Posts Tagged With: Amateur Anthropologist

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

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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.

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Little Mosuo Girl Playing in the Marsh

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Motorbiking Back to Lige Village

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Doing Fieldwork in LJZ: Shepherding Pigs, Building Houses, Encountering Uncommon Vendors–Everyday Life in the Village

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Leading the Pigs to the Fields

I woke up this morning with an upset stomach, but nothing compared to my previous visit. I went downstairs to eat breakfast, which included fried dough with yak butter tea. The son was chilling in the living area, sitting next to me on the upper hearth. I asked him what he had planned for the day. He replied, “I’m shepherding the pigs…” his eyes suddenly became wide, “do you want to join me?” I was a bit cautious because my stomach was upset, but I really wanted to join him. I agreed and grabbed a few things (sketchbook, fieldwork journal, camera, pen, and water).

We went to the animal stall to call out the pigs. I felt dumb, I didn’t know how to begin with shepherding, but the son helped me through the process. He got the group together and motioned me where to walk. I was  in the front of the herd. We walked along a dirt path that passed the house and went to the fields in the west. We planned to meet four other family’s pigs in the field.

I got the hang of guiding the pig quickly. We found the families halfway to our destination. We walked together to a valley with two streams and no exit for the pigs except for where we entered. In total, there were two old women and eight to ten children (ages ranged from 5-14). The elders and children usually have this responsibility because shepherding doesn’t exert that much energy. When we reached the valley, we set up camp by a stone wall next to the stream.

The son brought up to the other children that I could draw. They immediately asked to see my work and then wanted me to draw for them. I’m glad I brought my sketchbook! Drawing is such a great way to communicate and share with each other. I drew the children and me in the valley together, and then I passed the sketchbook to one of the kids. I love watching them draw, especially to see what they imagine before putting it on paper.

After a while, I noticed the children moved to a wooden shed in the distance. I excused myself to the grandmothers and walked up the hill to the shed. I found the kids playing in the deserted place. I pulled out my camera, which made them very excited. They wanted their picture taken! The son loves taking pictures, so he helped take a couple shots with me and the children. We played games, like something similar to duck, duck, grey duck (or goose), and then adventured into the mountains. The children held my hand as they frolicked through the hills. We circled round the valley, crossed the streams, washed our faces and hands in the water, and climbed some more. When we locked hands, it turned into a game. The person in the front would run fast to make the rest of the line rush behind him/her. The girls would scream in delight and I would make an awkward squeak…I was afraid I would fall! I’m not as nimble as them.

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Shepherding Kings and Queens–The LJZ Children

(My favorite part of this picture is the boy at the bottom who looks disinterested and doesn’t know how to do a piece sign. So cute! Aren’t the girls the most adorable things ever?)

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Playing Local Duck, Duck, Grey Duck  (Photo Taken by Host Family’s Son)

We returned back to the camp to eat some boiled potatoes for lunch. A 14 year-old joined us. We had conversation for the rest of the time I was there. She knows Lidy and PM. We talked about them and then I moved the conversation about her. She first asked, “Do you think LJZ is fun?” I said, of course! I enjoy it here because everyone is nice. She responded, “I don’t think there is anything fun here.” she explained how she stopped going to school after the fourth grade because she had to take care of her family, primarily her grandmother. She shepherds pigs everyday and takes care of her grandmother. Her older sisters are out of town working. She wants to work when she is 15, so next year. She doesn’t know what she’ll do yet.

The children called for us to go back to camp to eat porridge. After that, I joined the 14 year-old back to the village. She had to make lunch for her grandmother and I promised the other night that I would help with building a family’s house. We shepherded the pigs back to the path and split ways at the village.

I returned home to drop a few things off. The young man who helped me hike to LJZ was there visiting the family again. I showed him my drawings and the paper tablet I copied for the uncle. He was impressed! I then went to the neighboring house to help with construction.

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Inside the Construction Site–Shovels, Plows, Levies, and Pounding Stick

I threw myself in and started shoveling wet dirt into buckets that would be levied up to the men on the wall. I worked for more than an hour before it was time to take a break. While I sipped peach juice and ate a dumpling, a loud speaker suddenly was heard in the distance. I asked what it was. The older brother of the host family, Sonna, said it was a vendor selling vegetables. He doesn’t normally come. I asked him how to say, “do you want to buy vegetables with me?” in the Mosuo language. I wanted to ask my host mom. When he did, I raced to the house to inform them of the vendor. The son and his mother (who visits everyday) came with me. When we arrived, the truck was surrounded by villagers.

