the same sharp pain. Like “A Nomadic Soul Perched in the City,” it was piercing to me.

At this moment, the herder discovers that even though he is alone in heaven and earth, that doesn’t prevent him from talking. He can converse with anything: flowers and plants on the wild plains, birds in the sky, little fish in the rivers—even a stone or a pile of dried-out yak dung. At a glance, the herder can tell that this particular pile of yak dung is from last winter. In winter there are no dung-eating bugs, so it is perfectly preserved, and its outer layer is also a steely gray instead of the usual black; such signs indicate the time when it was left here by a yak. In my youth, aside from putting the yaks out to pasture, my jobs at home included collecting yak dung; to this day, whenever I go out on the grasslands and see a field littered with dung, I have the urge to stop and pick it up. Indeed, I can truly tell the age and season of a lump of dung at a glance.

The herder discovers that, aside from himself, there is something else on the wild plains that likes to sing—a wild lark whose passion and perseverance as a singer always exceeds his. Specifically, it is a crested lark that interrupts his singing. Following the sound of its voice, the herder looks for the bird all around but sees nothing; that voice fills the whole sky and fills the whole prairie. The herder guesses that this wild lark feels the same loneliness that he does.

Thinking on this, the herder feels something like sympathy for a fellow sufferer, so he silences himself and begins listening earnestly. He hears the call of almost every bird of the grasslands: eagles and falcons, vultures, black-necked cranes, hoopoes, ground tits, snowfinches, woodpeckers, redstarts. Migratory birds, resident birds—the crested lark links all of their calls together, making the herder feel as if he’s walked into a giant aviary with a symphony of songbirds.

Later, I learned from a retired gentlemen who looked after birds that a lark raised in a cage “has thirteen mouths,” meaning that it has a need to make the sounds of thirteen different animals, such as cats and dogs. It was unimaginable to me that a lark would imitate the sounds of cats and dogs; that’s utter desperation, that’s the surrender of a lark that is far from the grasslands and has lost its freedom, that has been broken by people and whose behavior is no longer that of a free bird in its own world, singing with its own temperament, free of care or restraint. The old gentleman’s words made me think of a huar folk singer who was once known by everyone in my homeland of Qinghai; she came walking out of the countryside singing huar and la-ye as if it were second nature to her, her voice naturally exuding the fragrance of wild barley and the distinctive smell of yak butter tea. In that time before televisions were common and when the Internet was an even more unknown kind of sorcery, this singer became famous throughout the grasslands of Qinghai via the radio. Sometime afterward, her voice vanished from the radio, and those herders and farmers who every day looked forward to hearing her belt out those fullthroated songs didn’t know what had happened. It later emerged that because she sang so well, the government had sent her to Shanghai and Beijing to pursue advanced music studies and make her sing even better. After she came back, those herders and farmers discovered that she could no longer sing; the wild barley and yak butter tea were gone from her voice, as if they had been scrubbed away. Thus, a folk expression that applied to her spread throughout my hometown: “A good singer is a good singer; learning will only mess things up!”

The crested lark also imitates the call of its close relative—the horned lark, and the herder thinks, based on its singing skill alone, that if the crested lark is a singer famous throughout the grasslands, then the horned lark is just a little copycat that need not be imitated.

At that time, I was a young shepherd boy on the grasslands, and like my fictional herder, I often heard the long, sweet song of the crested lark. When I heard it singing a medley of different bird calls joined together (something like what is nowadays called a chuanshao or “shish kebab” song), with the voice of the horned lark among them, I had the same thoughts as the herder. These days, I often see “imitation shows” on TV in which the performers will go all out to replicate the voices of more famous singers. They copy their clothes and hairstyles, and even go so far as to change their own names so they resemble their idols’. Watching these performers, I think to myself that compared to them, the lark is more worthy of the name of master imitator. Its imitations of every kind of bird are remarkably accurate, but it never changes itself, and it doesn’t just imitate the most precious and rare birds. Its singing is both spontaneous and natural; it sings what it pleases, free from pretension, giving voice to its own brilliance.

My Cousin’s Horned Lark

Speaking of all this makes me think of my cousin, Shenglai. In my youth he was my best and most constant companion. In those days we would fool around together just about all day long. In early spring we would go to the stream next to the herding camp to dig up droma, the roots of the potentilla plant, sometimes also known as “wild ginseng.” It is an exceedingly fresh and delicious food that grows in the wild and is often used as a garnish in Tibetan meat and vegetable dishes. Back then we were like a pair of seasoned farmers; having already accumulated a wealth of droma-digging experience, we could tell by sight where the most and the biggest tubers were. During droma-digging season we each carried either a hoe or a shovel as we dug for tubers not far from the village. We would dig all day long, making three satisfying meals of the droma we had collected, eating them as we dug, not returning home until sunset. I remember the family of herders who lived next door; according to the class categories of the time, they were “herdlords.” The “lord” himself was humorous and charming, and he gave Shenglai and me different nicknames. I was called Damkha, which means “Muddy Mouth”— the result of eating droma— and my cousin Shenglai was called Relchik, which means “Ponytail.” Shenglai was sickly in his youth, and all of his siblings born before him had died prematurely; in order to survive, he grew a ponytail and was raised as a girl. That was the local custom; boys who were sickly would pretend to be girls or take the names of cats or dogs; in short, they would make their status low and humble as reflected by their name and gender in order to survive.

