I didn’t interact with Mother for days. She lay covered with her sheepskin robe on a dry yak skin in the middle of a cabin made of yak dung bricks near my family’s tent. A long piece of cloth pinned to a wall hung over the cabin entrance to resist the chilly wind. Every day, I peeked at Mother through a hole in the fabric and could see her pale face in the dim light that flowed in through a square hole in the cabin’s wall. She noticed me, gazed at my plump cheeks, and groaned in misery. I couldn’t make out what this meant and ran to Grandmother, who was making meat soup in our tent.
A bit later, Grandmother headed to the cabin, holding a bowl full of meat soup. I followed, but then Father shouted, ordering me to stay back. I could see Father’s angry face above the adobe stove, where he warmed himself, sitting cross-legged on the right side of the tent. I was afraid to keep looking at Father and put my head down.
Recalling that my two sisters and brother had gone to fetch water from the nearby Yellow River, I yearned to join them but then decided against it when I considered Father’s wrathful face. He had once warned me not to fetch water with my siblings, but I had ignored him. He spanked me after we returned home. It was dangerous for a five-year-old boy to bring water from the Yellow River. From that day on, I dared not go without Father’s permission.
Older Sister was nine, and Younger Sister was seven. Each carried a wooden bucket full of water on their backs. Brother was six and held a big red metal scoop in his right hand. Water had splashed on my sisters’ robes, leaving wet spots that had turned dark. They placed the buckets of water on the tent’s upper left side with our family’s utensils. Brother rubbed his hands continuously. Understanding his hands were cold, Father told him to sit near the stove and warm them. Brother cried once his hands warmed.
Eventually, Grandmother returned with the bowl half full of meat soup.
Grandmother and I shared her bowl and had two bowls of meat soup. My two sisters sat next to Grandmother and me on the left side of the tent. They whispered and laughed while eating. Brother quietly had soup next to Father. Sometimes, he looked at our sisters, and a smile appeared on his face. I was sure they had had a lot of fun when they were fetching water. I was eager to know all about it.
After our meal, my siblings rushed out of the tent, laughing. I ran after them but fell to the ground at the tent entrance. I cried and lay on the ground until Grandmother came, picked me up, and kissed me. I kept crying and kicked her belly. She took off my sheep-skin robe and leather boots. I was naked and, as I shivered, she put me on her back, inside her sheep-skin robe. I saw the worry on her oily, wrinkled face, so I stopped crying.
Meanwhile, Father rode a sharp-horned black yak and drove our family’s yaks back from a nearby high mountain. My sisters and brother then helped Father tether our family’s yaks in the yak enclosure near our family’s tent.
Later, Father entered the tent without my brother and sisters, who often played near the yak enclosure after tethering the yaks. Father took me from Grandmother’s back and asked her to take care of Mother. He then put me into his sheep-skin robe pouch. It was warm inside his robe. I touched his chest, studied his big nose, and smiled. He smiled in return.
By now, it was getting dark in the tent. Father lit a butter lamp in front of Buddhist images on our family shrine, in the upper part of the right side of the tent, and prayed to The Three Jewels. I listened to every word.
On the left side of the tent, my sisters and brother were telling folktales and deciphering riddles to see who was the smartest. I wanted to join them and asked Father to help me put on my yak-leather boots and tie my sheep-skin robe with a red sash. I sat next to Brother, listened to their stories, and sometimes dozed. Father chanted scriptures while holding prayer beads in his left hand and spinning a prayer wheel in his right hand on the tent’s right side.
Suddenly, we heard a baby cry. My brother and sisters stopped telling stories and rushed to the cabin.
It was a quiet night. Stars glistened around a big moon in a blue-black sky. I went outside and saw a gigantic yak near the cabin under the bright moonlight. I was afraid to walk near the cabin, but my eagerness to see the baby won out. My brother and sisters were huddled at the cabin door, reluctant to enter. A butter lamp flickered near Mother’s folded sheep-skin robe pillow. Mother was kneeling, covered with her sheep-skin in bed, and hunched over as she nursed an infant that lay on its back on a piece of dried sheep-skin.
Afterward, Grandmother wrapped the baby in the piece of dried sheep-skin and put her in her robe pouch.