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Happiness–Uncommon Vendor Sells Vegetables During the Dry Season

We bought lots of greens. I payed for it all, it was least I could do for the family for letting me stay in their home. The sellers included two men, a Han and a Mongolian. I talked with the Han man for a while. He mentioned it was his first time coming to this village and that it would be his last. He said, “it’s too remote and poor.” I explained that I like it for its people, which he agreed. “People from remote areas are incredibly hospitable.” I agreed with him.

After buying the veggies, we walked back to the house. I dropped the greens in their storage room (which had lots of dead, flat pigs, which they preserve for its fatty meat…I think that’s what got me sick last time). I then returned to the home next door to work on the wall. I worked for another hour until the family called it a night. I joined them in their home to drink soda and tea. I sat with the men again. This time they were more talkative, which was relieving.

I excused myself early, since I told my host family I would eat with them. I wasn’t expecting such a hesitant response from the family. They kept insisting me to stay and even asked the older brother, Sonna, to convince me to stay. He said that the family wouldn’t care if I didn’t eat with them. I felt a bit embarrassed, since I already said goodbye to the people in the living room. I insisted on going back, which they allowed after some coaxing.

When I got back, the family had already eaten, and didn’t expect me to come back for dinner. I felt more embarrassed, I should have stayed at the other home! But the host mom started frying vegetables in a clay pot over a fire pit and boiling soup, saying it wasn’t a problem at all. In the end, I’m glad I came back because I had a dinner-full of vegetables and learned more of the Mosuo language. They taught me how to count! Their number system only goes up to 113. The uncle explained to me why, but the answer got lost in translation. What I got out of it is that someone in the past decided that 113 would be their max number. (However, I learned later in Lugu Lake that the number system does go over 113. Maybe it’s a local custom or maybe they don’t normally need to count beyond that number?)

I talked with the family and bit longer and then headed to bed at 9pm. This day started off a bit hard with the food poisoning, but it ended on a good note. I felt like I did a lot and learned a lot. In the morning, I was thinking about when I would go back to Lijiang to catch a train, but now I feel more comfortable living here. I need to stay strong! I will find my place in this society if I keep optimistic and friendly.

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Doing Fieldwork in LJZ: Redrawing Ancient Daba Art and Hiking in the Mountains

I woke up the next morning and hung out with the children. They would leave that afternoon for school for the rest of the week. It’s sad to say, but I was going to really miss them. They are the only ones in the house that speak Mandarin, which means they are my main form of communication. While I helped the older daughter hang clothes, the young Mosuo man who hiked with me to LJZ came by. Turns out he is part of the same family! The family is split into two houses because their household became too large with more than 30 people. The young man lives in the original home.

The uncle and young man asked me to come back inside. The Uncle pulled out the art again and asked if I could copy them exactly onto a special type of paper. The young man helped translate for me. I agreed to help. The uncle then set up a table, sitting cloth, and the 100 year-old art next to the house temple on the second floor. I thanked him and started drawing, first in my sketchbook. The kids would come by and watch. The mother also came by to take a look.

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Preparing for Copying on New Tablets

After a couple hours, I finished the first tablet. Lunch was ready when I finished, so I went down to eat some vegetable soup (YUM!) and fried potato. After that I decided to go on a hike around the village. I was getting a bit restless sitting and drawing. I asked the youngest brother which way I should take. He showed me a path behind the house. I trekked along a path and went up the hill behind the village to a shrine that’s wrapped with prayer flags.

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Main Daba Shrine

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LJZ Beyond the Prayer Flags

I continued up the hill into the mountains. I wanted see what was behind the hills…I hiked and hiked and hiked. I got some good shots of LJZ. At one point, I thought I was near the top, but found myself in a clearing…in the middle of a hike near the top of the mountains? It was a bit eery. The place seemed to been untouched for years, except for the path that cut between it. I hiked a bit more around the area and then gave up trying to find a peak. I slowly started trekking back, enjoying the scenery, listening to the birds and bugs, and smelling flowers and the tall pine.

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The Small Village of LJZ

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Eerie Clearing

(Who cut the wood this high in the mountains? How long ago was it? Maybe the neighboring Yi villages cut down these trees a long time ago…the live on the mountains.)

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View of the Scenery

It took me an hour to get back, maybe in total a 3-4 hour hike. I went through the village to get back to my host’s house. I found a guesthouse and an area where they make their own electricity. The tourism industry in LJZ seems to be in its early stages. I wonder when high season is?

I got back to the house before dinner. I went back to the drawing table. Soon after, the uncle walked up, he had just finished grazing the house’s cows, to see my work. He was ecstatic! With his approval, I inked the drawings on the new paper tablets. I was happy he liked my work!

