A Sino-Tibetan Romance

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 80-81:

Nobody was more surprised than Gonpo to learn that Xiao Tu had developed romantic feelings toward her. She didn’t consider herself much of a beauty. Her dimpled cheeks and the slight gap between her front teeth gave her a girlishly cute, jolly appearance that masked her abject loneliness. Her eyebrows curved upward in perpetual question marks. Working in the fields had darkened a complexion that was already a shade too dark by Chinese standards of beauty. She didn’t feel particularly feminine either, dressed in a baggy, padded military-style uniform with two pockets across the chest and two pockets below the waist.

Xiao Tu was one of the most popular bachelors on the farm. He had a long, straight nose like a Manchu princeling and a clear complexion. Not only was he a good dancer, always the most coveted partner, he was invariably onstage doing comedy routines. He came from a family of teachers; despite the Communists’ attempt to eradicate the privileges of class, when it came to dating, education and background still mattered.

“You can have anybody you want. Why this one?” his friends asked him. “Why a Tibetan?”

Among the recognized ethnic minorities, some were so assimilated as to be virtually indistinguishable from Han Chinese, who made up 90 percent of the population. That was not the case with Tibetans. For all the Communist propaganda about harmonious relations, prejudices ran deep. Han Chinese often disparaged Tibetans as savages. Luohou, or backward, they called them, and often still do. Tibet in Chinese is called Zang, 藏, a character that literally means “storehouse” or “treasure,” but Chinese would sometimes use the homophone zang, 脏, meaning “dirty.” This was a more conservative era when intermarriage was frowned upon. In Xinjiang, which was largely Muslim, intermarriage between local Uighur women and Han men was illegal until 1979.

It wasn’t hard for Xiao Tu to answer the question of why. Gonpo stood out among the other young women who eyed him on the dance floor. She was without pretense or affect. She didn’t flirt with him; she didn’t tease him. She was utterly straightforward, and, he felt, honest in a way that others were not. She said exactly what she thought without calibrating her words to elicit some reaction from him. He trusted her completely, and she trusted him. With little of the melodrama that often accompanies young romance, the two became inseparable.

His family raised no objection. Xiao Tu’s grandmother had been a devout Buddhist before the revolution; she approved of her favorite grandson marrying a woman with core beliefs. They liked that Gonpo was a studious type. They had been quietly supporting Gonpo’s studies by sending books. As for Gonpo, she had no surviving family to object one way or another. Xiao Tu’s qualities were beyond what she had ever imagined in a partner.

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Filed under Central Asia, China, education, language, nationalism, religion

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