Womankind #15 'Yak'

Letters from Tibet: Pema

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by Womankind mag on April 25, 2018

When I first gave birth, I felt no maternal instinct. Just pain. Horrible pain. I was also reeling from this immense sense of duty, a huge burden on my frail shoulders. Nothing would be the same from now on. I had to take care of this child.

In Tibetan society, women stay at home, while men work, so, in a sense, we are equal, in that roles are shared. I do think, however, that men have it easier because they don’t get pregnant or give birth. I suffered a lot when I was pregnant. When I first gave birth, I made a promise to myself: “Never again!” Who was I kidding? Soon I had forgotten the pain and the misery of childbirth, and had another child, and then another.

Before I was married, time stretched out. I would just float from one place to another like a leaf in the wind, not thinking about what to cook, or who I needed to care for. At about age five, I’d dash out of the house, into the corn fields or up the mountainside, to cut wood for the fire. My parents were farmers, growing wheat, buckwheat, oats, rye, barley, potatoes, and rapeseeds, but, as we didn’t have electricity, fire was our only source for cooking, reading, even seeing, so we always needed to be well-stocked with firewood.

I came from a big family – five siblings and my parents. We always had lots of food on the table, but we were dirt poor. But everybody was dirt poor back then in Deqin, so it didn’t worry me. My older brother would pass down his second-hand clothes to me, and I would pass them down to my younger sister, and the cycle would continue. Of course, after so many wears, the clothes were beaten-up, faded, and full of holes, with hand-stitched flashy patches down trouser legs.

The most exciting moment of my life was – and still is – Losar (the Tibetan New Year). As a child, I couldn’t sleep for days beforehand because Losar meant putting on new clothes. I remember seeing the gift box waiting in the corner of the house the night before Losar; one for each kid. I would frantically unwrap it to discover my white tulle skirt and snow sparkle sweater; my new clothes for the year. And on Losar, and the following two days, my family and all our neighbours would sit around the table, eat Guthuk and do Vbrasdkar dancing.

But then came marriage and leaving home. Suddenly I was transplanted to another family with a stranger who was to be called my husband. Both from Deqin, my husband and I had known each other since we were children but we hadn’t really exchanged any meaningful conversation before marriage. Yet, thoughts of whether I should marry or not never crossed my mind. In my village we didn’t get to choose. Our marriages were arranged.

I now have three children and two grandchildren. All of my five siblings still live in Deqin but my parents are dead. They were over 80 when they died. Parents are like fruit, they become old, they rot, and the seed goes down into the ground and comes up again. Hopefully they are now reincarnated.

Every morning I visit the nearby chapel and pray to the Buddha statue. I pray not only for myself and family but for the whole universe. I pray for the world to have peace. I pray for the present situation in Tibet to carry forward. I am a bit selfish though. I need to confess that I often pray to the Buddha that my parents have not inhabited the body of a poor person in Africa. I also pray to the Buddha to put my soul in the flesh of a life better than my own when I die. Not that I worry a lot about death. I take care of myself and just try to live in the present moment like every other Buddhist. I repeat to myself every day: “Everybody becomes an adult, everybody dies. And, even if there is no reincarnation, death is just a process of life, so why worry?” Just like the wrinkles in my face, some people at my age have fewer, others more, but it is just natural so I accept them because that is my present.

One of the three “Letters from Tibet” in the Yak edition of Womankind. Interview by Stav Dimitropoulos, artowrk by Yidan Guo.

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