Monthly Archives: April 2013

My Thoughts on Interactions with Foreign Journalists in the Field

During the month with the documentary team, I encountered three separate foreign journalists coming to the lake to write an article about the Mosuo. The first was a Swedish woman (and a male friend) writing for a Swedish Women’s Magazine. She saw a documentary about the Mosuo and wrote a pitch that got accepted by the editor. When she organized the trip, she then contacted me and the documentary beforehand to see if we could meet up and introduce her to the local community. I was enthusiastic to help. I was excited to hear someone was interested in writing about the Mosuo people and their culture. During our last week filming, she met us at the hostel we were staying at. She asked if we wanted to join her to the local hot springs to interview a woman that’s working towards preserving Mosuo traditional culture by running an art workshop. She did not speak Chinese, so we would be her translators. Though we were busy in our final week of filming, we put this trip into consideration.

She also asked if one of us could help her conduct an interview with a Mosuo woman. My friend, Zhouyang, had come back from Lijiang the other day to look into running his own guesthouse and had been visiting a Mosuo household outside of Lige. I planned to join him again that night to get to know the family more. I invited the Swedish journalist. The three of us visited the home in the late afternoon to interview the oldest sister. She invited us in and sat us in front of the house temple. She brought with her a woven basket filled with carmel popcorn balls and rice crackers and sat down with the two of us. Zhouyang had gone exploring to check out the property.

The Swedish woman began with broad questions that I translated: “Can you explain Mosuo culture to me?” “How are woman powerful in this society?” and then became more specific: “Are you the matriarch of this household?” “Were you children born through a ‘walking marriage?'” “Do you want your sons to have ‘walking marriages?'” The Mosuo woman responded honestly, but did not give long, in-depth answers. Some questions she didn’t know how to respond. This is a problem that has popped up for me and the documentary team as well. The local men normally have more interesting opinions compared to the women. I don’t really know why. I was enjoying the conversation, but I noticed the journalist seemed disappointed. I realized it was because she was not content with the woman’s answers.

I thought about it and soon figured out why…the woman was not saying the “right” answers:

  1. The Mosuo woman was not the matriarch of the household, rather it was her brother. She said she didn’t want to be because of all the responsibilities.
  2. She didn’t mind if her sons married, it would bring a young woman into the household, which the family lacked.
  3. She didn’t know how to describe her culture
  4. Tourism is good. It had brought only good to the town.

After these answers, the journalist was obviously not happy. Although, there were two points when she gave out an excited, high-pitched “Ooooh?” That was when the Mosuo woman answered with:

  1. They were born out of walking marriages.
  2. Women have the final say in decisions

At the end of the interview, I felt like I learned a lot about this household and gained one more opinion about tourism from a local. However, she was not happy with the interview. I was a bit irritated by her reaction because she was seeking answers, instead of keeping an open mind. She had watched a documentary before coming to Lugu Lake that described the area as the “Kingdom of Women.” Her expectations were stubbornly set and she seemed to not accept my explanations of how the society has changed. With this way of thinking, she would not be depicting modern Mosuo life, rather just adding to the hundreds of other articles that talk about the same things: “walking marriage,” matriarchal families and primitivity. She would be using another orientalistic perspective to create a difference gap between the reader and Mosuo culture. When I realized I was contributing to an article that would give a false depiction of their contemporary society, I immediately regretted helping her. I do not want to help her write an article that I would not be proud of. We left the house and walked back to Lige village. I decided I would not help her any further.

It doesn’t end there…

The next day, a German journalist and his team approached me and the documentary team while we were eating lunch. They asked if any of us spoke Chinese and could be a translator. The guys said that I was their perfect (wo)man, but I first asked more about their project. Turned out the team was sponsored by German Playboy to write an article about Mosuo culture. Of course, the moment I heard Playboy, I became very suspicious, but to be honest, also a bit amused. I talked it over with the guys, and they said that Playboy does write well-thought out articles. I first jokingly asked how they knew, but then thought over about what they said. I decided I would give the Playboy journalists a chance.

We met the next night where I asked what his pitch was to Playboy. He said, “So, I’ve read that Lugu Lake is the ‘Kingdom of Women,’ but I’m here to see if Lugu Lake is also a ‘Paradise for Men.” My stomach suddenly dropped. I responded with a hesitant laugh. “Oh, yeah?” The documentary team and I both agreed that it definitely is not. Though there is “walking marriage,” this does not mean this place is the land of one-night stands and one can have multiple partners. At that moment, I did not regret helping them because I thought I could show them it’s not true. They seemed like smart guys and would use this truth as a way to make an interesting, in-depth article. Not sure if it played out that like though…

We sat with my friends, local youth. Their first question that I translated was: “Do you have ‘walking marriages’ now?” In this culture, talking about “walking marriage” with both sexes present is taboo, but my friends were open-minded and responded to such questions indirectly. Then they asked: “Do you have multiple partners?” Two of my friends became heated by this question because they get it all the time. The media portrays Lugu Lake as a place where one can get laid. This Playboy team also got disillusioned by these false portrayals of Mosuo culture, which they told me they read on the internet (of course). The entire table said they had never simultaneously had multiple partners and that one has to breakup first before pursuing another lover. The German journalist’s facial expression showed he was not content with these answers.

He responded that a driver that drove them around the area that day said he had over 30 partners in his lifetime. The man was in his thirties, they said. I translated this to the locals, who then scoffed: “And they believed him? All those drivers are liars just to excite tourists.” The journalist had a hard time believing who was telling the truth, but I could tell he wanted the driver to be right…that would work well into his article. My local friends wanted me “to talk sense” to these guys, which I tried by translating exactly what they were all saying. I hope this conversation with locals made them think over their pitch and how it could be changed to depict Mosuo culture in a more accurate light. There are already enough articles out there that sexualize their culture–why add another one into the plethora? This also leads to an ethical question: Should they accurately describe Mosuo culture, or should they write an article that would sexually excite their intended audience? I fear they will choose the latter.