When the yaks had birthed their calves, Shenglai and I had the job of putting the little calves out to pasture; after they were born we had to graze them separately from their mothers to ensure that we humans could steal their mothers’ milk from their mouths. Families usually tasked their adolescent kids with looking after the calves.

As it happens, calving season coincided with egg-laying season for the many different birds of the grasslands.

One game we both liked, unique to children living in the grasslands, was scouring the prairie for bird nests around the end of spring and the beginning of summer. I dare say that in terms of nest hunting, our experience was comparable to that of expert ornithologists. One year in early summer, when I was working as a reporter at a Qinghai media company, I went to the grasslands of Changshé Khuk on the south shore of Qinghai Lake to cover a story with some colleagues. When our news van passed by a field filled with blooming oxytropis flowers, I asked the driver to stop. “I guarantee there are bird nests around here!” I said. All my colleagues in the van looked at me skeptically, thinking I was just looking for an excuse to stop for some reason or another. When the van pulled over, I got out, walked off into the grass, and soon found a nest in a cluster of oxytropis plants, under the cover of leaves and branches. It was a round nest constructed of the dried-up pasture grass ubiquitous in the grasslands, so exquisite that it appeared to be man-made, with two eggs quietly resting in it. It was a horned lark nest, the easiest kind to find in the grasslands.

Every year, when all types of birds arrived on the grasslands, and especially during egg-laying season for the resident birds, my cousin Shenglai and I would begin wandering all about, looking for bird nests as we tended the herd. Most of the nests we found were horned lark nests. At those times we would each find thirty or forty of them, and near each nest we would make a mark. We made our marks seem unintentional, so only we could recognize them, lest they be discovered by others—on the grasslands of Qinghai, hunters who specialized in catching foxes or other small animals had the same habit of scouting out an area and making a mark before hunting their prey, and we were afraid of attracting their attention. There was another reason for making a mark: horned lark nests were made with the dry grass of the grasslands, and because the color of the nests was exactly the same as their surroundings, they were completely concealed. The American naturalist John Burroughs tells a story about how he and a friend found a bobolink nest in a meadow, but as soon as they had taken a few steps, they lost it again: “[The young] were one…and not separable…from the one of the meadow-bottom.” How similar his description of the bobolink’s nest is to my frequent youthful sightings of horned lark nests; finding a nest site and then losing it in the blink of an eye—that was our experience on many occasions when we were children.

In describing bobolink nests, Burroughs uses a phrase as exquisite as poetry: vastness conceals minuteness. His observations reveal that bobolinks methodically build their nests in the middle of vast pastures, using the dry grass commonly found in such settings. The tiny nests and the feathers of their nestlings are almost exactly the same color as the grass, and bobolinks rely on this effective camouflage to build their nests in wide open spaces where everything can be seen at a glance.

In our youth, we never destroyed the nests we found or took the eggs. At that age we already understood that the “killing” spoken of by adults was an awful word and an awful act. If you killed living creatures, you weren’t just taking the lives of the small and weak; you were courting bad karma and bringing disaster on yourself.

When we had discovered a nest and made our mark, we would stop by routinely to check on it. The bird laid its eggs in the newly constructed nest, incubating them day after day, until finally two or three baby birds, still featherless and with eyes shut, broke out of their shells. We called such nestlings jingdu lang wawa, or “bare-bellied babies,” an expression from the Qinghai dialect of Chinese originally referring to newborn infants still in their swaddling clothes. When the babies had emerged from their shells, our visits became more frequent, and we would come by nearly every day, like ornithologists obsessed with field observations—as their feathers grew fuller, as their bodies filled out to the point that they could no longer fit in the nest, right up until they and their parents abandoned the nest altogether and flew away.

In those days we were busy every season, gathering yak dung, collecting mushrooms; these were chores that we were required to do and also enjoyed doing. Our toys back then were our tools, and our games were our chores; we took pleasure in our work, and that’s just how we grew up.

The game my cousin Shenglai and I liked best was to present the nests we had found to each other. At these times there was usually a trade of some kind involved.

Shenglai’s family was better off than mine, and he would sometimes have a piece of fruit candy or milk candy in his mouth. Seeing his cheeks bulging with candy would always make me drool with envy. Once, when Shenglai and I were tending some calves, I saw that he was sucking on a piece of candy again, and I could hear the happy sound of it rolling around in his mouth. I couldn’t stand it, so I said to him, “Shenglai, I’ll lead you to a big bird nest if you let me ‘savor’ your candy.”

Shenglai agreed, and he spit out the candy, which had already been sucked down to a nub, passed it over to me, and said, “Ok, have a savor.”

I immediately moved my mouth over to receive the fruit candy he had extended before me.

In the Qinghai dialect, to “savor” (呡) refers to the act of putting food inside your mouth and using your tongue to get a good taste of it. It seems like that fragrant and sweet taste from the day when I “savored” the candy Shenglai had stuffed into my mouth is still on the tip of my tongue today.

