Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Tibetan kid

Early the next morning Thomas and the Chinese couple left for Chengdu. They all had to get to work in a few days, and had long bus rides ahead of them. I was again on my own.
Before moving on I wanted to rest for a day in Derge. After spending so much time in cars and buses over the past week I needed a break. Also, there was that kid from the monastery, named Zerencanzhu, who wanted me to teach him English. I figured it might be interesting, so I went to look for him at the monastery, and when I found that he wasn't there, went down to his house.
His house was in a suburb of Derge, called Bandan Village, a twenty minutes' walk away from the center of town. When I found the village I asked a storekeeper on the main road if she knew where his house was.
"It's down that path," she told me, pointing to a garbage-strewn dirt that lead away from the main road. She added: "Will you be OK? It's very poor."
"I'll be fine," I told her.
I wasn't quite so sure as I walked down the road. I felt like I had suddenly changed countries. Derge is not rich by any means, but it is not terribly poor either, and feels much like the rest of Western China- a little dilapidated but not quite third world. This place, however, felt different. I felt more out of place than I ever had before in China. A garbage-clogged stream flowed along the dirt road, and ragged-looking laundry hung from clotheslines tied to trees. People building and repairing houses looked up and stared at me as I passed by. I was obviously in a place foreigners weren't expected to come to, and although no one was hostile, I felt a little uneasy.
Zerencanzhu's house was a pretty typical peasant's house, with tan mud walls and a small courtyard. Altogether it wasn't as poor as I thought it might be, though that wasn't saying too much. Inside there was a TV, a small stove and a small Buddhist shrine. When I arrived his mother and sister were there, and his cousin and a friend later showed up.
At first he wanted to teach me some Tibetan, so we started with some phrases that were about as random as those the teacher in Jiaju had taught me- one phrase, for example, was "I want to buy a statue of a Buddha." Like the teacher in Danba he then proceeded to teach me numbers, this time all the way up to a hundred. After that I taught him a few things in English, but he quickly brought up the real reason he had invited me over.
"So you're going to work in Beijing?" he asked me.
"Yeah," I said.
"Can I come with you?"
I hadn't expected this sort of request, though when it came I wasn't too surprised. I was, however, a little worried- obviously I couldn't take him, even if I wanted to, but I wasn't sure how to make him understand this.
"I can't," I told him. "It's not legal, and it's too dangerous."
"Oh, I'm not afraid of those Hans," he said. "I have just the thing that'll scare them." He told his cousin to pull this thing out. He couldn't find it, so he explained it to me.
"It's a long knife. It's about this long," he said, holding his hands out about two feet apart from each other.
I almost smiled at his naivette- a lone fifteen-year-old won't be intimidating no matter how long his knife. I pointed out that the cops would never let me take him someplace else. He had a plan for that:
"You could say that I have an older sister who married your cousin, and that you're taking me to visit them in Beijing!"
I also explained that I didn't have a job myself, and was too young to look after or take care of him myself.
Zerencanzhu was still unconvinced. "But there is another kid who got adopted by some foreigners. They came and took him to their home." I told him that they were probably both older and better off than me- though I realized that there was probably no distinction for him, since to Tibetans, all foreigners are rich. I also told him that no matter how much money I had it still was illegal for me to take him with me.
All through this his mom would occassionally say something to him. I don't think she could speak Chinese, and I have no way of knowing if she really knew what we were both saying.
Finally the time came for Zerencanzhu to go to work at the monastery. He finally accepted that I could not take him with me. I was relieved to be leaving. Zerencanzhu probably saw me as a rare chance to escape hopeless, though not desperate, poverty, and having to fend off all his questions while in his house and surrounded by his family and friends was a little intimidating. If I refused, though, there was nothing they could do, though Zerencanzhu insisted that I take the phone number of the local school so I could call him if I did find a way to get him to Beijing.
"So why don't you go to school?" I asked him as we headed back down the road to Derge.
"The fee is too high, and my family doesn't have enough money," he told me. Theoretically schooling is free for all Chinese citizens, but according to reports in the West a lot of schools charge students in poorer areas. Several people in Qinghai had told also me that corrupt school teachers and local politicians charge parents exorbidant sums- by Western China standards- to send their children to school.
"What about your father? Doesn't he work?"
"My father divorced my mother a long time ago, and we haven't seen him in years. Both my mother and sister have tuberculosis, so I'm the only one in my family who can work now."
"So why don't you keep working in the monastery? Why do you need to leave Derge to find a job?"
"It's illegal for me to work in the monastery, but the monks let me because my family is poor. In a few months I'm not going to be able to work there anymore."
I felt a little bad for not helping him leave Derge after hearing that. If it was true, he would be in a pretty hopeless situation. He would have no job, no education, and no land to fall back on, but would still have to support his mother and sister. On the other hand, I was a little suspicious. His situation seemed almost too tragic, though certainly not impossible. Even people I met on this trip with decent jobs often told me they were thinking about moving to Beijing or Guangdong to work, a risky move even if you are a grown man with work experience. It is similar with many people who immigrate to the US- they are comfortably middle-class in their home countries, but are willing to leave for a lonely and perhaps dangerous life in America. It may be that they incorrectly believe that life will be much easier in the US (many recent Chinese immigrants that I have met feel they would have been better off staying in China) or that even life as a poor American is better than life in the middle-class of their home country. Regardless, their was no way for me to tell what Zerencanzhu's situation actually was. Perhaps he was exaggerating, but maybe not. Maybe having a TV doesn't mean anything in Western Sichuan, maybe it's a sign of wealth. Maybe the truth was somewhere inbetween. Even if he was exaggerating, though, I knew that as an American I could hardly argue that anyone living in a place like Bandan Village could be called well-off.

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