Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer and teacher who has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Jack Straw Productions. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), The Los Angeles Review, and on her blog: heartradical.blogspot.com. Anne’s memoir, Searching for the Heart Radical, follows her quest for language, love, and belonging as she migrated between China and America during her twenties, and is now in search of a publisher.
I met Zhang Jie at a noodle shop in Markam, Sichuan province, China. When she walked in wearing a dark blue sun hat, a yellow windbreaker, jeans, Reeboks, and a giant black camera bag across her shoulder, I could tell that she too was not from around here. To my surprise, she sat down next to me and introduced herself. Soon I learned that she was from the coastal city of Guangzhou, where she’d just finished studying at the university. Since Zhang Jie could speak a little English, we switched back and forth between languages. I told her I was from America and had just graduated from college myself. My mother was Chinese, and my father, American, I explained, so I grew up speaking some Chinese. Now, I was looking for a job in Chengdu, but had wanted to get away from the crowds for a few days. I’d also hoped to find the parents of a Tibetan friend I’d met in the States, but when I’d called the number I had, it hadn’t gone through.
As we introduced ourselves, a Tibetan monk came in the restaurant, begging, and I dug in my bag for small change. The Tibetan shopkeeper and Zhang Jie shot him scornful looks.
“Don’t give him money,” she whispered to me in English.
“Why not?” I asked.
“They don’t do anything. All they do is beg.”
I withdrew my hand from my purse and slurped my noodle soup.
“Are you going to Seda?” Zhang Jie asked.
“Seda,” she repeated, and told me of a monastery that was a day’s journey from Markam. Seda. I hadn’t planned on seeking out any remote Tibetan monasteries this weekend, but I was interested. In fact, part of the reason why Chengdu appealed to me as a place to teach and live was because of its proximity to these Tibetan regions. Ever since I’d traveled through these remote areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai province on my first trip to China, three years ago in 1996, I’d longed to return.
“I tried to go to Seda today,” Zhang Jie continued, “but there were no buses. There’s a bus tomorrow morning at six. I just sat in my room and watched TV all day– there’s nothing to see here. Why else would you come all this way?”
She seemed to be suggesting I come with her. I wasn’t sure we were the best match in traveling partners, but why not? I’d feel disappointed if I just turned around and headed back to Chengdu after a full day’s journey to get here.
“Okay,” I decided. “I’ll go.”
Early the next morning I boarded the mini-bus and took a window seat near the front behind Zhang Jie, where I knew I’d be less squished by those who would sit on stools or bags in the aisles. Soon the bus was full, and the passengers were mostly Khampas, Tibetans from the Kham, the southeastern region of Tibet, who are known for their fierce brazenness and horse-riding skills. I recognized them from the bright strands of red cloth they braided into their hair and then twisted atop their heads, men and women alike. They stared at me fearlessly with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.
I smiled when I caught their eyes, but with Zhang Jie near me I felt less outgoing than I might have been on my own. Instead, I stared out the window as our bus rattled over rocky dirt roads, winding higher across the plateau, passing empty grasslands devoid of human signs except for a lone white tent here and there, a tuft of smoke rising from within. Herds of yaks grazed and romped about, their thick bushy tails swishing from behind. The Tibetans in the back gave out a little cry each time we hurtled over a particularly large hole, which sent them bouncing up in their seats. All the Tibetans sat in the back of the bus… somehow this could not be a coincidence. I wanted the Tibetans to know that I was not like the Chinese, that I did not see them as barbaric or inferior as was so often the case, but I was not so eager to attempt to explain my views to Zhang Jie in my basic, broken Chinese.
The bus chortled on for hours, stopping only once at a little no-name shack in the middle of nowhere for lunch. Here, I sat at a table with a few Tibetan men, offering them some of my loose green tea as we each filled our thermoses with hot water. When Zhang Jie walked over, she looked at them uncomfortably and suggested we sit at an empty table. I obliged. After lunch, when I gave our remaining food to a Tibetan beggar, Zhang Jie looked at me strangely.
As the afternoon wore on, the bus grew silent and some passengers slept, while I stared out the dusty window at the miles of endless grasslands, framed by mountains on all sides. Finally, as the sun sank low into the sky, I saw my first sign of the monastery: a lone monk walked at the edge of the road in a long burgundy robe, glancing up to meet my eyes as we rattled past. Up ahead, I spotted a row of white chotens or stupas that marked the edge of a path that wound out of sight into a valley. Seda. Other passengers began to stir; we were here. The bus stopped and a few people got off, the driver helping them to retrieve their bags from the rooftop. Zhang Jie turned to me. “We’ll stay in the town tonight and go to the monastery in the morning.”
At the guesthouse, I let Zhang Jie do the talking. She gave the Chinese woman proprietor her shenfenzhen, the identity card all Chinese must show before registering.
