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thoughts on the intersection of Gender, Feminism and Tibetan Culture

Tag: Gender

Three Accidents Later: A Short Account of Traveling as an American Woman in Kham

I’ll probably never forget the look on her face as she raised the tent flap. I must have been quite a sight to behold. The young nomad ushered me in, gesturing towards some cushions next to the stove, telling me to sit down with an exclamation of pity, “A-ka!” I have a picture from the moment after I sat down. Not a mental image, but an actual picture that my friend snapped – though she herself had dislocated her shoulder in the accident. In this picture, I was wearing a light blue long-sleeved shirt covered with a waterfall of blood, and jeans that likewise sported gore that had fallen from my nose. I doubt she will forget the look on my face, nor the day that a van filled with four Americans, a Chinese man, and a White Lama crashed outside her summer tent.

That was the third accident I had in Tibet. The first was a minor rear-end on a bus traveling the winding Tea-Horse road between Chengdu and Dartsemdo. The second accident happened between Dartsemdo and Garndze. I was on the bus during a particularly bad monsoon season in 2010. As the driver pushed the bus through a thick mud puddle, I yelled in my best Sichuan dialect, trying to warn the bus driver that my window was about to collide with an errant winch, attached to the marooned truck we were inching past. That window exploded with a pop in my face, spraying glass shards everywhere. Some landed on a woman with a swaddled baby sitting in the seat in front of me.

I remember climbing down the aisle dodging suitcases, glass fragments falling from my pants and underpants as I shook them out, treading on glass and discarded chicken feet bones, yelling a steady stream of questions at the Chinese driver who had misjudged his right rear flank so badly. He was unimpressed, although I continued to curse and gesture at the woman and baby covered in glass to illustrate the seriousness of the situation. Clearly hungover, he shrugged and gestured at his right eye, telling me he had an infection that was impairing his vision. He didn’t give a shit about the woman or her baby getting covered in glass. The Tibetan man acting as backup driver patiently explained to the crazy foreigner that you can’t just yell at men. Foreigners just don’t understand. I responded by asking him why he didn’t care that the man’s carelessness resulted in a glass-covered mother and child, then I sat down in glass-free spot in the aisle. I got off at the next town even though I was 8 hours from my destination. I wasn’t getting back on that bus.

After I gave up taking buses, I stayed in Garndze for a while. At that time, it was a small town, which has since expanded past the one main street, old streets broken into rubble to make way for the new. I made friends among the nuns. I spent most days studying Tibetan books at the restaurant owned by the nunnery, which has since closed due to the relocation of the main road.

At the local bookstore, I found many texts of interest, including Gendun Chöphel’s translation of the Ramayana. Reading that small red book at the restaurant got me more than a few quizzical looks and comments from monks who didn’t know I could also understand spoken Tibetan. I didn’t mind.

One older nun managed the cash box at the restaurant. She was very fond of my copy of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru’s Tibetan-Chinese dictionary, joining me in my studies every day to improve her Tibetan. As a child, she had only been educated in the local Chinese-language school. Several young girls and one former nun served the customers and two worked in the kitchen, sleeping on the wide Tibetan wooden couches at night, covered with carpets, after they had cleaned up. They were kind and shy at first, but soon delighted in bringing me pot after pot of black tea. I learned their dialect, eating lunch and dinner with them: usually fried vegetable dishes from the greenhouse, and plates of the local pö-tro momo, a Tibetan whole-wheat dumpling filled with butter and potato. We bought guazi, or sunflower seeds from the market downstairs and shared them. They taught me how to crack guazi like a professional using only my teeth, spitting out the spiced shell fragments on the floor to be swept up later.

I lived in Garnzde for a few months, finally mastering each girl’s separate regional dialect enough to have small conversations and to understand their repeated admonitions that I needed to wear long underwear even in the summer. I told them about my hometown in Florida, where it’s so hot all-year round that I never even owned a pair of long underwear growing up. They asked about my parents and friends, curious about the knowledge travelers passing through their restaurant could share with them. I showed them as many pictures as I had. They showed concern and care for me, admonishing me not to walk alone at night, to carry a rock for the stray dogs, and to watch out for the local kuma, or bandits.

