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Manoa 12.2 (2000) 83-94

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An Old Nun Tells Her Story


The month I was born, my mother dreamed that there was a gold buddha as long as her arm inside our stove. As she carefully lifted it out, the buddha's head fell off. Several days later, I was born. My father had wanted a boy. My mother told me that if I'd been a boy, I wouldn't have lived because, as her dream showed, it wasn't her fate to have a boy. Except for my father, everyone in the family was happy about my arrival, especially my sister. Before I was born, she was lonesome. My five brothers, by my father's other wife, spurned her company. The afternoon Mother was giving birth to me, my sister was in the sutra room, praying for a girl. When, years later, she told me this, I was quite moved.

My father was an able merchant. By the time I was born, he owned a silk-goods shop, a tea and porcelain shop, and an estate in Toelung that he had bought from an impoverished aristocrat. However, the estate was not completely ours: we still had to pay annual rent to the Kashag government. There were thick groves of willows on the banks of a little brook gurgling past the back of the house, and a garden that overflowed with the scent of roses. But we stayed on the estate only for short periods, every now and then. It was only after I was grown that I realized the soil on the estate was so poor, and its irrigation system so inadequate, that the harvest sometimes wasn't enough to cover our rent.

Father was of pure Khampa ancestry. When he was fourteen, he left the tiny temple where he'd been a lama and came to Lhasa to seek his fortune. He had realized that the powerful ambition surging within him would be a kind of desecration in the monastery. The wealth and influence he acquired proved the wisdom of his decision.

Father had two wives, so I had two mothers. They lived peaceably, like sisters, and together bore my father five sons and two daughters.

Old Mother was a devout Buddhist. She passed the greatest part of her day in our sutra room. As far back as I can remember, she ate vegetarian food--rarely having her meals with the rest of us--and sometimes she fasted. Despite this, she was fat; so I think whether one is fat or thin is probably fated by heaven. She wasn't my natural mother, but it was from her that I received most of my childhood education, just as my brothers and sister did. [End Page 83]

Without any doubt, my natural mother was a beauty. She was fond of dressing up and gave herself a fresh, new look every day. It was she who managed all the affairs in our home, and under her direction, everything in the household was kept orderly and neat as a pin. She liked to sing and play the dramnyen and knew all the street singers' popular songs. The trouble was that she was so busy she never had time for us children, who needed her care and attention.

My only companion was my older sister. I always gave in to her whims, and she always discovered fascinating things for us to see and do.

The year I was five, Father and my eldest brother set out on a long business journey. They were gone almost two years. When they finally returned home, I thought, Why are these strangers hugging and kissing us? I didn't dare approach them.

Barely three years older than I, my sister had the opposite reaction. She threw her arms around Father the moment he entered the room. I found this strange because she'd told me that she hated him so much she hoped he'd never come back. Pretense isn't always a bad thing; on the contrary, sometimes it makes us lovable.

When I...