Friday, March 4, 2011

Losar And The Chupa Prima Donna

We had a heated conversation over dinner last weekend about what we would wear for the upcoming Tibetan New Year.

Dolma from the baby names story, who is pregnant with her second child, was craving for some fried chicken, so three of us girl-friends took her out for dinner to this restaurant in the country side. The smell of roasted meat makes me feel nauseous but I went along anyway. Who wants to complicate things for a pregnant girl? I’m not crazy, I’d rather feel nauseous.

While my companions were munching on crispy chicken wings, breasts and thighs, I was slurping a liquid, vegetable Lasagne. Had it been served in a bowl with chopsticks, I could have mistaken it for good old Tukpa, it was that liquid.

So what to wear on Losar? Rigzin was fastest to decide. She is probably the only Tibetan female in the whole country who owns only two Chupas – one brown, one grey. No hassle either over finding a matching apron, the Pangden, since Rigzin, a die-hard single, could go without.

No idea why but among Tibetans abroad the Pangden has something to do with your civil status. In the Tsang area in Tibet, all females wear this apron - even little girls. Maybe women wear it as a secret weapon? Western girls carry pepper spray in their handbags ready to spray it at any attacker; Tibetan girls wear their Pangden - ready to flap it at any aggressor while spitting out and exclaiming: “Tui”!

Dolma joked: “Rigzin, you’ll never find somebody if you wear those grandma colors. Guys won’t even spot you in the crowd! Why don’t you wear something brighter? If you like those dreadful grey and brown colours at least opt for dashing brocade instead of provincial wool, please!”

Yeah, the thing about colours and materials! Once we had uniforms made for the staff of a small guesthouse in our corner of the highlands. We thought they turned out beautifully: Tibetan-style, yet modern, washable and practical working clothes. But the staff refused to wear the uniform. They claimed brown and grey are colours worn by elders. Just like Dolma, who grew up in a place tucked away deep on the plateau, they preferred young, sexy colours which were pink, yellow, red and turquoise – the brighter, the more beautiful; and the best is if it’s sequined.

I don’t know whether Rigzin’s simplicity in clothing style had something to do with her family background. Her parents were nomads in Tibet from the Damshung area north of Lhasa. They came to this country via India where Rigzin and her brothers were born and spent their childhood. The whole family was tall, slim and good-looking. Rigzin could have passed as a Prada model, but she wasn’t interested in fashion to that extent. She also didn’t mind if people said behind her back that she was an old spinster: “Why should I? In a way it’s true: I’ve never been married, don’t have a boyfriend, don’t date and still live with my parents!”

Rigzin was a forgiving and generous person.

Married to a Westerner, Dolma would have loved to dress up in shiny brocade and loads of jewellery but she wasn’t sure whether she would get to celebrate Losar at all since her husband would be away on business.

For Pema, the single-parent, true blue Khamo from Ganzi, and our fourth girl-friend at the dinner table, it was clear that she would wear a Lhasan Chupa for Losar. She insisted on adding the apron: The whole world should see that even though she was divorced, she was still a decent woman, which she feared would be contested by the scandalmongers if she didn’t wear the Pangden. For whatever reasons, she also wanted to go in a Central Tibetan Chupa even though she was from the East – as if a Chupa from her hometown would be too provincial or not festive enough. Heaven knows!

I was the only one who didn’t know what to wear for Losar.

Indignantly, Rigzin exclaimed: “Gosh, Phoenix! You own so many Chupas - more than all of us combined - and you still don’t know what to wear?”

Got caught red-handed.

I stammered something about the Wonju being so unpractical with the collar and the sleeves sliding out of place all the time. I didn’t want to be critical of their choice. If they feel alright wearing what they wear - good for them! What else could I have replied? That to me the Central Tibetan Chupa feels like a uniform? That I hate the multi-coloured, Tutti-Frutti apron? That I wasn’t keen on running around looking like the bhömè tsogpa?