Through these two negative experiences, I unfortunately am more suspicious of journalists. I understand they already made a pitch and need to follow it to get paid, but to what costs? They get money, but how about the local community that gets inaccurately depicted? These journalists were only at the lake for 3 days to a week. How can one even write an in-depth article in such little time? I’m going to avoid working with journalists from now on unless they intend to stay in the lake for an extended period of time or have actually researched Mosuo culture well beforehand.

[I never did read their finished articles. This is just my experience while helping these journalists and my thoughts afterwards. Maybe they did make interesting articles, but at the time their potential was not apparent. Please feel free to comment! I would love to hear other opinions, especially from journalists out in the field.]

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Documenting Mosuo Culture: A Modern Mosuo Love Story

A Modern Mosuo Love Story

On the last full day of filming, we interviewed with a couple we have become very close with this month. They are ethnically Mosuo from villages outside of Lige who got married just last November. They bashfully sat down for the interview. The wife was shy and awkward in front of the camera. She kept a little distance from her husband and kept looking away to the side. The husband who is more extroverted put his arm around her shoulders and jokingly said, “Hey, we’re married aren’t we?” He pulled her closer to him. We laughed as he lovingly bullied his wife. When we thought the two were comfortable enough, we began the interview. We started with their love story:

The wife, Namu, came from LJZ, the village we had visited weeks previous. It’s far away and very remote. For the village, it is common for young women to come to Lugu Lake in their teenage years to do parttime work. Namu came to Lige village in her teens (around 16 or 17?) and worked in a BBQ shop next to CR, her now husband. She would help clean his shop everyday. Through these daily interactions, they gradually fell in love. During that year, Namu moved to Lijiang for a better paying job. Ci’er bought her a cellphone so to often check on her. However, it turned out that Namu got sick that entire month, as well as broke her phone.

Namu all of a sudden stopped telling the story and looked away. A tear trickled down her cheek. CR continued the story:

While suddenly being out of contact, Ci’er became worried. Without any way of telling her, he took the long ride down to Lijiang to find Namu sad and homesick. She was so happy to see him. He drove her back to Lugu Lake. From then on, they have been together in Lugu Lake.

Namu cried because she was so touched by CR’s concern and love for her. They decided to get married. This wasn’t because they didn’t want to have a “walking marriage” relationship, but because they wanted to stay together. Their villages are so distant from each other that it would be impossible to visit at night. Marriage was the best option.

Namu’s family was very traditional and at first did not want her to get married. This would mean she would not come back and lead the household as the matriarch. When CR visited, he was not warmly welcomed. However, he worked hard to build a good relationship with her family. Even though it would be difficult, he wanted nothing else but to marry Namu.

Namu was so touched by the story again that she began tearing up. CR’s eyes were also brimming with tears. Namu got up and walked outside to compose herself. Her husband continued the story:

“After many visits, they finally agreed and let us marry. They even like me now. We got married last year in my village. Now we have a baby on the way!”

Namu soon came back and sat down. CR looked at her round stomach and smiled. We asked if they have anything they want to say to the baby:

“What would we say?” Namu replied.

“What do you want to tell the baby before s/he enters this world?”

Namu looked down at her stomach, rubbing it gently. She didn’t know what to say in Mandarin, but whispered something gently in the Mosuo language. CR also spoke Mosuo towards her stomach. After looking at her stomach, they smiled at each other and then us.


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Documenting Mosuo Culture: Story of a Mosuo Orphan

A-Pu was born in a village outside of Lugu Lake in 1990. His mother soon left him with his grandmother and never returned during A-Pu’s childhood. He grew up embarrassed for being motherless, which led to him being very introverted. When he turned thirteen, the year one goes through their “coming of age” ceremony, his mother appeared for the first time to witness it. For being nonexistent during his entire life, he barely talked to her during the week she visited. She left soon after. When he was fourteen, a male tourist stayed in his home during his travels. The two became very close, becoming A-Pu’s first parental figure. He asked A-Pu if he’d like to join him back to his hometown, Hangzhou, and work at his bar. He agreed. He packed up his things and left Lugu Lake for the first time. He spent most of his teenage years in Fujian province working as a bartender and ethnic performer, as well as experiencing modern society outside of Lugu Lake. He then moved to Kunming and performed for a couple years before moving back to Lugu Lake to develop his home into a guest house. He grew through these experiences. He got past his unfortunate past and has become a very out-going, friendly person.

I got to know A-Pu while he auditioned to be a performer in the Lige village theatrical show. His house is currently under construction to be a guest house. He shared with me his dream is to make an international guest house that will attract people from all over the world. Even though he doesn’t know how to read or write, he wants to learn English so that he can be the boss. We will be language partners in the summer, so I can help him live his dream, and he can teach me the Mosuo language.

One night, we visited a bar and invited A-Pu. The bar owner is Han but loves to sing Mosuo songs. He started singing a sad-sounding ballad in the Mosuo language, which I did not understand. A-Pu’s expression suddenly turned sullen, but started singing along with the singer. When they finished, he turned to me and said that the song is about a young boy missing his mother. He sang to a mother that he wished he had, not to one that left him.


A-Pu Waving to Us After the Performance

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Documenting Mosuo Culture: Visiting Zeibo Village to Interview an Experienced Anthropologist


Tourist Looking Out to the Lake

Prologue to the visit to Zeibo:

This last week, we’ve filmed multiple varying characters around the village: from outside investors, BBQ owners to little Mosuo children. While getting lunch with the town’s richest, most economically powerful man, “Bald Lu”, I received a call from an expert Mosuo ethnographer. I emailed Dr. Shih over two months ago asking for advice before coming to Lugu Lake and then emailed him last month when I heard from my professor he was in Kunming. I was not expecting him to actually call me!

