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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