Monthly Archives: July 2012

Last Day in Langmusi

Working almost around the clock for days, we (my translator and I) finally finished translating all the footage that needs translation. I’m really lucky Qijia is so diligent and with great patience. Going through the footage is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes depressing. There are those unexpected moments that really touched my heart and there are interview answers that are so off I questioned my whole idea of doing the project. But in the end, I’m pleased, I’m really pleased. What I have recorded, and hopefully with the blessing from Bhudda and lamas, shall arrive with me safely in Beijing, is at the very least a truthful portrait of the herders’ live on the pasture, their fear, wishes, and the humorous side of them. Sangji’s family is so unique in so many ways I have to believe that having them there is my fate working for me. There will not be this project without their help, their whole family. And I’ve become such good friends with the daughter, Danku, she felt like my little sister. On my last day trip to the pastureland, we laughed so hard taking photos together — which they love doing — it really felt wonderful. Now my only fear, well, two fears, are that I won’t be able to put the story together as nicely as I imagined, and I won’t be able to start the even harder project of bringing in some help to curb the area’s desert problem. But, I will try my best.

Have to sleep now, very early morning bus tomorrow and a whole day of travel to take me home to Beijing.

She sang

Danku’s mother is as innocent as a three-year-old, and she loves playing with her three-year-old grand daughter, Xiaobei. When she is happy and nobody seems listening, she likes to sing. The songs she sings she learned from her grandmother and they don’t sound anything like the current pop Tibetan songs. She has a super voice. But, as soon as she is put on the spot to sing, she blushes, covers her face, and starts giggling uncontrollably.

One afternoon, Danku tricked her mom into singing while I had my voice recorder on next to her. They were sorting yak hairs, Xiaobei played around. The songs came out in fragments. Then, thunder and lightening cracked open the sky. She continued to sing, her songs ebbed and flew within the bouts of downpour.

Only memory was recorded that time.

I was hopeful on my return trip, perhaps, she could sing again. When all the interviews were done, we took photographs, ate, and laughed at one of the guys among their group none of us liked. That seemed to the best way to bound women together.

Danku, Sanji, Yeedan were all sitting around waiting, the mother sat at the side of the tent, facing against us. And then, she started, singing songs with super long tunes that could cut open the tent and reach out to the sky.

One more time

One of Sanji’s relatives, a young boy needs to have an eye surgery in the bigger city hours away. Being the one who can speak Mandarin the best in his village, Sanji has to go help out. It was a good time to take a break for me too, to go over the footage and see what to film next.

I found a nice and quiet little family style hostel to stay in Langmusi, next to the creek that runs down the canyon on the Sichuan side of the monastery. My translator came to work the next day. Interviews are easier, the vérité parts are more difficult and time consuming. But, once we got into a rhythm, it was a very enjoyable process. It became obvious through the process that I needed to make another trip back to the summer pasture to have a few more interviews, with Danku, the old herder, and Yeedan.

The eye operation turned out very successful. So, I made arrangement to return to the village.

The old herder had returned to their winter camp, handing the herding duty to his son. Our interview happened at their home in the village. The old herder’s wife and their very pregnant daughter were there sorting the newly cut yak hair. One of his grandsons kept making noise so the interview was interrupted a few times but otherwise it came out just fine.

After we finished all the questions with the old herder, Sanji rode me to the summer pasture while the driver waited at his home. They go to the same monastery and pray the same living Buddha who now lives in India.

The path going there had a new herders’s camp. Sanji told me they won’t be able to use this path in a couple of days when that group of herders’ animals got moved here. Good grassland has become a competing commodity among the herders.

Danku and her mom were waiting for us to start cooking lunch. The little girl seemed sleepy and shy this time. It was a gorgeous day. Hard to imagine all that activities going around in the morning when everything became so quiet in mid day.

Yeedan still prefer to be left alone when she answered questions, but much at east this time. And Danku this time volunteered a lot more information when I asked about her mom. It’s amazing how she has gotten comfortable with talking on camera. Later, she told me, she fought her shyness to say what she felt in her heart, so there would be a better chance their grassland could be saved. It was almost too much for me to bear. For that alone, this project has to continue.

It takes a village

Sanji and the old herder made plans to have people in their group, both men and women do some manure spreading on their own deserted pasture. The old herder, whose good deed of taking care of all the families’ sheep earned him the respect he rightly deserve. With little questions, many families joined our efforts and followed the old herder’s orders.

They raked sheep dung from their winter pen, load them into a tractor as well as filling every woman’s carrying baskets. The women followed the tractor to a spot by the sandy hillside and unloaded their baskets. The men helped out with spreading with shovels and rakes. Even though their whole efforts seem like using a small cup of water to put out a big fire, the fact that they are doing something that is unique in their situation, with all the limitation they have to help themselves is in itself something to be proud of. And it’s always nice to have women involved.

Afterward, I filmed the old herder talking to camera about their plan and his thoughts. I like the slow pace of his voice a lot. For the villagers, they have done their best to help me, with the hope that by telling their story, some help would head their way. Can I make something happen?

Danku and Girls’ interviews

Danku is Sanji’s step daughter, I later learned. Her mother was an orphan from a very young age and was given to a foster family who didn’t treat her well. After giving birth to Danku and her sister, not being able to produce a boy, the family kicked her out. For years, with her poor health, she took care of Danku and her sister all by herself. When she met Sanji, Danku was eight and they were dirt poor. These years, things have gotten a little better for the family, whose past hardships seem to bound them well together.

Having to help her sick mother, Danku dropped out of school after only grade two. But amazingly, she borrowed books from others and learned to read to the fifth grade level. She taught herself Mandarin from watching TV, and learned to read scriptures from Sanji and whoever she could. It was rare for girls, particularly from herder’s family to be able to read scriptures. Danku is an amazing girl. Without her there, I wouldn’t be able to do nearly as much with my project.

Sanji’s family is probably the most religious among the group. Danku insisted on bringing the full praying set with them to their summer pasture and she prayed almost everyday before breakfast. I liked the simple procedures she followed: clean the altar, add water to the small cups, burn some fragrant plant leaves as incense and share that with everyone in the family. Then she would offer some yak milk to the pictures of buddhas and lamas and go outside to burn some barley flour as a prayer to the spirits outside.

One of the afternoons, after the women had finished most of their chores for the day, I asked Danku to be my translator for interviewing the old herder’s daughter in-law, Yeedan. It took Danku quite a lot of convincing work for Yeedan to agree to talk on camera. Tibetan women, at least here, are too used to be a silent caretaker too timid to express themselves. But with some encouragement, Yeedan agreed, with the condition that Danku would translate my questions and she would answer to my camera with no one else in the tent. With the few questions I had for her, it took us many trips in and out of their family tent to finish the interview. A good start nonetheless.

For Danku, I had more in mind to ask her. On one of the mornings, we sat outside just as if we were having a conversation and she answered my questions really well. I love her voice and how she presented herself, shy but affirmative about her love for her mother and their homeland. I am super lucky.