After talking with Bald Lu, we immediately set off to meet Dr. Shih in Luoshui, the main tourist hub around the lake. We rented a van and crammed the team, a journalist, myself, and the equipment into it. We met at a youth hostel on the lakeside. When I went inside, he greeted us with a big smile. He was a shorter man, wore thick black glasses and a North Face fleece jacket with a striped dress shirt underneath. We sat ourselves next to him and his friends. He asked about us: how they got the National Geographic sponsorship, how I became interested in the Mosuo, etc. We asked him about his 20+ year experience doing fieldwork in Lugu Lake. He thinks the lake is changing substantially with the influence of globalization and tourism.

We had to split ways that day, but we planned to meet in a couple days. In the days that passed, we stayed stationed in Lige interviewing locals and participating in everyday life. One afternoon, we followed an adorable Mosuo girl, filming how she spends her days in a modern Mosuo society. We also interviewed local store owners and BBQ shop owners. The team is trying to portray “the crossroads” the Mosuo of Lige have encountered through the introduction of tourism and modernization in contrast to their traditional lifestyle. Tourism inspires development in different facets: economic and cultural. The Mosuo of Lige are facing this transition from traditional way of living—large matrilineal households, “walking marriage,” agricultural economic system, etc.—to modern/Hanified society—male dominated household, nuclear families, and a money-based economic system.


Little Mosuo Girl Playing in the Marsh


Having Fun While Filming a Time Lapse—Aliens have Landed

Culture is always in transition, but tourism speeds up this process. The Mosuo locals have accepted and embraced this new modern lifestyle, so it cannot necessarily be criticized by scholars for “destroying” the culture…it’s a culture in transition, just like any other culture which has encountered a new, dominant force in history. National Geographic wants to catch this transition on film to make its viewers understand this culture intersecting this crossroads of tradition and modernity.


Cross-cultural Exchange—Teaching Indian Dance to Local Performers (and Me!) 

The Visit:

A few days later, we joined a local friend to take a trip to Yongning, a small city outside of the lake. He would drop us off at Zeibo, where Dr. Shih was residing for his fieldwork trip. After the short trip to Yongning, our friend took us on a roundabout ride around the valley basin. We passed the base of Mt. Gemu while drudging along bumpy, dirt paths. The path straight to Zeibo village was closed off for construction, so that’s why we went off the beaten track. I laughed with the driver as we bounced up and down the entire way.

We finally made it to the village. It was nestled at the bottom of Lion Mountain (which is the other side of Mt. Gemu, or maybe another name for Mt. Gemu?) and between miles upon miles of flat farmland in the valley. We called the professor who soon met up with us. We followed him as he showed us the way to the Mosuo home he was staying in. We sat and chatted in a spacious courtyard. From the courtyard, you could look up and see a magnificent view of the mountain. The ground was arranged with different plants and flowers, as well as shaded by a hundred year-old pear tree. Its long branches and thick leaves kept us cool from the sun. It was a very comfortable environment.

We ate rice cakes and munched on sunflower seeds while waiting for lunch. We planned to interview him after the meal. While chatting, I asked Dr. Shih for advice that would be useful for an aspiring anthropologist. He said:

“It’s important that I figure out what my career goals are first: professor, educator, government, UN?. Anthropology is a huge commitment, so one must get their goals and life in order before devoting their entire life to this line of work.” I agreed. Am I ready for such a commitment?

While eating lunch, he brought up how the Mosuo traditional culture is “disappearing,” and that it is a terrible phenomenon. I didn’t know how to feel about that. Like I mentioned before, culture is always in transition. To say it’s horrible that a traditional culture is assimilating into modern Han society is only one way of viewing change. I think this perspective is narrow and does not help the development of a community. In the end, it’s up to the community to decide whether cultural change is positive, negative, or both. It is not up to the anthropologist, but the anthropologist can assist if the community wants to promote cultural preservation or heritage methods.

Even though my research focuses on cultural preservation techniques, I’m not treating tourism as a bearer of bad news. I don’t feel comfortable saying something is necessarily good or bad in this society because I’m not technically a part of it…I’m an outsider with a biased, Western mindset. I need to base my thoughts on the locals reactions before throwing my perspective into any conclusions. Maybe Dr. Shih has these opinions from his informants?

After the interview, he and his local informant of over 20 years showed us around the village. They walked us to the Tibetan temple that sat at the top of the village along the mountain side. It was beautiful. I casually walked behind the group as the team filmed the professor and his informant.


Following the Anthropologist to the Local Tibetan Buddhist Temple

After following Dr. Shih, we decided to head out because sunset was soon approaching. We planned on hiking back. We said our goodbyes and walked down the road to Zhudi. However, our friend began to feel ill, so we started looking for some form of transportation for him. We saw a vegetable seller in the distance with a large truck. I immediately ran over before he left to ask if we could hitch a ride. He said he wasn’t going to the Lugu lake area, but the locals became interested in me and my friends. When I told them our friend was sick, two local men were gracious enough to get their motorbikes and drive us back–three people per bike.


Hiking Back to Lige Village–Equipment in Hand

I squished in the middle of the driver and one of the guys, while holding onto the camera. We drove off up the mountain range, bending left and right up the windy  road. We overlooked the valley at the top of the mountain and saw the entire valley shining with plastic and growing crops. We soon crossed the mountain range to find a dried up lake. The driver said it dried up only last year, a drought has plagued the Lugu Lake area for years now. After talking with the motorbike driver, for most of the trip, I silently looked out at the scenery that we passed while whizzing along the bumpy paths. Mount Gemu’s looming shadow shaded our ride for most of the trip. I felt at peace. We arrived at Lige village right when the sun set behind the mountains. We thanked the drivers and gave the two some money (even though they didn’t want it). It was a good day.


Motorbiking Back to Lige Village

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Documenting Mosuo Culture: Morning Hike and BBQ Opening Party

I woke up surprisingly early this morning. I silently changed into my outdoor clothes and took a walk. My walk then turned into a hike up the hills behind Lige. I scoured up narrow paths from old paths left by goats in the past. I climbed with my hands and feet up steep sandy hills and under overgrown paths until I just gave up following paths and raced up to the top of the hill. I reached the tip and was greeted with the risen sun over blue Lugu Lake. I found a burnt log to sit on and enjoyed the scenery. I belted out American and Chinese songs over the small town of Lige and the calm lake.