I was thrilled to have another sister and rushed into the tent to report this good news to Father. A big smile decorated Father’s face before I added, “It’s a girl.”
Disappointment registered on Father’s face. He said nothing, and I kept quiet.
That night I slept with Father. He didn’t fall asleep until midnight. I wondered why he was unhappy to have an adorable daughter, and then I recalled Father’s regular prayer, “Please! Three Jewels! Bless and help me. I want another son, not another daughter.”
I don’t know who gave me my first name, but I remember how I got my second name.
One snowy winter morning, as I was walking in our family tent yard, Brother shouted at me to get out of the yard. He was trying to catch birds and lay on the ground several meters from a plastic basin, propped up by a short stick. He held one end of a long yak-hair rope in his right hand. The other end of the rope was tied to the stick. A bird pecked at a bit of dry cheese from under the basin, hopped back, and looked around the basin. Brother was about to jerk the rope as the bird tried to pick up another bit of dry cheese from under the basin. I coughed, and the bird flew away. Brother stood and shoved me. I fell and cried. Brother ignored me and continued his attempts to catch birds.
I rolled on the ground several times, stood up, put two fingers in my mouth, trotted to our tent, and found my parents and one of my cousins sitting in the lower part of the right side of the tent, making a new sheep-skin robe for my older sister. She often helped Father herd yaks during rainy and snowy days. She had done this since she was seven. Sometimes, she herded yaks alone when Father was busy with something else. Older Sister’s sheep-skin robe had several holes in the back lower part because her robe would get wet when she herded on rainy and snowy days. Holes had formed from repeated drying. I sat on Mother’s lap and continued sobbing. Mother kissed my forehead, put my hands inside her robe, and put my hands on her belly to warm them. It was so comfortable to sit on Mother’s lap, and as my hands warmed, I refused to leave when Mother resumed her work on the sheep-skin robe.
Cousin grabbed me and told me to let Mother sew the robe. I ignored him and continued sitting on Mother’s lap. Cousin then dragged me away from Mother and beat the back of my left hand with a dry piece of sheep-skin. I ran to Grandmother, who was sitting on the left side of the tent, hugged her, and sobbed loudly. When Cousin tried to beat me again, Grandmother shielded me and scolded him. Holding me on her lap, Grandmother consoled, “Don’t cry! I promise I’ll ask your father to buy you candy next time he goes to the township town if you stop crying.”
I loved candy, so I tried to stop crying, but I couldn’t. My hand was very painful. Eventually, I dozed off on Grandmother’s lap.
The next day was sunny. My parents and Cousin finished making the sheep-skin robe in the morning. My sisters chopped meat into small pieces on the tent’s left side while Grandmother kneaded dough for noodles in a basin. Father liked noodles, so they cooked noodles for lunch. Mother’s sheep- skin robe covered our baby sister, who lay on a dried yak skin in the lower side of the tent where Mother slept. Brother gently patted her, trying to lull her to sleep when she cried.
After lunch, Father decided to visit one of his cousins, so I asked him to take me with him. He refused, so I begged. When that didn’t work, I rushed to Grandmother, who was sitting near the tent entrance, chanting scriptures. I told her that I wanted to go with Father. Grandmother explained, “You are a child, and children don’t visit other families. Locals will think you are a bad boy if you visit other families with your father. Good boys listen to their parents and stay at home.”
After I pleaded and mentioned that Cousin had beaten me the day before, Grandmother asked Father to take me with him.
Father mounted a polled black yak with a white spot on its head. I sat behind Father. It took three hours to reach our destination. Father’s cousin’s neighbor’s watchdog was roaming near the neighbor’s tent. I kept looking at the dog, afraid it would attack us. Fortunately, the dog trotted behind the neighbor’s tent and disappeared.
Father’s cousin and his wife came out of their tent when their family’s watchdog barked at us. The wife ran over to the dog and grabbed its head to stop its barking. Father’s cousin helped me dismount and then led the riding yak to their family’s yak enclosure.