At that age greed was still unknown to us; I savored my cousin’s fruit candy, but I restrained myself and only tasted it briefly before spitting it back out and returning it to him.

As repayment for letting me taste his fruit candy, of course I had to fulfill my promise to take him to see a bird nest, and it couldn’t be a horned lark nest, because horned lark nests were too common. Instead, it had to be a kind of bird nest that wasn’t easy to find, one that I considered a more important nest, such as that of a Mongolian lark—what we called a “great lark.”

After Shenglai had reached adulthood, he and his mother, my aunt, lived in Qinghai’s Tsonup Prefecture. One year when I went to visit my aunt, my cousin kept me company the whole time. We reminisced about hunting for bird nests together as kids, and as we got worked up about it, he told me that we absolutely had to go back to the grasslands where we had lived and go on a nest hunt together. “And I’ll be sure to take some fruit candy for you to savor!” he said with a chuckle.

Roaring with laughter, we agreed to do it. But later that year, he fell ill. At the time I was far away in Beijing, and as soon as I heard that his condition was serious, I dropped what I was doing and hurried to Qinghai. While I was waiting to board my flight at Capital Airport, I felt an intolerable sense of impatience and grief, a kind of inexpressible feeling clogging up my heart that I didn’t know how to release. So I texted a famous Tibetan singer I had recently met, Yungdrung Gyal, to share my grief. He replied immediately with many words of comfort. Since then, Yungdrung and I have been close friends who tell each other everything.

Female Birds of the World

I’m a sucker for images and words expressing familial affection. Once, on the eve of Chinese New Year, CCTV made some public service announcements with the theme of families reuniting to spend the holiday together. In one of the segments, a daughter impatiently waits for her mother, who is off living elsewhere for work, to come back; just when she turns her head toward the door, she happens to catch her mother pushing the door open and coming in, and with a cry of “Mommy!” she dashes over and jumps into her arms to greet her. In another segment, a daughter is returning home for the New Year holiday, but her flight is unexpectedly delayed, so she calls her family to tell them not to wait for her to start New Year’s Eve dinner. Though the New Year’s Eve dumplings have been put on the table, her father hasn’t touched them; instead, he puts on his padded jacket and goes out to wait for his daughter at the corner…Because they were commercials, they kept playing in a loop, and I watched them again and again, but I couldn’t help tearing up every time I saw them.

In the summer of 2017, a hailstorm occurred in the grasslands of my hometown of Tepgya. It was probably the day after the storm that a video clip began circulating constantly in my WeChat friend groups. The video shows a dead female horned lark; as the camera zooms in, a hand reaches into the frame and pushes the body of the horned lark aside, and at that moment, a tiny nest that has been concealed by her body appears in the frame. In the nest are several stillfeatherless baby birds; because of the sudden movement, the baby birds seem as if they have suddenly awakened, and they all stretch out their necks, opening their beaks wide and raising them toward the sky. They are starving, and they hungrily await food from their parents’ beaks. My God, they still don’t know. In the moments before the hail hit, their mother threw herself upon them and used her frail body to shield them, and even as she was dying she didn’t move an inch! Now, she is already dead, but these baby birds are completely oblivious. When I saw this scene, tears suddenly welled up in my eyes, and I didn’t play the video clip again. I didn’t know whether the father of these baby birds, the male bird who had lost his wife, would take on the responsibility of raising these sons and daughters by himself, taking great pains to get them to adulthood, but based on the natural habits of horned larks, the male bird would give up nurturing them. These pitiful baby birds would end up going the way of their mother! Saying it like this, it feels like her sacrifice was not worth it. But when a mother sees her children about to suffer an accident, it is her instinctive choice to protect them. On this earth, it must be only mothers who would make such a choice. I recently heard a story about a mother in Shenzhen who, in order to treat her son’s illness, calmly killed herself by jumping from a tall building because she had an insurance policy that would compensate her family in the event of her death. That compensation would give her family relief from the huge cost of her son’s treatment. But she didn’t know that the insurance company refuses payment in cases of suicide. How similar this behavior is to that of the female crested lark!

O Female Birds of the World, O Mothers of the World!

In Locusts and Wild Honey, John Burroughs describes a kind of bird called a whippoorwill that exhibits some unusual behavior: when he approaches a whippoorwill’s nest, the disturbed nestlings jump up and then settle back down, closing their eyes and becoming completely still.

