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 Khabdha.com, 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?