Feeling shy, I gripped the lower part of Father’s sheep-skin robe as we entered the family’s tent. Several yak-skin bags containing barley, rice, and flour were stacked up in the tent center. Buddhist images sat on a small adobe square box in the upper part of the tent’s right side. A butter lamp flickered in front of the figures. Father’s cousin sat next to Father and me on the tent’s right side, near the adobe stove. Cousin’s wife offered me a small bowl of milk tea. I shyly dared not take the bowl. Father smacked my right knee and told me to take it. I was afraid Father would hit me again if I didn’t take the bowl, so with a red face, I took it with my right hand and placed it on the ground. Father and his cousin drank several bowls of milk tea as Cousin’s wife made meat dumplings. I was extremely thirsty and swallowed several times as I watched Father drink his milk tea. I was so timid that I didn’t even sip the milk tea in my bowl. I just kept my head down and listened to Father and his cousin chat about this and that.
When Cousin’s wife offered dumplings in a metal basin, Father placed the basin in front of me because I was sitting between him and his cousin. With lowered head, I watched stream rise from the warm dumplings, sniffed, and again swallowed. Father’s cousin handed me a dumpling when he realized I was too bashful to eat. I wiped the sweat from my forehead, took the dumpling, and rolled it in my filthy hands, turning the dumpling dark. Father’s cousin said, “Don’t be shy. Eat it!”
Not looking at him, I put the dumpling in my robe pouch and mumbled, “I’m not hungry.”
Father and his cousin continued chatting while eating. Finally, three dumplings remained in the basin.
As the sun set behind a high mountain, Father and I left for home. The family gave me the small bowl his wife had offered me milk tea in. A piece of butter was stuck on the bottom of the bowl. I took the bowl, understanding it was a gift for my first visit to the family.
As Father and I passed the neighboring tent, their watchdog ran and jumped on and off our riding yak’s back. From his robe pouch, Father pulled out his dog-beater, a short, thick stick with a hole in one end through which a yak-leather rope was threaded. He swung it around his head and hit the dog on the head the next time it jumped on the yak’s back.
The neighbor’s family’s head, a tall, strong man, rushed towards us, holding a long stick. He hit the dog with the stick, and it ran away. Taking a long breath, he asked, “Are you okay? Did the dog bite you?”
Father said, “Don’t worry. No one is hurt.”
The man picked up a big stone and threw it in the direction of the dog, and said, “Come have tea in my tent.”
Father replied, “No, thanks! It’s getting dark, and we must return home before it’s too dark.”
Appreciating his sincere invitation, Father said goodbye.
As we neared our tent, I began crying from the pain in my butt. Surprised, Father asked, “What’s wrong with you? Do you miss your mother?”
I didn’t reply. I just kept sobbing.
When our watchdog barked, Grandmother came out, lifted me off the back of the yak, and asked, “Why are you crying? Are you hungry?”
I said, “Yes, I’m hungry, and my bottom hurts!”
Grandmother untied my sash, pulled down my underwear, inspected my butt, and exclaimed, “It’s bleeding!”
She stared at Father and scolded, “Bad father! You didn’t take care of your son!”
Father did not reply as he held my hand while we entered the tent. Asking me to lie down, facing the ground, he took a bunch of wool, burned it, and sprinkled the ash on my wound, which stopped the bleeding.
It was so painful that I couldn’t sleep well that night.
The next morning, Cousin came to visit. When Father told him about the dog attack, Cousin advised changing my name. He had heard a story about a boy who often had trouble. His parents had taken the boy to a local bla ma, who had changed his name. Afterward, there were no more problems. My parents thought this was convincing, so Father and Cousin decided to visit our local bla ma and ask for a new name for me.
At noon, Father and Cousin left on two horses.
Two days later, they returned with a new name for me. From that day, I was called Tshe ring. Several months later, it was time to move from the winter to the summer pasture. Grandmother rode a black horse. I sat behind her. My older sisters and Brother rode yaks, while my parents rode horses and drove our yaks. Youngest Sister was crying inside Mother’s robe on her back. Mother and Father were busy with a pack yak dragging a canvas bag on the ground. It had fallen from the load on its back. Mother had no time to nurse the baby.
Our watchdog drooled with a hanging tongue as it followed us. Suddenly, when the dog got near us, our horse kicked the dog and then bolted. I tumbled to the ground where a clump of dry yak- dung struck my throat, bruising it and making it swell.