“The parent bird, on these occasions, made frantic efforts to decoy me away from her young. She would fly a few paces and fall upon her breast, and a spasm, like that of death, would run through her tremulous outstretched wings and prostrate body. She kept a sharp eye out the mean while to see if the ruse took, and, if it did not, she was quickly cured, and, moving about to some other point, tried to draw my attention as before. When followed she always alighted upon the ground, dropping down in a sudden, peculiar way.” As a child I saw crested larks exhibit the same behavior. I still remember what it was like the first time I saw such a scene. One day I was out tending the yaks with my cousin Shenglai, and when we gathered the herd together to count them, we discovered that one was missing. Unsurprisingly, it was my family’s white yak again. At that time we had a white yak with a bit of black on its flank; because it stood out from the rest of herd, it was just called by the simple name “White Yak.” Since White Yak wasn’t with the herd, Shenglai and I went looking for it. It was midsummer, and the pasture grass was flourishing; we were passing through an area of tall grass, a kind of coarse fibrous pasture grass known as “chee grass” that engulfed everything below our knees. When we reached the center of that field of tall grass, a crested lark suddenly flew upward, but it was clearly seriously injured; its head was drooping and its wings were dangling. After it had flown only a few paces away, it dropped stiffly to the ground. By some unspoken instinct, Shenglai and I both chased after it. Just as we were about to reach it, it took off again, but it still couldn’t fly well; it flapped its wings laboriously, and after flying a few more paces it again fell to the earth. In this fashion we kept following the lark all the way out of that field of tall grass, when it suddenly seemed to recover completely and flew off. After returning home, we told my father what we had seen, and he told us that if we encountered a situation like this, it meant that the crested lark’s young were nearby; it was feigning injury in order to protect its young. Sure enough, when Shenglai and I went back to that pasture the next day, the crested lark tried the same trick again, putting on a show of being grievously injured, and we quickly located its nest, with several fledglings huddled within. Afterward, I came across the same situation several more times. But the parent bird’s attempts to feign injury in fact prompted me to search for its nest; almost without exception, I was always able to find either a nest or its young. That made me think, this trick of theirs might be able to fool the owls and Tibetan foxes and such that preyed on them, but to human beings it instead betrayed their aim. I later saw a similar scene on a TV show that introduced a kind of bird that had the same habit of feigning injury. It wasn’t a whippoorwill or a crested lark; the narrator called it a “North American plover,” but it was completely different from the plovers I knew of. It used this behavior to trick a stupid wolf that was near its young. When I looked it up, I found that according to my reference sources, the parent bird on the TV show, that brave and lovable mother, was most likely a pied lapwing, which is very similar to a plover but is not the same species.

Singers Who Hide Their Identity

I have discovered that among the crowds of people around me, most are blind to birds; from this I have inferred that they have the same attitude toward other things such as wildflowers. Once I shared a bunch of photos of butterflies with my friends on WeChat, indicating that I had taken the photos in the city of Xining where I was living, and someone asked me, “Does Xining still have butterflies?” Reading this serenely unembarrassed question made me briefly choke. I imagine that longtime city dwellers see only street signs and the direction they’re going when they’re walking around. Pedestrians and traffic are just other aspects of these things; they don’t care about the vivid lives of the other creatures living among them. Such people are unable, and too lazy, to distinguish between this bird and that bird; in their view, any bird that flies past them and momentarily affects their line of sight is just a sparrow. John Burroughs discovered this as well. He said, “Most country boys, I fancy, know the marsh hawk.” What this sentence reveals is that only a boy living in a rural place that is closer to nature, the kind of youth who is still full of curiosity about nature, might be familiar with wild birds; we can only imagine what enthusiasm, if any, a bunch of city dwellers from a place like Xining might have for birds. Aldo Leopold, the author of A Sand County Almanac, was full of surprise and amazement at such people. He wrote, “I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof.” Upon reaching this point, he can’t help commenting, “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.”

John Burroughs couldn’t tear himself away from the Hudson River Valley, where he lived with the local birds. He was addicted to the sweet sounds of their songs, and he described their calls with deep feeling. He attempted to represent those sounds in letters, to allow people to use a visual medium to hear them and enjoy their beauty. He discovered the difficulty of doing so, and he also discovered that “Nature has denied them all brilliant tints, but she has given them sweet and musical voices.” He used this sentence to describe white-throated sparrows, buntings, and other birds that, like him, lingered on the banks of the Hudson River. But this sentence of his could also aptly be applied to the larks of my homeland—the crested lark, the Mongolian lark, the Asian short-toed lark, the Eurasian skylark. Most larks are nothing special to look at: their heads are adorned with white stripes, and their abdomens are mostly white; the color of their backs and their wing feathers, a bird’s most important feature, is a blurry intermingling of brown and black streaks; their beaks and feet are a dull gray-black and brown. I recall sharing some photos on my WeChat Moments that I had taken of a lark near a small monastery in my hometown—Karla Monastery—and a writer friend of mine expressed his disappointment: “So that’s a lark? How disappointing. Maybe that’s just life!” he wrote, and added three crying face emojis. Reading his comment, I too felt a bit disappointed—my disappointment stemmed from the shallow understanding of nature his remarks represented. I knew that I would be unable to convey my love of larks and transmit that passion to him, or to put it another way, I would be unable to make him understand that my infatuation with the lark’s singing voice made me willing to overlook its appearance. Fortunately, his sentiment will not lessen my love of larks one bit.

Actually, its drab appearance is the lark’s secret bulletproof vest. It relies on that drab appearance—its nondescript nest, its streaked plumage—to protect itself, to protect its young, to protect its descendants.

And that’s not all.

