Living in Remote Mosuo Village: Building Homes and Slowly Understanding Local Culture

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The Town of LJZ–Host Family’s House on the Right

The next morning, I felt a lot better, but my stomach still felt like a squished up raisin. I felt like I was not going to eat anything today or even for the rest of the week. I walked downstairs to the main living where I found the family, Lidy, and PM eating breakfast. I sat on a mat next to Lidy and faked eating rice. Molly felt sick to her stomach today, so she didn’t join us. After breakfast, PM and Lidy were at a loss. They didn’t know who to visit or what to do. Their goal for this visit to LJZ was to collect local songs–the two of them would be considered ethnomusicologists. They decided to meet with an old friend up the dirt road. I walked with them, when all of a sudden they stopped in surprise. The house next door had been half demolished. They walked in and asked what happened. The family told them the earthquake from the year previous destroyed parts of the house, and they finally had time to rebuild. They were rebuilding the main living area, but the two stories of rooms were still intact.

We asked if we could help them out and they agreed. Sometimes the families are too polite to allow guests to help with construction, but fortunately they were okay with it! We hiked up our sleeves and began shoveling dirt into baskets, soaking the dirt with water, collecting stones, and compacting the dirt in a wooden contraption that made walls:

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Compacting Dirt into the Beginning of a Wall

We did this for the rest of the afternoon with breaks between where we ate second breakfast, lunch, and second lunch…I felt like I was in the Shire! Too bad I could barely eat any of it. During the lunch breaks, I would observe PM talk with the locals. At one point, she was talking with a revered Daba priest, who lived in the household. She was asking him if there are any songs about building a house. In the next moment, the Daba priest started singing a song Lidy and PM had never heard before. The song is sung when the house is almost done. It is often when the men compact the dirt with the tools pictured above. I do not have the lyrics, but he helped us translate the meaning. It was about pounding the dirt and pulling out the earthworms from the earth…     ~A lay lay, A lay lay~

We clapped after the performance and soon found ourselves back outside doing work again. We worked until it began to get dark. Someone mentioned that there was smoke in the distance. We looked up to the sky and saw a stream of black smoke rising behind the nearby mountain. The fire looked close. We asked what locals do about fires, but they said not to worry. Whenever there is a fire, the population that lives in that vicinity takes care of it. Since the fire was behind the mountain range, it wasn’t LJZ locals’ problem. However, the Yi minority live on that side, so it is their responsibility to extinguish it. It still made PM and me a bit uneasy. What if the fire spread over the mountain?

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We finished the first layer of foundation and then headed out to another home for supper. Before going to the home, I checked on Molly. She was not interested in going. I gave her some more water and hurried to dinner. It is impolite to come late. Before leaving, I took this shot of our host’s home:

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Host Family’s Home–Courtyard and Main Living Area

To the left that is not pictured is the home’s temple. In and around Lugu Lake, locals believe in both Tibetan Buddhism and the Daba religion. The temple was a Tibetan Buddhist shrine. To the right that is not pictured are the second story rooms that PM, Lidy, Molly, and I were staying in. I walked downstairs and found one of the daughters. While she was asking where I was going, one of the elder sisters called out to her child and Lidy (who was also at the home). We found the elder sister outside of the front door looking up to the sky in fright. She hesitantly pointed at the orange moon. She had never seen an orange moon before and told Lidy that maybe it would be best not to leave the home tonight. The elder sister thought the changing in the moon was very ominous. Their society circles around the moon and lunar calendar. Their lives and the moon are in cycle.

I told Lidy that the moon was orange because of the smoke from the fire. The smoke was distorting the moon, changing it into another color. The daughter translated that to her mother, who still felt unnerved, but allowed us to leave for dinner. We raced down to the lower edge of the village to the other home. The matriarch ushered us in and showed us where to sit, at the lower hearth, with a roomful of men. PM, Lidy, and I were the only women sitting in the living area, besides the sisters who were making the food. Since we were considered as primarily “guests” and not “women,” we ate with the men.  The women and children would eat the leftovers afterwards. However, a grandmother (a highly respected figure in the household) entered the room and sat next to me. She overrode the “women and children” category. I wish I understood Mosuo language because she was making the entire room laugh. At one point, I asked what he name was:

She said, “Namu.”

I responded, “that’s a really pretty name!” She was a bit confused with my response and laughed. I guess what I said cannot be translated well into the Mosuo language. They don’t say things like that…so she decided to play with my response.

“Well then, you can have it!” (Someone was translating her words for me)

A man called from the upper hearth: “But you are not a living Buddha, you cannot just give out names, Grandmother Namu!” He and everybody was laughing at the grandmother’s ridiculousness.

“Well, for this very moment, I’m Living Buddha Namu, and I bequeath you the name, Namu.” The entire room was exploding with laughter. I was laughing too because the grandmother was acting very dramatic. I thanked Namu Living Buddha for the name.

My first name in the Mosuo language now is Namu. I do not have a last name yet. 

Most of the men in the village speak Mandarin. This is because they had worked in cities in their youth. We chatted with them and each other for the duration of dinner. I do not remember exactly what we talked about, but I do remember the men being very keen in answering any of our questions. They are all so friendly! The young men sat in the back of the room and chatted with themselves, except for when they would look over at us and giggle. I had a feeling we would have visitors again tonight.

When the men finished eating, they said their goodbyes and headed back to either their natal homes or their partner’s homes. In this culture, men stay in their female partner’s home at night and come back to their natal home in the morning. In their natal homes, they most likely have their own room, but it may be next to the pig pen or not very well maintained. The women, however, are given the better rooms, so that they can receive visitors. When the men left, the remaining women and children came in and ate with us. It felt like a weight was lifted from their shoulders because the room was suddenly filled with the chatter and laughter of women and children. We chatted with them for the rest of the night. When we thought it was getting a tad late, we thanked the family for the feast and headed back home around 10pm.

Before going to bed, I asked PM and Lidy if men visit Molly and I tonight, would it be okay if I brought them to their room and chatted with them? Molly was not feeling up to dealing with visitors that night. They said it would be fine. Later, while I was writing in my journal, I heard footsteps in the courtyard and then heard the creaking of the wooden stairs. They came back. The brick was knocked over once more. I turned over to find four young men again. They seemed a bit more courageous with the help of some beers. They said their hellos and asked if they could sit down. They mentioned they wanted to see the twins. I translated for Molly, who was hiding under her covers saying “Mu ni, Mu ni (No way, No way).” But, Molly said it was okay to give them a quick look and then popped her head out of the covers. I walked over and showed them how we looked very similar. The boys were in awe, they had never seen twins before! After that, I escorted them to PM and Lidy’s room, where we continued conversation for more than an hour. It was fun to talk with them with PM…she likes to joke around. In the end, of course we didn’t “walk marriage,” so we politely rejected the boy’s requests. They were perfectly okay with the rejection and left. They seemed to have enjoyed the conversation and I did too.

I talked with Lidy and PM a little longer about their experiences in the field and then headed back to bed. I have chosen an interesting culture to study!

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