Friday, September 27, 2013

Acha Tsemo Khar by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong: A Translation

I always hoped that DTR would write more pieces on his childhood in Amdo, Tibet. So I really enjoyed translating this piece, an evocative remembrance centered around his aunt Acha Tsemo Khar, and learning that in Amdo, or in Sedza in Amdo at least, hay sheds are on the terrace and not in the yard. For now at least, writing these pieces are the closest that someone like him can come to going home. 

This piece was originally published in Tibetan on, and then in English translation on Rangzen Alliance.

Acha Tsemo Khar
Dhondup Tashi Rekjong

Until the fifth grade, I studied at Dragmar (Red Cliff) Elementary School in Sogzong in Malho. Then my father moved me to Tornyin Elementary School. Tornyin School was in the middle of three villages called Sedza, Arol and Nyinglo. I was born in Nyin village and from there, if you walked to Tornyin School, it took at least twenty minutes. From Nyin village, first you went down to the heel of a small valley, then you climbed up the face of a slightly steep hill, then after you cut through several fields on the hillside, you eventually came to Tornyin Elementary School.

The first two months after I started Tornyin School, I was very homesick. I missed Dragmar School and all my friends terribly. I was miserable at the thought of continuing in sixth grade at Tornyin School. I made a lot of complaints to my mother. Perhaps she got a little desperate because she called my father and said, “The child doesn’t want to stay there. Take him back to Sokpo.” But my father didn’t respond to this. I did not dare ask my father why he didn’t respond. So as it turned out, I had to stay in Tornyin for the sixth grade.

The village closest to Tornyin School was Sedza village. Acha Tsemo Khar’s house in Sedza village was right at the foot of Tornyin School. Acha Tsemo Khar was the older of my father’s two younger sisters. This meant she was my aunt, but we called her ‘sister’, Acha Tsemo Khar. She was the bride of Tornyin’s Chief. Because she was my father’s sister and because Tornyin school was quite far from my own village, I always ate lunch at their house. Even though they were a poor family, they always ate grand meals. Most afternoons, they had potatoes and some kind of vegetable with their bread. Acha Tsemo Khar was not only very kind to me, she was also quite proud of my results at school. Sometimes she would even say in a small boast to others, “Our family’s child from Nyin does very well at school.”

I don’t remember very clearly but I think this was on a winter morning. The sunlight was bright in the morning and there was a light breeze in the air. After the second period was over, a few of us school friends sat sunning ourselves behind the classroom. Even though the sun was bright, it wasn’t very warm. As we sat there, suddenly a student yelled in the schoolyard, “Uncle Pema Bhum’s house is on fire!” Unable to believe our ears, we looked in the direction of the student who had yelled. A bunch of students were running out the school gate. I also went out of the main gate.

The hay shed on Acha Tsemo Khar’s terrace was on fire. Plumes of smoke rose from the hay shed. Many villagers had already reached there and they were throwing soil on the shed house. Some young men and women were throwing soil over the smoking bales of hay on the terrace. There was smoke but it looked as if the fire hadn’t really been able to catch. As I stood there frozen, my friend Sangye Bhum said, “Dhondup Tashi, aren’t you going to help? Your sister’s house is on fire.” I didn’t say anything in reply. In my heart, I was thinking, should I go or not? If I went, I would miss the next class. If I missed the next class, I’d get a scolding from my teacher. The teacher’s good impression of me will be ruined. If I didn’t go, I would shame myself in front of Acha Tsemo Khar. As I was thinking these thoughts, the bell rang for the next class. I went back to the classroom.

After the afternoon class finished, I went to Acha Tsemo Khar’s house for lunch like any other day. When I entered their gate, I saw that the village people who had come to help were having lunch in the courtyard. With them were my sister, my uncle and my uncle’s wife. They glanced at me but didn’t say anything to me. Acha Tsemo Khar stood by a pillar near the door to the noodle room, holding a thermos in her hands. As soon as she saw me, she put the thermos down on the floor. Her face changed. When I sat on a rug and reached out for a teacup, she came to me and said, “You were able to stand and watch while your sister’s house burned down? Aren’t you ashamed in front of your school friends?” Then she left. I couldn’t look at her face or give her a reply. I couldn’t even look out of the corners of my eyes at the faces of the other villagers around me. Bowing my head and sniffing my nose, I sat there drinking my tea. My face became very hot and I felt as if drops of sweat were rolling down my forehead.