It is true even for the lark that its fledglings are voiceless—before their feathers have grown out, their eyes still haven’t opened; to perceive the world around them they rely entirely on their ears. I recall that in my youth, every time we would walk by a horned lark nest with newly hatched young, the baby birds hearing that noise would think that their parents were bringing food to them, and they would all lift their heads and open their pale yellow beaks, just waiting for their parents to place food in them. The sight of this was always hilarious to our youthful selves, and we couldn’t help breaking out in laughter. The beaks of nestling larks seem to have lost coordination with their bodies, and whenever they open their beaks wide, it looks like their mouths are all that’s left of their heads, which seem as big as their bodies. When we describe a person opening their mouth wide, we say that we can see their windpipe. When applied to crested lark nestlings, this is not at all an exaggeration; you really can see their windpipes at a glance. Their throats are large, but the sounds they make are very faint. When they are sure that it isn’t their parents that have come, they become completely quiet, their upstretched heads droop back down, and they stop moving entirely; all that can be seen is the slight quivering of their bodies from their rapid breathing. Although I noticed this phenomenon when I was young, I never stopped to ponder the reason for it. It was when I happened to be flipping through the works of John Burroughs that I had a sudden revelation. In his writings, Burroughs says that the nestlings of species that build their nests in concealed or enclosed places, such as woodpeckers, wrens, northern flickers, and orioles, tend to twitter and chirp, contrasting sharply with species that build their nests in open and exposed places, whose nestlings are silent. Burroughs believes that this is a defense mechanism for birds that nest in places that pose a greater threat to their survival. Indeed! In the face of the natural law of survival of the fittest, even larks, famed as “singers of the grasslands,” choose silence in their nestling period, leaving chirping and clamoring to birds that build their nests in concealed and relatively safe places.

The lark has also given itself an unremarkable youth. 

I suddenly understood that larks, those clever spirits, are silent in their youth just so that they may sing more freely and more heartily when they are grown. To achieve that goal, they begin preparing from the moment they start building their nests. This is a long and meticulous preparation—they hide their nests in a vast expanse to give themselves a greater chance of survival, they use the silence of their youth to make it impossible for anyone to discover their gift for singing, and they disguise their reputation as “singers of the grasslands” behind their indistinct coloration. It’s as though they’re noble beings from another world who deliberately conceal their own grandeur with dirt and shabby clothes, but all the while, their hearts hold an inviolable dignity.

 

(Originally published in Shiyue [October] no. 2, 2020.)

 

Long Rinchen: Born in March 1967 in the Qinghai Lake area, Long began his career in literary writing and translation in 1990. His work has appeared in various Chinese and Tibetan magazines, including People’s Literature, Chinese Writers, National Literature, Fang Cao (Beautiful Grass), and Sbrang char (Light Rain). He has won numerous awards for his writing, including the Twelfth National Ethnic Minority Literature “Steed Prize” for the translation of Tibetan literature, and has received recognition for his work in film and television, photography, and music. Long also serves as the editor-in-chief of the monthly literary magazine Qinghai Lake.

Brantley Collins: A native of San Antonio, Texas, Brantley graduated from Trinity University in 1997. Having studied Mandarin at Trinity and National Taiwan Normal University, married a native of Shanghai, and worked in the China travel industry, he has long been fascinated by China’s rich languages and cultures. He currently maintains the website Camilla’s English Page and works as an independent language teacher and proofreader.

XXX or FNU? Musings on Tibetan Names Abroad

Huatse Gyal

 

“Is your first name XXX or FNU?”

This was a question asked by a customs officer at San Francisco International Airport in 2009, when I first came to the United States. 

“Sorry, officer, I don’t have a first name. It’s a cultural thing. Most Tibetans only have one name.” I was worried that something unpleasant might happen. 

“Okay, I need to talk with my boss about this. Your first name on your passport and your first name on your US visa should be the same,” the officer said rather coldly. I waited there for about twenty minutes, after which they finally figured out the enigma of my “name” and allowed me to enter the country. I almost missed my connecting flight to Portland. 

Now you must be wondering how I was given such enigmatic names. This was long before I realized the significance that names carry. In 2009, I was admitted to a college in Portland, Oregon. Sometimes people ask me, “Why did you choose Reed College?” I always answer, “I didn’t choose Reed. Reed accepted me, so I came.” Although I was selected as one of the best thirty students in high school in the region of Rebgong, and I earned some of the highest grades in the region, especially in the English language, in reality, a combination of luck, good karma, and hard work, as well as a serendipitous encounter with a kind mentor paved the way for me to access higher education. Back then, Reed generously recruited one Tibetan student each year—fully funded through their financial aid program. I was a beneficiary of that generous tradition. As karma would have it, a son of two Tibetan nomadic herders joined the class of 2013. 

When I went to get a Chinese passport at the county Exit and Entry Administration Office in China, the officers there asked me to write XXX for my first name and my full Tibetan name in Chinese Pinyin for my last name. I had never written my name as first name and last name before. When I went to Beijing to apply for a US visa, the US embassy wrote FNU for my first name, which stands for First Name Unknown. In general, not many Tibetans get the opportunity to pursue further studies abroad, especially students from nomadic and farming family backgrounds. Those few who do all share the same first name on their passport: XXX. Until this day, I still don’t fully understand why XXX is given as a first name to all Tibetan students, and why the US embassy replaced it with FNU. If you do, please let me know. 