I ate dinner with him, the mother, and the grandmother. I was overall fairly silent because I don’t speak the language, except when I’d asked the uncle how to say somethings in the Mosuo language. After dinner, I decided to visit the house that was being constructed next door to see the host family’s older brother. I walked into the construction site to see men standing on a two-story tall dirt wall, continuing to compact dirt for the next layer. The brother was helping shovel the dirt and hang it onto a levie system that would be lifted to the men on the dirt wall. I was amazed at the intricacy of the construction site!

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Men Working on the Wall

I came a bit late, so they were finishing up. I was invited for dinner and ate with the men. I felt a bit awkward being the only woman, as well as being a foreigner in an all Mosuo household. I toasted to people and smiled most of the night. I talked to the man next to me who explained the importance of the shrine I visited that day. He said it is a place for people to light incense and pray. During the Spring Festival, the entire village goes up there to pray for the well being of their families as well as everyone who lives in LJZ. I then ate a second dinner, which consisted of pork, radish soup, cornmeal and Chinese kimchi.

The older brother walked me home. He’s really friendly and willing to answer any of my questions. But when we approached the house, he said that outside he can answer questions, but inside our relationship is more formal. I understood and stopped treating him so friendly.  He got me candles for my room and wished me a goodnight. It was an eventful first day at the village!

I didn’t get done what I came here to do, which is to figure out about ethnic tensions in the area, but I did learn about Daba art and more Mosuo language. I feel like fieldwork is going to be more like this…you learn so much, but not of anything you were expecting!

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Exploring Lugu Lake: Stroll Around Yongning and a Stormy Hike to LJZ

I slept in till 9:30am and called the LJZ driver at 10am asking if he was leaving that afternoon. I had a hard time understanding him, but it sounded like he wasn’t going back that day. Since I was uncertain, I still decided to go to Yongning to check out my options. A private driver drove me there. He was a Black Yi who lived in the Yi village on the other side of Gemu Mountain. I was sleepy, but kept up conversation about the Yi and other minorities that live in the area. When we passed a village, he would say the name of it and which ethnic minority it hosted. I appreciated his willingness to teach me about the area. We reached Yongning within 30 minutes. I thanked him for the ride and got off.

I walked up a busy street of shops, minority vendors, and Mosuo women carrying large baskets of crops on their backs. I found a truck that looked similar to the one I took before with PM and Lidy. I asked the people around if the truck was leaving for LJZ that day. The men who were working on a nearby car were uncertain, but said there would be a bus leaving for Wujiao in the afternoon. I could get off early and hike the rest of the way. They also mentioned they knew someone with a motor bike that would take me there for free! I thought either was fine, and went back to the market to get some lunch and buy vegetables for the LJZ family.

While buying cabbage and qicai, I ran into some Lige friends at the market. They were buying vegetables for their barbecue shops. I asked about my two transportation options. They said the hike wouldn’t be that far and motorbike should overall be safe. While one of the guys wished me a safe trip, he noticed some LJZ residents pass by. He mentioned it right when they passed us, which caught their attention. I asked how there were getting back…they said either by truck or bus. We swapped numbers so we could meet up there. I thanked my Lige friend for introducing us. I’m fortunate to have people that care about me here.

I bought vegetables and grabbed some noodles for lunch. I still had a couple hours to kill, so I left the vegetables in the shop and walked around. I passed the men who were working on a car earlier playing pool. I waved, which prompted them to invite me to play a game. I made sure to point out that I’m not very good. Last time I was here, PM told me that women don’t play pool here. I looked around and saw that there weren’t any woman at all at the tables. I often try not to stand out, since I stand out already, but it’s hard to pass up a good game of pool! I grabbed a stick and played one-on-one with one of the men.

I started off poorly, but after getting in my first ball, I kept getting better. The guy seemed to get over excited and shoot the ball off the table, which brought more of his balls out of the pockets and onto the table. A crowd began to form around us, mainly watching the strange white girl playing pool. At the end, I was winning. I only had to put the 8-Ball and then win! The man began to get embarrassed and nervous, which upset his game. I then got the 8-Ball in and won the game! The crowd made an “aaaw” sound (think more old Chinese man saying it, then a girl looking at a cute puppy saying it). I got a picture with my adversary. He was a good sport! I decided it was time to find the bus. I grabbed my veggies and headed to the bus area.

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The Winner is the that White Girl–in Yongning, Yunnan

I ran into the LJZ men, two people older and one being younger, who told me I still had an hour or so. They let me leave my stuff at their friend’s shop. While they went to the market to eat, I went in the opposite direction to the local temple. I ran into two older men that were going to the temple, who then showed me the way. We cut through fields and finally entered the sanctuary. It was small, but very pretty. The earthquake from the year previous destroyed many parts of the temple, but the local people were able to reconstruct it within the year. Very impressive!