I continued up the hill following manmade paths to the peak of the mountain. I reached the top to find an aged shrine made of piled rocks with burnt pine needles and moss covering it. I looked at it more closely and noticed the shrine looked a bit like a fish. The pile was arched like a head coming out of the water, while gradually smaller piles of rocks trailed behind it like a long fin. Was this the mythical fish creature the Mosuo genesis story brought up? I had a hard time leaving the spiritual place. I bowed in respect to the shrine before slowly hiking down the other side of the mountain.

(I later asked around and it turned out this place was a shrine where local families burn and bury the bones of the deceased. A local told me that the peaks of mountains around Lige have these kinds of shrines.)

I thought the other side of the mountain would have a path to the main road. I almost hit the bottom only to find 12 feet tall walls of dirt getting in the way of my descent. I crawled through brush hoping to find a way down, but there was no option except for a rocky patch I could climb down. I attempted to go down at first, but was too afraid. I called for help when some bikers passed. One of the men helped etch some footholds for me and guided my feet into the holes. I was so grateful! I made it to the 6 foot mark and then jumped into a pile of sand near the street. I was seriously afraid I would injure myself without their help, so I was really thankful!

We said our goodbyes and started walking along the main road back to Lige village. I coincidentally bumped into the Nat Geo crew on the main road buying nuts and shared with them my adventure. I was still a bit shaken from the event.

We headed back to begin interviews with the barbecue owners. They would be opening up their shop that night to their friends, then the official opening would be the next day. We stayed at the BBQ all day. The interview consisted of asking him of what Lugu Lake was like before tourism, how he felt opening this shop, and what his plans were after making money. He planned on buying land in the countryside and leading a simple life after making enough money and enjoying the world.

As night approached, locals began to come in groups. The crew recorded as I talked with the guests and owners on the side. More people starting piling in, the place was getting louder and smokier. The performers from the “Flower Room Ballad” performance came in and started playing music and singing. The restaurant was getting drunker and drunker by the hour. It soon began roaring with laughter, music, and people having a good time. I was getting drunk from the atmosphere. Our friends who opened this place were happy as they drank and sang with friends.

Our friend, YE, one of the owners, mentioned to us before that making money leads to more trouble in the future. He is in an odd between in his desires–he wants to live in the countryside, but still desires to know what’s beyond the lake. In this very moment in his life, he has taken a step forward in developing his life towards fortune. It may lead to more desire and trouble in the future, but at least tonight was a happy moment in his life. No need to worry about the future just yet. Let’s enjoy tonight.


My Friends and their New BBQ Joint

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Documenting Mosuo Culture: Praying Rituals, Tourism and the Effects on Youth

I woke up by getting a phone call from one of the National Geographic guys. He asked if I wanted to join them in watching the elder from yesterday pray to the Daba gods. I did. So, I groggily got up, got dressed, and joined two of the filmmakers for breakfast. The other team member was sick in bed. The four of us agreed we had a cycle of sickness that switched each couple of days between us. I met them at the Lige peninsula for breakfast and waited for the elder to finish her round of boat rowing. She would light the pine needles after the morning shift. While we waited, we joked about things that I don’t remember, but I do recall that I laughed endlessly with these guys. Morning, afternoon, night continuous laughter.

We noticed the morning boats were moving towards the shore from the peninsula. We paid the bill and walked over to the lake shore to meet her. We approached her when she was dropping off some tourists after the sunrise boat ride. In the midst of parking the boat, a male tourists asked if she could fill an entire liter water bottle with pure Lugu Lake water. She filled it up and gave it to the man. She started tying up the boat as tourists closed in on her to take pictures. She was wearing traditional Mosuo garb and gave off a look as if she was as hard as nails–which she most likely is. She politely paused for the photos. When they were done, she grabbed the wooden oars and walked to her house to drop them off. We tagged along. Her granddaughter followed her and played with the rubble along the way. Her granddaughter is a little ball of energy that can find fun and interest in anything–including the trash and rubble that collects along the streets.

We waited outside the front door when the grandmother came out of the house gate with a handful of pine needles. We followed her to the shrine located off the Lige shore and filmed her as she prayed. She first put the needles into the kiln-shaped shrine, burned them, and prayed by chanting and walking around the shrine three times. We followed suite.

IMG_1497Filming Praying Ritual

After praying, she immediately shuffled through the rocky beach to her boat rowing friends and sat down. We sat with her and joined into the conversation with the camera off. The women talked about how tourism in the area has helped improve their lives. They make money now. They can buy things and travel. One woman said she utilized the money to travel to Tibet or other spiritual Buddhist areas to pray with his family. The discussion was fun as they joked with each other. Then a group of Shanghainese tourists swooped in with their Canon cameras–“the parade of canons”–and took pictures of the women.

One Han woman said, “Wow! Look at the light from behind her–the grandmother–this is a prize winner!” One of the boat rowers was agitated by the tourists. Everyday they are treated as if they are objects to be taken pictured of and lack autonomy of choice. She said, “Get away! We don’t like it when you do this.”

The Shanghainese smiled and said, “Well, why can they take photos of you and we can’t?” (At that point, Daniel was filming) The woman responded defiantly, “Because they are Mosuo and that is a Mosuo camera.” Since we showed interest in getting to know them, they respected us like their neighbors. The Shanghainese fake laughed. They then took a few more moments before they were satisfied with their photos. We asked the local women what they thought of the tourists.


Shanghai Tourists

“They are so annoying! They have such ‘sweet mouths,’ always just getting what they want without caring about us. We Mosuo like the talk to strangers, but they don’t. They only talk if they want something.” It was tense to watch the tourists and the locals interaction, but I’m glad I witnessed it.

