There were three little beds in Zhu Ma's bedroom, in a drafty, Tibetan-style wooden house where I had invited myself for the night. She allowed me to sleep in her bed, while she took the bed of her son who was away in school. The third belonged to her late husband; the bed was covered with mosquito netting and neatly made with blankets as if waiting for the deceased to somehow reappear, because they should never have departed as they did.
I was visiting a city where the only Tibetans in China lived without fear or control from the government. This was told to me by a British expat who recounted the history of Mao's ragtag rebel army travelling through Zhongdian eighty years ago in the rugged western reaches of China, also known as Shangri-la after James Hiltons' fictional Himalayan town.
Being a city girl, I'd never invited myself to any strangers' house before this trip. I spotted Zhu Ma at the town square where she was selling grilled kabobs of meat and vegetables. She had classic Tibetan features, the chiseled cheekbones, skin burnished by sun and wind. I quickly learned that her grandmother was 85, and I wanted desperately to talk to folks who had lived through the 1930s in China, when Communists fled their pursuers by trekking thousands of miles across mountains and rivers, through snow and swampland. So I arranged to come over after she finished work for the day.
Yet when I arrived at their home, driven there in the black new SUV that Zhu Ma's brother-in-law owned, I found that Grandma didn't have much to say about Mao the oppressed Communist. Instead, she recounted the trials of her life from when she was 31 to 45; that must have been during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution after Mao had vanquished his enemies, and continued to do so, whether they were really enemies or not. My hostess's 10-year-old daughter had to translate for the old woman, who was actually an in-law, the grandmother of Zhu Ma's late husband. It was over fifty years ago, Yang Zhong said, when the authorities took away her mother and her husband and jailed them, and she never heard from them again. Somehow she raised three children on her own.
Zhu Ma spoke not only Tibetan but Mandarin, what Chinese natives call pu-tong hua, the ordinary language. So when we turned in for the night, after a dinner of fried egg and rice washed down with yak butter tea, she and I talked as girlfriends might. She began telling me about her husband. She was widowed in her twenties, and her husband had passed away at 33. In her bedroom, she rummaged beneath a big stack of clothes and fabrics, pulling out a small photo album with tattered plastic sleeves and loose photos hastily added in between some pages. There were photos of them visiting a park, in a lush landscape bathed in the clear light of springtime. He had a square handsome face, and seemed a bit stocky, in contrast to her slim physique. So young. You could hear the grannies saying that, clucking their tongues. They seemed to be a happy couple.
She told me about his death with composure, but she rubbed her eyes to tell me how she had cried every day. "The medical care in hospitals is really inadequate," Zhu Ma said. When he elected to get surgery after an accident that wrecked his back, the doctors had overlooked his diabetes. She said they pumped him with a sugary solution that eventually killed him; the medical literature notes that diabetics are likely to die within 30 days of surgery if blood sugar isn't carefully controlled.
He was snatched away by death, as his own grandmother's husband had been. And yet Zhu Ma lives a pretty good life by most measures, with enough food, two children whose schooling is provided for by the state, and in-laws who treat her decently.
"Do you think about marrying again?" I asked her.
"I live in my in-laws' house." What she didn't say, but what I heard was this: I belong to them. Indeed, in the Tibetan language, you address your in-laws as if they were blood relatives. Your mother-in-law is your mother. This is very different from Chinese Han culture, where there is a different term for every relation, on your father's side, your mother's, your husband's, on and on.
In the morning, I climbed out from under the weight of three heavy quilts, made my way through the echoing living room which contained some heavy pots but no furniture, fire or warmth. We congregated in the small building where Grandma has already lit the kindling and a large pot of butter yak tea awaits. This is how we shield ourselves from emptiness; we cram ourselves together in tight places, away from the cold and loneliness. I smile at Grandma, using gestures to breach the chasm of languages, as I did with my own grandmother. When I climb into that hulking SUV with her brother-in-law, Zhu Ma and her daughter wave enthusiastically, inviting me back again.