From that day on, I went to Acha Tsemo Khar’s house for lunch less and less often. I had a sense of shame and guilt in my heart. I never told anyone about this shame and guilt. I lacked the courage to even talk about it. Even now, each time I think of Acha Tsemo Khar, I think of this incident that happened sixteen years ago. I have now finished college and just started my job. Whether it is to repay a small slice of my debt to Acha Tsemo Khar or to dispel part of my shame and guilt, I am thinking of spending part of my salary on a gift for Acha Tsemo Khar. I am wondering, what kind of gift should I send to Acha Tsemo Khar?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Prayers Answered, From Baltistan to Ladakh

Thoughts on Geleck Palsang's Prayers Answered

I have an offering:

A short 29 minute documentary about the journey of a group of small Balti children from Turtuk, the very border of India, Pakistan and Tibet, to a Tibetan school in Ladakh, Prayers Answered is a really charming small film with a very appealing hero. The events surrounding the film are thus: in 2005, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Turtuk and suggested that the villagers could send some of their children for an education at the Tibetan Children’s Village school in Ladakh. The villagers then sent 15 children to Ladakh. The documentary begins with His Holiness’s visit and then follows the children.

I was fascinated from the first frame, when the village headmen of Turtuk talk about the history of Turtuk and its people and their culture. The Turtuk people, who are Baltis, speak Balti—which is an amazing stir fry mix of Ladakhi-Tibetan, Urdu/Hindi, Farsi (I assume it’s Farsi: I don’t know it but it sounds like Farsi and it must be Farsi) and… English. For a Tibetan speaker, it’s truly amazing to hear. It sounds like an invented language—the conjugations are mostly Ladakhi, the base vocabulary and the base grammar is Tibetan, with generous helpings of Urdu-Hindi and Farsi, and then the occasional dash of English. Perhaps some of the grammar is Farsi also. This is all coming from a non-linguist. I can only guess.

Here’s the caption that appears at the beginning of the film, to teach viewers a little about this remote region:
“Turtuk is a little known region located in a remote corner of northern India on the border with Pakistan and Tibet. Turtuk was once part of Baltistan, which is now in Pakistan. The village of Turtuk became part of India after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. This mountainous village is virtually cut off from rest of the world. Due to its sensitive border location, Turtuk is under the control of Indian army, and access is only possible with a special permit. Very few outsiders have visited Turtuk.”

The Balti people, of Tibetan descent, used to practice Bon (the pre-Buddhist practice of Tibet) before the 8th century, and when Baltistan fell under Tibetan sovereignty during the rule of the Yarlung kings, the Baltis also became Buddhist for several centuries. In the 14th century, Muslim scholars from Persia and Kashmir converted the Balti people to Islam, which they still practice today.

One of the village elders explains that the Balti people of Turtuk were a tribe comprising of people from Iran, Tibet, Dard and Mongolia. They certainly look it, and sound it. He talks about Baltistan’s cultural features, its similarity to western Tibet (eating, dressing, living, language etc) and how they used to use Tibetan script but later they switched to Arabic script.

Here’s a rough transcription of how he said this, rendered one and all in Roman alphabet:

“Dheney Baltistan ki daksai mi uney, dukso, langso, khashes ..…jis tare…..khaskar
meney pura language bi daksang original language pe use… ….. magar script khadam zos ki yaley.”

The ….. are Farsi sounds I couldn’t even catch.
See? It’s all like this and more so: Balti, Tibetan, Ladakhi, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi and English. It’s amazing.

Hearing Balti is like listening to a radio that keeps changing its frequency—I”ll understand some snatches of the speech and be able to break it down to its component parts and then there’ll be other long parts that I just don’t understand. There’s snatches and whole long clauses which are in Ladakhi Tibetan and then there’ll be some Urdu-Hindi vocab, some of which I know and some of which I don’t, and then there’ll be phrases that I think I have understood but when I think about it and try to break it down, I haven’t, and they may or may not have been Ladakhi and then there’s other sounds that I just don’t understand but assume must be Farsi, and then there’s the occasional English word thrown in.

For Tibetan speakers, just the sound of Balti is an auditory treat. For non-speakers, however, the film still has its merits. The film is made skillfully, with restraint and mature confidence and deep sympathy for the kids.

It was only about halfway through the film that I realized its hero was the little boy named Ata-ul Rehman, a plucky little chubby cheeked fellow, sweetly shy and passionately intense. It does feel a little bit as if Geleck Palsang himself recognized only halfway into filming that Ataul was his hero—in the latter half of the film, we stay closely with him, to the film’s benefit, and I was really sorry when the film ended.