After talking for over an hour, we excused ourselves to check on our friend, but planned on visiting them for lunch. We soon picked up some juice and walked over into the marshland where the local boat rowers set up a fire. The granddaughter was back, causing a hilarious ruckus among the older folk. We sat next to them as they set down fatty pork (or “mummified pork”) and vegetable soup for us to eat. They broke old cattail branches and used them as chopsticks. We ate as the grandchild would stare at us with ghost impressions.


Our Lunch–Used Cattail Chopsticks to Eat “Mummified Pork” Soup

After eating, I played with the grandchild by making funny faces and pretending to be a monster. I picked her up, pretending to take her away. She playfully screamed for her mother, which I responded with, “Your mother can’t save you now!” The mom laughed as I terrorized her adorable daughter.

We parted ways to visit the local theater. We heard there would be auditions, which we wanted to check out. We met up with a friend that was going to audition. He’s a local in his mid-twenties from a little village outside of Lugu Lake. He’s very handsome, good at singing and dancing from previous work experience performing in Fujian and Kunming. He only graduated from the third grade. We followed him to rehearsal.

All the dancers came one by one into the performance hall. They were handing out applications to the newbies. Our friend had to have someone fill the application for him because he didn’t know how to write or read.  He was the first one up. He had a stage presence about him with his perfect white smile and good looks. He sang a Mosuo song and danced for the crowd and received a loud applause and cheers. He was definitely the best of the bunch. The auditions turned into a practice for both the performers and the auditioners. We left soon after.

We met up with our friend who auditioned a couple hours later to get dinner at his house. He got a part in the show! We jumped into his friend’s van with a few other people and set off to his hometown, Zhudi, a nearby village. We drove down a dirt path till we hit his home, which was under construction. We walked through his front yard over rubble and piles of sand into the recently finished main hall. His grandmother sat by the lower hearth as we filed in. We light-heartedly chatted with our friend and the two guests staying at his home. The night became more interesting during dinner…


House Under Construction to be a Nice Guest House

His two buddies became more and more intoxicated during dinner. They shared with us how they knew each other and their brotherhood bond, explaining that the three of them and three other local boys were “blood brothers.” When they were younger, they poured droplets of their blood into a wine glass and shared it to portray their solidarity and love for each other. Another thing they mentioned is that in this area “to be a man” one must go to jail at least once. They joked of their experiences with glory and dignity. One had to persuade the jailer not to cut his hair by bribing him with his family’s meat supply–“how will you eat meat?”

The conversation suddenly took a sullen turn when they recollected the death of one of their blood brothers. The year before, they went out as usual to Yongning to sing karaoke and drink. After a night filled with fun, they all drunkenly drove motorbikes back home. Though they all got back safely, their blood brother never came back. They searched for their friend and found him dead on the street from a car accident. Their anguish was impossible to describe…

Since the blood brother died outside of his home, it was taboo to carry his body to the funeral ceremony, but his buddies would not stand it. They carried him against the cultural customs. During the funeral, the Daba priest warned the friends of the deceased blood brother’s unsettled spirit. The priest told them not to leave their house for an entire month to avoid joining him to the spirit world. One of the friends explained that entire month he never left his home, but his friend would visit him every night in his dreams. The dead blood brother would invite the dreamer to join him and play. The dreamer declined every time, telling him to go his own way and he his own.

However, that month one of the other blood brothers never did woke up after a night of drunken fun. The Daba priest said the blood brother took him to the spirit world. After that month, the spirit never revisited his dreams. The story gave me the chills.

Their experience highlights the life of a modern local boy growing up in a tourism developed area. Drinking, gambling, and paying for prostitutes is a large issue among young men in such areas. These families are making more money then they have ever had, but they don’t know how to spend it…these practices thus increase. The sad story of their friend is one example of tourism’s negative impact on society–the growing laziness and instability among youth.

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Documenting Mosuo Culture: The Fish Story and the Origin of Lugu Lake

The day after arriving to Lugu Lake, we said goodbye to my friend, the driver. He had to drive back to Lijiang. I decided to stay with the documentary team. I had never stayed in Lige village for an extended period of time before, so this was my chance to leave a good impression on the community before conducting fieldwork in the summer.

After breakfast, we visited a friend who was setting up a BBQ shop in one of the back alleys. Two of the team members noticed a local friend, a well-known elder in Lige, walking down the street with an empty basket. They asked what she was doing. She said she was going to collect pine tree branches for burning the next morning to the Daba gods (local religion custom) She invited us to join her.

IMG_1560Thorny Path

One of the guys ran for the video camera while we walked with her to the back of Lige village. The walk was surreal. One moment, we were in touristy Lige, but five minutes into our walk we left the town and began walking through dried up farmland and an apple orchard. It felt like we were back in LJZ. The drastic change took us all by surprise. We walked by a ecological water purifier station and then along a thorny path up a side of a mountain. The mountain was covered with pine trees. She began cutting branches from multiple trees. I stayed behind the guys and the camera as they filmed her. She was very photogenic and acted as if the camera wasn’t there. We followed her back home the same way, but this time with a basket full of pine tree branches: mountainside, horny bushes, dried up farmland, horses, alleyway, parking lot, main street, hordes of tourists, cameras flashing, alleyway, her home. She placed the pine needles on the lower hearth and invited us to drink tea and eat sweets.

The guys continued with the shot and asked her some questions: “Ama, does Lugu Lake have an origin story?” She nodded stoically and told us how Lugu Lake came to be:

A long time ago, there was a mute slave boy that shepherded animals for a landlord (1). One day, he stumbled upon a well that had a large fish stuck in it. The boy’s stomach grumbled out of hunger. The fish suddenly spoke to him, “You may eat my flesh, it will make you stronger.” The boy cut a piece of the fish and ate it. He could suddenly speak. The next day he shepherded the animals to the same spot and once again found the fish. He noticed that the fish was unharmed. The wound had healed itself! For lunch, he cut out another piece of meat. From hearsay, the landlord became aware that his slave boy could suddenly speak and that he was becoming stronger by the day. He asked the boy what brought about these miracles. The boy said he would show them. The next day, the boy brought the landlord to the well. The landlord saw the massiveness of the fish and decided he wanted it for the village (and for himself). He organized the entire village to pull it out.

