Book excerpt

Falling to Heaven

Jeanne M. Peterson

St. Martin's Press

Falling To Heaven
Part OneMAY 24, 1954DorjeMy mother taught me how to do prostrations as soon as I could walk. Bring hands together over your head, then to your chest, then go down like Abu on all four legs, touch your forehead to the earth. Hold your love for His Holiness in your heart every moment. Abu was our little puppy, and my mother taught me prostrations in this way, with me pretending to be Abu. She brought me to the temple with her every day, teaching me how to say prayers for all sentient beings. She said to me, "Even though your father is Chinese, you will learn to be a good Tibetan."When I became a little older, my mother noticed I could put myself in the place of others and understand them. She said, "Perhaps it is because you have two kinds of blood. It is your destiny to be the friend of the tiger and the rabbit, although these two are enemies."I suppose this is a good thing, being a friend to the tiger and the rabbit. When my mother told me this, I was too young to imagine the ways in which it would prove to be true. But now, in my country, we are feeling the jaws of the tiger. And the teeth can be sharp, like the prick of many blades.I am speaking of the Chinese. We Tibetans talk about theChinese all the time. When we sit and drink our tea, I hear how Palden had his yaks taken by the Chinese. Or when we thresh barley on the roof, I hear about my neighbor Tashi, who had his barley taken by the People's Liberation Army.Whenever we talk about the Chinese, I remember my two kinds of blood, but I do not feel Chinese. At least not the way my Tibetan friends think of them. My father was from Amdo, where more Chinese people were close by than here in Shigatse. So he and my mother were married because their families knew one another, just living side by side without any problem.In these last few years, things with the Chinese are very different. There is no more living side by side without any problem, because the Chinese say they have come to liberate us. When I first heard this, it made me laugh. Other Tibetans also laughed at such a silly idea. We wanted to ask, Liberate us from what?But now we have a bad feeling, a hardness in the stomach, a feeling of anger. And we are afraid.Over the years, the Chinese have come and gone and come again. When they would go, we would drink chang to celebrate and tell ourselves the trouble was over. But each time they would come back, they would stay a little longer, and we would pray harder for them to leave.It seems now that they are staying.We don't like it when we are reciting our prayers and we see a Chinese person laughing at us openly. Without respect.Because here in Tibet, nothing is more important to us than our religion.So I feel the anger of my people, but I can also put myself in the place of the Chinese.It is not hard for me to look into the face of one of these young Chinese soldiers and see into his heart. He has pride. He believes he is bringing the superior wisdom of Chairman Mao to us. He looks at us and sees superstitious peasants with dirt on our faces. He looks at the soil under our feet and sees Chinese soil.I speak Chinese and Tibetan, and so my people often come to me asking for help when they have a problem with the Chinese. That is when I stand between the tiger and the rabbit, and I think of my mother's warm hand touching my cheek when she said this, so long ago.This is hard for my wife. She says, "When you help all these people, you put your family in danger."I tell her, "It is my destiny to help people in this way," and she says, "Oh, the tiger and the rabbit and your destiny! What about our family?"In these moments I am reminded that people here say my wife does not have good manners. She came from the province of Kham with her family when she was just a girl, so she has the rough Khampa ways. It does not bother me that she is like this because I know it is only on the outside. Inside, her heart is tender and sweet.Lama Norbu told us Rinchen was a panda in her previous life, and I know it is true. Rinchen was a she-bear, with a soft black coat and big black eyes, and also long, sharp claws. I saw the bear incarnation one day in Rinchen. A communist soldier came on the street when we were walking to the temple with thermoses of dri butter to refill the butter lamps. He went over to touch our son, Champa. The soldier was smiling, and I think Champa had charmed him. Everybody likes Champa because he is a clown. But with the soldier, Rinchen stepped in front of our son, with her hands in fists, standing strong. I think she scared the soldier because, even though he had a gun, he walked away quite fast! Maybe