Grandmother didn’t sleep well that night because my throat was painful. She thought I would die and blamed herself for not controlling the horse.
Another time, one warm summer morning, I rubbed my eyes and dressed. Grandmother was holding her prayer wheel in her left hand and chanting scriptures near the tent entrance. I went out, and, as I peed, I gazed at Mother and my older sisters, who were milking yaks in the yak enclosure.
Older Sister ordered Second Sister to tie a calf after it had nursed its mother for a few minutes. Second Sister pulled the calf from its mother by its neck-rope and twisted its tail with her right hand. The calf jerked and stepped on Second Sister’s right foot. Second Sister lost control of the calf, lifted her foot in agony, and turned in circles on her right foot. Tears coursed down her unwashed face as she squinted at Oldest Sister, who stood up, rushed to the calf, pulled it from its mother, tied it, and then kicked it hard in the belly.
Mother ignored Second Sister’s sobs and continued milking a white yak while I walked over to Grandmother.
Father had breakfast alone. After Mother and my sisters finished milking, he would drive our yaks to a high grassy mountain far from our tent. Father woke up Brother and asked him to tend Baby Sister, who was sleeping on the tent’s left side.
I sat next to Grandmother, who was reciting something. Not knowing why she chanted so often, I asked her. She looked into my eyes and said, “I’m chanting scripture.”
I asked, “Why do you often chant scripture?”
Grandmother replied, “Good people chant scripture. Bad people don’t.”
I embraced Grandmother and said, “Please teach me some scriptures. I want to be a good person like you!”
Grandmother smiled, stroked my head, and began teaching me, but then Baby Sister cried. I ran over to her, to the lower part of the tent’s left side, kissed her forehead, and gently patted her tummy until she stopped crying.
After breakfast, Mother put some candy and fried bread in a plastic bag. Handing it to Brother, she sent us off to herd the calves, which we drove to a valley near our tent.
At noon, we ate the candy and bread near a brook. To soften the hard bread, we put it in the stream and then ate it all. The calves grazed near the stream, and some came near us and sniffed when I peed.
There were small pools near the creek, so Brother caught frogs and put them in another pool. I was afraid to catch frogs and was terrified when one leaped over my feet and plopped into a pool. I picked up a piece of dried yak dung and flung it at the frog, which turned over, exposing its white belly.
A boy with long matted, dirty hair joined us and took off his sheep-skin. Clad in long red underwear and a black shirt, he joined Brother in catching frogs. An hour later, while gazing at me, he asked Brother, “Is he your brother?”
Brother said, “Yes, he’s my brother.”
Tossing his long hair back over his right shoulder, he asked me, “Why is your hair so short? Are you a real man?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
Brother pushed that boy declaring, “He’s my brother, and he’s a real man!”
The boy pushed Brother, who punched the boy in the face and grabbed his messy hair. Crying, the boy hurriedly put his robe under his left arm and raced in the direction of his family’s calves.
In the early evening, when we were about to drive the calves home, Brother cautioned, “Don’t tell our parents that I punched the boy.”
Seeing an opportunity, I stared into Brother’s big, round eyes and replied, “I won’t tell if you tell me folktales tonight.”
He nodded in agreement, and we drove the calves back home.
After dinner, I sat on Father’s lap and asked, “Father, do you love me?”
He looked into my eyes, “Of course, I love you.”
I said, “I want to have long hair. Don’t cut my hair next time it grows long.”
Father asked, “Why do you want to have long hair?”
I answered, “I want to be a real man.”
Father laughed and sipped milk tea from a dragon-decorated bowl.
After dinner, Brother and I shared Brother’s and Father’s sheep-skins and slept side by side. I asked Brother to tell me some folktales.
He paused and said, “I’m tired. I’ll tell you next time.”
I begged him, but he slept, so I told Father that Brother had fought with a boy. Father woke Brother and scolded him, “I told you not to fight with the neighbors’ children. You are so disobedient! I’ll have to slap you; otherwise, you won’t obey me.”
Brother pinched the back of my right hand and announced, “He killed a frog today.”
Father turned to me, “Bad boy! Why did you do that? Did it eat your food?”
I dared not say anything and pretended I hadn’t heard.