I would have liked to see more of the children settling in—the film shows the children at Namaz, learning Arabic from their dorm mother and teacher Zenab who came with them, and learning Tibetan and English, and playing with classmates, and then that last scene, of the circle of them at a table singing the popular Phurbu T Namgyal song “Bhoejong ngatsoe phayul, Bhoerig ngayi phunda! / (Tibet is my homeland, the Tibetans are my people)” at the top of their voices. It’s a moving and bittersweet scene to end with. I remembered Ataul’s mother who cried at the thought of sending him away but said that education was important and hoped that he wouldn’t be hungry at the school, and the man who sang a Balti folk song to welcome His Holiness to Turtuk.

These children are bridging a thousand years and the Karakoram mountains and the Himalayas. I know that bridges are important, and there are rewards…but there are also costs.  I just hope that they’ll continue to sing Balti folk songs along with Tibetan pop.

There’s a really funny little scene of Ataul and his classmates in English class. They are reciting a passage in tandem from their textbook, with little gestures and actions that their teacher had taught them to pepper their recitation with. It’s just such an incongruous little scene, and hilariously funny when you watch it, because the little gestures the children make are so cute, and they have so clearly memorized this passage and because they are chanting so seriously and earnestly.

A score of children’s voices, high, with the volume tuned up, and attendant motions:

Everybody says I look like my father!
Everybody says I look like my mother!
Everybody says my nose is like my father’s!
Everybody says my lips are like my mother’s!
Everybody says I am the image of somebody!
But if you really want to know,
I want to look like me!
I want to look like me!
Thank you!

Ataul Rehman hasn’t caught up to the rest of his classmates yet. He says the first two lines and then he moves his mouth to approximate the shapes but it’s clear that he’s lost for now.

Everybody says I am the image of somebody
But if you really want to know
I want to look like me!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Your Happiness and My Suffering: A Song by Khoten (translation)

Dhondup Tashi Rekjong and I translated this song about a year ago and sent it to High Peaks (, the best site for news, issues & commentary coming out of Tibet. Dechen Pemba really liked it and wanted to put it up, and asked us if we could get an introduction on Khoten. There wasn’t any information available online, in Tibetan or English, so Dhondup Tashi asked people he knew inside Tibet to get some information on Khoten. This is how he gets the info on most of the people that Tibet Web Digest translates and publishes online.

Finally we got a brief biographical sketch and then that information just slept in our inboxes (ok, fine, my inbox) for a very very long time until someone on the web put up a translation of this song, which was interesting but a little libertarian, (for instance: instead of ‘the snow is not white’, I believe they had ‘it was not the white snow’) and so we got out the intro and dusted it off, edited it and sent to Hpeaks. We have to thank Dechen, who was so patient with us, and does such a wonderful and necessary job with High Peaks.

You can simply read the song lyrics, but I really suggest watching the video (the lyrics are also embedded). It's an entirely different experience. Of course, the Tibetan audience is uncooperative as always. Maybe another time, I'll share my memories of Phurbu T Namgyal desperately trying to get the Boston Tibetans grooving to Jampa Dolma. They watched him like a documentary. Clearly, the Amdo audience is not much better. 

Anyway, Khoten punched me in the heart with this song. I hope we have done justice to his lyrics. Do watch. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Taking Your Pulse: A Scene in Tibetan Medicine Land

I am taking these pills called “gu-yu de-pak” that are supposed to cure my “drangwa.” My problem is, I don’t know what these pills are, I don’t even know when exactly I am supposed to take them, and I don’t really know what this “drangwa” is that the pills are supposed to cure. Welcome to Tibetan medicine land.

Now I am a fan. I think the Tibetan medical system is pretty freaking awesome. I like the idea that Tibetan medicine is focused on curing the patient and not just the illness. I think it’s amazing the way the doctors use their own bodies as a fine-tuned diagnostic instrument. I get a thrill every time I get my pulse checked (with their fingertips held tightly against my inner wrist—I am easily thrilled) although getting my pulse racing just then is not exactly guaranteed to give the best reading. And I like the way Tibetan pills are not supposed to have any side effects, although sometimes they don’t seem to have any main effects either.

I just think, ok so there was Yuthok Yonten Gonpo who wrote the Gyuzhi, the four treatises of medicine, in the, wait for it, 12th century and that is still the main text of Men-tsee-khang students today? Sure, that speaks to the excellence and vision of Yonten Gonpo’s work but doesn’t that also mean that in all that time no one else wrote anything better? And this was a system that knew how to detoxify mercury. Come on, people. You can do better.

Anyway, so the point is Tibetan medicine is pretty sophisticated, and especially good with chronic illnesses, and when we heard that an Amchi was coming to New York, my brother and I both went. The Amchi has a very good reputation, and he’s a “lamen”, physician to His Holiness. Although I have noticed that a lot of people seem to be His Holiness’s physician. If someone stays long enough at Men-tsee-khang, do they eventually get bumped up to the team of His Holiness’s physicians? That would be ridiculous right? This gig shouldn’t be an equal opportunity thing. It should be the best people, and not just the people who stuck around long enough. Not that I think it’s that. I am sure it’s not. Really.

