Giant on the move
A Tibetan slap on the bum
By Emma Graham-Harrison
I was trying to take photos of pilgrims near the Potala Palace in Lhasa, with my government minders telling me to hurry up (we had a neighbourhood committee to visit) and the pilgrims looking uncomfortable as I snapped away at their devotions.
Suddenly a smiling old woman, dressed like she had stepped out of an engraving of 19th century Tibet, hobbled up behind me and gave me a resounding smack on the bum.
I wondered if this was guerrilla revenge for taking people’s photos without asking – something I’ve always hated doing but felt obliged to attempt.
But when I turned around she was grinning like my little sister did when she pulled the same trick on me years ago. The woman’s face lit up, showing a few remaining teeth, as she roared at the joke.
Later I asked a Tibetan translator accompanying us on the trip whether it was meant as a playful reprimand. She shook her head and laughed as well.
“It’s just her way of showing that she’s close to you, that you are younger and from somewhere else, but she feels a connection.”
The next day we visited a small village, where the farmer I interviewed stuck his tongue out several times in greeting and embarrassment – a custom I’d read about in a book called, “Stick out your tongue,” by Chinese author Ma Jian. I hadn’t realized the practice was still common so close to Lhasa.
As the farmer poured me a cup of homemade barley wine, the stress and worries of trying to report in such a tightly controlled area on a micro-managed government trip slipped away, and for a moment I just felt lucky to be in such a unique part of the world and to be so generously accepted by its people.
For links to some of Emma Graham-Harrison’s stories from Tibet, please click on the following:
Photo Credit: An ethnic Tibetan prays besides her wheelchair in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Feb. 11, 2009. REUTERS/Emma Graham-Harrison