I couldn’t sleep, worrying Father would beat Brother and me the next morning.
It snowed in late October. Water dripped from the upper part of the tent and streamed through on the floor. Mother took a stick with a bent end and hit the tent top where snow accumulated. I ran out and watched snow fly from the tent top as Mother hit it. I couldn’t open my eyes wide because the sunshine was bright and the light from the snow hurt my eyes, so I went back inside.
I saw sweat on Mother’s forehead. Brother stood next to Mother and said, “You’re sweating. Give me the stick. I’ll do it.”
Mother hit the tent top several more times, handed the stick to Brother, and said, “Be careful. Don’t hurt yourself.”
Mother poured milk tea from an old kettle into her bowl and Grandmother’s bowl. I walked over and sipped Mother’s tea. Looking at her, I noticed sweat running down her face. I handed her the bowl and walked over to Brother, who was sweating after throwing the stick on the ground. I tried to pick it up, but it was so heavy that I couldn’t lift it above my shoulders. As I tried to lift it over my head, the stick fell from my hands and struck Brother’s head. Angry, he kicked my ankle. It was so painful that tears filled my eyes, so I bit his right arm. He kicked me again and punched my nose. I ran to Grandmother with my bleeding nose. She took some yak wool, wiped the blood from my nose, stroked my head, and said, “Don’t cry. Good boys don’t cry.”
Picking up a stick, Mother headed directly towards Brother, who, glaring at me, rushed out of the tent before Mother could catch him. I sobbed for a while. When I stopped, Grandmother said, “You’re a good boy. Don’t fight your brother, even if he beats you. He’s your brother, and he is older than you. You should respect him. It’ll disgrace our family and destroy both of your reputations if others see you two fight.”
I nodded, agreeing, “Yes. My nose hurts. I’ll not fight Brother again.”
Brother didn’t come home the whole day. Instead, he went to our neighbor’s tent. In the early evening, I missed him and went in search of him. He was helping my aunt fetch water. I wanted to play and called him, but he ignored me, so I played with my older sisters.
At sundown, Brother climbed the mountain where Father was herding yaks.
At dinner time, Mother told Father about our fight. Father stared at Brother and said, “I’ll beat you to death if you fight your brother again. Today, because you helped me drive the yaks back home, I won’t beat you this time.”
A few days passed, and the snow melted.
One chilly morning, Mother urged Father to get up with, “Someone has stolen ten yaks.”
Father dressed quickly and told Brother to call my aunt’s son, who was in his twenties. “Did you see my dog-beater?” he asked Mother, who located it under a mattress.
Ten minutes later, Cousin entered our tent with a rifle slung on his back. Looking at the gun, I asked, “Why is that rifle on your back?”
Cousin replied, “I’m going to kill thieves.”
I asked, “Why do you want to kill thieves?”
“Because I’m a real man. You should be a real man like me when you’re an adult.”
I nodded in agreement.
Cousin stopped talking, took a saddle from the lower part of the tent, and carried it outside. Father took another saddle and followed Cousin. Brother and I also went out and watched Father and cousin saddle two horses and ride eastward.
Two days later, my family’s watchdog barked as my family was having lunch. I ran outside and saw Father and Cousin driving thirteen yaks toward our tent. With great excitement, I shouted, “Father and Cousin are back!”
Father and Cousin dismounted, tied their horses near our tent, and came inside. When Brother and I went to drive the yaks into a valley where my family’s other yaks were, Brother said, “Three of these yaks are not our family’s!”
Not knowing which yaks were my family’s, I asked, “Which ones are not ours?”
He pointed to two black polled female yaks and a big, sharp-horned yak. I looked at these three yaks carefully and ran back home.
Father was having milk tea, sitting next to Cousin on the tent’s right side as they waited for Mother to cook beef noodles. I sat next to Cousin and said, “Three of those yaks aren’t our family’s.”
Cousin looked at me and said, “I told you I’m a real man. I aimed my rifle at the thieves. They fearfully begged me not to kill them. They said they’d give us three yaks if I didn’t shoot them.”
As I looked silently at Cousin, he asked, “Do you think I’m a real man?”
“Oh, yes, you’re a real man! I want to be a real man like you.”