After I finally waded through the security check in San Francisco, I walked briskly to my boarding gate and handed my boarding pass to one of the flight attendants. 

“Is XXX your first name?” she asked casually, with a smile. 

“No, that’s not my name. It’s a cultural thing…” I replied. 

“Oh, I see. By the way, XXX means something bad in English.” She said, again with a smile. 

“Oh, really. I don’t know about that. It’s not my name.” I went straight into the boarding bridge to the airplane.  

Was I bothered by her question about XXX? No, not at all. I simply felt that XXX had nothing to do with me. I felt so euphoric over the fact that I’d got a full ride to Reed College for four years. As a kid, I had never endured hunger, thanks to milk, yogurt, and yak meat, and thanks to my mother, who always ate less so her children could eat more. However, in 1997, the local government built a primary school in my nomadic-pastoral village. It was a concrete boarding school. Based on a lottery, I was one of the students the school recruited for their first class of seven. Most families were against sending their children to school. Families who refused to send their children to school were fined. The school offered hot water and steamed bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The temperature sinks below twenty degrees Celsius in winter. All the students had cracks on their hands and feet. Hunger was constant. From that experience, I learned that people can endure on just white bread and water for many years. If you compare that lifestyle to the students’ lives at Reed College, the difference is night and day.  

Right after I arrived at Reed, I went for a physical examination. My appointment was at 9:30 on a Monday morning. I arrived at the hospital before 9 a.m., so I waited in the waiting area, expecting that a nurse would call me. There were some other people waiting there as well.  9:30 came and went. Nobody called my name. The clock passed 9:40, then 9:50. I stood up and went to the receptionist’s desk and asked about my appointment. 

“What’s your name?” The receptionist asked, politely. 

“My name is, my name is, Huatse, oh, maybe you have FNU in your records.” 

“Let me check. Yes, FNU, that’s what it says here,” the secretary responded with a smile. “Your appointment was half an hour ago. Actually, a nurse called your name several times—FNU, Fenoo, right?—but nobody responded.” 

“Oh, I heard that name, but that’s not my name. Can I see a doctor today?” 

“Sorry, FNU is what we have in our records. We don’t have any doctors available today. Would you like to make another appointment? I’m happy to include a preferred name in our records.” Her tone was sympathetic.  

“Ok, I’ll make a new appointment then. Please write ‘Huatse’ for my preferred name,” I said. I had actually heard the nurse hesitantly calling out F-N-U, and then Fenoo. My mind simply didn’t recognize that name. After the flight attendant in San Francisco had mentioned that XXX means something bad in English, I simply used FNU whenever I needed to fill out a form at school. I shared this funny encounter at the hospital with my college friends, and we all laughed, laughed, and laughed. People at the school cafeteria started calling me “Triple X.” They must have seen it on my student ID.

Was I bothered by this experience of missing my appointment or being called “Triple X”? Not really. So many good things were happening in my life. As a middle school student in Tibet, most of us had this deep desire to learn. Many of us would wake up at 5 a.m. almost every day to memorize wonderful essays and poems both in Chinese and Tibetan. On weekends, we would seek out monks at the monasteries to teach us Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan grammar, poetry, and even calligraphy. I found an environment that was conducive for learning at Reed College.

Particularly memorable for me was the college’s foundational writing course, Humanities 110, which introduced students to fundamental Western intellectual traditions, aesthetics, and political forms through Greek and Roman epics, history, drama, and philosophy.1 

*

What is a name? What is in a name? Are names just a label? Who has the right to a name? This story is not just about me. It’s a story about names, lost names, and names that are being torn apart, degraded, and erased. Given all the choices that exist, and most importantly the personal and political freedoms those choices embody, an enormous amount of care and love must go into selecting a name for a newborn baby—in all the cultures of the world. In Tibetan culture, common names for girls include Drölma སྒྲོལ་མ། (Tara), Khandro མཁའ་འགྲོ (dakini or angel), Lhamo ལྷ་མོ (deity), Yangdzom གཡང་འཛོམས། (full of fortune), Pamo དཔའ་མོ། (heroine), and Nordzom ནོར་འཛོམས། (abundant wealth). Common Tibetan names for boys include Trashi བཀྲ་ཤིས། (auspicious), Döndrup དོན་འགྲུབ། (fulfillment of every purpose, also the Buddha’s personal name), Tsering ཚེ་རིང་། (long life), Kelzang སྐལ་བཟང་། (golden era), Lozang བློ་བཟང་། (noble-hearted), and of course, Tendzin བསྟན་འཛིན། (holder of the Buddha’s teaching). Some Tibetans have a combination of two names, such as Trashi Döndrup བཀྲ་ཤིས་དོན་འགྲུབ།, Lozang Tendzin བློ་བཟང་བསྟན་འཛིན།, Yangdzom Drölma གཡང་འཛོམས་སྒྲོལ་མ།, and Khandro Drölma མཁའ་འགྲོ་སྒྲོལ་མ།. Most Tibetans are taken to a Lama (Buddhist or Bon) by their parents to receive a name, and some Tibetans also name their own children. I was named by my grandfather. He wanted to give me a powerful name, and finally he decided on Huatse Gyal དཔའ་རྩེ་རྒྱལ།, which is quite an uncommon name for a Tibetan. Hua means “hero,” Tse means “top,” and Gyal means “victory.” So, my name means something like victorious top hero. Altogether, it’s a single name. Since people often call me Huatse for short, I split my whole name into two in English (“Huatse” and “Gyal”), as that way it looks like I have a first name and a last name. My grandfather had never imagined that one day I would have to carry names like XXX or FNU. If he knew, he would be heartbroken. 