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Stroll with Local Mosuo Elders to the Temple

I walked in and out of the many different parts of the temple and then entered the main hall. One of the older men taught me how to enter a Tibetan temple correctly. I walked to the left (clockwise), lit a candle, placed the candle on the front table, then walked clockwise along the glass (the back wall that has all the god statues) where I would show my respects. I thanked him for his kindness, sat with him and his friends for a bit before heading back to the bus.

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Inside the Main Hall

I got to the bus in the knick of time. The LJZ men said that we would get off the bus before Wujiao and hike the rest of the way to the village. I was fine with it and joined them for the ride. The bus was crammed with people, bags, supplies, and chickens in boxes. I went in and out of sleep for the duration of the ride…

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Bus to Wujiao–Bags of Food, Boxes of Chickens, and a Backpack

When we passed an Yi village, which I had recognized from the time before, I got off with the guys. We then began our hike to LJZ. We crossed a river, passed multiple villages, and walked along a dirt road for a period of time before we took a long rest. The younger Mosuo man ran off to buy beverages for his buddies and came back with milk for me. I thought that was very kind. They talked amongst themselves while I observed the scenery. Mosuo women worked in the fields or carried their children along the road. They would laugh when they’d see me and say something to the guys. I just smiled and waved.

After the rest, we continued on our way to LJZ. I noticed in the distance dark clouds were rolling in. I mentioned to the guys that it may rain. They laughed it off and said it doesn’t rain this time of the year. About 20 minutes later, a heavy layer of rain fell on us, as well as lightning and thunder booming in all directions. We kept our pace and hoped for the storm to pass quickly. I pretended not to be afraid of the storm, but I was frightened because we were the tallest objects in the flat field at the time. I crossed my fingers the mountains would deter the lightning.

IMG_1158Hike to LJZ–The Storm Clouds Rolling in

The storm passed after an hour and then LJZ became visible in the distance. Before we knew it (meaning around 2-3 hours), we were in the village splitting ways to seek our homes. I hoped that the family that hosted me the time before would be okay with me visiting again. I followed familiar trails and finally found the beautiful home once again. I opened the main gate and walked into the courtyard. One of the daughters saw me first and giggled. She ran back to tell her Aunt I was here. I did not have any way of telling them I was coming, so it was unexpected. They were very welcoming and let me into their home. I came in right when there were eating dinner. I ate radish pig soup with rice. I then showed the kids my new drawings and asked them if they could draw for me. Each took there turn as they drew in my sketchbook. It was cool to see what they drew:

1) the younger daughter drew a field of diverse flowers with her in the middle holding one. She also drew clouds (which I taught her), mountains, and a two-story Mosuo home.
2) the youngest brother lost his patience and left his page with clouds and an unfinished house.
3) the oldest sister drew herself wearing a skirt for the “coming of age” ceremony she celebrated this past spring festival.

In Mosuo culture, when a child hits the age of 13, that is when they have their coming of age ceremony. It is 13 because the number represents the end of the first zodiac cycle in their lives and the beginning of a new one. I watched as she drew herself wearing the skirt and wearing lots of flowers on her shirt, hair, and feet. She was excited and proud to draw the event.

The uncle observed us drawing and asked if I could help him do something. I said sure. He scurried away to grab something. He came back a few minutes later with a tote bag. He walked over to me, I was on the lower hearth, and he showed me old paper tablet paintings. He said his grandfather drew them and that they were over 100 years old. They were wearing and tearing at this point. He asked if I could help redraw them. I looked at the beautiful art and said I could try. I asked what they were for. He explained how when the Daba priests perform ceremonies, they hang these up. So, the drawings related to Daba religion–the tablets were ritual art. I also noticed some were of Lamas praying with Tibetan written on them. The Mosuo’s religious life is a combination of the local religion and Tibetan Buddhism.

He thanked me and told me he’d tell me more the next day. I went to bed soon afterwards. I was placed in the same room as before, but this time I’ll be by myself without a twin sister, PM, and Lidy. I’ll be alone for this field trip. I’m a bit nervous, but look forward to the experience. This is what I’ll be doing for the rest of the year…so I have to get used to it.

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Performing Mosuo Culture: Museum Tour and Flower Room Ballad Performance

I took the same bus as before from Lijiang to Lugu Lake. I sat next to someone who also was going to Lugu Lake alone, so we became friendly on the ride there. From what he was wearing and his discussion of topics, he gave off a “rich” vibe. I went in and out of sleep, listening to folk music on the way there. Before I knew it, we arrived. I split ways with my Han friend and told him I’d meet him in Lige later. I first wanted to check out the Mosuo Cultural Museum, and what I believed was also the research center. I payed 50yuan for a tour of the museum, which turned out to be a traditional home, turned-into museum. A young Mosuo boy started the tour and explained his culture with many generalizations:

It first began with a demonstration of how men climb up house walls to the girl’s room. He said, “every man does this, and this is how it is done.” He then climbs the wall like Spiderman and opens the window to the “flower room,” the young girl’s room. “Our society does not have marriage, instead we have relationships where men visit their partners at night. Everyone does walking marriage.”