I admiringly looked at Cousin’s rifle lying against a yak saddle on the right side of the tent. As I was about to touch the rifle, Grandmother shouted, “Don’t touch it!”
I was shocked and cried.
Cousin looked at me and sneered, “Coward! You’re not a real man.”
That night I was unhappy and had no appetite. I asked Grandmother, “Am I a cowardly boy?”
She said, “You’re a good boy and a real man.”
I felt a little bit better and announced, “I’m hungry.”
Ignoring me, Mother asked Father, “Who are the thieves?”
After a bit, Father said, “My sworn-brother and one of his cousins.”
Mother said angrily, “What a bad person!”
Father tried to say something but stopped and heaved a sigh.
I knew Father’s sworn-brother, a strong, tall man who had long hair, a beard, and a sharp nose. A few weeks earlier, he had visited Father and given my siblings and me some candy. I liked Father’s sworn-brother and called him “Uncle.” Grandmother had said, “Uncle is a good man.”
I looked at unhappy Father and then sat on Grandmother’s lap and asked, “Grandmother, is Uncle a good man? Mother said he’s a bad man.”
Grandmother said, “Your mother’s right. He’s a bad man. Never betray anyone. Be a good boy. Good boys are born in Heaven in the next life.”
Father remained silent, and other family members didn’t say anything.
After a while, we slept.
A year passed. I was now seven and started a new journey.
One hot summer day, Brother and I were swimming naked in a brook near our tent. The water came up to our knees. As I lay in the water, my belly scratched a stone. When I saw blood on my stomach, I cried and ran home naked.
Entering the tent, I noticed a visitor, a large-mouthed man with a dark complexion wearing a fabric robe sitting next to Father on the right side of the tent. I later learned he was my tribe’s leader, whose brother taught Tibetan in our local primary school.
The leader stopped talking to Father and counseled, “Don’t cry. You’re a good boy. Good boys never cry.”
Although I felt a lot of pain, I stopped crying. I imagined that he would think I was a bad boy if I kept crying.
The leader said, “I said you’re a good boy. See, you stopped crying.”
I was shy and ashamed that I had cried. I squatted next to Grandmother and said nothing.
Grandmother wiped away the blood with her hands and said, “Don’t swim if your brother asks you to swim with him.”
I nodded and kept my head down.
In the late evening, the leader left. I asked Grandmother why he had come to visit.
“He came to announce that you and your brother must enroll in school in September.”
I remembered one of my older male cousins had escaped from the local primary school when he was ten and had returned home at night. Cousin’s father had scolded him and persuaded him to return to school. Cousin was reluctant, saying he didn’t want to suffer from hunger. “I don’t want to go to school. I don’t want to starve,” I proclaimed.
Grandmother encouraged, “I heard the school’s new headmaster is a kind local man who takes good care of the students.”
“I don’t want to go to school. I’ll miss you and my parents,” I continued.
“You won’t miss us. Your brother must also go to school,” said Grandmother.
I wanted to know why, so Grandmother explained, “Your uncle’s son was chosen by lottery to go to school, but your uncle wants his son to be a herder. Your brother will go to school in place of your uncle’s son; otherwise, the government will punish your uncle.”
A few days later, Father consulted a local bla ma, who selected a day for Brother and me to enroll in school.
Two days before the designated day, Father went to the local township town and returned home at noon with two pairs of cloth pants, two jackets, and two pairs of long underwear. One set of underwear was red, and the other was gray. Brother and I squabbled over the gray pair because we thought red underwear was for girls. Eventually, Father persuaded Brother to wear the red pair. Father told us to wash our faces and feet. Using a pair of big scissors, he cut our hair short, above eyebrow level.
That night, I slept with Grandmother, who advised, “Don’t forget to recite scriptures every night at school. You’ll become smarter if you chant every night.”
“Yes. I’ll recite scriptures every night,” I promised.
The next morning, Brother and I got up earlier than usual, dressed, and again washed our faces. After breakfast, Father, Brother, and I offered incense behind my family’s tent to bring us good luck.
Brother mounted a white horse, and I sat behind him. Father rode a black horse. Mother mounted a black horse with a white spot on its head. After bidding goodbye to the rest of my family and my aunt and her son, we headed toward the township town.