Before they heaved, the fish said, “If you pull me out, terrible things will happen.” The landlord didn’t listen and continued. After much effort, they pulled the fish out, but then a flood of water spouted from the well. It was going to fill the entire valley! The mother of the slave boy quickly transformed a pig trough to save her and her child’s lives. As the two floated above the flood waters, the rest of the village sunk underneath a newfound lake. That lake is now Lugu Lake (2).

1) Traditionally, Mosuo society was stratified by classes: 1) slave, 2) middle class, 3)uppler class. My terminology is inaccurate. Also, I’m unclear if there is a fourth class. I need to look that up.

2) Each person has their own rendition of the story, this is my translation. I also added a few more details that were described by other informants.

We asked the elder how she knew this story. She said that the elders told her. Back then there were no televisions or radio, so their entertainment was listening to folklore. She still preferred that over modern entertainment. When she started making dinner, we thanked her for her time and went on our way. We planned to meet her tomorrow morning for the ritual burning of pine needles and incense.


The Flood

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Documenting Mosuo Culture: Day 4 in Remote Village–“The Meaning of Life”

We planned to leave after lunch. After eating breakfast, the team asked to interview the wife of the household. We sat in the living area, streams of light shone through holes from the ceiling in front of her. As we conversed, we learned more about her past: She grew up in Ninglang in a Han family and moved to LJZ after getting married to her now Mosuo husband. The husband entered the room soon after and joked about how she was the one that pursued him. She was trying to defend herself, but only ended the spat with laughter. She also described what life was like for her in the village over ten years ago. She said the village was much more underdeveloped. At first she couldn’t bare living there and often went back home. She didn’t even care about learning the local language until she bore her first son. Through that first child, she gradually became a part of the society because through him, she learned how to speak the language. Now you wouldn’t even guess she is Han when you see her chatting with her neighbors in the local dialect.

We moved outside and talked with the husband. His answers were so matter-of-fact. The one answer that really gave me a deep impression was asked by Daniel: “To you, what is the meaning of life?” He laughed, “I don’t know, what meaning does life have? I work in the fields everyday. I was born, had kids, and took care of the old. Life is like that. I don’t think of anything else…money isn’t important here. We help each other, unlike the cities or Lugu Lake. Here I live my life like this and don’t think about anything else outside of this way of living.” He didn’t say this sadly, rather with frank honesty.

The people of Lugu Lake have been introduced to the outside world beyond the Himalayas through tourism. The desires of the locals have expanded to things now being introduced to their society: fortune, travel, and higher education. The biggest reaction to tourism development being the thirst for profit. This desire for money is not present in LJZ. The husband is representative of this way of thinking.

We had lunch and wished the family goodbye. I would be back again to finish Daba ritual tablets for a local family in the summer, but the film team didn’t know when they’d be back. Being in the village was a profound experience for the lot of them. They decided to come back in the future. There’s something magical about the place.

IMG_1465Family Photo

I’m glad I went to LJZ with them because I saw the place in a completely different light. I got a deeper understanding of some villagers’ backstories and ways of thinking, learned more Mosuo language, and made a new set of friends. We bounced along wet roads back to Yongning where we’d reach our second home–Lugu Lake.


One Last Scene Before Hitting the Road

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Collaborating with Documentary Team: The Life of Youth & Strange Encounters


Local Looking off to the Mountains

Today was the day of the bonfire party. The lamas would soon finish reciting the scriptures and the locals planned to celebrate. I woke up warm that morning, compared to the first night where I tossed and turned out of sleep due to shivering. I remembered today was the day of the party and felt very excited, but I still had the entire day ahead of me. I got up and met with the team in the living area for breakfast. What did they have planned? We ate steamed dough and boiled eggs.

The son, Sonna, mentioned he had nothing planned that day, so the team asked if they could interview him. I tagged along as the boy led us to where he buried his previous dog. The team wanted to juxtapose his cruelty cutting a dead baby goat in half and his regret towards losing his past dog. We hiked to the grave. It was on top of a hill that overlooked his home–we had the interview there. We asked more about his dog and then moved onto his life and aspirations. He talked about his friends in the village and how they have fun. One example he told us was he jumped into a man-made pond specifically for growing fish and stole one with his bare hands. Him and his friends ran off laughing the entire way.

He’s aware that his actions are not “good,” and exemplify what a “bad kid” (坏孩子) would do. I could see he felt guilty, but did not show any interest in changing his behavior. He reminded me of the many “bad boys” I have met or babysat in my life and how they are very similar to little Sonna. He will grow into a better man and hopefully will not regret the decisions he made in his youth.

He shared with us that he is unsure about his future. One reason for his uncertainty is because he isn’t going to school anymore. He said it’s because he doesn’t like it. He explained that at school you get hit all the time by either teachers during class or by classmates stealing your lunch. He hated it, so he left. He is 14 now, just living in “the now,” not caring about the future. His parents are a bit worried for him, but have not forced him out of the direction he has chosen for his life. It is not uncommon to find villagers who are illiterate in the Chinese countryside. Sonna will most likely become part of that statistic.

Literacy in China–Are the State Statistics Reliable?

China’s Long — but Uneven — March to Literacy


Sonna’s Mother Washing Clothes in the Brown Stream

I’m happy to attend these interviews because I get a different perspective of the locals and their culture. The team normally asked the people questions that I either didn’t think of or didn’t feel comfortable asking. I feel like each visit to the Lugu Lake area, I become more aware of Mosuo culture through experience and building friendships.

Afterwards, the team went to film scenic areas while I returned back to the home to wait for the father. He mentioned that he would circle the village with the lamas for the festival. I wanted to tag along. As I waited, a Mosuo women around my age dropped by to say “hello.” I chatted with her as the team arrived. I soon realized the father had already left without telling me. The girl invited us over to her home where we had tea, sulima alcohol, and talked about her life. She mentioned she was married with a child, but as the interview continued, we realized her husband was actually a previous “walking marriage” partner. I was perplexed why she felt ashamed for participating in the “walking marriage” culture to the point that she would lie about it. A villager told us she has had two others afterwards. She is seen as being “loose” by the locals.