I personally know that’s not true because I have Mosuo friends who are married. Also, I’ve been visited before in the remote village, and the men didn’t climb any walls because there weren’t any windows (at least for my case). They just came through the front door and walked up to my door. When I mentioned the use of cellphones in Lugu Lake and how that may affect this tradition, the boy just said, “we still do this exactly (climb walls).”

I felt like what he was saying was rehearsed to fulfill my expectations and not to teach me. What are the expectations that he assumed I had? From my previous research, I can guess that he thought my expectations were:
1) Mosuo are a romantic people–sexualized
2) Mosuo don’t have marriage in their society
3) Mosuo have large matrilineal/matriarchal families and women are most powerful

The boy tour guide wanted to make sure these expectations were met, whereas in reality, Mosuo society is more complex than these common expectations.

A young Mosuo girl then continued the tour to show me the living hall, where the family eats meals and the elders and children sleep. I talked with an older man in the living room that kept on telling funny stories about Dr. Joseph Rock. He was the first westerner to live and do research with the Mosuo, which was in the 1920s. He’s still remembered around the lake. Supposedly, Jospeh Rock brought a large chunk of soap with him to clean himself and his clothes…the soap lasted the entire time around Lugu Lake, which was more than two decades.

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Dr. Joseph Rock in Mosuo Garb–A Badass 

The next portion was a hall of pictures taken by Joseph Rock back in the 1920’s. He lived during a time when Mosuo society was stratified with the upper class, middle class, and slaves. Whenever he was pictured, he wore the upper class outfits. He took pictures of the data priests, who had large headdresses and often looked intimidating in the photos as they chanted spells and did ceremonies. He also had shots of festivals and everyday life.

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Mosuo Women in Traditional Garb in Early 1900s (Photo by Dr. Joseph Rock)

The next section showed modern day Lugu Lake through photos and real-life items, like grabs and tools. The Mosuo girl described the importance of the museum items…most of what she said I understood, but I’m still learning! At the end was a traditional medicine and gift shop. I was hoping to find a research center or a curator in the process, but to no avail. At least, I was able to observe how the Mosuo perform their culture to a tourist.

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Mosuo Cultural Museum Main Courtyard

I then shared a car with four other visitors to Lige. I was a bit nervous that no one would remember me from before…but thank goodness I was wrong! I was immediately welcomed by the hostel worker, who gave me a discount! I rested in my room for an hour and then met up with my Han friend for dinner. He was flaunting how he was staying in a room worth 1500yuan a night, which would be around $200. That’s really expensive in China! We bought tickets for the Lige cultural performance–Flower Room Ballad– that night, which was 220 yuan per ticket. That’s also really expensive! My friend treated me to dinner before the performance.

During dinner, he was talking about how this cultural performance is very important in continuing cultural heritage. It’s the best way to learn about old traditions since most of them have “disappeared.” I had opposite opinions. I know this performance hall was constructed by a private investor and has government relations. Though the performers are locals, what they perform is approved from the upper level–a Han perspective. Therefore, this performance is supposed to entertain and excite the audience–primarily Han Chinese–as well as fit into what they believe is Mosuo culture. They make sure the tourists see what they want to see. It’s also an opportunity for the audience to ‘witness’ walking marriage, since it can’t be observed in real life around Lugu Lake. Therefore, this is the audience’s chance to get a glimpse of sex life in Lugu Lake, which is a big reason why they came in the first place. Alas, I didn’t really speak out my mind. I let him do the talking, I was more interested in what he was saying.

He also believed that the airport that will be constructed by this year is going to “break” the environment and the culture. That’s why he came now. I also have mixed feelings on the airport, but I would prefer to have my opinions be from the locals than my biased perspective. After getting to know my friend better, I realized he was a good example of a male, rich Han perspective.

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Lining Up for the Cultural Performance

After I finished eating the tofu dish (he didn’t eat, his hotel owner cooked for him), we joined the line in front of the hall. We were filed in and seated on weaved basket stools. I pulled out my notebook and started taking notes.

Here are a few things that I jotted down:

  1. before the performance they played Mosuo pop songs, which were all in Mandarin
  2. the announcer used a wispy voice to describe Mosuo culture–sounded mystical
  3. performance indirectly described sex life in Lugu Lake–then performed karma sutra positions?

