Today was a day of remarkable privilege! But first let me say that last night I was not allowed out of the house. I could hear festivities broadcast over the loudspeaker, and Samtso’s nieces were dancing. BUT, the celebrations were for the officials from town: the government. It turns out that should they find out there is a westerner here they will levy a hefty tax!!!!! Whoa, pardner…
The morning here is bustling with everyone getting dressed in traditional garb, and the arrival, with according hospitality, of out-of-village guests, also traditionally attired. I met two of Samtso’s dad’s brothers and a sister. One brother is a well-regarded Tibetan doctor in Labrang. He looks, it, too. Especially when he cleans his glasses, which he does a fair bit. ______________, Samtso’s brother who speaks a some of English, arrived and bestowed a warm hello. It was fun to see him again, especially as he cuts a mean figure in his Tibetan habiliments.
Food is served, and it is seen to, midst the buzz, that I am fed.
We all trundle off in the freshly snow covered morning to the community meeting hall. A beautiful new structure, it replaces the one built in the 1980s, and this is the first series of events celebrating a town structure that they have had for some 35 years. It is a big deal. Guests from other villages are invited to participate in the feast, tables laden with carefully stacked piles of apples, canned beverages (including Red Bull), boiled mutton, bread, nuts. We, and this is where it gets unusual, enter into the primary feast site, passing through an outer room with similarly laden tables. I follow Samtso, with her brother and her father and his relatives to a long table at the back of the room. I try to gracefully lower my self and fit onto the rug on the floor, and just as I am about in position, we are asked to move. So, of course we do. Now, my back is to everything, and I find the change less than desirable, but hey!, I am a guest.
Samtso, says to me, ” Get pictures, because this is very special.” Then, I realize, we are the only women in the room. And it is true, we are inside the House Tameran (sp), (a place where women are not allowed in the bronze-age Sepik River cultures of New Guinea — very similar to the Bohemian Grove), and we are being tolerated very well. Plates of dumplings are served by teams of young men, along with milk tea, and a wonderful dish of sweet rice and special Tibetan grassland nuts. A bit later, a stew of glass noodles, mutton and vegetables is served, the broth of which, by the way, is delicious. I am somewhat bewildered as to why the family was adamant about my eating before we left the house.
Meanwhile, we are being entertained by Tibetan song and dance. Encouraged by a host with a microphone, various villagers perform songs of praise: for the mountain gods, for the wonderful people, for their beautiful land, for this new building, etc. Being up close and personal, I realize how intricate the vocalizations are. Rarely is a sustained note held, rather a series of trills is passionately expelled, often with great force. There is a relationship to the yodel, in that one can imagine them calling across a valley.
It is with these performances that women are permitted in the inner sanctum. Dancers, in groups of four, perform intricate and varied movements. The girls and women, are graceful and expressive, and their choreography is lively. This is in contrast to the placid, almost disinterested demeanor that seems most preferable with the female Kham dancers. My guess is that it is because their dance is one of courtship, and the ladies do not want to look too anxious.
The men’s dance is quite like the movement of a bird, and I am reminded of the Native American dancers I saw up near Lake Wallowa, in Eastern Oregon. In fact, the more I hear the language in conversation here, I think it sounds very similar to the Ogalala Sioux I heard spoken at Sabrina’s home. (Sabrina is my niece Kristina’s Native American sister-in-law.)
This spectacle goes on for quite sometime, many singers, complimented by a few dances. Mid song, and rather abruptly, an entire table of men arise and leave, as though by design. It’s just that they have to pee. I know this because when Dolma’s brother left, I asked if I was supposed o follow. LOL.
Also, a ritual of drink is enacted. An elder carrying a tray with three small glasses, followed by attendant holding the bottle, offers each and everyone, including me, a glass of hootch. The glass is accepted by all, except we girls, and a finger is dipped in the drink, then drops flicked. Three times this happens, then, which is impressive, most of the men refuse the drink. Even when beer is offered, most of the local villagers do not partake. If it is the same with visiting guests, who are on the other side of the hall, I do not know.
Now this brings up another interesting point. This building is being feted, and people from other villages are invited to this opulent celebration. They arrive in cars and taxis — and all are men. Not a single woman, other than Drunter Ja’s sister. When they leave, there is a receiving, or in this case, departing line out by the entrance to the village, waving them all off with great fanfare.
Another seeming incongruity is that VERY LITTLE of the food was consumed. Nothing of the careful stacks was touched, except for the dishes of pumpkin seeds. Those were unabashedly molested. No drinks were opened, and, dang, not even the Red Bull that kept calling my name. It wasn’t hard to get the message to refrain. No one touched the stuff. Not even the heaping plates of steaming momos (dumplings). What was consumed was only the tea, the stew and, for only a few, the rice. I was feeling kinda uncomfortable about the whole thing, some how embarrassed for the elaborate effort that was being ignored.
Samtso later explained that in Amdo, one doesn’t accept that which is offered. This is NOT like Kham, where it is “eat, eat!” Here it is considered uncouth, indeed, to chow down when a guest. So, what happens to all that food (prepared by, you guessed it: the village women, who also have clean-up duty)? Well, the feasting goes on for several days, during which it is distributed to the villagers. (I’ll check the logistics out with Samtso.)
Immediately after leaving the ceremonies, we are now gathered here, at the house and out comes more food. Dumplings, mutton, drinks, candies, yogurts….and all is consumed with gusto! Appetites are happily satisfied in the privacy of one’s home, just not in public.