When the flight attendant at the airport in San Francisco said that XXX meant something bad in English, I simply ignored it. But one day, curious to learn what she meant by “bad,” I Googled “What does X mean in English?” According to Google, “X means ‘Kiss’ and can also mean ‘variable’ in Math. The letter X is widely used at the end of text messages and emails to signify a ‘Kiss.’” That doesn’t sound too bad, I said to myself. Why did she say that it has a negative connotation? Then, I searched, “What does XXX mean?”, and this time, it led me to some questionable websites that many people seemed to be quite familiar with in this country. The flight attendant’s comment all those years ago suddenly made sense. That has really humiliated me.

Without a name, you are stripped of the most basic conception of selfhood, of your lineage, and even your very existence. Wouldn’t you agree? When you call someone by their name, you are acknowledging the existence of that person. A name is more than a label. Your name is closely related to your mental and physical sense of who you are and the memories of where you come from. Names are first and foremost a personal identification in relation to other humans, but we also use them to relate to mountains, to rivers, grasslands, and other beings around us. There is a difference between saying, “How are you?” and “How are you, Huatse?” The former is a bit detached, while the latter serves to bind people together. This may seem trivial. But this ubiquitous practice of calling someone by their name is an act of acknowledging the mere presence of another person, regardless of whether it is said with or without affection. 

Names are also connected to one’s bank account, social security, medical records, and many other features of modern life, so not having a first name or having a confusing name causes many troubles. Conversely, the act of not properly calling, writing, or acknowledging someone’s name is part and parcel of the systematic erasure of their names and identities. My friend Dr. Kunga Norzom was once served by a barista who carelessly wrote her name wrong on her coffee cup (they wrote “Kung”). She posted about this experience on Facebook, powerfully articulating the significance of a person’s name:  

“Growing up in the West, a lot of us have experienced invalidating moments where we felt unwelcomed or were treated like ‘outsiders’ because of our cultural name or smelly food or funny accent. It takes a lot of emotional work to embrace something the dominant culture tells you to get rid of or replace. So, what’s in a name, you say? So much. My name carries my parents’ pride and hope for me. My name has kept me grounded and connected to my identity and community. My name is sacred, and it is meaningful.  My name is me not giving up on my cultural identity and my years of effort and growth that I’m proud of. My name is not difficult if you just slow down and listen. My name is not like Mary or Bob or John or even Kung; my name is Kunga, it’s Tibetan and it’s beautiful, please learn to say it.”

Misspelling someone’s name can be construed as a grave insult and a form of humiliation if you are not part of the dominant culture. My friend’s experience reminds me of a different example of Tibetan names being distorted and debased. When the Chinese state implemented the Household Registration policy in Tibet in the early 1980s, they recorded and collected Tibetan names in Chinese on each family’s household registration book (hukou). In many cases, Tibetan names were written carelessly and offensively when they were transcribed into Chinese characters. The name Lhakyi, ལྷ་སྐྱིད། which means “happy deity” in Tibetan, was written as 垃圾 in Chinese, which means “garbage.” Yangmo གཡང་མོ། means “fortune-carrying sheep,” but in Chinese it was written as 羊毛, meaning “sheep wool.” There are numerous other examples. Lozang བློ་བཟང་།, “goodhearted” or “noble-hearted,” became 裸丧, “naked funeral”; Rikmo རིག་མོ།, “intelligent,” became 肉毛, “meat and fur”; and Döndrup དོན་འགྲུབ།, “the fulfillment of every purpose,” became 吞猪, “to swallow a pig.” Tso མཚོ།, which means “lake,” commonly appears at the end of female names in Tibetan, e.g., Lhamo Tso ལྷ་མོ་མཚོ།, Lumo Tso ཀླུ་མོ་་མཚོ།, Tsering Tso ཚེ་རིང་མཚོ།. In Chinese, however, it was written as 错, which means “wrong.” 

Why did they do this? I like to believe that the household registration officials wrote these Chinese names out of ignorance. But even so, I wonder—would they give such names to their own loved ones? I believe they were mainly careless, but their carelessness means that there are hundreds and thousands of Tibetans who need to explain the bizarre meaning of their names in Chinese characters. Nowadays, more and more Tibetans are more fluent in Mandarin Chinese than in their mother tongue, so this new generation can write their Tibetan names in meaningful Chinese characters.  