The ticket seller had told us earlier he’d like to treat us to barbecue after the performance. I took up the offer and dragged my friend with me to find him. We joined him to my friend’s barbecue shop. I was happy to know the BBQ boss remembered me. We also ran into another friend, YE, who then joined us at the table. I was so content to know I left a good impression before. We talked about the airport some more, sang songs, and ate barbecued foods. YE performed for everyone and was hilarious. He kept singing to me too, which was fun. I then sang love songs to him back, which added more energy to the crowd.

My friend kept on bringing up money, his expensive hotel, his plane ticket, money money money, which seemed to both the others. I also found it a bit annoying, but I kept silent to see how everyone reacted. One of the barbecue shop owners was very direct in saying how he’s too careless with his money. My friend would defend himself, but it didn’t seem to work. I bet the barbecue owner must get characters like him all the time…I’d get sick of them too!

Afterwards, I moved with YE to another barbecue place where I got to know local Mosuo women and his best friends, who were of the Yi minority. I sang some more and listened to the locals have singing competitions. I noticed one of the singers I was friendly with before was avoiding me. He confessed his love to me the previous visit, which I rejected politely, but it seemed to still affect him. I thought he was joking before. I think he’s 40 years old…why would he think I’d accept to do walking marriage with him? I wonder if this is a problem for female researchers in Lugu Lake?

When it got late, I said my goodbyes and went back to the hostel. I planned to go to the remote village again, LJZ, the next day. I would stay there for a week to observe a ceremony and see the family I stayed with before.

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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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In Remote Mosuo Village: Learning About Mosuo Culture Through Food Poisoning and Cures

I won’t go into too much detail about how sick I was…but it was a tireless night of food poisoning, primarily with my body retching everything out of my stomach. After 4a.m., my body finally felt complacent enough to give me some shut eye. The next morning, I could barely move from how tired I was. Molly took care of me (somehow she didn’t get sick…yet!) and helped out in the fields with the family. I, on the other hand, shriveled up in my bed and felt like dying.

Later in the morning, I was suddenly woken up by PM. She was holding bark in her hand. The family had told her that this bark was gifted to them from the living Buddha and that it had medicinal, spiritual powers. She asked if I would eat it. I nearly vomited just thinking about it. She understood and broke a chunk off and put it in my pocket, pretending that I ate some of it. She then left. I closed my eyes just to be disturbed again from my slumber by her. She brought a fireplace tool which was holding burning coals that smelt of something awful. The family told her that a powder was also gifted to them from the living Buddha and that smelling it in burning coals would make me feel better. PM did not fully believe in the powers of these gifts, but she was doing this to respect the host family’s wishes. I smelt it…it was a combination of smoke, ginger, and something that I could not tell. She then gave me the spiritual bark, which the family gifted to me. I guess this is one way of experiencing local culture: getting sick! When she left, I finally got some shut eye.

I slept for the entire morning and most of the afternoon. I finally found some strength to get up. I walked out of the door and looked down to the courtyard to find the family, PM, Molly, and Lidy in the courtyard trying on traditional Mosuo garb. When I came down, they asked if I wanted to try it on. I agreed and weakly put it on. When taking pictures, I smiled the best I could…it was hard.

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Traditional Mosuo Garb

How do I look? The dress was quite heavy.  I went back to my bed and slept some more. The family members kept visiting me during my naps, asking if I wanted to eat anything. I had to reject all their requests. My body was cleansing its entire system and did not want to eat anything. I woke up in the late afternoon to go to the bathroom. When I came back from the backyard (which was our toilet, no walls, no stalls, just the grass and dirt in the backyard), the grandma was weaving rope in the corner. When she saw me, she beckoned me over in Mosuo language. I walked over to find a pile of wedding candy next to her. She handed me one. It was the first thing that looked appetizing. I immediately put the sugary goodness in my mouth. It really hit the spot. I motioned with my hands that I really liked it (she doesn’t speak Mandarin and I don’t speak Mosuo). She smiled and I went on my way back to my room.

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A-mi–The Grandmother

The next time I woke up, I found a pile of candy next to me. I knew exactly who gave it to me…She was so sweet! Before it got dark, I found PM, Lidy, and Molly watching a family and their neighbors building a house. They asked if we wanted to help them. PM and Lidy jumped to the occasion, whereas Molly and I stayed back. Molly was starting to get sick too. I watched for a bit longer. I noticed that the older Mosuo men and women were congenial with each other, as they talked and laughed. However, the younger men (I did not see any younger women) were shy and did not speak. They would once and a while glance over at us, the foreigners.