Honestly, the way we Tibetans tailor our clothes or wear our accessories sometimes is so unflattering. Take the Kongpo Chupa for instance: Maybe that brown-bag outfit works in the jungles of Kongpo to scare off wild animals but over here those oversized, broad shoulders make the woman look like a wrestler. Add that funny looking hat with the horns and you know where the clownish-looking people in Eddie Murphy’s “The Golden Child” got their inspiration from.

Rigzin and Dolma immediately protested: “How can you say that? The Kongpo Chupa is the most beautiful Tibetan dress. “So and so” wore one at her wedding, she looked so pretty, you should have seen her!”

Okay, okay. I take that back: “Chances are it may look good on some, but not because the Kongpo Chupa is smart but because of the person wearing it. There are people who look graceful no matter what they wear, even if it’s a brown bag from Kongpo!”

Rigzin would have looked good in one, I was sure.

“Oh Phoenix, you are so hopeless! We are talking our own clothes. How can you be so critical about our own culture?”

“Well, do you prefer if an outsider criticises our culture? Better discuss internally in all openness, no?”

And so I started teasing my girl-friends.

Just because something is “our culture” doesn’t mean we have to like it. While it's great to to have clothes distinctively Tibetan, particularly because we have this political problem with China, it doesn’t make them automatically cool. Especially the guys’ Chupa: Most men in it look – sorry to say – clownish.

The exception are little boys who look adorably cute in Chupa, but it’s definitely a no-go for most grown men who want to be taken seriously by the world around them. It seems even our “top diplomats” have instinctively learned this lesson. Not that it has helped the outcome of their dealings in any noticeable way, but none of the Dalai Lama’s envoys ever wear Chupa when they are on mission, have you also noticed?

The female Chupa is a bit better although it can get pretty depressing there too. For instance, Western Tibetan women wear a Kyepdri or “hipwrap”. We know it can become very cold in the highlands but is the only way to keep warm to wrap that dull blanket around your waist and fastening it with a piece of sheet metal above your belly button? What are those grandmotherly kidney warmers doing on young women and little girls?

Not to mention the overloaded way, some Eastern Tibetan ladies dress up. All those fist-size faux corals, turquoises, ambers around the neck, and the Momo steamer lid-sized silver plates hanging from their belts… Maybe there is a weight-lifting competition going on somewhere and we just don’t know?

Amdo women from the northeast dose the accessories better but still: All that bulky, heavy cloak made from felt, trimmed with fur - real or faux – gives me the itch even thinking about them."

“Well, dear, people dress to keep warm, that’s their number one concern”, Pema replied, “You should know first-hand that the weather in Tibet can change abruptly so people need to be prepared. You even spent winters there and should know how cold it can get outside and that it’s not much warmer indoors.”

She was right.

How could I ever forget that keeping warm is the top priority? There were winter nights so cold I could see my own breath – indoors. And when I went to sleep, I would keep the down jacket, gloves and cap on before gliding into my sleeping bag.

One night an earthquake struck around 10pm. I had never experienced an earthquake before. Instinctively I ran out of the apartment because suddenly all the furniture around me started to dance. It was a frightening experience. I didn’t learn until a few days later that the epicentre was about 200 km to the south and came down with 7.4 on the Richter scale. Together with the other neighbours I walked around in the courtyard for two hours waiting for the aftershock which never came. After a while, when I was nearly frozen, I decided to go back inside into my sleeping bag and sleep. I decided that it was better to die in an earthquake while sleeping in a warm bed than dying from cold while trying to escape from an earthquake. That night the earth shook again several times. I woke up but was so drowsy with sleep and it was so cold outside of my sleeping bag that I didn’t care anymore if the roof would fall on me and I’d die right then and there.

Boy, can it get cold in the highlands!

My aunts wear their little fur hats all year round and even in summer when working in the fields under the hot highland sun with the sweat dripping down their foreheads. Once they went on a pilgrimage to Lhasa and when they visited the Potala, some locals ridiculed them for wearing fur hats in the summer. My mom got so upset about it, she hurled back at the Lhasans: “Don’t we have a saying? Lungba réré, kéyig réré; Lama réré, chölug réré? So where they come from one wears fur hats in the summer, what’s the big deal?” Where upon those cheeky Lhasans turned silent.

