The Caged Songbird
One morning in Dege I see this girl in a pink sweater pulling water from a spigot. She glances up from the bucket, catches my eye and smiles, revealing a bright gold eye tooth. We’re standing there looking at each other like my, you sure look interesting, and next she invites me up to her house to eat. I try to grab a bucket but she laughs, shaking me off, so I just follow her up the steep stone stairs to her house. We climb up a ladder and emerge onto a large wooden deck, with a fantastic view of the mountains and the river. She pauses, smiling at the view with me, and then ushers me into the kitchen. Pictures of monks hang across the walls. The Dalai Lama. The local lama. She gestures to each one, telling me their names. There are other pictures up too: a handsome movie star pinned over the stove, and a glossy poster of a bowl of fruit and a strange approximation of a sandwich.
She tells me her name, which sounds like Ding Zhizhouma. She introduces her mother, who is sitting by the door, spinning a prayer wheel. Zhizhouma is making tsampa, mixing together barley flour, yak butter and tea. I eat a little of it, which despite the butter tastes like something that might come out of a vegan raw food restaurant. Which is to say, not great. Zhizhouma pulls out her photo album to show me. Photos of her big brother and sister and her, standing in front of the weird Kodak photo shop backgrounds so popular in china, rainbow spray paint colors straight from the 1980s. Her uncle and a niece in the middle of an underwater sea world. Her mother in front of a simple blue screen.
She doesn’t have a job, but dreams of being a singer, in America. “How can I go to America?” She asks me. Repeats it. “I really want to go to America.” She wants to go to India, too, to see the Dalai Lama. I tell her she needs a passport. “This?” She asks. Shows me her ID card. “No, this,” I say, showing her my passport. “Ah,” she says, examining it carefully and nodding. “Tibetan people cannot have this.” “Maybe they can,” I say. I tell her I had just met a Tibetan girl who had gone to India to go to school. “Was she a singer?” She asks me. “She liked to sing,” I say, thinking of Yang Ga belting out tunes with the radio.
The girl nods knowingly. “Only singers can leave. I want to be a singer, but I am not sure I am good enough.” She speaks with a gentle, almost melodic voice, moves about the kitchen gracefully. She looks like she could be a singer.
“People who are not singers can leave too,” I say, thinking she might like to go to the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan school in Daramasala, like Yong Ga did. It’s clear from her clothes, her house, her photo album, her lack of a job, her family is doing alright – but I realize I have no idea how Tibetans go about trying to get out of China. I ask Yong Ga later – she tells me you need to have a letter from a Nepalese citizen inviting you to Nepal, and then Nepal will issue you a Nepalese passport good for 5 years, conditional on approval from the Chinese authorities. For a Tibetan to get a Chinese passport, they need to be working for a Chinese company, most likely as a ray in the ethnic minority rainbow, like the dancer I had met on the bus. As Zhizhouma says, only the singers can leave.
Soon she says, “Do you have contact in America? By computer?”
I write down my email, my phone number, and the name of my hometown on a piece of paper for her. She studies it for a long time and folds it up, puts it carefully in her pocket. I hand her my notebook. “Can you write down your name?” I ask. “So I can remember it?” She takes my notebook and pen hesitantly, slowly writing out four shaky Tibetan characters, and then scratches it out furiously, obliterating them in black ink. “No.” She shakes her head. “Wait for my little brother to come home,” she says, putting her hand down to her hip to show the size of her brother. “He is really good at writing.”
I sit a bit longer staring around the room. Her mother has finished eating and is back to spinning her prayer wheel and muttering prayers. Zhizhouma speaks almost no Chinese, and it’s starting to get a little awkward, so I excuse myself.
“If you need a place to stay tonight,” she tells me, “you come here. We have clean blankets. It’s just me, my mother, my father and my little brother in the room, so there is plenty of space.” I smile at her and say, “If you ever come to America, you have a place to stay too.” We nod at each other shyly and I walk out, back down the ladder and over the threshold, wishing that Zhizhouma could come to my house and meet my mom just as easily as I had hers.