There are many taboos in this society that I am only starting to become conscious of: 1) young men don’t talk to young women in the day, 2) women wear long sleeves and long pants, don’t show skin, 3) men don’t sing unless for occasion, 4) discussion of sexual relations/sex is hidden and not spoken of (unless with close friends of the same gender). These are the ones that have come to my attention. When I was in the village, it seemed like everything I did went against social norms. PM would have to approach me and laugh at how I’m being so different (taking off my sweatshirt to only wearing a T-shirt, etc.). If I want to do research here, I will have to change a lot about my behavior. I have to sit like a girl, dress appropriately (long pants and long sleeves), follow customs for women (eat on the lower hearth or eat after the men have eaten, etc.).

Molly and I went back to the house to rest before dinner. I decided that though I still did not want to eat, that I should spend time with the family. They were very worried about me the entire day. For them, when someone is sick, it is a serious matter. Many people die from sickness here. They were so worried that they almost beckoned a local Daba priest to pray for me…that would have been interesting, but I’m glad s/he didn’t come. That would have been a bit embarrassing! Praying for my diarrhea to go away? Is that how it works?

When dinner time came, Molly decided to instead rest in our room. I went down and sat on the lower hearth with Lidy and PM, while the three sisters and the children sat on the upper hearth. The grandmother was behind the lower hearth on a bed resting. The upper and lower hearth both have fire pits with pots, the upper pot was for food, while the lower pot was for boiling water. They handed us bowls of rice and gave us a selection of meats and soup. I swallowed down a little soup broth, but that was all I could muster. I listened to PM and Lidy speak in Mosuo to the sisters (they do not speak Mandarin). My primary form of communication was with the children, who spoke a little Mandarin. At one point in the night, I showed the children my drawings. They were so excited and for the rest of dinner, they were asking me to draw about everything (cow, pig, grandmother, cat, dog, etc.). They were telling me to draw things that are a part of their everyday lives. It was cool to see what comes to their mind…how far do their imaginations go? The children included two girls and a boy. The boy is such a rascal!

After dinner, we all headed back to our rooms. Before entering mine, PM mentioned that we may have “visitors” tonight. I thought she was joking and laughed it off. I went to sleep to only be woken up at around 12am by our door opening (the brick that was holding our door closed was knocked over). I groggily got up and turned on my headlamp to find four young Mosuo men in our room. They sheepishly said “hello” and asked if they could sit down and chat. Molly and I were both sick, so I had to politely ask them to leave due to our illness. In the end, I said “come another day.” They were very understanding and left. Before falling back to sleep, I thought how if four men entered my room without my consent in the U.S., I would have screamed and called the police, but here I told them to come back another day. This form of relationships is very different from what I’m accustomed to on the Western hemisphere! I really hoped they would come back. In the day, I have no way of talking to them, but at night…that taboo is lifted.

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Exploring Yunnan: Driving Around Lugu Lake and the Magical Bonfire Party

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The Group in Front of Lige

We woke up early that morning to set off and enjoy the day. We drove around and stopped whenever we felt like it. This was a great group to go with. I became closest with the driver, who is the man to the left of me in the picture.

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Lige and Lugu Lake

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Molly and I Standing in Front of the Lovers and Sisters Trees

We stopped at all the popular tourist spots (sister’s tree, lover’s tree, the walking marriage bridge, and the local temple). At the shrine, we ran into an anthropologist who was waiting for the living Buddha to come and bless the visitors. She became interested in my research and was more than willing to help introduce me to her friends and her own research. We could had talked for hours, but the group of friends wanted to keep going on the ride. She said she would be in Lige the next day, so we would see her then. I was so happy to find an experienced anthropologist in the field! I basically throw myself into this field of study without much extended experience beforehand, so having some sort of guidance in doing fieldwork was a high priority for me. I looked forward to seeing her. We then were off again.

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The View from the Walking Marriage Bridge

The next stop was the Walking Marriage Bridge, which is a lively tourist spot. I do not know the specific story of the bridge, but supposedly this was a place where lovers would meet at night. Now it is mainly preoccupied with Chinese tourists with expensive Nikon cameras and a random pair of foreign twins. Who knows…maybe couples still meet there at night? But, most likely not. Nowadays, locals have cell phones, so meeting in secret at night is not necessary. They can just send texts to each other and meet in the other’s home. Also, marriage has become more common in the area. Research has shown that the majority of the population still participates in walking marriage, but it is not done in the traditional way: such as, a man secretly coming into the woman’s house by window or back door. While in Lige, I did meet a few married Mosuo couples.

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Driving Back to Lige–Mount Gemu Looking Over the Countryside

Lugu Lake is located in a large valley within the Himalayas, so agriculture is convenient. For this reason, food is not an issue for the local population. However, because of the booming tourism industry, the once agriculturally-based economic system is being overridden by tour buses, restaurants, hotels, and barbecue shops. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This change in the economic systems has led to a more stable economy for the local population, which has led to improving schools and living standards. However, this change does influence the continuation of traditions, such as walking marriage, singing, and art (weaving, etc.). These kind of conflicts is one portion of my research that I need to be aware of and think over.