We thought her life in the village was tragic. She is very open-minded and modern because she had left the village before to perform as an ethnic dancer in Lijiang. Through this experience, she has a different mindset from the other women in the village. One of the team members explained it that she is a “prisoner of her own destiny.” I personally thought of Xianglin’s wife from Lu Xun’s story, “A New Years Sacrifice:”

This story circles around a woman that has no name, except for being addressed as Xianglin’s wife. Her husband, Xianglin, died due to sickness. She moved to another village as a servant and found happiness in her work. She was then captured by her mother-and-law to be forced into a second marriage. She did not consent because marrying a second husband would go against the traditional custom of respecting the previous marriage. She was forced into a second marriage and later bore a son. No one knows if she was happy or not in this marriage, but one day she arrived to the same home pale and shaken.

Her second husband died of sickness and her child was eaten by a wolf. She was kicked out of her house by her mother-in-law and found her only refuge to be the previous home where she was a servant. The household and the entire village discriminated against her for going against tradition–marrying a second time. She slowly went insane and died as a homeless beggar in the dead of winter years and years later. Lu Xun wrote this [autobiographical?] tale to highlight the backwardness of tradition and the cruelty of man. 

The villagers discriminate against the young woman in LJZ because she has had many walking marriages for her age. She lives in a remote village where the society is engrained with traditional customs and social norms…going against them places you as an “outsider”—an individual versus the madding crowd. When talking to her more, I noticed that she was emotionally unstable. She knows she doesn’t belong, but has no way of leaving. She has no formal education and has a two year-old daughter. I couldn’t help but feel bad for her.

When we left, I said I would meet her at the party that night. I walked with some team members to the house that would host the party that night, as well as accommodated the lamas during that week. When we arrived, we visited the second story to look at the house temple. As we looked around, all of a sudden, a long line of villagers walked through the main gate, carrying large scrolls in their arms. The locals not carrying the scrolls lined up alongside the scroll bearers. They bowed as the bearers tapped the scrolls on each of their heads. When they reached the second story, they tapped it on our heads too. They had just finished trekking around the village. Trekking around the village with the scrolls signified bringing peace and good fortune to the town. Tapping the scrolls on our heads signified that we had read the sutra, which would give us good fortune.

I returned back to the guest house to grab a quick dinner and then visited the modern Mosuo woman to grab an ethnic outfit for the party. She dressed me in a traditional Mosuo outfit with a pink overcoat, homemade waist scarf, and long white skirt with an embroidered designs. The wife of the guest house lended me her headdress. The young woman and I went together with the team to the house.

The bonfire was in the middle of the courtyard. The party hadn’t started yet. All the young boys were chatting around the flames, laughing at each other. Most of the women and young girls were sitting along the walls, looking into the middle of the courtyard. I also stood to the side and waited for the party to start.

As we waited, the young woman asked me about love. I was a little caught off guard, love? She asked: Have I ever had been in love before? What are my country’s boys like? Do I like Chinese men? Do foreign men take care of women and buy things for them? These questions have been rolling through her mind it seems. At one point in her life, she had the chance to date a Spanish man, but declined. I think she regrets that decision. We chatted about these topics for a bit until we were interrupted by the ringing of a flute. The bonfire party had begun.


Preparing for the Bonfire Party

I watched on the side at first. I wanted to see how they danced. The dance was fairly simple: it started with everyone holding hands and stepping 8~ steps to the right and then stepping in and out of the circle twice. This pattern continued. After each round, locals would come by with alcohol for the dancers to drink. After the first round of the bonfire dance, I drank one half cup of sulima alcohol. We continued to dance around the fire and changed up the dance moves. After the second round, I was given a large cup of sulima alcohol. I drank all the way to the bottom of the bowl. I continued to dance, but noticed I was becoming uncoordinated. During the last round, the moves became more complicated, which didn’t help with the tipsy-ness. I was grinning to both ears as I danced with my new friends. For the last dance, we twisted back and forth as we patted the backs of our partners. One of my partners was a Mosuo man, a friend I got to know while helping build his house. Instead of patting my back, he slapped me really hard on the shoulders. It hurt! I slapped him equally hard, but his back must of been made of rock. He smiled and continued wailing on my bruising back. He did it multiple times before the dance ended.

IMG_1463 Bonfire PartyVillagers Celebrating the End of the Festival

Everybody suddenly left after that performance, thus concluding the party. The team packed up their things and then we also headed back home. They planned to take a time lapse shot of the stars late into the night. I wanted to join them. I changed out of my Mosuo garb and found them in the backyard setting up equipment. The stars were fantastic. It took them a while to set the correct settings, but when they perfected the preparation, we all sat and enjoyed the stars.

One of the team members walked off for no apparent reason, which we all didn’t notice until he hadn’t been around for a while. It was going onto 1 o’clock at this point, so the two guys were beginning to worry about him. I didn’t think there was anything to worry about. The village is one of the safest places I know, what would happen? As we waited and chatted, we observed Mosuo men walking along the trails by the house, going to their partners’ homes. We followed with our eyes the trails of light that gleamed from their flashlights and cell phones. One of the lights stopped at an intersection. It paused for a couple seconds and then suddenly the light dashed up the hill to the guest house. The person was running away from something. We heard the scuffling of shoes in the courtyard and the light shined through the gate to the backyard. It was the team member. He said out of breath:

“I’m being followed.” I turned on my headlamp and pointed the light to the gate. Suddenly, a Mosuo man ominously appeared, as if he was a ghost. The light casted long shadows under his eyes and cheek bones. One of the team members held onto his multitool, while the other was ready to grab the house axe. I sat on a bench, covered from head to toe for warmth, still getting over the creepiness of the entire situation. The man then said in a drunken slur: “Give me 2000yuan! I’ll help you walking marriage.”