One girl in particular, the former nun, had a very different way of pronouncing important words. It took me over a month to figure out that “hö” was “cho”- the equivalent of the English word “you” and a fundamental subject of conversation. Finally, one day, she tentatively pointed to me, repeating gently, “hö.” Tibetans are taught not to point, generally speaking, otherwise that misunderstanding might have been solved a lot sooner. We laughed and she grabbed my hand, holding it in the way that Tibetan friends do.

As I neared the end of my three-month tourist visa, I had to face the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to get a work visa from any of the local schools in order to live in Tibetan areas full-time. There just weren’t any businesses in Tibet allowed to hire foreigners. If I wanted to stay, I had to get a job in a Chinese city, most likely teaching English. So, I planned one last pilgrimage around Kham before settling in one of the largest cities in the world. Some friends were headed up my way from Chengdu, so I agreed to take them on a tour of the roads I had gotten to know so well.

That’s when I met the White Lama.

The first time I saw him, I tried to avoid him, thinking, perhaps disrespectfully, “Pass.” I don’t generally make a habit of befriending strange foreigners in Tibet. Perhaps it was karma, then, that inspired one of my friends whom I was shepherding along the wild roads of Kham to invite him to ride in the van we had arranged for the return trip to Chengdu. Needless to say, I had mixed feelings from the moment I saw that it was him, the White Lama whom I had observed sitting in the central market the day before. With a flowing white mane, dressed in a maroon upper robe, and a white lower robe in the style of Nyingmapa yogis, he assented easily to, and in fact was quite used to, the typical Tibetan deference to a man in robes. That was to play a major factor in the third accident.

We made good time for about an hour before the driver announced we would be switching cars. The hairs on the back of my neck immediately bristled. The White Lama, seated in the place of honor in the front of the van, dismissed my concerns with a wave of his hand. The driver had little reason to address the concerns of a young woman. That was the end of my limited influence, acquired through the novel act of speaking their dialect. A hard-won talent that was easily one-upped by his performance. He had donned the red and white robes that signal claim to religious achievements, titles, and education. What cause did he have to dissect his privilege in that situation? So, the original driver that we had negotiated with passed us off to another driver friend whose “car didn’t need repair.” Typical bait-and-switch. How does anybody fall for this? These are the type of thoughts I had later that day, as that second car skidded into the mountain, flipping over and tossing its passengers about like rag dolls.

When we stopped for lunch at Bamé, right before the construction roadblock, the driver expressed his exhaustion, yawning and stretching through lunch. We piled back in the van after a lunch of chili-oil with boiled hot dogs, which I didn’t touch, and vegetable soup, which I gratefully drank. We piled back into the van. I had traded my middle-row seat with the person who had been traveling in the back for the first half of the journey. There was a metal pipe acting as a brace for the row of seats in front of me which would later collide with the bridge of my nose.

Suddenly, I realized we had switched drivers. Things weren’t looking good. Our Chinese traveling companion, who had not spoken for the whole trip, was in the driver’s seat. The Tibetan driver stretched out in the middle row, planning to take a nap for the next two-hour stint of the journey. After all, he had an eight-hour drive back to Chengdu if he wanted to pick up more passengers the next day. Feeling rather responsible for my three friends who spoke nothing but English, as the new driver fumbled with the gears, I asked the driver if the new guy even knew how to drive.

“Of course, he’s Chinese, it’s fine. People like that know how to drive. I’m tired, I need to sleep,” the driver complained as he checked his text messages and reclined his seat.

I appealed to the White Lama.

My request for intercession wasn’t granted. My concerns, though becoming louder and more vocal, continued to go unheeded by the sleepy driver. The White Lama sat in the passenger seat, seemingly unconcerned as the new driver ground the gears of the van. I realized he didn’t even know how to drive a stick-shift.

It began to rain.

I began to beg.

“Please, help me convince him this is not okay,” I supplicated the White Lama. A burgeoning sense of dread came upon me as we rounded a corner, oily tires skittering in the gentle summer rain. He ignored me. All the men did – the lama, the new driver, and the old driver trying to nap.

The slick concrete split the narrowly paved path between river to the left and mountain to the right. As we curved to the right, I could see a steep descent ahead which buckled inwards, inclined towards the mountain. The rain had fallen just enough to make the poor-quality concrete slippery.

