When Yuan first made her presentation on minority ethnic groups in China during the cultural week at the Asia Pacific Leadership Programme at East West Center in Hawai’i, the moment she mentioned that the Mosuo had no word in their vocabulary for father, I was intrigued.
So, when we were asked to do an independent mini study travel, while in Yunnan province, two of my friends and I chose to visit Lugu Hu, where the Mosuo community lived.
With Michelle and I not being able to speak Mandarin and Mami able to manage the bare minimum, it was an interesting travel to the lake area.
We found ourselves doing very touristic things as people assumed that is what we would be interested in.
We tried the local café to see if that would yield more insight into the community, than the tourist narrative but language was a major barrier.
Eventually, we ran into some luck when the taxi driver we hired to take us to a Buddhist temple was quite chatty and he invited us over to his house that evening for some tea with his mother.
He described the Mosuo home design, in which the mother had the central structure – the place of power, and each child had a space built in the courtyard. According to tradition, the children were supposed to live with their mothers. There was no such concept as marriage, though there was a terminology which loosely translated meant walking marriage, where a male or female met someone they liked during the festivals etc. Any resulting child would stay with the mother and be raised by her family. So there were words for uncle and brother, only not for father.
While my curiosity had been piqued, I felt that we lost a lot since we were hardly able to communicate with anyone in the village. Also, I felt that a lot of the narrative that was being shared with us was a touristic version intended to attract the visitor to the region.
Therefore, I asked my friend Yuan, who had obviously not joined us on our study tour to China and instead had chosen to go to DC and NY during that time, whether we could go on an exploratory visit of our own into a more rural area of the Mosuo community. She agreed and we decided that it would be good to set an objective for the visit rather than simply an exploratory visit. I was to be responsible for writing the human interest stories and Yuan, the photography. With this agreement, the next year, I returned to Yunnan province looking forward to understanding the community better.
During this visit, not only did I have Yuan, a native Mandarin speaker with a postdoctoral specialization in minority ethnic Chinese communities with me, she had also linked up through her academic network to someone from the Mosuo community, who lived further north to Lugu Hu, and who offered to host us at her home for a week or so.
We arrived at her home in the evening after a long bus drive from Lijiang and I don’t quite remember my first impressions. I only remember that when I woke up in the morning, I was greeted outside my room to the beautiful view of the mountain.
Over a breakfast of yak butter tea and mantou, Anna spoke about her family and her siblings. It was only her parents who now lived in their family home and she and her siblings had moved to town and cities as required for their jobs and livelihoods. She mentioned that was the case with most of the families in the village, where only the older generation were mostly left in the village.
We also learnt that her brother’s family would be visiting that week as the Moon festival was during the week we were there. I learnt as I visited with various neighbours of Anna that family lives in the Mosuo community were now similar to the rest of China. What was a tourist narrative in Lugu Hu was not the day-to-day reality of the people, who for decades now have been in legally, binding monogamous marriages and where the family unit comprises of the husband, wife and child and as in any other patriarchal society, the father is the head of the household.
I remember we went for walks around the village, admiring the beautiful views, visiting family friends of Anna and with Anna as our Mosuo translator listening to them speak of their families and lives. Yuan and I planned to write out the stories that touched us, but somehow this got derailed at the beginning as we found that three way translations didn’t work and it was decided that Yuan would at the end translate what was being discussed to me. It never did happen though we meant to do it at some point after we returned home. I have the audio recordings of our talks and I never felt it right that I have it translated by any other Mandarin speaker as this was a joint undertaking by Yuan and I.
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter – our originally aim of a joint initiative of human interest stories accompanied by Yuan’s photography didn’t materialize. The connections I made with the family we stayed with, despite the language barrier, and the people we met was enough to understand their way of living, to understand the common thread of family concerns they had. If I cannot write a human interest story on the specific elderly people we interviewed, I can at least remember that Anna’s mother treated us as her daughters and that she opened up her home to us with a warm hospitality. I can remember that we celebrated the Moon festival, a time for family reunions with Anna’s family where they included us as part of the family without question.
For all the delicious home-cooked meals that Anna and her mother made us during our stay, Yuan and I decided to cook dinner one day for them. I attempted to cook a curry with hardly any spices and I don’t think it went well with our hosts but they remade it to a tasty dish blending it with rice noodles for lunch the next day.
On our last day, Anna’s mother took Yuan and me to the Yongning temple, the temple she connected with the most, so that we could pray there before we left.
I hope I can revisit Lugu Hu in Yunnan province again and visit Anna’s family with Yuan once more for the Moon festival.