We all relaxed when we realized it was just a drunk. We had him sit down and tried to get him back to his senses. He kept insisting on helping our friend find a partner for money. One of the team members laughed and lied, “He doesn’t want to do a walking marriage, he’s gay!” This confused him, yet also calmed him down. He then started realizing how crazy this entire situation was and began making fun of himself in a drunken stupor. He then shone the light on me and was aghast to see yellow hair falling over my blue eyes. At that point, my scarf was covering my face. He pulled down the scarf and said, “What a beautiful girl!” He stroked my face. I edged away. He then got up and grabbed my hand and said, “well, if he doesn’t want to walking marriage, then I’ll walk with her.” He began to drag me off my seat to his home. The guy who had walked off was sitting next to me and immediately held onto my coat.

One of the Chinese Americans then quickly replied, “she doesn’t want to have a walking marriage either!” They stopped him and sat him down, but he didn’t listen to what they were saying. He then got up and started tugging me again. Then one of the guys sat him down one last time and looked at him with the most serious face. “Brother,” he said. “Do you know what AIDS is?” The man was surprised by the thought. “I’m not saying she has it, but you gotta be careful around those foreign types.” This stopped him. I was holding down my laughter, which the man thought was tears. He shone the light at my face, which I then covered. Soon afterwards, two of the guys finally persuaded him to walk him home.

The friend who walked off and I were left alone in the pitch dark, except for the starlight that reflected from the muddy fish pond. He was embarrassed, silently shaking his head. I covered up my laughter, not trying to wake up the family. The two came back and we finished the time lapse. We then called it a night.

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Collaborating with Documentary Team–First Day Shooting in Remote Village

We promised the husband the night before that we would help in the fields in the morning. We got up around 8:15am to get some breakfast before going to the field. Breakfast consisted of fried dough and egg soup. After breakfast, we ventured to the fields nestled below the village. The husband, wife, and relatives  came together with a collection of hoes and seran wrap to prepare planting corn and pumpkin seeds. I watching them place seran wrap over lanes of dirt and use a hoe to steady the plastic wrap into place with a layer of dirt. I then grabbed a hoe to join.

The National Geographic team left to find their friend and pick up equipment. I stayed back and helped the family. We almost got half of the field done when the team came back. They said they filmed the son of the family hacking a dead baby goat in half. I was stunned. It had died the night before from some disease. That moment, I remembered I tried to help the goat the day before get back on the back lawn (it had fallen over the wall), when the son yelled to me saying that the goat is crazy. If I touched it the disease would be passed to me. I stayed away from the poor little thing, afraid it might have rabies. I remember hearing it whine and whine the entire night, all alone with no mother to cuddle with, almost immobile from some degenerative disease. It was dead that morning and the son hacked it in half to feed to the pigs and the dog. I wonder if the disease will pass onto those animals?

At the field, the team asked me to join them and get out of the scene. They filmed the family plow the fields and the surrounding scenery. They then entered the field to get close ups of the farm work. I observed from the side, watching how a documentary is made–lots of shots and chances of luck.

The family ushered us back to their home for lunch–potato and pork stew with green vegetables and rice. We ate, talked with the family, and played with the family puppy until we moved back to the field again to plant corn and pumpkins seeds. The team brought their equipment again. I stayed to the side until I thought they were done filming the family. I jumped back in to help out by shoveling dirt over the seeds, which were planted by poking holes into the plastic wrap. After finishing the first round of planting, I returned to the group to find out I got in a lot of their shots. They joked that now I HAVE to be a persona in the documentary. Not sure how to feel about that…ack.

IMG_1430The Team Filming Scenery

The team asked if I could bring them to one of the animal grazing areas. I agreed and led them to the place the little boy brought me to during my last visit. However, on the walk there, we stopped multiple times as the team filmed random locals, animals, or scenic spots. They also filmed a mill powered by a man-made stream made out of wood and rocks.

IMG_1435Ingenius–Local Water Mill


Director of Photography (Remote Village in the Background)

We finally made it to the grazing area to only find a small herd of cows. The families must have gone somewhere else today. They still shot footage of the scenery and the cows in the distance. We then headed back to the house to prepare for dinner. When we arrived back to the house, we played with a soccer ball and made up a game to kick the ball under a bench. The team is fun to hang out with. Somehow we end up laughing about something at the end of each conversation.

We moved into the living area for dinner, which was about the same as lunch–potato and pork stew with radishes. This night we talked with each other more than the family. We brought up Chinese politics and asked my friend and driver, Zhou Yang, if he knew about the Tiananmen Incident. He did not. When the Chinese Americans translated the event to him in Chinese, he didn’t seem fazed. He changed the conversation to another direction about how Tibetan and Xinjiang (a northwestern province in Chinese known for ethnic conflict) leaders are in cahoots. This is common CCP propaganda. I asked if he believes what he watches and listens to on CCTV. He said he does. I recommended that he gets a VPN and read new sources outside of China to get a broader understanding of national and international issues.

The director of the documentary shared his experiences in Xinjiang in 2009. He said he was in Kasgar when the massive riots and bloodshed occupied Urumqi. When he was talking with a local in Kashgar during this time, the police started to approach them. The local told the director not to share he was American, or else he would never be seen again. Ricky lied about his nationality to the Han police officers when they asked. The Director of Photography, Daniel, shared how his ex-girlfriend was in Urumqi at the time during the massive riots and killings of Uighurs on the streets. Her father had connections with the government and were air lifted from the “war-zone.” She could see the fighting on the streets. Ricky said the roads were red with blood that day.

I shivered from the thought.

The night was filled with discussion on politics. Later, we called it a night and headed out to the courtyard to check out the stars before catching some shut eye. I’ve been keeping up the habit of journaling my experiences every night. It’s good practice. We will be celebrating with the locals tomorrow. The 4-day long praying ceremony will be ending soon and the celebrating will begin!

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