Ok. So anyway, I was feeling in pretty good shape. Alright so my exercise consists of climbing up four flights of stairs to our apartment, but I don’t drink, do drugs or eat lard. On the other hand, I eat tons of Nongshim noodles (only circumstantial link between msg and cancer, you know, or so I tell myself) and didn’t really drink water for the first fourteen years of life. Overall, I feel generally fine. But my brother has a persistent sinus problem that’s been bugging him for the past, oh so many, years. And recently, in my sisterly fashion of taking up whatever bad habit he has and taking twice as long to get rid of it, my nose and throat had been clogging up too.

Morning? Afternoon? Evening?
So we both went. There was a pretty long line to see the Amchi. And this was the overflow crowd from that the scheduled consultations held over the previous days at Tibet House. Mostly palas and amalas but also a few young people, and a couple Injis as well. The consultations were held in the basement of Norling’s restaurant, which is walled up with mirrors all around so that although there was a Japanese screen stood up between the doctor’s corner of the room and the rest of us, I could easily look at the wall across and see both doctor and patient reflected. So much for doctor/patient confidentiality.
When it was our turn, the Amchi checked my brother’s pulse and said, “You have too much stress. You should sleep at a regular time and eat at a regular time.”

My brother said, “I get a lot of colds and my sinus is very bad.”

The Amchi replied, “Your auto-immune system is weak. If you are not careful, you’ll get a lot of allergies later on. And asthma and bronchitis. When you go to your doctor, you should do an endoscopy. X-rays won’t help.” I was very impressed that he knew which modern diagnostic tool would work best in this case, and ok, also that he knew what an endoscopy was.

Then the Amchi said, very quickly, “Starch is very bad, don’t eat potatoes. Don’t drink coffee. Don’t eat bananas and oranges, they are very bad for weak sinuses. Don’t eat salad or raw vegetables.” He also said a lot of other things not to eat but neither of us can remember what they were.

In some desperation, my brother asked, “But what do I eat?” Amchi la thought for one second and said, “Eat lamb, not pork.” Then he wrote out a prescription. The whole thing took five minutes. Maybe less.

My brother got up from his chair, looking a little stunned. He really likes bananas and oranges. Later I said, “At least he didn’t say you can’t drink Coke.” “I bet he forgot,” he said. Which is probably true.

Then it was my turn but an older Inji guy slipped into the patient’s chair before I could. Alright fine, I thought, but I’ll just stay right here and watch you. He got out a khata and laid it on the table, and the Amchi seemed really pleased. Please note that none of the Tibetan patients had brought a khata and if one had, they would have been laughed out of the room. Then the guy took out something from his bag, which turned out to be a jar of urine. Amchi la looked at it. Did he smell it? He must have but I can’t remember. Apparently the urine was fine.

When it was my turn, the Amchi said, fingertips on my wrist, “You are ok. Hmm maybe you have a chance of getting ‘drangwa’ later.”

I said, “What’s ‘drangwa’ ”? What did he even say? He muttered something to do with coldness, then he told me that I needed to stay warm, and to make sure that I didn’t get cold at night, but he didn’t really tell me what ‘drangwa’ actually was. He said later I might get back pain and I said, oh yes I already have that sometimes.

Tibetan doctors are good at telling you what symptoms you have (this is why people spoiled by Tibetan doctors look up and down at their MD and say, ‘why don’t YOU tell me where my pain is?’), but don’t we already know what symptoms we have? When they pronounce vague illnesses like ‘drangwa’ or ‘rlung’, which can mean a lot of different things (rlung especially is almost all encompassing!) it really isn’t very helpful at all.

He told me not to eat sweets. Of course. They always know what you like to have and tell you not to have it. My friend Sonam Wangdue (yes all star MC and comic) says, “Tibetan doctors do that on purpose. They like to be ‘ulta’. They tell the rich guy, don’t eat butter, don’t eat meat, don’t eat cheese, then they turn around and tell the poor guy who can’t afford them, lots of butter and meat for you!”

For all that, I am trusting that the pills will be good for me. They aren’t a lot. Just thirty pills and I remember the Amchi saying, take gu-something-something for fifteen days. I was so stuck on the name of the pills and the square gangster ring flashing on his finger that I forgot whether he said I was to take two every morning or to take one in the morning and one at night. Well I suppose there’s a fifty-fifty chance of either.