*

As I’ve spent more time in the United States, I have come to learn both the glorious history of the American dream and the foundation of that history, which is the history of American slavery and the displacement of indigenous land. When African Americans were forcefully and brutally brought to this country a few centuries ago, they not only lost their land, they lost their names. They were given names by their masters. In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross at the age of 84, the renowned African American writer Toni Morrison had this to say about names: “I don’t think I knew any of my father’s friends, male friends, by their real name. I remember them only by their nicknames. Also, there was an honesty sometimes—the names were humiliating, deliberately so. Somebody would pick out your flaw. If you were little, they would call you ‘Shorty,’ and if you were angry, they would call you ‘The Devil.’ I remember a man in the neighborhood who was called ‘Jim the Devil.’ Always those three words. ‘Have you seen Jim the Devil?’” Here, she laughed softly. 

Morrison was her married name, but she divorced in 1974. Wofford was her father’s last name. And she was born Chloe, not Toni. I had a visceral reaction when this towering figure said that she never felt like anything other than Chloe—that was who she was. When Gross asked, “Once you started being called Toni, did you feel different from being called Chloe?”, Morrison delved even deeper into the issue: “I never felt like anything other than Chloe. The person I was, was this person who is called Chloe. You know my name Chloe, nobody could pronounce it properly outside of my family. In school, the teacher called me Chlo, or Clovi, or Clori because it was spelt that way. It’s much more common now, but I couldn’t bear people mispronouncing my name, but the person I was, was this person who is called Chloe. Then, I go away, people in Washington they don’t know how to pronounce C-H-L-O-E, so somebody mistakenly called me Toni because she couldn’t hear Chloe. So, I said…aha, ok, I don’t care. Call me Toni, it’s easy and you don’t have to mispronounce my name. Then I meant to put my maiden name in the first book I wrote. As a matter of fact, I called the publisher, ‘Oh by the way, I don’t want Toni Morrison on the book.’ They said it’s too late. They’ve already sent it to the Library of Congress, but I really would have preferred Toni Wofford.” Perhaps very few people have noticed that she was publishing under a name that did not give her a sense of self, or a name that had stripped her of her very personhood. Chloe Wofford (1931-2019) won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

I’ve also learned that the African American civil rights activist and Muslim minister Malcom X (1925-1965) refused to use his last name, Little, starting in 1950. In his autobiography, Malcom X writes, “The Muslim’s ‘X’ symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slave master name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.” I truly understand Malcom X’s refusal to use a name which carried so much violence and humiliation. Malcom X was assassinated in 1965, when he was only 40 years old. 

Where there is oppression, there is always resistance. As Tibetans say, pain or suffering may get old, but they may never be forgotten (སྡུག་ལ་རྙིང་རྒྱུ་ཡོད་ཀྱང་བརྗེད་རྒྱུ་མེད་།). Many of our lives are structurally shaped by different shades of oppression, but we shall never be defined by it. We should find every opportunity to laugh at the stupidity of crude situations that continue to envelope us. Humor has a way of healing our hearts. I hope you agree with me. As Chloe Wofford said, “we should keep our integrity and claim our own life” in the face of oppression and violence. At first, I used FNU for my first name whenever I bought a plane ticket, but later that caused me some trouble as I was told that FNU is not my first name on my passport, so I have to use XXX whenever I travel. To be frank, FNU is hardly better than XXX. One was imposed on me by Chinese bureaucracy, and the other by US bureaucracy.  I often need to give myself more time at the airport in anticipation of customs officers asking me questions about my enigmatic name. I have carried these two names for about a decade now. 2 On my social media, or whenever I have not been required to write an “official name,” I have written “Huatse Gyal,” a transliteration of my original Tibetan name, དཔའ་རྩེ་རྒྱལ།.

*

“Is XXX your first name? What does it mean?”

This question was asked by an African American customs officer at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago about three years ago. 

“When I was a teenager, I was very inspired by Malcom X’s speeches, so I changed my first name to XXX as a way to honor his work,” I said with a smile. 

“Really? Wow, that’s amazing! Here is your passport and have a nice trip,” she replied, very kindly. She didn’t even bother to consult with a superior about my enigmatic name. My response made sense to her. That was the shortest and the most pleasant interaction that I have ever had with a customs authority in the United States. Of course, I had never heard about Malcom X as a teenager. 

As I slowly walked toward my boarding gate, I said quietly to myself, “I wonder if this trick would work with a white officer.” 

 

Notes:

  1. In 2016, a group of Reed students protested that the course was too “white” and “Eurocentric” and demanded that the college diversify the syllabus. Reed finally accepted changes to its signature humanities course by including the humanistic traditions of the ancient Egyptians, Israelites, and Achaemenids as well as texts related to Mexico City in the 15th through 20th centuries, and Harlem from 1919 to 1952. 
  2. When I went to renew my passport in 2019, I was given one name for both my first and last names. Although I am finally free of XXX, this change has not made my life easier. Now, whenever I am required to provide “official names,” I am bombarded with questions such as “What is your first name?”, “What is your last name?”, and “Why don’t you have a first name?” 

 

Huatse Gyal is a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the interdependent relationship between Tibetan nomads, their animals, and the future sustainability of their land.