Many Tibetans also wear long johns under their pants year-in and out. And a lot of the women in Chupa wear pants underneath and long johns inside. Conveniently, those day-time long johns also function as night-time pajamas.

And it hasn’t stopped there.

“Right,” I threw back at Pema, “It gets so very cold in Tibet we also enrobe all images of the Buddha, saints and deities in our shrines with tons of brocade so they won’t freeze – and we’ve continued to do so even when our shrines stand in tropical India!”

Pema started to laugh out loud.

But all the teasing and the stories were just to cover up the absurd situation that I didn’t know what to wear for Losar even though I had closet stuffed almost to the ceiling with Chupas.

Normally I would muddle through by opting for a half-Chupa - which only looks half as folksy as a full Chupa, haha! I would also make sure the half-Chupa had such a pattern or colour that it would be hard to match a Pangden. My pre-emptive strike just in case somebody had the face to ask why I, as a married woman with children, don’t wear an apron: “This Chupa has such a crazy pattern, if I added a Pangden it would look so sangi-singi, marè la?”

But on New Year day, I can’t run around in a half-Chupa! It’s got to be the real thing, the festive thing. It had to be traditional garb.

How a life in affluence can be so hard sometimes.

To aggravate my Chupa problem, my mom just came home from another visit to Tibet and brought me back yet another Chupa, specifically tailored for me: Long-sleeved with brocade lining and a matching brocade blouse with a standing collar, golden edging and golden buttons. Here's a picture. Hallelujah!

My mom pointed out happily: “This is the latest style in Lhasa. Everybody wears this now, it’s so fashionable.”

Well, when I saw the blouse I didn’t think it was “le dernier cri” at all. I had to think of a pajama jacket instead. As if that was what I needed! How do I possibly refuse to wear this outfit on Losar day without hurting my mom’s feelings?

I’m afraid going back to my closet and doing a proper Chupa audit won’t bring any result either given that I’m full of prejudices:

I don’t like the shiny brocade: “Cheap Gyamo-style, looks like a Qipao which is the quintessence of bad taste, works only on little girls!”

I don’t like the slippery silk blouse: “It’s tailored like a box and makes you look like an Amala!”

And I’m only willing to wear that useless Pangden over my dead body: “The dowdiest homespun accessory ever!”

Although half-jokingly, if I had continued about Chupas in this way, my girl-friends may have walked out on me that evening. Imagine Mountain Phoenix, the clean and pure vegetarian, sitting there all by herself surrounded by nothing but heaps of chicken bones, deserted, and her Chupa problem still unresolved – woah!

It’s not that the girls’ Chupa doesn’t evolve at all, nor are the cuts and materials stuck in time. Especially in Tibet, the Chupa does undergo fashion trends, which I welcome. The problem is most of those creations look either awkward, are too fussy to put on, or are plain fantasy Chupas made for performance on stage and not meant for real life. Most of the time, the quality of the tailoring is also miserable.

But I still have hope.

The innovative Tibetan youth who tailors the ultimate Chupa for the modern Tibetan woman will appear on the scene one day. In addition to the traditional Chupas prevalent, there will be Chupas "prêt-à-porter" which don’t look like folksy costumes but are street-wear, practical, wearable, washable, wrinkle-free, non-iron, smart and fashionable clothes; and of course there will also be "haute-coûture" Chupas, especially designed for festive occasions such as the New Year. I would never again complain about Chupas ever!

Did somebody just say: “Sweetheart, if that’s what you’re waiting for, you can wait a long time?"

Well, when I think about it, maybe having to wait for a long time wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen: The longer I have to wait, the older I get and the likelier it becomes, I resemble a respectable “Amala”. So in the near future, that slick blouse and that homely Pangden I now find so unpractical, could suddenly become the perfect garment to match my image. Not exactly my preference but conceivable.

Happy New Year of the Rabbit!
Mountain Phoenix

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