“What about her shenfenzhen?” the stodgy woman gestured to me suspiciously.
“One shenfenzhen is enough, isn’t it? You don’t need both of ours,” Zhang Jie insisted.
The woman shook her head, “I need both of your shenfenzhens.”
Zhang Jie sighed as if this were an unusual request. “She’s a huaren,” she
explained. “She doesn’t have a shenfenzhen.” Huaren. Overseas Chinese. Zhang Jie hadn’t said meiguoren, American. This way there was a blood affinity established. She’s one of us.
The woman shook her head. “Must have shenfenzhen. Foreigners can’t stay here.”
Zhang Jie sighed again. “Come on,” she pleaded, “it’s only for a few nights. Anyway, her mother is Chinese.”
Suddenly grateful to be traveling with Zhang Jie, I admired her feisty, uneasily daunted character, and tried my best to appear pleasant and non-threatening.
Hao le, hao le. “Fine, fine, write down your name,” the woman thrust out a form, then took our money, grabbed a ring of keys from a nail near the door, and led us to our room.
Inside, an old rusty stove sat between two hard twin beds on a bare wooden floor. I wandered off to go find the toilets, and returned to find Zhang Jie talking with a tall, young Chinese man in wire-rimmed glasses and a sporty red and black jumpsuit. “This is Xiao Mao,” she said. He rose to shake my hand limply, meeting my eyes for a moment before quickly looking away. Zhang Jie explained that he was from Tianjin, a big city near Beijing. I sat down on my bed and listened as they talked, picking up bits and pieces of his story. Xiao Mao had first come to Seda two years ago and stayed for a whole year, building a little wooden cabin and studying Tibetan Buddhism. Last year, he’d gone home to save up more money, and now he was back for a short visit. He spoke quietly, his motions and expressions restrained. I’d never met a Chinese before who was studying Tibetan Buddhism. I wanted to ask Xiao Mao what had led him to Buddhism and to Seda, but I wasn’t even sure how to say Buddhism in Chinese. Zhang Jie seemed animated and engaged, speaking faster and with far more complicated words than she used with me.
After Xiao Mao left, Zhang Jie made a fire in our little wood stove, and we talked while huddling under our filthy bed quilts and layers of clothing. This was the first time that I’d shared a room with a Chinese traveler, since usually we were not allowed to stay with them in the dorm rooms at hotels. Zhang Jie was a business major, whereas I’d studied writing, art, and dance. I tried to explain how at my college we were also allowed to create independent contracts and travel or study subjects of our own choosing. “Did you do this?” she asked. “No,” I lied. How could I tell her about the peace march I went on for Tibet? I feared that without the vocabulary to get into my views in depth, telling her this would only prove to Zhang Jie that Americans are always chastising the Chinese. For now, it was easier just to let Zhang Jie believe that she had invited me to a place with which I had no prior connection.
The next morning we rose early and boarded a black jeep with Xiao Mao, a Tibetan monk, and the driver. The sky was clear and blue, the hills blanketed with fresh green. We rode back to the chotens we’d passed the day before, then turned to head up the bumpy dirt road to the monastery, thick plumes of dust rising behind us. Suddenly, as we turned a corner, the hillside was covered with small wooden structures: quarters of the monks and nuns. Long draping cloths with Tibetan symbols hung in place of doors in the cabins. Xiao Mao said there were one thousand monks and nuns studying here, an impressive number for a faith only cautiously tolerated in this country. I knew that there had been a resurgence of religious activity in the last ten or fifteen years, and the government was more relaxed in these Tibetan areas of China as opposed to in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” or what most people think of as the official Tibet, but still these numbers surprised me.
As we stepped out of the dusty jeep, a few monks stared at us curiously. Xiao Mao led us around a complex of temples, cabins, and shack-like wooden stores that sold pictures of the monastery’s lama, books of scriptures, bowls of instant noodles, snacks, and bottles of Pepsi. Many of the temples were newly built or being repaired by monks who busily hammered, sawed, and painted Tibetan symbols on wooden beams in bright red, yellow, green, blue, fuchsia, and white. At the top of a hill, a small group of pilgrims circled an unfinished temple, its roof partially covered with a shining plate of gold.
After touring the area, Xiao Mao led us into a dark, shack-like restaurant to eat some steamed meat dumplings, known as momos in Tibetan. We sat down on little stools before a low wooden table, and Zhang Jie began asking Xiao Mao more questions about the monastery. I couldn’t be sure I was understanding correctly, but I thought he said that the monastery had been bombed during the Cultural Revolution, which didn’t surprise me since most monasteries in Tibet had been destroyed in one way or another. Apparently the government was now allowing Seda’s recent growth to unfold with only a watchful eye.
“How many Han Chinese did you say are studying here?” I asked Xiao Mao.
“Over three-hundred maybe.”