Screaming this time, in Tibetan, I begged the driver. I begged the White Lama to use his influence on the driver as a monastic to convince him to let us out of the car “Please stop, I want to get out, this is not safe, that man doesn’t know how to drive!”

I tried.

At least we didn’t end up in the river. Could have been worse.

As it was, I still wasn’t happy about the outcome.

I remember the impact. The bridge of my nose smashed by the bridge of my glasses against that metal pipe scaffolding the seat back in front me. The world spinning as the van skidded and flipped.

I remember my friend tumbling sideways as the mountaineer crushed and dislocated her shoulder, as they both fell on me. I remember the car flipping over, coming to rest next to a mountain outcropping. I was convinced to the last millisecond that we would tumble down the embankment into the river but luckily, we hit the mountain.

As the van came to rest in front of a small summer tent after crashing against that outcropping, I reached for my surprisingly bloody nose. Both drivers climbed out through the shattered side window that had unexpectedly become the top exit. The White Lama climbed out of the passenger door that was now top-side. My friends climbed out next. Me next, please. As I went to grab a friendly hand and hoist myself out of the wreckage, holding my bloody nose with the other, I was halted.

The White Lama pushed my friends away, and wanted to examine my nose before anyone helped hoist me out of the broken window. I wasn’t having it. I wanted out of that busted van.

To this day, I’m not quite sure why he waved everyone away and insisted on personally checking my bleeding nose before I was allowed to climb out. After all, there was a registered nurse and trained first aid specialist standing right next to him. What I remember clearly is being filled with rage at the prospect of someone preventing me from getting out of the car wreck that I had predicted.

But that’s karma, right?

I remember climbing out of the car as the blood gushed down my chest, wondering at the amount of blood a nose could produce. After we flagged down a passing bus an hour later, I got an x-ray which nobody at the hospital could read accurately anyways, so I never knew whether it was broken or not. The doctor had already gone home for the night.

I remember that nomad’s face as she lifted the flap of her tent, staring in wonderment at the blood-red stream covering my surprised pale face.

Three accidents later, I returned to Chengdu, hitching a ride on one of those buses, this time for free.


“Drolma Girl” and the Curious Controversy of the 6387 Sheep

Drolma with Lamb
This is Drolma Yangchen, born in Danma, Upper Kham. She writes under the pen name Danza Drolma, and on September 1st, she (with the backing of her NGO devoted to releasing animals) bought 6387 sheep headed for the slaughter*. That’s where the controversy started, at least this time around. And that’s when she became “Drolma Girl.”

This is certainly not the first time Tibetan social media has debated this ‘hot topic.’ Should the increasingly common practice of purchasing and ‘releasing’ animals continue, or is it a misguided, albeit Buddhist attempt to save animals that ultimately increases the cycle of death and suffering by contributing to economic demand?

This is, however, the first time (to my knowledge) that a female laywoman such as Danza Drolma has been the public face of such a monumental ‘releasing’ event. That led to my current exploration of how gender is shaping the discourse around this issue. How are people reacting to a laywoman’s large-scale release of animals, as opposed to the more common (male) lama-led releasing parties? Not that the latter are without their detractors. But why now, why her, and why is she suddenly Drolma Girl (sgrol ma bu mo, 卓玛姑娘)?

Let me sketch out a rough timeline of the events so far:
On Sept. 1st, 6387 sheep purchased by her NGO, Snowland Releasing, for over 5 million RMB.

Trucks full of sheep

Subsequently, pictures, including the above, were published on their WeChat platform by herself and the NGO. Initially she received a lot of praise for her act, with the traditional Tibetan feminine virtues of compassion, generosity, and beauty being consistently (and somewhat predictably) invoked.

Then the 6387 sheep were released. Accounts differ as to whether they were released ‘into the wilderness,’ as it were, likely allowing animal traders and butchers to re-capture and re-sell them, or whether the sheep were responsibly distributed to nomad families (who would be bound to care for them but not permitted to kill them). That’s when things really got heated, as Tibetans all over social media started taking this issue apart point by point.

Currently, the voting public agrees with Danza Drolma, with 44% preferring her to use the 5 million RMB for ‘releasing,’ 30% saying the money should go towards education, and 12% in favor of buying medicine with the funds (two of the major arguments made by the opposing camp).