We arrived back to Lige and said goodbye to our new friends. I planned to see the driver back in Lijiang. We went back to the barbecue place for dinner, but during our meal, we left early to see the nightly bonfire party. Molly was feeling a bit queazy, so she stayed on the benches while I planned to dance around with local performers. Lige’s best singer, Anu, was there. We recognized each other from the night before and playfully joked with each other before starting the show.

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Bonfire Party–Singing to a Mosuo Man in a Playful Competition

We first danced around the fire. We held onto each other’s shoulders and hands while we shook ours legs back and forth. After the round of dancing, we then began the Mosuo tradition of duige, singing back and forth (same as what I did the other night). First, the Mosuo women sang to all the tourists. Anu helped lead the tourists in singing popular Chinese love songs back to them. We sang back and forth, until they asked for one male tourist to sing to one Mosuo woman. A cocky, drunk man stumbles in front and belts out of tune a Chinese song, forgetting lyrics in the process. The women were not impressed. They ran up to him, picked him up and put him over the fire, warming his ass. They then set him back down (they do this for this bonfire every night, which I didn’t know). I was a bit uneasy because I wanted to be the next singer–will they do that to me?

Anu called for a woman to sing, then looked straight at me and smiled. I stepped out and awaited for a Mosuo man to sing to me. The men seemed very disinterested in the entire event, so none really were excited to sing. A few of the women kicked one in front of me. I guess they do this bonfire every night…I would find it boring too! The man sang a Mosuo song to me. He then moved back to the fire to warm his hands. First, I said to everyone I would sing an English song. I then asked the man to look back at me for the competition. The women laughed because I was very direct. I would like my partner to be looking at me while I sang! I then sang the first few verses of “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

I am not much of a singer, but I belted the song, trying to stay in key. In the middle of my performance, an older Mosuo woman approached me and sang with me. She didn’t know the song, nor spoke English, but she must have really liked the melody. It was something very different from anything she had heard before. When I sang “Hoooome,” she would too, and then carry on in the Mosuo language. We sang together until I finished. It was a very magical moment. Everyone cheered, which brought me back to real life. I was still enchanted by the women’s voice and how we connected through song. After that, the bonfire party was over. I looked for the older Mosuo woman, but she disappeared. I wanted to know what she was singing…

I’ve decided that I am going to sing as my way of building relationships with the locals, as well as draw and learn the local language. While I’m at the lake, I am keeping myself very available and open-minded. I’m also being more extroverted. I hope I’m building a good reputation there!

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HIT Subcultures (Older Population and Farming Locals)

A few classmates and I were walking about campus and ran into the front entrance sign. The calligraphy was written by the one and only Mao Zedong! I thought I would take a picture in front of it with my friend, Mallory.

I often take walks around campus. Since it gets dark around 6:00pm, my walks turn into nighttime ventures where I observe what people are doing. I’ve run into the rollerblading club, little kids playing around the food market, and a quaint district within the walls that hosts the older relatives of HIT teachers. This district or 4 or so buildings has a garden that has corn stalks, sunflowers, a cat, and older people exercising or doing Taichi. It’s fun to walk through to see how they spend their day, and compare it to the lives of the thousands of students that live around this tranquil place.

During a break between classes, I walked around the library and saw these two women chatting up a storm. That is the library next to them and an administrative building in the background (its nickname is the “toilet bowl”)

The quaint district’s park and garden

Though we live on a school campus, where the majority of residents are 20-26 year old students, there are other subcultures that live within our walls. For instance, the older relatives that live in this district, or the thin rows of farmland that line the edge of the west wall. On one of these walks, my classmate, Shanxia, and I found abandoned ground between campus and the railroad tracks that has been turned into toiled soil. We slid under a gate and walked through the uneven rows of cabbage, carrots, peanuts, and tomatoes. The width of the patch is about 15-20 feet long and the length is about 2-3 blocks long. At first, it looks like overgrown brush, until you look closely and see handmade fences made out of sticks, wire, and plastic, and orderly green sprouts coming out of the earth.

This picture was taken while we walked along the railroad tracks. A local is toiling the earth. Notice how thin the patch is and its location. I wonder if they pay for using this land or if they toil it without local officials noticing?

My classmate, Shanxia. We walked along the railroad tracks to get back to the West Gate of campus.

This fencing was made out of sticks and wire. It looks like this local is growing green onions and other vegetables.

Besides academic/school culture that fills this area with life, there are other “hard-to-see” populations of people that occupy it as well. The older relatives, the farmers, and restaurant/shop owners, janitorial staff, etc. So far I have only witnessed two of these subcultures, hopefully I will be able to see more aspects of HIT culture later in the year.

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