“And it’s okay for them to come here?”
“Yes. There is a special temple for the Han students where the instructions are given in Mandarin.”
“So, the government allows this? They don’t care?”
“Yes, they know. Sometimes they come around and make them tear down some of the cabins. They say it’s for health reasons. But then they go away.”
“Yes. The stream that comes from the mountains is becoming polluted.”
I nodded, thinking of the piles of plastic bags, bottles, and waste I’d seen.
Xiao Mao looked at me closely. “Why are you so interested? Are you Buddhist?”
“No,” I shook my head, my cheeks growing hot. “I’m just curious.” I still didn’t call myself a Buddhist, even though I identified strongly with Buddhist teachings.
“I can take you to visit the lama here if you’d like,” Xiao Mao said to us.
Zhang Jie quickly shook her head. I felt a tug of longing to meet the teacher and holy man that presided over Seda, but I too shook my head, not wanting to be an opportunistic Westerner of dubious faith, coveting an interesting encounter with a “real Tibetan lama.” But mostly, it was too hard to imagine trying to explain to Xiao Mao and Zhang Jie all my layers of belief and disbelief.
After we’d eaten our fill of hard stale dumplings, Zhang Jie asked Xiao Mao about sky burials. He nodded. Yes. He had visited them before.
“Do you know what a sky burial is?” Zhang Jie turned to me.
Tian zhang? I wasn’t sure what this word was.
“You know, when Tibetans die and leave the bodies for the birds?”
“Oh, yes,” I nodded.
“Can you take us to one?” Zhang Jie asked Xiao Mao.
He hesitated before nodding, “They have them every day. We can go later this afternoon if you’d like.”
Zhang Jie turned to me, “Do you want to go?”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” I glanced at Xiao Mao.
“It’s fine,” he said, staring down at his hands. “They don’t mind if people watch.”
When we stepped out of the restaurant, a morning prayer session was coming to an end. Monks and nuns spilled out of a nearby temple’s doorway. Zhang Jie and I walked over to take a peek inside. All around an open courtyard, the railings of the wooden balcony above were wound with strands of pink, red, and yellow fake flowers. Chanting music played from a loudspeaker affixed to the banister above; a few older pilgrims grasping prayer wheels stood with their leathery faces upturned, listening. The courtyard buzzed with small clusters of monks with shorn heads—no, I soon realized, they were nuns.
Zhang Jie and I drifted apart taking photos, while the nuns chattered noisily and watched us as we approached. They nodded and gathered close together when I motioned to my camera and asked permission in Chinese. Zhao xiang? Some smiled shyly, others posed stiffly, and one nun stared brazenly, almost smirking, obviously entertained by our visit. I could tell that we were not the first tourists that had ever come through, and yet there probably hadn’t been many.
A small nun, maybe seven or eight years old, grabbed my hand and tugged. With one hand, I took a photo of her face staring up at me, her hand holding my hand, and my arm outstretched. Her dark brown eyes gazed unblinking into my camera. I glanced at Zhang Jie busy snapping away on the other side of the courtyard, then took out a photo of the Dalai Lama from my pocket and slipped it to the little nun. Snatching it, she ran off to show it to others. I couldn’t be sure, but I sensed she didn’t know who it was. No one mobbed me afterwards, begging for more. Could they have never seen the Dalai Lama’s image? I knew it was forbidden in the temples, although I thought most Tibetans would still have seen it before. But maybe not, especially in this part of Sichuan, in these Tibetan areas of China that had been long assimilated, more removed from the politicization of Lhasa. I walked around slowly, taking more photos and passing out a few pictures to a similar muted appreciation, and then it was time to go.
Xiao Mao led us away from the monastery to a path that traveled around a hillside to another valley on the other side. As we approached the sky burial site from afar, I could see a small gathering of Tibetans and a horse grazing at their side. A waft of smoke drifted in the air from somewhere near a small white choten with prayer flags draped around it. As we drew closer, I was hit by a thick, pungent slightly sweet smell—bodies and decay. Juniper. A few heads turned our way, but no one paid us much attention. I tried to take slow, careful steps, not wanting my presence to be more obtrusive than it was. Then I saw the vultures.
They were so huge I mistook them at first for goats. They waited on the hillside above. Zhang Jie, Xiao Mao and I sat near the base of the hill, keeping our distance from the family members and the sky burial site, yet still close enough that I could see clearly the two corpses that lay in a small crumpled heap on the ground. Their tufts of matted black hair, their ribs exposed: a young man and an old woman, their sex and age still roughly discernable. Tattered remnants of old clothes lay scattered nearby, their colors faded.
A Tibetan man in a monk’s robes moved back and forth casually between the bodies, carrying a leg here, an arm there, placing them on a flat rock and then hacking them into smaller pieces. The man moved slowly, nonchalantly, as if he were going about the actions of an ordinary day. Which he was. This was his job.