he saw the long claws of Rinchen's soul ready to tear him apart.I noticed Rinchen right away when she came here from Kham. All of us in Shigatse talked about her as the girl who could tame the wild dogs. Maybe it was because she was a bear in her previous existence and the packs of dogs in the streets could smell the bear in her, so they were afraid. The first time I saw her, she was only as tall as a sheep, and she was carrying a large bag from themarketplace for her mother. In my mind, I called her "small as a sheep, strong as a bear." When she walked by the dogs in our neighborhood, they became quiet. Everyone else had to throw stones at them to keep them away, but Rinchen needed no stones. I saw her from my window on the second story of our house as she came, and I watched her go by until I couldn't see her anymore, and the whole way she went straight and peaceful with no dogs to bother her.When I was twelve years old, I found out my parents had arranged a marriage for me with the girl who tames the wild dogs. I was happy because she was a strong, brave girl, and I thought, "We will have a good life together."We have made a good life, but Rinchen does not like my curious nature. In the end, I have often seen that my wife is wise. I hear her warnings in my mind, telling me that my curiosity could bring us hardships, but sometimes I'm still like a little mouse nosing around.Such as yesterday, when I greeted our new neighbor. The woman from America. Who, along with her husband, is probably being watched by the suspicious Chinese. Westerners are the enemy, the Chinese say.The Americans arrived a week ago and have been staying next door in a house owned by the Tibetan regent. For centuries, to protect our traditions and religion from outside influences, the Tibetan authorities have almost never permitted foreigners to stay in Tibet. So it is astonishing that they are in Shigatse, and since they are staying in the regent's house, they clearly have permission to be here. I simply cannot understand the presence of these neighbors, so the mystery lives in my mind like an itch I have to scratch.Our homes are close to each other. Each of our houses has a square courtyard with the house settled into one corner, and our two houses lie in the corners of the squares that are closest to one another. Because of this, I have caught glimpses of them through the windows. Each time I have seen them, many questions haveburned within me. Was it true that they both had hair that disobeyed, curving up into waves like an ocean on their heads, instead of lying flat? Was it true their eyes were light-colored and clear so I might see all the way through if I looked right at them? Why were they here? Could I be helpful to them? I speak English, taught to me by an Englishman when the British had a mission here.Perhaps it was destined for us to meet, because yesterday I looked up from behind the low wall of my courtyard and there she was. The woman with unruly red hair out in front of her door with a broom, sweeping up dust. Her hair was pulled back, but shorter strands of it were indeed curled up around her face, which was pale, with speckles across her nose, and pink in her cheeks. She was tall, and she wore a red silk chuba, I was surprised to see. She held one of her hands over her mouth shyly, but behind it I saw a smile. I was ready to say, "Greetings, madam," but instead she burst out with "Tashi delek!" in a perfect Lhasa accent. I was unable to speak from the shock and stood like a statue, staring into the green eyes. Next she bowed to me, and I bowed back to her. Finally I stammered in English, "Good day to you." I only wanted to wish her a pleasant day, but then I remembered this was the way to say good-bye. So of course I thought I must leave. I bowed again, and she followed with her own bow. I felt so silly, I simply walked away. She must have thought I was rude to leave so quickly.To make up for my rudeness, I have decided to give them the "welcome chang," a kettle of butter tea and a kettle of chang. I plan to go while Rinchen is away at the river getting water for cooking. She would yell and tug at her braids if she knew, saying, "Why are you talking with those foreigners? Do you want the Chinese to start watching us too?"When I think of this, there is a tightness in my chest, and I wonder if I will bring trouble to us all.FALLING TO HEAVEN. Copyright © 2010 by Jeanne M. Peterson. All rights reserved. JEANNE M. PETERSON is a clinical psychologist who worked for years with survivors of torture and communist reeducation from all over Asia. In her free time she facilitates an advanced writing group for San Diego Writers Ink, where she lives with her two sons.