Content Warning: description of domestic violence

I knew something was wrong. Dekyi and I always danced in the town square every day at six o’clock. She even prepared her dinner early in order to be on time for circle dancing. She was naturally graceful, her fingers completing the curve of her arms as she danced, every move perfect, smiling, joyful. She was considered a leader in the local dance circle and someone to watch if you didn’t know the steps. Everyone knew and respected her for being a successful local businesswoman, as well as for her Buddhist piety.

She cared for me like a sister, worrying when I left my ‘home base’ (her hotel) to travel in Kham alone. She gave me protection strings and amulets, and a paper with mantras and spells on it, which she exhorted me to keep on my person at all times while I traveled. I did stop having car accidents after that.

We had often made dinner together, going to the market and sautéing vegetarian dishes in the small private room where the hotel security guard slept at night. She liked to put on her favorite Tibetan music videos; mostly the ones that praised the lamas of Serta Larung Gar, where she worshipped every summer, living with the nuns.

It was in that room that I would find her, curled up and crying on the ground, while her husband beat her in a drunken rage. From that room we would run, holding hands as we climbed up the mountain, pulling each other, up and away from him. Her friends almost convinced me that everything was fine, although they clearly knew it was not. They had known her for much longer and were aware of her husband’s drinking and womanizing habits.

Although I met her every day like clockwork, I almost missed it, almost didn’t walk the two hundred feet to her hotel to see if something was wrong. It wasn’t the first time that this had happened. Everyone in that town knew each other’s business.

When I reached the hotel, I could hear her crying as her little sister tried to plead with him to stop. Ran inside to see her being hit by her husband, son of the most powerful local businessman in town. Saw him kick her, and stagger drunkenly to fall on the bed. The bed that we usually sat on, laughing and talking.
I had never seen him or heard of him before, three months into living in this town, into being accepted into the daily fabric of these people’s lives. I didn’t even know that she was married. She lived like a nun, and none of our friends had ever mentioned him. Silences are meaningful, too. But everyone knew who he was, including the local police, who were used to talking him down.

First I called his father.

He wasn’t willing to come collect his son, citing the privilege of marital privacy. Nobody would shame him by actually witnessing his actions. What about her, I said…why should she suffer in silence, without even the help of her friends, who were a mere two hundred feet away, pretending ignorance for the sake of his pride. There’s something about the acknowledgement that has power. Violence witnessed by others cannot be obscured in the same way. Without the inertia that concretizes around these silences, we can move forward to intervene, breaking the stigmatization that leaves victims to fend for themselves.

Then I called the police. It’s almost never a good idea in any country, but I did it.

Dekyi was pleading with him, begging him to calm down. As he staggered up from the bed again, I placed my body in front of hers, gathered up every ounce of my imagined privileged status as a foreigner, and stood my ground between them, glaring at him. I was scared, but I felt nearly protected in that instant by my “status,” by the fact that if he hurt a foreigner he just might face real consequences. That’s what I believed at the time. In truth, there’s nothing that truly protects a woman in these circumstances no matter where she lives. I could see in his eyes the calculation taking place – of whether or not he could cross that line, whether or not he could use violence on me, too.

The police arrived. They tried to soothe him.

They were taken aback when they realized who called them, and whom they had been called to police. “Silly foreigner,” they said, “that’s between a husband and wife. Who are we to interfere?”

It’s not a bad question. Who are we to insert ourselves into others’ lives? But more importantly, who are we if we stay away?

Of course, I yelled back at the police. Told them angrily in my taxi-driver inflected Sichuanese that they were the ones who misunderstood, and that he was not legally allowed to beat her. She’s a person, I yelled, jabbing my finger in the officer’s face in my own small fit of impotent rage. But law can be an empty signifier in a frontier town.

When I realized that the police weren’t going to detain the son of a locally important personage, I realized the boundary of my privilege and how stupid I had been to expect anyone to defend her.

I grabbed Dekyi’s hand and we ran up the mountain to the only place I could think of where he wouldn’t follow us to claim his wife; the foreign missionary hostel, something of a liminal space in the complex layers of local political geography. We spent that night in a place neither of us had slept before. Her hotel no longer represented home, a place where we had found wholeness and comfort.

Nobody wanted to shame her, that’s what they said afterwards. They had mostly good intentions. But she and her sister had to deal with that violent man alone, without the support of anyone in their community, without recourse to the systems of law and governance that were supposed to endow them with rights. We become imbricated in systems of gendered violence, turning a blind eye. All of us, regardless of where we live.

So why did I intercede, when everything and everyone told me not to? Partly because I knew I could use my position to protect her if only for that moment; partly out of guilt for every time I’d been afraid to speak up or help another woman in need. And because I know exactly how it feels to be the target of a man’s anger.

I could feel our friends’ disapproval of my active interference in what they considered a private matter. As for myself, I have considered this carefully over the years since this incident, still wondering if I did the right thing. Wondering if crossing that line was a violation of cultural rules around taboo silences that I, an outsider, should have respected. But it is the recollection of the look of pained relief on her face when I grabbed her hand and we ran together that reassures me.

Ultimately, I have to do what I feel is right for the person I am truly responsible to – my friend, my fellow human. Cultural relativism can leave us believing we are doing justice to some vague ideal of so-called respect even as we betray ourselves, letting silence replace the necessary ethical considerations. In my opinion, I would be failing my friend if I let such relativistic tendencies silence me, just because we are from different cultures. Ethically, I consider male violence an international problem, a common thread that runs through women’s experience of the world, and wherever I see it I will fight back to the full extent of my ability. If I were to suspend this ethical imperative merely because I am in someone else’s cultural world, I would be betraying my commitment to feminism.

After that day, he couldn’t hide anymore. Her uncle, a lama, negotiated a separation between them. Now she is a nun, and I will see her when I return to Eastern Tibet.