Memory Doesn’t Lie

My aunt Tsemo Khar is the second eldest of eight siblings on my father’s side. We call her Acha Tsemo Khar. Although the smallest of the siblings, she is always full of life. She had to be the breadwinner of her family, looking after her six children, while her yogi husband was away on retreat in the mountains most of the time. Her round face is perfectly symmetrical with her dark eyes and rosy cheeks. Her expressive face and warm inviting smile can put anyone at ease, making people feel welcome and appreciated. However, she also has an outright nature and does not hesitate to say anything that she feels.

Although I was born in Nyin, a small village, I was sent to Sogpo to study at the Dragmar (Red Cliff) Elementary School, currently under Henan Mongol Autonomous County (河南蒙古族自治县) in China’s political demarcation. When I was 13, my father moved me back to Nyin and enrolled me at Tornying Elementary School, in the hopes that I would end up in a better high school later. From my house, I could see two striking scenes in the distance: the small leafy trees that surrounded my new school, and the glistening golden roof of the local shrine on the mountain above it.

The children from five surrounding villages all went to the same school. From my village, first we would go down to the heel of a small valley, then we climb up the face of a steep hill, cutting through several fields on the hillside, and we eventually reach the school.

The first two months after I started studying there, I missed my old school and friends terribly. I was miserable at the thought of continuing in sixth grade at my new school. I constantly complained to my mother. She grew desperate, called my father, who was the principal at my former school and said, “Our son doesn’t want to stay here. You should take him back to Sokpo.” However, my father was not inclined to pay the matter much heed. As such, I had no choice but to deal with my sadness.

Acha Tsemo Khar’s house was right at the foot of the new school. Because she was my father’s sister and the fact that the school was quite far from my own village, I always ate lunch at her house. Her family did not have much, but they always ate grand meals. They had fried potatoes with glass noodles and green onions, and some other dishes with bread. However, I did not go there merely to eat lunch; my motive was also to watch Chinese action TV series dubbed into Tibetan. Not only was Acha Tsemo Khar kind to me, she was also quite proud of my performance at school. At times she would even boast to others, “Our family’s child from Nyin does very well at school.”

I vaguely recall a bright winter morning, with a light breeze in the air. During recess, a few of us sat sunning ourselves behind the classroom. Though the weather was bright and sunny, it was not very warm. As we sat there, suddenly we heard a student yelling from the schoolyard, “FIRE! Uncle Pema Bhum’s house is on fire!” Unable to believe our ears, we looked in that direction. I saw a bunch of students running out the school gate, and I followed them. The hay shed on my aunt’s roof was on fire. Plumes of smoke were rising from it.

Many villagers had already reached there to help. Some young men and women were throwing soil over the smoking bales of hay on the roof. I saw my sister, uncle, and uncle’s wife amongst them. The cluster of the smoke, dust, and screaming was all like an action movie scene in my eyes. There was smoke, but it looked as if the fire had not really been able to catch.

As I stood there frozen with fear, my friend Sangye said, “Dhondup Tashi, aren’t you going to help? Your aunt’s house is on fire.” I did not respond. I just stood there, transfixed. In my head, I was questioning, should I go or not? If I were to go, I would miss the next class and get a scolding from my teacher. I was worried that my teacher’s good impression of me might be ruined. If I did not go, I would shame myself in front of my aunt. As I was still standing there watching, the class bell rang. I went back to my classroom.

After the class ended, I went to my aunt’s house for lunch like any other day. When I entered their gate, I saw the whole village who had come to help were having lunch in the courtyard, including my own sister, uncle and uncle’s wife. I caught them glance at me but they did not say anything. My aunt was standing by a pillar near the door to the noodle room, holding a thermos in her hand. As soon as she saw me, she put the thermos down on the floor. She had an angry look on her face.

When I sat on a rug and reached out for a teacup, she came to me and said, “You were able to stand and watch while your aunt’s house was burning? Aren’t you ashamed in front of your school friends?” She gave me one last glare and then disappeared into the crowd. I could not look at her face, nor could I say anything in return. I could not even look out of the corners of my eyes at the faces of the other villagers around me. Bowing my head down and sniffling, I sat there eating my lunch alone. My face became very hot and I felt beads of sweat rolling down my forehead.

From that day on, I went to my aunt’s house for lunch less and less frequently. I felt a deep guilt and shame in my heart and didn’t share it with anyone. I lacked the courage to speak about it openly. Even now, every time I think of her, I recall this day.

In Tibetan, Acha generally means elder sister, but it varies in different regions of Tibet. In my hometown, Acha means both elder sister and aunt. I thus call my father’s sister Acha Tsemo Khar. I think it would be interesting to comprehend the diverse cultural meanings of it rather than dictionary meanings, for dictionaries fix the meaning of words in either through political literary production or knowledge subjugation of colonial power in different times and places in human history.

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