Voting for Life

Why is this situation seemingly coming to head at this moment in time? This is certainly not the first time Tibetan social media has taken up the issue of releasing animals (see pretty much anything Prof Thubten Phuntsok has done on social media since 2011). However, this seems to be the first time that a ‘releasing’ has been performed by a woman on this grandly orchestrated scale, with such a public (female) face fronting it. Dare I suggest that denizens of social media may feel more comfortable criticizing a laywoman than a male monastic? Or is it, to some detractors, merely the most obvious abuse of this already dubious system of accumulating merit?

How is the lens of gender affecting the public’s perception of her performative ‘releasing’ act?

There is certainly a possibility in my mind that the female performance of what seems to some to be a rejection of a key element of traditional Tibetan pastoralist culture (the largely female-driven maintenance of the family livestock from birth to death) was received more critically by laypeople far more accustomed to listening to the Buddhist arguments of monks and lamas than the impassioned pleas of a pious laywoman. I get this impression from reading the tone and content of the arguments made, as well as the comments.

For those of you interested in what I am basing these thoughts on, below are some of the relevant social media posts.

The responders seem to fall into two camps. The pro-life camp is epitomized by leading public intellectual Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru, who advocates strict adherence to no-killing by using Buddhist religion as a justification, and who regularly leads large groups on ‘releasing’ trips. He has written much on the subject, and as I mentioned earlier, he was not without his detractors (see Prof. Thubten Phuntsok as mentioned above). The second camp can be generally described as pragmatists (although they themselves use the word “rational”). Their arguments follow economic, social, and occasionally cultural lines (i.e. the destruction of pastoralism as a viable way of life if all nomads adopt such practices).

For a good discussion of the pragmatist camp, see Twelve Rashomon’s page, the article “Discussing Rational Release: Drolma Girl’s Release,” by Tashi Dorjé. Translated here in a great blog post by Séagh Kehoe.

Here is a piece by Rongwo Rangtsol agreeing with Danza Drolma’s performance of release by arguing that she’s bringing the livestock back to the grassland and therefore supporting the continuation of nomadic life.

One of the more popular satirical representations of the controversy of Drolma Girl can be found here.

This creepily cheery cartoon depicts her as a well-meaning dupe, tricked (likely by the oft-maligned Serta-based anti-killing movement) into advocating enlightened values, while the duplicitous butchers take the opportunity to fleece the locals twice over. The image, while of her smiling happily attired in traditional robe, is a negative representation. While her motivation may be virtuous and compassionate (if a bit air-headed), her grasp of the situation is less than would be desired by, say, an economist. This is, unfortunately, not the place where I can delve deeper into the representation of the ‘muslim butchers’ on the right-hand side, but please note it is also clearly problematic. Nobody comes out of this cartoon unscathed; nomads, butchers, and female performers of social change all come out looking bad.

Many comments extol her beauty while mourning her supposed lack of wisdom (a recurrent theme), like this one left by commenter “Sonya.”
“桑娅 – 我认为,美女应该把这笔巨资投入到藏区教育,会有更多的福报,而且还能起到切实的作用。无奈!有钱也可以这么的仁心!
Sonya – I think this beautiful woman should invest heavily in education in Tibetan areas; there will be more merit, but [the money] can also be used more pragmatically. How frustrating! So many benevolent acts also [could be done] with money.”

I find it informative that many of the arguments against her ‘releasing’ of the 6387 sheep invoke the very same traditional Buddhist ideas of religious merit and virtue that Danza Drolma herself is hoping to promote, as she says, through words and images, with the support of her organization.

Leaving her the last word, as surely I should, here Drolma-la, in response to the controversy, says:
“Even if this doesn’t result in virtue, it’s impossible for it to become a sin.”

I see some very gendered language and cultural concepts in operation here, and will be keeping a close eye on how this controversy develops. There are those who are calling her a khandroma…

Drolma posing for pictures with sheep

For those of you unfamiliar with modern Tibetan practices, the purchase and release of livestock is considered a very meritorious activity as it saves the lives of animals who are about to be killed. Many Chinese (Tibetan) Buddhists who are students of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru of Serta Larungar also engage in this practice, sometimes purchasing and releasing thousands of fish into the lakes and rivers around Chengdu.

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