I stared. With the exception of seeing my uncle in a funeral casket when I was little, made-up and pasty in full-suit attire, this was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body. Zhang Jie and Xiao Mao moved in closer to stand near a small group of people up front, but I stayed back on the hillside, near the others, family members I assumed, who sat clustered in two small groups. I didn’t sense in them the same solemn nature that one would expect from a funeral service, but rather, their reclining relaxed postures made it feel like they could’ve been out on a picnic. Knees pulled up in front of me, I noticed the grass beneath me was dotted with delicate yellow and white flowers. When I looked closer, I saw it was also scattered with feathers and small shards of bone.
I covered my mouth and nose with my sleeve and watched as the burial man shuffled back and forth. My eyes insistently returned to rest on the corpses, as if trying to convince myself I was really staring at what had just a week ago been two live human beings. I didn’t know much about sky burials, only that it was a ritual as normal as cremation is to us in the West. Did the Tibetans see this ritual as an offering, I wondered, a continuation of the food chain, a relationship between the cycles of life and death? Did they believe the birds would carry the spirits of the dead to the heavens? Or had the spirits already departed in the days before? But Buddhism doesn’t even believe in a fixed, unchanging spirit or soul. The Buddha taught that what we refer to as our “selves” is a combination of physical and mental aggregates, something like energies that are constantly changing from one moment to the next. If there was never one fixed, unchanging self or soul to begin with, then there could be no fixed person or self to be reborn. Instead, life and death is a continuous unbroken series of change.
Buddhism, of course, had changed since it spread to Tibet from India around the year 800, morphing with the gods and rituals of Tibet’s native Bon religion. I had no idea what the Tibetans at Seda actually believed in or what they trusted would happen to their loved ones when they died. I also didn’t know then that sky burials were a ritual that had grown out of practical necessity: there is a high death rate in Tibet, little firewood for cremation, and scarce land suitable for burial in the ground. Sky burials were thus a logical solution, believed to have emerged sometime after Buddhism was introduced to Tibet.
At some point, the vultures began to stir. I hadn’t noticed the burial man give a definitive signal, but somehow, the birds knew he was ready. Before I knew what was happening, they began to rush down the hillside—half flying, half running and hopping—leaping with an ancient, pre-historic gait.
“My god!” I cried as I jumped to my feet, hurrying out of their way. Squawking and vying for position and space, they swooped in to pick and tear at scraps of flesh. Zhang Jie began taking pictures and I took out my camera as well. Some birds waited at the edge of the flock. Others dove right into the center, the greediest or hungriest of them all.
The burial man turned towards us and waved angrily. “No pictures,” Xiao Mao said quietly. Of course. I knew better and guiltily put my camera away.
After about five minutes of watching the bird’s frenzied feeding from the side, the burial man wandered back into their midst. They scattered, allowing him to retrieve some pieces of bone and smash them even more. Was the last thing he produced the head? He cracked something with his mallet that sounded like a skull, then threw it towards the birds who dove in with increased fervor. Zhang Jie took out her camera to sneak in a few more photos. I motioned to her, annoyed. Who cares, she shrugged. He’s not looking.
The whole ritual lasted about thirty minutes. Afterward, the birds began to fly into the sky, circling in wide arcs above the valley. Hundreds of them, circling. As the vultures flew off, the family members rose and began to disperse. A young couple approached us, leading a horse behind them. They nodded and gave us each a piece of hard candy. Another part of the ritual? Candy for the attendees. I took off the wrapper and sucked on the sweetness, the smell of death lingering all around.
As the three of us left, Zhang Jie lagged behind Xiao Mao and me, taking more pictures of the sky burial site and the valley. I felt a weight in my chest for my own photos, and Zhang Jie’s flippant shrug had rubbed in my shame all the more. What did she see in this ritual? Some savage act of uncivilized beasts? Something she could show her friends back home so they would be impressed by her bravery to have watched such a disgusting act of primitivism? But was I really that different? I knew I could not blame Zhang Jie for my desire to take my own photos. I resented her influence on me, and yet in many ways, we were the same—swooping in to ingest this world with our hungry eyes and questions, wanting to take a piece of it home so we could try to remember what we saw here and felt. A moment of reckoning: this is what will happen to us—whether we choose to face it or not.
I let myself drift away from Zhang Jie, not wanting to wait for her as she continued to take photos. Xiao Mao walked silently ahead. I wondered if he regretted taking us here, and our need to document and preserve, remaining one layer removed from direct experience.
“Look!” Zhang Jie called out as she ran to catch up with us, pointing up into the sky. I looked. The clouds had parted to shape the perfect arc of a bird with its wings outstretched. I couldn’t resist. One last shot.
But I should have known better. When I developed the pictures months later, the sky and the clouds hovered overhead, but the bird was nowhere to be found.